New coach has big job arresting slide at Nou Camp

Rival coaches last August when Bilbao hosted Barcelona in a Primera Liga game, Ernesto Valverde (right) has now replaced Luis Enrique in the Barca hot seat and has a huge task reviving their fortunes.
Rival coaches last August when Bilbao hosted Barcelona in a Primera Liga game, Ernesto Valverde (right) has now replaced Luis Enrique in the Barca hot seat and has a huge task reviving their fortunes.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

BARCELONA • Ernesto Valverde's appointment as Barcelona's coach has been a long time coming and he has been chosen as Luis Enrique's successor owing to his wealth of experience. But he faces a huge task to rejuvenate a football side showing signs of decline.

Valverde is one of many former Barcelona players who was inspired to go into management by the late visionary Dutch coach Johan Cruyff, who worked with the striker between 1988 and 1990, and declared his admiration for his former pupil when he was starting out.

The 53-year-old has had success in almost every job he has had, reaching the Uefa Cup final in 2007 with Barca's city rivals Espanyol and winning three Greek league titles with Olympiakos Piraeus.

Barca tried to convince him to take over in 2013 when Tito Vilanova was forced to leave the role because of illness but Valverde had agreed to coach Athletic Bilbao for a second time, prompting the Catalan side to opt for the relatively unknown Gerardo Martino.

Valverde's knowledge of Barca and his many years of experience of coaching in Spain saw him pip Argentinian Jorge Sampaoli and Enrique's assistant Juan Carlos Unzue to the top job.

He took Athletic into European football in five out of six seasons in Bilbao, where he was the longest- serving coach, and they hammered Barcelona 4-0 on their way to winning the Spanish Super Cup in 2015.

Valverde's track record for nurturing youngsters such as Inaki Williams and Aymeric Laporte is also highly valued, with Barca's proud tradition of home-grown players such as Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez.

When Enrique was asked if he had any advice for his successor, he remarked: "He has far more experience than me so he should enjoy it."

Yet, even Valverde's impressive career path will be scant preparation for the demanding Barca job, which consumed predecessors Pep Guardiola and Enrique, who needed to take a sabbatical year after being drained by the pressure.

He has a massive task to revitalise a hugely talented yet ageing squad that requires overhaul following a resounding 3-0 aggregate defeat by Juventus in the Champions League quarter-finals and an inconsistent league campaign in which they surrendered the title to Real Madrid.

His priorities will be restructuring the midfield, which used to be the axis of Barca's success under Guardiola but has lost its power with captain Iniesta now 33, and finding a new top-class right-back to fill the gaping hole left by the departure of Dani Alves.

Valverde is seen as a safe pair of hands who will not try to impose his character too forcefully on a tempestuous dressing room, although his quiet, relaxed character will be put to the test if he decides wholesale changes are required to revive their fortunes.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2017, with the headline 'New coach has big job arresting slide at Nou Camp'. Print Edition | Subscribe