The season is still young and there’s an awfully long way to go before any celebration, but it already appears that Ernesto Valverde is exactly the manager Barcelona needed.
It was clear they needed something. The team was on the verge of falling apart under previous boss Luis Enrique, whose combative personal manner and inability to instil a clear tactical vision left the team a long way from reaching their potential in the last 18 months of his reign.
All sorts of names were touted as potential replacements for Enrique, and former Athletic Bilbao coach Valverde, who enjoyed his greatest successes with Olympiakos in Greece, appeared to be a rather conservative choice.
He’s certainly a serene personality. Unlike the abrasive Enrique, you won’t find Barcelona’s new manager making enemies within the media by rolling his eyes at unwelcome questions and snapping back terse one-liners.
Neither will you see him, unlike Pep Guardiola or Jorge Sampaoli, attempting to unleash some kind of tactical masterclass upon his players and dazzle the watching world with a wild new playing formation.
Rather than grabbing headlines with ostentatious public displays, Valverde just gets on with his job, quietly and calmly, making rationally thought-out decisions and communicating clearly with his players to keep them on the same page.
That’s not to say he doesn’t make bold decisions, and Valverde has already come up with a significant solution after wrestling with his single biggest dilemma: where to play Lionel Messi.
After being positioned on the right wing for much of the last three years, Messi has been returned to his old ‘false nine’ deep-lying centre forward role, allowing him to perform as a playmaker and a striker at the same time, and the results have been hugely positive with Messi rattling home seven goals in his last three games.
Messi’s repositioning, naturally, has had a knock-on effect within the rest of the team, and the midfield in particular has benefitted from the Argentine being placed as the free-roaming tip of a diamond ahead of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta.
Although Messi has obviously grabbed the headlines, his midfield teammates also caught the eye in this week’s victories over Espanyol and Juventus, with Rakitic’s return to top form an especially welcome sight after a tough final year under Enrique for the Croatian.
The team’s defensive efforts have also been excellent, as Barca have not conceded a single goal in their last four games and shown few of the frailties that were almost always apparent last season, with summer signing Nelson Semedo settling quickly and Jordi Alba back to his best.
Not everything is perfect. In particular, the shape of the attack in front of Messi looks lopsided, with Ousmane Dembele or Gerard Deulofeu pinned to the right touchline while Luis Suarez meanders around an inside left position which neither allows him to play as a centre forward nor a winger.
Both Dembele and Suarez were poor against Juventus, with the record signing Frenchman at times looking completely out of place in a team which doesn’t yet know how to play to his strengths.
These are issues for Valverde to address, along with the question of squad depth when his big hitters are missing. But so far, the new boss couldn’t have done much better.