FC Barcelona is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, club in the world. True greats of the game have graced the field in the colours of the Catalan giants. However, the summer of 2017 saw the club have a dramatic fall from grace.
17th August 2017, Santiago Bernabeu, the Spanish Super Cup. It ended with Real Madrid battering their rivals 5-1. Barcelona had just been rocked by the departure of Neymar and then this. Josep Maria Bartomeu, Barcelona’s president had to battle impeachment. In short, Barcelona was down and out, everyone had already written them out of the title race.
Real Madrid was flying. Having defended their Champions League crown and the European Super Cup, integrating the likes of Theo Hernandez, Vallejo and Borja Mayoral into the first team. All the signs pointed towards an era of domination for the Los Blancos.
The men in white looked to romp to another handful of titles with their players on top of their game. The mix of Club legends, newcomers and the electrifying Zinedine Zidane seemed like a foolproof plan. 5 trophies in 2017 almost seemed like Real Madrid’s reply to Barcelona’s trophy-laden 2010. Comparisons between Zidane and Guardiola were in full swing as the 2017-18 season began.
Barcelona, on the other hand, signed former Spurs flop Paulinho for a whopping €40m and spent €120m on a 19-year-old player in Ousmane Dembele. The Catalans were favourites to finish the season trophyless. How the tables have turned.
The Super Cup loss acted like a rude wakeup call for everyone at Camp Nou. A stark contrast of who they were and how they were playing. As the season began, Barcelona was definitely up against it and so was the boss, Ernesto Valverde. Having got it all wrong in the Clasico, he had to prove a lot of critics wrong.
Fast forward to January. Barcelona sits top of the table and the only club in the top 5 leagues to be unbeaten in all competitions. Everyone who spoke of Barcelona being in a decline are surely eating their words. Valverde’s tactics seemed to have worked wonders. Despite the loss of Dembele due to injury, the Catalans are well clear of their rivals Real Madrid, who are now languishing 14 points adrift.
Dembele was expected to take Neymar’s position on the left of the trident, but an injury ruled out that option. Valverde did try to play it safe and have Denis Suarez or Deulofeu play that position, but it just didn’t click. He then decides to ditch the classic 4-3-3 and opted for a 4-4-2, with Suarez and Messi playing up top.
This is a formation that was a departure from the Barcelona everyone knew of. To everyone’s surprise, Paulinho was the key to this formation working. Dovetailing with Messi, the Brazilian proved to be the link between the midfield and the front two.
His physicality and tenacity added some much-needed bite to the team. The fourth midfielder gave Barcelona more control in the centre of the park. Although Suarez found it difficult to adapt to the change in formation, Valverde kept faith in his striker and it paid dividends, as the Uruguayan eventually found his touch and now has second most number of goals in the league.
Messi seems have undergone a rejuvenation. 17 goals and 9 assists in spite of hitting the woodwork over 10 times and the wizard motivated to win everything possible. Add an inform Suarez, a returning Dembele and January signing Coutinho, and you have a team that sends shivers down any defenders’ spine.
Barcelona, under the stewardship of Valverde, has pulled it all together when it really mattered. Be it reducing Real Madrid down to size in their own backyard, or ending the Anoeta curse against Real Sociedad, the Spaniard did it all with a smile on his face.
It’s still early in the season but the 53-year-old has proved his worth, silencing his early season critics.
Incorporation of the B team players is one other positive step that taken by the manager. The likes of Jose Arnaiz, Carles Alena and Marc Cucurella have made the step up from the youth setup.
All in all, Valverde has set up the team well for the coming years. Getting the best of the veterans, new signings and youth team players. A mean feat for someone written off at the start of the season.
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