It wasn’t too long ago, roughly around the time that Neymar had stunned the football world by leaving Barcelona, that fans of the Catalan club were at their lowest ebb.
A managerial appointment that could best be described as underwhelming, rumours that Paulinho would be signing for a not inconsequential €40 million (Dh170.8 million)… yes, it really didn’t take an awful lot for the routinely pessimistic Barcelona follower to wallow in their own self-pity.
With Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid re-writing the script over in the Spanish capital, the narrative for the 2017-18 season was seemingly already in place. Or was it?
Since the start of this La Liga campaign, the roles have been reversed with Zidane and his team struggling for coherent team play and confidence, whilst Barca look every inch the champions-elect, even at this early stage. After their defeat at Girona, Los Blancos are eight points behind the Catalans and never, in the history of La Liga, have they overturned such a deficit to win the title.
Ernesto Valverde, after winning at his old stomping ground, San Mames, on Saturday night, is now the proud holder of a new Blaugrana record too. Nine wins and one draw from his opening 10 league games is the best start from the beginning of a season in Barca’s history.
Yes, even better than Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique and Tito Vilanova.
Where Valverde has quickly won over the fans is with his common-sense attitude and tactical nous. Though being regarded as the ‘safe’ choice when Jorge Sampaoli was available was seen as undesirable at the time, it is precisely those characteristics that have earned respect from his players, and, as a result, top-level performances on a weekly basis.
His substitutions have routinely changed the course of games — the 2-1 win at Getafe being one of the clearest examples – but he’ll not make changes for the sake of it.
With only three goals conceded this season, Barcelona have the best defence in Europe’s top five leagues too, form they’ve carried over into the Champions League.
Paulinho, far from being the flop that everyone expected, has provided goals, assists and a powerful midfield presence that the Catalans have lacked in the past. He, as much as any other Barca player, deserves the plaudits for the record-breaking run that shows no signs of abating.
Nelson Semedo has made the right-back spot his own, to the extent that Dani Alves is rarely mentioned in dispatches now, and Valverde is getting the maximum out of almost every other player. The only thorny issue he really has to contend with at the present moment is the form of Luis Suarez.
Shunted off to the side to allow Lionel Messi to wreak havoc as a false nine, El Pistolero has suffered in the goal scoring stakes which has consequently affected his confidence. Clearly, the Uruguayan is one player that’s not enjoying himself, but with Messi scoring 15 in all competitions before the end of October, you can hardly question the manager’s decision making there either.
That all of this initial success is being achieved against the backdrop of a highly political situation in Catalonia only gives the manager further kudos. The club’s future in La Liga is potentially at risk moving forward, but Valverde has steered the ship with consummate ease through some very choppy waters.
Indeed, Barcelona as an organisation have remained silent since the Catalan parliament declared independence, only for the Spanish government to impose direct rule over the region an hour afterwards.
With the dressing room split on an issue that affects a number of the players, to have a coach that has kept them fully focused on the job in hand is nothing short of miraculous.