It was never going to taste particularly sweet. The farewell of Andres Iniesta, mixed in with the disappointment of a first defeat in their penultimate match in La Liga, made it tough to feel anything when it came to Barcelona taking three points from Real Sociedad on the final weekend. Even when the club have been winning, and win they have, it hasn’t seemed as though there has been a fair reflection cast of Ernesto Valverde. Not even from the shimmering surface of two domestic trophies.
Despite just one defeat marring an otherwise near-perfect campaign in La Liga, there is still a sense of underachievement lingering. A bizarre collapse versus Levante, not all too long after a similarly strange implosion in the Champions League against Roma, has left judgement to be passed on around 180 minutes of an otherwise unblemished campaign. While Barcelona’s season ends now, Real Madrid’s all-or-nothing European final date approaches, and it feels as though only defeat for Zinedine Zidane’s side can lift the general opinion around Valverde’s achievements to an acceptable level – and that shouldn’t be the case.
Barca’s latest boss arrived last summer with a patchy history in terms of winning trophies. That was the major question mark, with his tactical and human qualities both plain to see and acknowledge. During his inaugural campaign at Camp Nou, not only has he proved that he can guide a talented squad towards both La Liga and Copa del Rey titles, but he has maintained the reputation for being well spoken, measured and gentlemanly. His substitutions have always packed a punch and his team have never pulled any.
Despite securing the league title as an unbeaten side, with their sole loss coming as the season began to wind down, it still somehow hasn’t seemed like enough. Valverde, somehow, despite keeping Barcelona on an even keel amidst occasional crises isn’t being heralded as anything more than a safe pair of hands. The departure of Neymar, mixed in with some real instability in terms of off-the-pitch affairs at Camp Nou, made it a realistic possibility that Barca could take a step backwards this campaign.
Instead, the club wave goodbye to Iniesta after a 2017/18 campaign that allowed him to sign off with two trophies. After bringing in Paulinho last summer and following up that deal with a heavy defeat to Real Madrid in the Super Cup, uncertainty reigned supreme. Barca will always be a victim of their own success, to an extent, having won so frequently for such a long period of time, but it appeared that their fiercest rivals were somehow on a pedestal that they could not reach.
A league title and a cup win later and, somehow, Los Blancos are still something of a reference point – but only as long as they lift their third-consecutive Champions League trophy. Cursed with wandering eyes wanting what they can’t have, Barca may have two tangible examples of achievements already safely locked away for the summer, but the mere promise of European success for Zidane’s side is overshadowing what has been an impressive campaign.
Iniesta’s decision to leave the club may have taken the mood down a notch or two in recent weeks, but the lasting impression of this season should be a well-balanced and well-drilled side that knew how to control games, react to their opponents and set up their stars to add the finishing flourish in the final third. Lionel Messi has had a terrific season, with Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets standing out in central midfield.
Samuel Umtiti had a terrific first half of the campaign, while Marc-Andre ter Stegen had his most convincing season in a Barcelona shirt yet, with Luis Suarez recovering from a slow start to lead by example up front. Ousmane Dembele has shown when fit that he has plenty to offer, while Philippe Coutinho has softened the inevitable blow of Iniesta’s departure. Paulinho, meanwhile has contributed more than even his most vehement supporters might have expected.
There are a few sticks to try and beat Valverde with, and yet none of them feel entirely justified. A dependence on Messi, the most influential player available to him, is surely common sense as opposed to a sin. Collapse in the Champions League was an anomaly, with Barca fans knowing all too well about the power of momentum from their own comeback exploits against PSG. Defeat to Levante came after having secured the league title by a comfortable margin, with usual close competitors Real Madrid bested by sheer consistency.
When a group of players or a club are accustomed to winning plenty of trophies, the goal posts shift. No longer is silverware enough, the process becomes more important. While Valverde’s football may not have thrilled like Barca’s golden era of years gone by, this Barca have strode out of uncertainty with a plan in hand that they have stuck by and trusted in. Their coach has set out a blueprint that has worked and made good in-game changes at the necessary times.
At the pinnacle of the game, even momentarily lapses can take the gloss off your achievements, but after how Barca looked to be so far off Real Madrid’s pace at the outset of the campaign, this season can only be considered a resounding success. Balance and control have been the keywords, with Messi coming up with the answers when others could not. The final judgement passed on their season will likely be influenced by what happens in Kiev, but Valverde has done nothing other than a stellar job in unstable circumstances.