And so it begins.
If you want to see how unloved Valverde is in cyberspace, just type two words – Valverde Out – into the Twitter search function and you will be assailed by a barrage of angry opinions, with everyone from Torquay to Timbuktu furiously lamenting Valverde’s inability to lead the squad and fervently demanding his immediate firing.
So far, the group of fans who will really decide the cautious coach’s fate – those who actually attend games – have stayed largely on his side.
A few half-hearted whistles echoed around the Camp Nou during his pre-season speech before the friendly against Arsenal a couple of weeks ago but on the whole Valverde remains, among the majority of Barca fans, if not exactly loved then more or less tolerated.
That, though, could soon change. Just like those raging bulls on social media, the club’s members and season ticket holders will judge Valverde not only on the basis of what happens this season, but through the prism of his back to back humiliating failures in the Champions League.
Those local supporters may be rather more forgiving than their cyberspace brethren, and place more value in the consecutive La Liga titles gained under Valverde, but they are also finding it tough to move on from the team’s European exits and their remaining patience in the current coach is rapidly running out.
This is Valverde’s problem: he has no credit left in the bank. All the trust that he earned through his successes on the domestic front were instantly eroded when his team succumbed to their 4-0 capitulation against Liverpool in May. Where there was once respect, now there is suspicion. Where once there was a willingness to overlook the occasional bad result, now there is an eagerness to jump onto any setback as proof that he must leave.
Ever since he was rather surprisingly retained by president Josep Maria Bartomeu during the summer, the criticism he is facing now was inevitable. It was only a matter of when Valverde would find himself besieged, not if. He is living on borrowed time, with even the most loyal and forgiving of fans starting to turn against him.
The words ‘Roma’ and ‘Anfield’ will continue to haunt Valverde throughout his Camp Nou reign, or at least until he has the chance to lift the big trophy aloft in celebration. The question is, though, whether he will survive for long enough to make that happen, and the coming weeks will be crucial.
The next test for Barca comes with their first home outing of the league campaign, against Real Betis on Sunday evening.
Already, that game is assuming the look of a must-win encounter for Valverde, who would be hard pressed to survive the furore that would inevitably result from being left with zero or one points after two games, at least five points off the lead.
It is common wisdom within footballing circles that manager’s fates are decided by home games. Away defeats are witnessed in person by far fewer fans and are therefore leave less impression, and Valverde is significantly helped by the fact that nearly all Barca’s bad results under his leadership have been inflicted on their travels.
Next weekend, though, roughly 80,000 expectant Barca fans will be gathered in their own cathedral, and expectant is the word: they will expect victory, they will expect it to be delivered in style and they will expect consequences taken if those outcomes do not materialise.
Valverde might be on safer ground in real life than he is on the Internet, but even the Camp Nou crowd will only allow themselves to be pushed so far. A bad result next weekend could well be the limit.
Barcelona defender Gerard Pique conceded that Athletic Bilbao put Barcelona in their place after losing 1-0 to the Basque team in their La Liga opener.
Bilbao legend Aritz Aduriz, who will retire at the end of the season, came on as a late substitute and had only been on the pitch for a minute when he met Ander Capa’s cross with an acrobatic volley to net an 89th-minute winner at San Mames.
While he accepted the defeat, Pique said he would prefer to lose at the beginning of the campaign rather than at the business end of the season.
“San Mames is always very difficult and today the competition put us in our place,” he told Movistar.
“We weren’t ourselves. From the start, they pressed us a lot and physically they were better, although in the second half they dropped off a little.
“In the end, winning or losing comes down to details, and we leave with a defeat that will be good for us, because it’s better to lose now than at the end of the season.
“We came from pre-season, there are new people… sometimes, you prepare for a game in one way and it doesn’t happen as you expected.
“In the first half, they had one clear chance, [Inaki] Williams’ one, and we had Luis hit the post.
“We played more in our own half, but that’s what you expect at San Mames. In the second half, we played more in their half, but details are details and one killed us in the end.”
Aritz Aduriz produced the best first touch of his 38-year-long life to hand Athletic Bilbao a famous opening day victory over Barcelona on Friday.
The La Liga champions were left stunned when the veteran executed a spectacular bicycle-kick just inside the area from Ander Capa’s cross in the 89th minute to send the home support at San Mames Stadium into delirium.
After an incredibly tight 87 minutes, the veteran made his way onto the pitch and landed the lethal blow seconds later as the Rojiblancos celebrated a 1-0 win.
Barcelona twice struck the woodwork through Luis Suarez and Rafinha but were unable to create enough openings in the absence of the injured Lionel Messi.
New signings Frenkie de Jong and Antoine Griezmann made their debuts for the Catalans but here we focus on the young Dutchman’s performance after his first taste of La Liga action.
Passes (success-rate): 66 (93.9%)
Key passes: 0
This was far from a comfortable debut for De Jong who anchored Barcelona’s midfield in a 4-3-3 system away from home. Inside two minutes, the youngster was decked by an enthusiastic Raul Garcia challenge. The message was clear, he wouldn’t be afforded time on the ball.
Garcia spent much of the encounter shadowing De Jong whenever Barca were in possession before substitute Oihan Sancet took over later in the second half when the veteran dropped deeper.
De Jong was hardly a liability but he didn’t have enough of an influence on the game as he would’ve liked, and certainly didn’t see enough of the ball despite his side dominating possession. His display mirrored Barcelona’s frustrations as they struggled to carve open the home team.
He did a lot of good things but never really took command.
GOT RIGHT – RETAINING POSSESSION
De Jong is completely at ease on the ball and could recycle possession in his sleep. Bilbao went to considerable lengths to ensure he didn’t have things all his own way, yet they could never get the ball off him.
The 22-year-old’s ability to operate in confined spaces, shield the ball and wriggle his way out of a corner is truly special. With an opponent right on top of him in the first half and two more red and white shirts on either side, De Jong received the ball on the edge of the box, went on to dribble inside the area before eventually making space and spreading the ball wide.
There was another moment in the second period when he flicked the ball over Garcia, sold him a dummy and then nonchalantly squared the ball back to Pique. Brilliant.
GOT WRONG – FORWARD PASSES
When De Jong got on the ball he was often faced with an opponent right in front of him, forcing him to play sideways or behind. It was a ploy he struggled to cope with and restricted his ability to play forward passes.
The former Ajax star didn’t play enough penetrative passes to break the lines and put his side on the front foot. Ernesto Valverde ended up bringing Ivan Rakitic on at half-time who proceeded to take more responsibility by trying to drive Barca forward.
There’s a lot more to come from the young playmaker and he showed moments of brilliance. However, his inexperience in a new league was also evident. Didn’t have the authority in the middle that Sergio Busquets so often does. A lot of positives to take from this – despite the defeat – but also a warning that he needs time to settle into his new surroundings.