Narratives are proven to aid memory, but in football they can often skew it. Perhaps even more so in the modern era of football where the latest stats, accolades, and silverware can appear to mean everything, and what came before it, nothing, writes Mudassir Mustafa.
Let’s just jog our memories a little bit. Real Madrid won the Duodécima, La Liga, and Super Copa de Espana. Barcelona on the other hand settled for just a Copa del Ray.
In comes Ernesto Valverde; calm, composed and as Sid Lowe would like to say “abnormally normal“. Valverde’s start to his Barcelona’s career was rough, to say the very least.
He had a dreadful summer; Neymar left, Hector Bellerin publicly snubbed Barcelona, Marco Verratti teased them every now and then, Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos signed for arch rivals Real Madrid, the English Premier League reject – Paulinho was signed for a hefty €40M, Leonel Messi didn’t sign the contract, and the biggest fiasco of the summer was Barcelona not being able to sign Philippe Coutinho.
As if all this wasn’t enough, #BartomeuOut chants were raising decibels with each game. And last but not the least, Madrid outclassed Barcelona in Super Copa De Espana.
Barcelona settled for Ousmane Dembélé, the 20-year-old French star, for a club record fee. Adding more to the misery, Dembélé’s La Liga debut was cut short after just 52 minutes due to injury, which was expected to be a massive blow to Barça.
Real Madrid was performing at the highest order and Barcelona were drowned in despair. Most of us have written Barça off from every competition, or at least the Champions League and La Liga.
Ironically, after Matchday 17, Barcelona are at the top of the table with both Madrid giants, Real and Atletico, chasing their shadow. So, how exactly did Valverde turn this around and win over Camp Nou faithful?
First things first, going back to basics. The idea of moving Messi back to the centre forward role has revitalised Barcelona’s attack in the absence of Neymar. The sleek transition from a central midfielder to a centre forward has made the team more compact in defence and as deadly as ever in attack.
The deep daunting runs have made Jordi Alba a savoir for this side. The Messi-Alba combination is a reminiscent of Messi-Alves back in the day.
Paulinho’s late runs and ability to surprise, has in turn surprised everyone. Luis Suarez was the apparent victim of the scheme at the start, but the manager was convinced it will come good, and so it has. Suarez is back on the target and Barcelona look impregnable again.
Pep Guardiola’s tactics are incomplete without pressing. You can see it in his Manchester City side. Bayern were the same and Barça were the best of the lot. They pressed high up the pitch and suffocated the opposition to lose the ball under pressure. Add some world-class tiki-taka to it and you have the perfect recipe to win the games.
Luis Enrique’s Barcelona, however, lacked the intensity. They did press well but in spurts, but pressing as a unit from up top and tracking back is an essential part of Valverde’s tactical plan.
If Zinedine Zidane is to be given credit for anything after winning back to back Champions Leagues and a La Liga title in his first full campaign as a manager of Real Madrid, it has to be the squad rotation. For many, if not all, squad depth was the reason for Madrid’s success.
Valverde is using the same model at the Camp Nou. Dembele, when fit, will start alongside Messi and Suarez without a shadow of a doubt but, during his absence, Valverde has used Gerard Deulofeu and Denis Suarez to form the front three.
Denis Suarez, Paulinho, Deulofeu and Sergi Roberto, have all scored and assisted so far this season, which shows the squad depth as well as the faith Valverde has in his players.
A couple of weeks ago, we could have argued that Barcelona has yet to face Real Madrid, and the knock-out stages of the Champions League will bring a whole different challenge. Was the start of Valverde’s tenure pure luck, or was there something new building under the 53-year-old? Events on December 23rd were ready to reveal the answer.
In 2017 Real Madrid won everything but the Copa del Rey. 5 trophies for the first time in a year in the club’s history. Zidane gets the plaudits, quite deservedly so. Next up was the mighty Clasico – the fixture of fixtures, the best 90 minutes of entertainment, from a neutral perspective.
The Santiago Bernabeu was ready, jam packed like a Berlin Doughnut, sold out like Michael Jackson’s concerts. But this time, there was no Billy Jean playing, but the greatest rivalry of the footballing world was on display. The fixture awaited the biggest test for Valverde, yet.
Weeks before El Clasico, Ronaldo won another Ballon d’Or — equalling Messi’s haul — and Mardid flew to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. They returned with the World Club Cup and the media got their talking points: 5 trophies, historic achievement, Ronaldo & Zidane, and the famous Pasillos – a guard of honour to recognise the achievement, as Barcelona had done in 2008 to Raul’s Madrid.
Every other article and question in press conferences was about El Pasillo – Barcelona didn’t give Madrid any.
When players came out of the tunnel, Hala Madrid y Nada Mas was playing. Madridistas were signing in full roars, and the monstrous banners unruffled over Fondo Sur – the South stand of Estadio Santiago Bernabue — reading “White Christmas”. Were Madrid favourites to win the tie? No, they weren’t.
There was a white Christmas after the whistle, but for men wearing red and blue – Valverde’s men. And yes, there was a Pasillo for El Clasico and perhaps the title too – orchestrated by Zidane and performed by Mateo Kovacic with Karim Benzema in a supporting role.
Messi performed at the highest standard, scoring one and creating another on the day he was heavily marked. The Argentine conquered the Bernabeu, yet again. Last year he took his shirt off and showed it to the Madridistas, this time he climbed the ladder of greatness, shook Jesus’ hand and opened his arms in front of the Fondo Norte.
Valverde left Madrid in atrociousness and his doubters in awe. Zidane was beaten – comprehensively, Madrid were outclassed, yet another victory for Valverde, going 14 points clear of them.
Valverde has passed his biggest test to date with flying Catalan colors. However, he is still staying poised and focused, not letting complacency get the better of his men.
Perhaps that is the key to success. It might be a little too early to say they are going to win it, but for the team who hasn’t lost a single match yet, to lose at least 4 and others to win all of them is unlikely to say the least.
Valverde deserves the credit for all of it. He has the dressing room under his control and utmost respect from fans, meritoriously too.