How Ernesto Valverde has given Barcelona a backbone
When Ernesto Valverde was appointed Barcelona manager the announcement received a mixed reaction from Cules. Some respected him as a tactician. Others felt the club could do better than the former Athletic Bilbao man.
Valverde got off to a rough start at the club, arriving amidst all the speculation surrounding Neymar's move to Paris St Germain. He wasn't helped by a poor start. Barca were comfortably beaten by Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup. Time has passed. Now even his harshest critics must accept that he is doing an excellent job.
Being Barcelona manager in the Lionel Messi era means the job is basically about finding a way to get the most out of the Argentine while ensuring the team has a solid foundation. Pep Guardiola used Messi as a false nine. Luis Enrique shifted him to the right wing. Valverde has again changed Leo's role in the team. Nowadays Messi has the freedom to roam from midfield to right up front alongside Luis Suarez. This allows him to probe defences from deep or set up on the 18's edge, depending on where he can find the most space.
Barcelona long favoured the 4-3-3 formation. There have been variations, mostly 3-4-3. Valverde has taken the brave step to change to two banks of four in defence and midfield, leaving Messi and Suarez free to attack from wherever they see fit. It was a daring move that has paid massive dividends. the Blaugrana are the only unbeaten team in a UEFA top-flight league He might just have found the missing ingredient that has held the team back in recent seasons. Barcelona are better off for his tinkering.
Wide players in vintage Barcelona front threes tended to be inverted, moving inside, opening the flanks for Dani Alves and Jordi Alba to get forward. Alves has left. Neymar, as good as he was, was holding Alba back by staying out wide, occupying the space Alba would usually exploit.
As Luis Enrique's tenure came to an end there were huge issues on the right wing. Messi continually abandoned the flank for raids on the interior. Alves' replacement Sergi Roberto wasn't as gung-ho as his Brazilian predecessor. The Blaugrana were too narrow as a result. Valverde's shape has addressed the issue, providing more balance and width.
That said, Barca's four-man midfield isn't perfectly balanced. Valverde's strongest XI would comprise Ousmane Dembele, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta in the centre of the park. Dembele is generally used as a winger. He will get forward but also provide cover to Sergi Roberto at right-back when the need arises. Rakitic and Busquets offer a strong central midfield partnership. Both men are happy to do the donkey work in the middle while also supporting the attack with passes or, in Rakitic's case, late runs into the box. On the left Iniesta will always come inside. He supports the two forwards while also freeing space for Alba on the left wing to make those attacking runs that draw in Messi's passes like a magnet.
In comparison to last season Barcelona now have a much more compact midfield. Valverde deserves credit for that. Last season Barcelona ran into big problems in their Champions League away games with defeats to Manchester City, Paris St Germain and Juventus. Valverde's Barcelona don't look like a side that will give up goals so easily.
It shouldn't be surprising to see Barca on the back foot at times. The new boss has added a dimension to their game. The squad is now content to just kill off games by either maintaining possession or defending deep and looking to counter the opposition. If the balance between making the team harder to beat and giving Messi enough support in attack is right then the likelihood is this season ends with Barcelona winning a sixth European title. The man to thank will be the one who was written off before he had even managed a single game.