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27 Feb 2018

Are Ernesto Valverde's Barcelona better than Pep Guardiola's?

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Death by a million passes

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A special group of players

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A continuing story

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On the brink

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A new Barcelona

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Strength in depth

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A new era?

(Photo credit: Tunde Eludin)

As with all aspects of life, it is easy to reminisce on the football teams of yore and reach the unshakeable conclusion that things used to be better. 

Our memories recall the standout moments: the outrageous pieces of skill, the wonderful goals and dramatic endings, while we also tend to remember joyous moments with much stronger clarity than those of anguish, never mind those of boredom.

Yet is safe to say that most memories of Barcelona’s team under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola are accurate.

Death by a million passes

Across four seasons at the helm at the Camp Nou, Guardiola led his side to a remarkable 14 titles including three La Liga titles and two Champions League crowns. 

They were not only a remarkably consistent side – a 72.5% win rate, never failing to reach the last four of the Champions League – but a pioneering one.

Barcelona’s brand of ‘tiki-taka’ football became synonymous with their success and also that of Spain – who’s three major international trophies all coincided with Guardiola’s spell in charge of the Blaugrana. 

They treated the ball with great care and their focus on possession in the opponent’s half became oft referred to as ‘death by a million passes’.

A special group of players

It was a team with a clear and defined style of play, with Guardiola – a youth product of the club’s La Masia youth academy – enjoying great success with a spine of other graduates. 

Victor Valdes as goalkeeper, Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol at the heart of defence, the trio of Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta in midfield, with the mercurial Lionel Messi in attack.

Arguably, this was one of the finest club sides ever to grace the game, if not the best. They ended English clubs domination of Europe and marked a clear evolution in high-end tactics. 

Such a cohesive unit combined several factors including brilliant, progressive coaching but also an element of luck. This was a team who had grown up playing only one way, forming a near telepathic understanding with teammates. 

Like Manchester United’s ‘Class of 92’ this was a special, one-off group of players.

A continuing story

Unlike Manchester United, though, the Catalan club have continued their success despite the tactician moving on and the departures of Valdes, Xavi and Puyol following glittering careers. 

Indeed, Guardiola’s final season ended in ultimate anguish as Jose Mourinho wrestled the league title back to Madrid and his side were eliminated in the Champions League semi-final.

The ongoing genius of Messi is a central element to the success since and despite Luis Enrique – another former midfielder - delivering a treble in his debut season and three further major domestic successes, he never gained widespread popularity. 

Too much prominence, it was argued, was placed upon the Argentine and his attacking partners Luis Suarez and Neymar.

On the brink

Enrique was replaced by Ernesto Valverde this summer and, with his arrival, the club entered the new season under a wave of pessimism following the departure of Neymar and the failure to land an adequate replacement. 

The squad was also bloated with high-earners who had failed to make a positive impact at the club due to a haphazard transfer policy over recent years. 

Arda Turan, Andre Gomes, Aleix Vidal and Paco Alcacer did not provide adequate cover while the previous year utility midfielder Sergi Roberto had to fill in at right-back following Dani Alves’s departure.

A new Barcelona

Under Valverde, Barcelona’s style of play has changed significantly. The previous imbalance which was all too obvious under Enrique – and exposed during last season’s heavy defeats at PSG and Juventus – was immediately addressed. 

The new boss has made the team compact, moving as a unit. Box-to-box midfielders Paulinho and Ivan Rakitic have contributed significantly, while full-backs Nelson Semedo and Jordi Alba provide proper balance and width.

Goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen and central defender Samuel Umtiti are among the most improved in their positions in Europe and Barcelona have ceded a meagre 12 goals against in 25 league games. 

With just 13 league outings remaining, they could complete a remarkable unbeaten season. In any normal season, Atletico Madrid’s points tally of 58 points from 25 games would put them in a serious title-challenging position, yet Valverde’s side have dropped only 10 points all season.

Strength in depth

This new Barcelona are, evidently, remarkably tough to beat. 

This side are no longer concerned with unbridled free-flowing attacking football yet they have enough quality to control possession and territory without ever leaving themselves defensively exposed. There is more greater power and athleticism in this side than in previous editions.

The additions of Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele will add flair and an attacking presence yet at the moment Barca’s formula is relentlessly producing results, if no great excitement. 

Goals are now more spread across the team yet Suarez has rekindled his top form to complement the seemingly never-ending output from Messi.

Barcelona are now covered in every position aside from their two South American stars, while the arrivals of Coutinho, Dembele, Semedo and Yerry Mina has gone way to address the age imbalance issue within the squad.

A new era?

This side may not provide the thrills of Guardiola’s team but they are street-wise and relentless – combining possession football with greater cohesion, control and solidity. 

Nothing has been won yet but this could yet be a significant shift in Barcelona’s philosophy which continues their glorious trophy gathering run. 

Of course, it is too early at this point to say with any certainty whether Valverde's team trumps Guardiola's team.

But one thing is for certain: if Barcelona manage to end the season unbeaten in La Liga, there is a case to be made that Valverde's tenure at the club is on course to surpass that of his predecessor, regardless of the manner in which it is done.

What do you think? Is Valverde's Barcelona likely to surpass Guardiola's? Let us know by commenting below.