Part of FC Barcelona’s charm lies in their heritage, ethos and approach to football. In Ernesto Valverde and Paulinho, they have the unlikeliest of heroes.
The business end of the 2016-2017 season – FC Barcelona stumble once more. Their cycle is ending, and Real Madrid, their arch nemesis, are on the rise once more. The papers are awash with criticism of Luis Enrique all year long as Los Merengues waltz to La TwoMoreThanDecima and become the first team in the Champions League era to retain their title.
Lucho announced his departure after Barcelona were humbled in the Champions League that season by Paris Saint Germain at the Parc Des Princes. Somehow, the Blaugrana made a remontada happen at the Camp Nou and pumped in six goals. Three of them were after the 88th minute, all created or scored by a man who was fast staking claim as heir to the throne at Barcelona.
That Neymar was unsettled after seeing Messi ride the shoulders of his team-mates that night was just conjecture. That he forced through a move to Paris was a shocker in terms of the sheer financial implications. In a world where most luxury homes cost barely €2 million, Paris-Saint Germain would outlay 111 times that sum, and make Neymar, with some ease, the world’s most expensive player. And hence, began the ultimate wild goose chase for FC Barcelona. How do you replace the irreplaceable? How do you get another player to fit the club and their ethos like Ney did? Apart from the sheer numbers, there was the small matter of a scintillating attacking partnership with Messi and Suarez which lit up Spain for three full years.
At this point, FC Barcelona had already decided to raise an eyebrow or ten by signing the pragmatic Ernesto Valverde as manager. In spite of glittering spells at Athletic Bilbao, Valverde has never truly led a team capable of winning titles year-in, year-out. With his arrival, Valverde faced barbs from the media about the club’s shoddy progress in trying to sign Marco Veratti. The Basque faced questions on the future of the soon-to-depart Neymar. But, perhaps, the most mockery was reserved for Paulinho – deemed as a joke of a transfer for a club of Barca’s stature – and that too at €40 million from a team in the Chinese Super League. In the minds of the Barcelona-based press, the manager had led a team based on solid foundations in Athletic Bilbao, but never a spectacular attacking side. That was their chagrin. With Paulinho, the media never saw the obvious. That, in him, Valverde had brought in a player who could offer Barcelona a Plan B.
With half a season of perspective, it is interesting at the least to understand what the much-maligned Brazilian has done for FC Barcelona. With the backing of his manager, he has outscored Gareth Bale this season and has formed a telepathic relationship with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. Yes, this is Paulinho we are talking of and not Neymar. This is the same man who faded into irrelevance at Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur. And for that, we must doff our hats to Ernesto Valverde.
Arriving at a club, that, as Pique often put it, was a ‘slave’ to the possession-based 4-3-3, Valverde ripped up the Holy Bible of sideways passing and introduced a brand-new 4-4-2, the likes of which Barca had not seen in years. Sacrificing the service to the front 3 and adding stability with Paulinho/Rakitic in midfield has seen Barcelona play a different, more assured brand of football. I wrote here of how satisfying it is to see an FC Barcelona side that can actually defend. And the credit goes to the coach and his midfield, especially the combative Brazilian.
With Ousmane Dembele injured, Paulinho has gone on to bring the tenacity, bite and endless running that is required for a 4-4-2 to flourish under Valverde. He has pushed on whenever he has needed to and hung back and defended with aplomb when the ball is with the opponent. Hungry to prove himself, the midfielder has covered miles already this season and seems to have a positive and never-say-die temperament about his play. He also patrols the right wing, previously the domain of another Brazilian – Dani Alves – like nobody’s business. Hustling and harrying the opposition, calm and composed when needed and quick in possession when in space – Paulinho seems the whole package.
In Ernesto Valverde, we see the image of steely resilience, a man hardened by the pressures of handling an absolute La Liga heavyweight in Athletic Bilbao. Founded before Barca and Madrid, albeit by just a year and two years respectively, Bilbao are among the 3 teams to never be relegated from the La Liga since its foundation.
The perennial overachievers, men who came from quarries to play a game that Spaniards still pronounced ‘foot-ball’. The same game would one day would see its modern iteration perfected under Guardiola at Barcelona. And today, the man tasked with rebuilding that legend, is Valverde and he’s adding his own stamp of authority. Paulinho is the medium, the player on the pitch who most carries out his coach’s work. It is something Catalans would refer to as the ‘dirty work’, a player who constantly harries, constantly works hard. Bought for 40 million bucks, he couldn’t juggle the ball properly at his Barcelona inauguration. Three quarters of a season later, this ‘Tottenham-reject’ has traversed the path to become widely appreciated for his enthusiasm as well as his statistical contributions to the team.
A manager and player, neither of them known for lifting bums off seats, united at the helm of a club known for beautiful football. Both swimming upstream, instead of going with the flow. Both men, heading for success, and it is only the beginning. Pink Floyd mused, We Don’t Need No Thought Control. It is time to expand the horizons of what the future holds for the club we know as FC Barcelona.