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.
Andres Iniesta has confirmed there’s been no progress in his contract talks with Barcelona, but admits he has been heartened by the team’s promising start to the season.
The veteran midfielder, whose current deal expires at the end of this season, hit the headlines last week when club president Josep Maria Bartomeu claimed a new contract has been agreed in principle, only for Iniesta to immediately state that was not true.
And after delivering an eye-catching personal performance in Tuesday’s 3-0 Champions League victory over Juventus, including an inch-perfect pass to tee up Lionel Messi’s second goal, Iniesta revealed there has been no progress in his talks with the club.
“There’s no news, and if there was you would know about it,” sniffed the club captain, who appears to be less than happy that his contract talks have been given such prominence.
“But what bothers me is what happens on the pitch. I want to be happy and for things to go well. I put collective the above the personal, and I’m happy with how everything is going.”
Iniesta can certainly have no complaints about his team’s current form, with the 3-0 win against Juventus extending Barca’s winning streak to four games, during which time they have scored 12 goals without conceding any.
After an inconsistent season under former boss Luis Enrique and a frustrating summer in the transfer market, there’s a growing sense that new manager Ernesto Valverde is starting to take his team in the right direction.
And Iniesta agreed with the sentiment that Barca are gradually re-establishing themselves as a major force to be reckoned with, suggesting that Valverde is succeeding in implementing an effective team structure as he said: “If the team is functioning well, we all look better.
“Starting to win against opponents like Juventus is not easy. We controlled the game well – they had few chances and we completed a very good game.”
The skipper’s words were echoed by Jordi Alba, whose rampaging running down the left wing has been a feature of Barca’s performances in the opening weeks of the campaign.
Alba fell out of favour for stretches of last season under former boss Luis Enrique, but his newly restated importance to the team is shown by the fact that he had more touches of the ball than any other player in the victory over Juventus.
And the Spain international, who has clearly held off Lucas Digne for the role of Valverde’s preferred left-back, expressed the sense that his teammates are once again enjoying themselves on the field of play, noting: “You have to suffer to win games like that, but we are having fun.
Alba also believes new signings Nelson Semedo and Ousmane Dembele have given the team a timely boost, saying: “The majority of us are the same players as last season, but the new arrivals have been a plus.”
And he praised the whole team for their excellent defensive record, saying: “It’s not just the defenders, everyone is working hard.”
Just as Paul Pogba was beginning to justify his price tag, injury struck – but don’t feel too sorry for Manchester United, they are not hamstrung in the slightest.
A team of that talent and depth has an abundance of options to fall back on. Indeed the man who replaced Pogba, Marouane Fellaini, scored the opener against Basel in a typically robust display.
So how should United line up without their conductor-in-chief? Below we outline three options that Jose Mourinho should seriously consider.
What may seem like the most obvious alternative may not be staring Jose Mourinho in the face as far as he is concerned.
Ander Herrera did not even make the matchday squad for the game against Basel, despite having just played 77 minutes of competitive football this season so far.
A player who was a firm fan favourite last season has been shoved to one side by the arrival of Nemanja Matic – but the Spaniard has reason for fresh hope.
If anyone in the United squad resembles Pogba’s style of play it is Herrera, who is as bubbly as a shaken-up fizzy drink.
Herrera is not the most disciplined of midfielders but just as Matic has freed up Pogba, so too can he take much of the defensive responsibility off his replacement.
Though it is unfair expect the same raking passes or blink-and-you’ll-miss-him counter-attacking, plugging in Herrera for Pogba would cause the least disruption to a winning team.
Matic’s presence really is a tactical game-changer for United. Where once United’s midfield was in a state of flux, the Serbian is the sinew that keeps it all together.
Which is why if Mourinho wants to keep that devastating quickness through the middle intact, he should take a good look at dropping Henrikh Mkhitaryan back into midfield.
The Armenian makes more than his fair share of head-scratching decisions and losing the ball anywhere near the centre circle would be anathema to Mourinho.
But – against weaker teams in particular – imagine Mkhitaryan driving into the final third with Marcus Rashford to one side and Anthony Martial on the other.
A 4-3-3 could work, with Mkhitaryan being the central tip of that trident along with Matic and Herrera/Michael Carrick/Fellaini.
It would be exciting just to see Rashford and Martial play together instead of the personal relay team they have been running between the bench and the field.
Mourinho could instead elect to change United’s style of play and push Fellaini far up the field just behind Romelu Lukaku.
Playing Fellaini deeper in midfield may work against some European teams as the tempo tends to be a touch slower in contrast to the high-octane Premier League.
Where Pogba is also aerodynamics, Fellaini is as agile as heavy machinery. As Steven Gerrard put it, ‘in the middle of the pitch, he never used to hurt you or harm you, you’d play against him all day’.
Closer to the box, however, and Gerrard admitted it was a different story. Fellaini will never play an eye-of-the-needle pass but he has plenty of needle – ie. elbows – to bother the most seasoned of defenders.
Combine Fellaini and Lukaku, and the box will be a no fly zone for most opposing centre-backs. Keep lumping in the crosses and Mourinho will finally have succeeded where
David Moyes’ aerial bombardment, with 5ft11 Wayne Rooney leading the line, could not.
Playing that way would open United up to all sorts of criticism but Mourinho has already professed his love for Fellaini. It wouldn’t be pretty, but most weapons are ugly after all.