Valverde will be able to handle stars of Barcelona – Herrera

Having previously said no, ex-Athletic Bilbao manager succeeds Enrique at Camp Nou

Barcelona’s former coach Luis Enrique  and his counterpart of Athletic Bilbao, Ernesto Valverde last year.  Barcelona have announced  Valverde will be the next coach of the team during the next two seasons. Photograph: Luis Tejido/EPA

Barcelona’s former coach Luis Enrique and his counterpart of Athletic Bilbao, Ernesto Valverde last year. Barcelona have announced Valverde will be the next coach of the team during the next two seasons. Photograph: Luis Tejido/EPA

 

The day Ernesto Valverde left Olympiakos, bringing his second brief but successful spell to a close in 2012, Pep Guardiola was asked what he made of his departure. “Greece has lost a great coach,” he said, “and we’ve got a great photographer back”.

Valverde’s work had certainly left an impression in Athens, hung on the walls of the Ileana Tounta centre for contemporary art and displayed in the trophy cabinets of the Giorgios Karaiskaskis Stadium, Piraeus, where, according to fellow Spaniard Michel González, who eventually took over as manager nine months later, he was a “deity”.

Deity is not a word he would welcome, one former player insisting “he evades compliments and prefers the focus to be on his players”, but he is certainly different. The man who led Olympiakos to three leagues and two cups, took Athletic Bilbao to their first title in 31 years, and yesterday became Barcelona coach began studying at the Institut d’Estudis Fotogràfics de Catalunya when he arrived in 1986 to play for Espanyol.

In 2012, he published a collection of black and white images described by Basque poet and writer Bernardo Atxaga as “at once delicate and tough, as if produced by two different hands”.

‘Txingurri’

A Stone Roses fan who likened his Athletic return to The Godfather Part II, Valverde studied biology at university. He was a small, 5ft 5in forward who considered becoming a photographer after retirement. But he said “football absorbs your brain”, and he became a manager.

Nicknamed “Txingurri”, the Ant, by Javier Clemente, Valverde played for Espanyol for two years then for Barcelona before joining Athletic. At Barcelona he worked under Johan Cruyff, who he said “made an impact on us all”.

In 1994, eight years before he even began coaching Athletic’s B team, Cruyff wrote of him: “He was intelligent and always expressed his interest to learn. As a coach, he’ll be one of the most promising.” This is not the first time Barcelona have called, and nor are they the only ones. Two summers ago, Real Madrid wanted him: he was their first choice, ahead of Rafa Benítez.

Valverde said no, which says something about him. When Guardiola left Barcelona, he made two recommendations to succeed him: Valverde and his assistant Tito Vilanova.

It was Vilanova they chose, seeking continuity, but two more offers followed swiftly. The next year Barcelona discreetly mentioned the job to him as they sought potential solutions to a delicate problem posed by Vilanova’s deteriorating health. Vilanova wanted to continue, so Barcelona respected that and Valverde agreed to return to Athletic. By the time doctors recommended that Vilanova did not continue, it was too late. Valverde had made a promise and he kept his word.

Tata Martino took over at the Camp Nou then but walked a year later. Again, Barcelona offered Valverde the job; again, he said he could not leave. When Madrid came, the response was the same. Barcelona accepted and signed Luis Enrique, but advised Valverde they would return. This summer, his contract up, European football secure for a fourth season, he and Athletic agreed it was time, no recriminations, no regrets.

Greatest strength

As the former Athletic midfielder Javi González says: “Everything came together. He leaves through the front door, the right way. Everyone wishes him the best and hopefully one day he can come back. At Athletic there’s a ‘Before’ and ‘After’ Valverde.”

Few reach their players like he does. “His greatest strength is his management of the dressing room,” says the Manchester United midfielder Ander Herrera.

Valverde admits that the Athletic dressing room is easy – a relatively humble group – but González does not think that means he will struggle at Barcelona. “‘Txingu’ knows that dressing room is full of stars, and you can think: ‘What are you going to say to Messi?’ But he will know; he’s ready,” he says.

“If he has to raise his voice, he will. Most people haven’t seen that character but behind closed doors it’s there. He’ll call a player out for the good of the team, in front of everyone, even if it is a star. He’s calm at difficult moments and doesn’t let the euphoria affect him in good times: in that, he’s a genius. But while ‘Txingu’ has this tranquil image – and that is him – he also has personality.”

Conviction, too. After his first game in charge of Athletic, a defeat against Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona, Valverde insisted he wouldn’t do anything he didn’t believe in.

When he was at Espanyol, Cruyff said: “It’s a pleasure to watch Espanyol play; I am happy there are people like Ernesto who play that way and want people to enjoy it, because that’s what football is for.”

Xavi Hernández, that most determined defender of the Barcelona faith, insisted in 2007: “Valverde’s teams play good football: they like to have the ball, they don’t just boot it.”

But that does not mean rigidity. “There’s variety in his methods. He knows how to train: he makes it fun, a lot of the ball, technical work. He’s not repetitive. He’s not overly obsessed with tiny tactical details, not least because the philosophy is so ingrained at Athletic and Barcelona,” González says.

“One of his strengths is that he adapts,” Herrera says. “We all know what the challenge is: at Barcelona, the obligation is to win every game. But I’m sure he’ll be a success.”

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