When Ernesto Valverde was announced as Barcelona manager earlier this summer, he was under no illusions about the magnitude of the task in front of him. He described it as the most difficult challenge of his career, but over the course of the summer so far (and in particular the last week), that has been proven emphatically true.
Although Valverde has undeniably inherited one of the finest squads in world football, he takes over at a time when Barcelona, by their extremely high standards, are struggling. There is a feeling that the balance of power in Spanish football is tipping back towards their arch-rivals Real Madrid.
They ran Real Madrid close in the league last season, and won the Copa del Rey, but a failure to win the league coupled with a chastening quarter-final exit in the Champions League can only be considered a failure for a club so accustomed to glory. In the words of Gerard Piqué, “the day you see us going on a victory parade for winning the Copa will be the day when you can say that Madrid have entered a dominant cycle.”
Piqué’s words could prove to be a millstone around Valverde’s neck. The benchmark has been set – anything but a Champions League or La Liga title is not worthy of celebration. Fail to win one of those trophies and the knives will be out for Valverde among the Blaugrana faithful and the Catalan press.
A successful summer transfer window is essential, and it would enable Valverde to hit the ground running. It’s fair to say it hasn’t exactly gone according to plan so far, but the blame for that can’t be laid at Valverde’s door. When he signed up, he can’t have envisaged one of his key men being sold from under him. There was some paper talk about Neymar leaving, but it was never given much credence until Paris Saint-Germain, with a little help from Dani Alves, managed to turn his head.
Barcelona were essentially powerless to stop him from leaving once his €222m release clause was triggered (despite the best efforts of La Liga president Javier Tebas), but in the current climate his release fee was surely set too low. The release fee is meant to be prohibitive, but in this case it only served to encourage his suitors.
The very fact that Neymar wanted to leave Barcelona for Paris sends out a worrying message. It suggests that Barça are slipping from their status as Europe’s top club, and there can be no doubt that Neymar’s departure has left them wounded and embarrassed.
On top of losing Neymar, it has been a disappointing summer so far on the player recruitment front. Nélson Semedo has joined from Benfica to fill the troublesome right-back spot, but aside from him, their key targets have eluded them. PSG’s Marco Verratti has been courted all summer, but it looks increasingly like the Italian midfielder will sign a new contract in the French capital.
It is sporting director Robert Fernández, not Valverde, who is responsible for their transfer negotiations. Although Fernández has come in for some criticism over Barça’s patchy recent record in the transfer market, it will ultimately be Valverde that suffers – he will be the one with the weaker squad, and the buck tends to stop with the manager on such matters, even if it is not necessarily their fault.
Valverde needs Fernández to make a marquee signing, and soon. But the fact that everyone knows they are desperate to replace Neymar and have an enormous wad of cash in their pocket makes their negotiating stance somewhat difficult. Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé of Borussia Dortmund have been identified as potential Neymar replacements, but neither club needs the money and both would rather hold onto their prized assets. Barcelona will end up having to fork out an enormous sum of money to stand any chance of signing either player, so weak is their hand.
Valverde himself has tried to manage fans’ expectations by saying he will work with what he has, and with a squad containing the likes of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Andrés Iniesta he of course has plenty to work with, but in truth no Barcelona fan will be happy to see Gerard Deulofeu starting in Neymar’s stead next season.
A failure to replace Neymar will leave them even weaker than last season, when they fell short in La Liga and the Champions League. This will make it even harder to wrest the title back from the capital, and will add weight to the claim that we are moving out of a Barcelona era and into another Real Madrid age.
The fact is that Real Madrid have won three of the last four Champions Leagues, and now have the league title that had eluded them for the last five years. Zinedine Zidane’s side are brimming with confidence, and have a squad teeming with young talent alongside experienced, world-class players.
Valverde needs to engender a similar feeling at Barcelona to shift the momentum back to Catalonia. To keep the fans and press onside, and allow himself some breathing space, he’ll need success in the transfer market and a good start in the league, as well as a positive result in the upcoming Super Copa against arch-nemeses Real Madrid. A failure to do so will put him under pressure before his reign has even truly got going.