Valverde didn't ask for this underachieving Barcelona, the board gave it to him
It's a dark irony that the first player Ernesto Valverde asked his board to buy him when he took over at Barcelona two seasons ago was Dani Parejo.
The point isn't an opportunistic one. It's not to say, "... and if they'd listened to him, then Saturday's Copa del Rey final would have turned out differently ..." The point, as the shrill Greek chorus of voices musters itself to apoplexy and the metaphorical bloodlust that is football's guillotine mob drowns out reason, is the kind of football Valverde came to the Camp Nou both expecting and wanting to play. He wanted control, possession, position and 4-3-3.
Parejo and Valverde worked together at Valencia across a pretty remarkable six-month period when the former had barely counted for the sacked Mauricio Pellegrino. Parejo, 23, had started just three matches by the time Pellegrino was dismissed in December of 2012. Valverde then started him in 17 of the subsequent encounters that surged Los Che from 12th and six points off the drop to fifth and just two points away from playing Champions League football by the end of the season.
Parejo, innately, plays the Cruyff way. The Busquets way. The Guardiola way. The Barcelona way.
Valverde wanted a Barcelona midfield where position, passing, possession, intelligence and control were in abundance, manned by Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Andres Iniesta and Parejo, who had been desperate to leave Valencia before Marcelino took over.
A couple of months after his potential move to Camp Nou, the Madrid-born playmaker told El Pais: "When Valverde was my coach he used me as the sole pivote in a 4-3-3 system, the organising player in front of the defence. He taught me positional play, where to be at all times, how to interpret that position-possession 4-3-3 playing ideal.
"People who watch football often wrongly think that it's the strongest, most aggressive players who rob the ball most in midfield. In fact it's the guy who reads the game best, who knows pretty much where to be at all times because of the likelihood of where the play's going to go and where the opposition might be stretched, which rival is likely to be under pressure to control. Reading the game is more of a determining factor in winning the ball than being fast or strong."
It's like listening to Xavi, or Pep Guardiola.
So, how does that sound for a guy who might have played alongside, or occasionally instead of, Busquets this season and last? I ask that question both of the neutrals and the Barcelona fans reading this. Not because time can be reversed, nor because, to my taste, it would have been better for La Liga or Spanish football had Parejo been Blaugrana for the past two seasons.
Valencia are a powerhouse in football terms, but they've been through the most brutally turbulent of times: the club's well being, the debt, the recently resumed construction of a new stadium, the football future -- all are still troubled by Bambi-like instability. They are on their feet, but there will be wobbles.
That Parejo has been at Mestalla, produced two brilliant seasons and led the squad, from the front, to consecutive Champions League qualifications and a Copa del Rey win, well, that's one hell of a legacy. Arguably he's the club's most vital asset since the days, under Rafa Benitez, when they were winning La Liga.
However, the broader point about Valverde remains. For all those who are now demonising him, for the lack of control in Rome last season, for the lack of control at Anfield, have they stopped to think about how Valverde is not the villain of the piece? In that summer when Valverde signed, he also believed that he'd have the benefit of a devastating forward line, one that demanded a 4-3-3 formation: Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
The Brazilian was still in his pomp, but it would transpire that those in charge of Barcelona's squad management and market planning were asleep at the wheel and had been since October 2016, when Neymar refused a wage rise to keep Barca could from raising his buyout clause.
Valverde was sold an ideal of Barcelona with the "MSN" trident. Less than two years after joining, he ended up with a cup final front three of Philippe Coutinho, Messi and Sergi Roberto; and then Malcom, Messi and Coutinho. He neither asked for, nor wanted, either Coutinho or Malcom -- and they cost the club the better part of €200 million.
Coutinho has found the demands of the club -- playing with Messi, not being in midfield, being asked to track back, learning not to get in Jordi Alba's way, producing big plays in crucial matches -- way, way too much for him. He's liked by his fellow players, his efforts have been honest and it's going to sting him badly when he's offloaded for a reduced sum. But not as badly as his purchase has damaged Valverde's ability to play 4-3-3 or get value from the club having spent more than €120m that could have been far better invested.
Coutinho, in this team, for this coach, is neither fish nor fowl. He's far from being the left-sided attacker that the team needs when Ousmane Dembele isn't fit and he's not reliable enough with the ball to play left midfield in Barcelona's version of 4-3-3.
When he played in a three-man midfield for Jurgen Klopp, he'd have Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Emre Can or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain working athletically, powerfully around him, lightning-swift full-backs pushing up on either side of him. Barcelona, with Busquets no longer peerless or athletically robust, simply cannot afford him the same luxury.
I must admit I was one of those who expected a better trajectory from the Brazilian, but there have been more than a few times when, like Andre Gomes before him, Coutinho has looked like the guy asking himself: "How has this dream gone so badly wrong?"
Before the Valverde haters -- and there seem to be more of them than is feasible -- go completely bananas here, the Basque has made mistakes and he's failed to learn from them. But those flaws are, literally, dwarfed by the size and difficulty of his achievements. Managing that squad, keeping those egos in check, ensuring that training is on point, that daily work is tight and tactically shrewd, keeping Messi not only onside but totally supportive, knowing how to handle unasked for surprises like Paulinho and Arturo Vidal and get the most out of them -- these have been triumphs.
I moved to Spain in the midst of Barcelona going six years without a single trophy. Valverde has won four in two seasons. Arguably he was within four unanswered goals of winning a Treble.
One at Anfield (Messi very nearly produced it), two on Saturday against Valencia, plus a 1-0 win next weekend at the Wanda Metropolitano against Tottenham in the Champions League final (perfectly feasible). Hey presto, a Treble.
Last January, when the winter market opened, everybody at Camp Nou understood that not only were the Spanish champions short of an extra goal scorer, there were in deep trouble if either Messi or Suarez got badly injured. I'm told, and I believe, that Valverde's specific petition was 29-year-old Carlos Vela, formerly of Real Sociedad and now with LAFC.
The Mexican was fresh, having finished taking LA to the playoffs in November, mid preseason and in great nick. He was deemed expensive, it seems, so the club gifted Valverde Kevin "Always a Prince Never the King" Boateng instead. Oh to have some of that Malcom, Gomes, Coutinho, Jeison Murillo money knocking around, right?
Vela, admittedly in MLS and not in the Copa or the Champions League, has hit 15 goals in 15 starts for LAFC and decorated them with a few assists. Boateng's stats I'll leave you to look up. His contribution from January until now ranks as one of the most lame, underwhelming and hard to understand in modern Barcelona memory.
But, yeah, this is all Valverde's fault.