BARCELONA (Reuters) - Ernesto Valverde’s appointment as Barcelona coach has been a long time coming and he has been chosen as Luis Enrique’s successor due to his wealth of experience, but he faces a huge task to rejuvenate a side showing signs of decline.
Valverde is one of many former Barcelona players who was inspired to go into management by visionary coach Johan Cruyff, who worked with the striker between 1988 and 1990, and declared his admiration for his former pupil when he was starting out.
“He was a very intelligent player and always transmitted to me his interest in football and his enthusiasm to learn,” said Cruyff when Valverde was in his first job at Athletic Bilbao.
“He is one of the most outstanding and promising coaches in Spain.”
Valverde, 53, has had success in almost every job he has had, reaching the UEFA Cup final in 2007 with Barca’s city rivals Espanyol and winning three Greek league titles with Olympiakos Piraeus.
Barca tried to convince him to take over in 2013 when Tito Vilanova was forced to leave the role due to illness but Valverde had agreed to coach Athletic again, prompting the Catalans to opt for the relatively unknown Gerardo Martino.
Valverde’s knowledge of Barca and his many years of experience of coaching in Spain saw him pip Argentine Jorge Sampaoli and Luis Enrique’s assistant Juan Carlos Unzue to the top job.
He qualified Athletic for European football in five out of six seasons in Bilbao, where he was the longest-serving coach, and they hammered Barcelona 4-0 on their way to winning the Spanish Super Cup in 2015.
Valverde’s track record for nurturing youngsters such as Inaki Williams and Aymeric Laporte is also highly valued at Barca, with their proud tradition of homegrown players such as Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi.
When Luis Enrique was asked if he had any advice for his successor, he remarked: “He has for more experience than me so he should enjoy it.”
Yet even Valverde’s impressive career path will be scant preparation for the demanding Barca job, which consumed predecessors Guardiola and Luis Enrique, who needed to take a sabbatical year after being drained by the pressure.
He also faces a huge task to revitalise a hugely talented yet ageing squad that requires overhaul following a resounding 3-0 aggregate defeat by Juventus in the Champions League quarter-finals and an inconsistent league campaign which surrendered the title to Real Madrid.
His priorities will be restructuring the midfield, which used to be the axis of Barca’s success under Guardiola but has lost its power as with captain Iniesta now 33, and finding a new top-class right back to fill the gaping hole left by the departure of Dani Alves.
Valverde is seen as a safe pair of hands who will not try to impose his character too forcefully on a tempestuous dressing-room, although his quiet, relaxed character will be put to the test if he decides wholesale changes are required to revive their fortunes.
Editing by Ed Osmond