The worst kept secret in Spanish football was announced yesterday, with former Athletic Bilbao manager Ernesto Valverde appointed as Luis Enrique’s successor at Barcelona. With the ink now dry on his contract, we look at the key challenges facing him as he looks to bring glory back to Catalonia following a disappointing 2016/17:
Improve squad depth
The key factor that separated champions Real Madrid from runners-up Barcelona in this year’s La Liga title race was the quality of their respective fringe players. Zinedine Zidane was able to call upon a wealth of high-quality understudies in order to keep his key players fresh, knowing that he could rely on players such as Isco and James to perform if he wanted to rest his key men. Luis Enrique didn’t have that luxury, as the gulf in quality between Luis Suárez and Paco Alcácer, for example, was wide enough to prevent him from placing his faith in his second string. While there is a lot to be said for starting line-up consistency, the rigours of a long league and Champions League campaign take their toll, and Valverde must bring in adequate cover should Suárez, Lionel Messi or any of their other stars need a rest or pick up an injury.
Trim the fat
In order to improve their squad, Valverde must decide which of his fringe players deserve another chance, and which should be cast adrift. Last summer’s signings André Gomes and Paco Alcácer have underwhelmed, but their hefty price tags would mean Barcelona would have to swallow a heavy loss if they were to be sold. There are question marks over whether Lucas Digne, Jérémy Mathieu and Denis Suárez have the requisite quality for a club of Barcelona’s stature, and Arda Turan and Javier Mascherano may look to move on after finding opportunities hard to come by. In any case, Barcelona have been carrying a lot of not-quite-good-enough players, and there can be no room for mediocrity in a club of Barcelona’s magnitude.
Solve the right-back riddle
Sergi Roberto has performed reasonably well at right-back for Barcelona this season, but following Dani Alves onto stage was never going to be the easiest of gigs. Aleix Vidal was initially signed to be Alves’ successor, but a combination of poor form, an uneasy relationship with Luis Enrique, and a horrific ankle injury kept him out of the side for most of the season. Vidal’s cameo in the Copa del Rey final hopefully bodes well for his recovery, but even so there is no denying that right-back is a position where Barcelona need to improve. Valverde will most likely seek an upgrade this summer, and Valencia’s João Cancelo and Monaco’s Djibril Sidibé have both been linked, along with unsettled Tottenham right-back Kyle Walker and Arsenal’s La Masia alumnus Héctor Bellerín.
Keep a tighter ship in the Champions League
Barcelona’s preferred centre-back pairing of Gerard Piqué and Samuel Umtiti have been standout performers this season, and the Blaugrana defence conceded a not-disgraceful 37 goals in the league. In the Champions League, however, it was a different story, particularly on the road. They conceded three against Manchester City at the Etihad, three in Turin against Juventus and four in their visit to Paris Saint-Germain. Barcelona’s game has always been based on possession and using attack as a form of defence, and Valverde will not deviate from this blueprint, but he will need to imbue his side with greater steel to prevent capitulations on the highest stage next season.
Find Xavi’s replacement
Dani Alves isn’t the only big player that Barcelona have struggled to replace in recent seasons. Since Xavi’s departure for Qatar in 2015, Barcelona have tried and largely failed to replace him. First Arda Turan and later André Gomes were signed at great expense in the hope that they could fill the Xavi-shaped hole in Barcelona’s midfield, but both have struggled to make an impact. In truth, they had ready-made replacements already at the club in Cesc Fàbregas and Thiago Alcântara, but both were let go as they were deemed surplus to requirements. Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitić is perhaps the closest they currently have to Xavi, but his versatility has seen him unable to nail down a permanent position in the side. A move for PSG’s Marco Verratti has been mooted, and Valverde should make signing the diminutive Italian wizard his number one priority.