A club sits top of the league at the halfway point, having won the two previous titles at a canter. For the casual observer, it would seem inconceivable that the manager of that club could be sacked, let alone that his sacking would be celebrated by fans across social media. But as their marketing department are so fond of reminding us, Barcelona are not like any other club.
Ernesto Valverde was therefore sacked on Monday after two and a half years in charge at the Camp Nou, becoming the first manager to be sacked mid-season by the Catalans since Louis van Gaal in 2003. Fans’ discontent had reached critical mass after a 2-2 draw with city rivals Espanyol (who remain rooted to the bottom of the league) was followed by an early exit from the newly rejigged Spanish Super Cup.
Having roundly ignored the calls for Valverde’s head which had begun months (if not years) prior, the club’s leadership suddenly scrambled to find a suitable replacement. Their attempts to do so away from the public eye were doomed. Valverde was still in his job when reports emerged of two failed approaches to club legends: Xavi, who was put off by fractious relations with the current board (and a rather closer relationship with a potential candidate for the club’s presidential elections in 2021) and Ronald Koeman, who had always insisted on guiding the Netherlands through Euro 2020 before taking up the post.
In view of Barcelona’s sudden rush to be seen to act, it was a good job for Quique Setién that his audition for the job had been ongoing for years. As he admitted in his introductory press conference, he does not possess a “glittering CV” either as a player or a manager. However, he went on, what he does have is an unswerving commitment to the philosophy that has shaped Barcelona for decades, the fluid style of play and commitment to youth development implemented by Johann Cruyff in the 1980s. In other words, he has what Valverde was always perceived to lack. This contrast had already been thrown into sharp contrast when Setien’s Real Betis won at Valverde’s Barça, after which Sergio Busquets sent Setién a signed shirt expressing his “admiration and admiration for the way you see football”.
This inflexible commitment to Cruyffian principles may ironically mean Setién is better equipped to succeed at Barcelona than at Betis, where his relationship with the fans soured after being unable to sustain initial success. His task will be to oversee a period of transition at Barça: with Luis Suarez unlikely to recover from a knee injury before his contract runs out, Lionel Messi approaching 33 years of age and Antoine Griezmann yet to fully settle in, the attacking trident will likely be his primary focus.
As for Valverde, he joins Massimiliano Allegri in the exclusive club of managers to be sacked despite having won a league title in every full season at their club. Their sackings ultimately demonstrate how managers of Europe’s elite clubs now live and die by key moments of Champions League crunch matches. Real Madrid may have finished the 2018-19 season 17 points behind Barcelona, but Zinedine Zidane’s subsequent departure was nonetheless met with dismay, because he had just secured them a fourth European title in five years. Once the league form begins to wane, managers without European success have very little to cling to. It perhaps ought not to be the case, but what Valverde will widely be remembered for is his team’s spectacular collapses in Rome and Liverpool, which mean that the club’s wait for a sixth Champions League title continues.
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