Barcelona's Copa failure prompts the question: Is Ernesto Valverde the right manager? PLUS: Praising Atalanta
After another action-packed weekend in soccer, Gab Marcotti reflects on the big talking points in his latest edition of Monday Musings.
Is Valverde safe at Barcelona?
Barcelona winning the Double this season would have felt anticlimactic to many, which is more than understandable. Having endured the horrors of Anfield on May 7 just like the nightmare at the Stadio Olimpico a year before, it was going to take more than a Copa del Rey -- a trophy they had won the past four years anyway -- to turn their frowns upside down.
As it happened, they won't have to worry about it. Barcelona were outplayed, outfoxed and outcoached in Seville by Marcelino's feisty Valencia. Los Che are a club that nearly sacked Marcelino last Christmas and who were in the bottom half of the table in January. Their game plan wasn't fancy -- congest the midfield, absorb pressure and launch Goncalo Guedes, Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo on the counter -- but it worked time and again, in part because Ernesto Valverde's 3-4-3 was so ham-fisted.
Dropping Sergio Busquets deeper and pushing Nelson Semedo and Jordi Alba further up the pitch is the sort of innovation that might make sense of paper. But if the players are unprepared for it and unaccustomed to it, you pay a price -- which is pretty much how Barcelona conceded two first-half goals, with simple balls exploiting an out-of-position (and out-of-sorts) Jordi Alba.
Barcelona weren't doing much at the other end, either. Without Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi was flanked by Philippe Coutinho (whose game reflected his season) and Sergi Roberto, who is anything but a winger. Things improved in the second half when they shifted back to 4-4-2, as Messi hit the woodwork and then pulled one back, but all that does is confirm what we already know: while Messi can win you games virtually on his own, it's a whole heck of a lot easier when the other 10 guys line up in a rational system.
The win turns the screws even further on Valverde despite both Messi and president Jose Maria Bartomeu expressing their support after the game. I had my say here but to complete the thought: no, he's certainly not the only one responsible. There's plenty of blame to go around, from the way this squad was constructed -- a reminder that the reason Messi has to play center-forward is that the only back-up central striker on this team is Kevin Prince Boateng, who is neither a striker nor particularly good -- to several key players having subpar seasons (Sergio Busquets and Philippe Coutinho spring to mind, but they're not the only ones) to Ousmane Dembele's continuous injuries.
But here's the thing that too many fail to understand about managers. When you coach a team like Barcelona, you're in the top 0.001 percent of professional coaches. It's supposed to be tough, and there's supposed to be pressure, and there are reasonable expectations. Among them is the ability to get something more out of your most expensive signing (Coutinho) and to figure out a system of playing that doesn't make you more Messi-dependent than ever.
Valverde arrived with a reputation as a tactically savvy coach who also had a knack for man-management. We've seen the latter, we've missed out on the former. The simple question isn't whether he's done a good enough job, but whether someone else might do a better one with the resources at his disposal, however imbalanced and poorly assembled they might be. It's hard to believe that there's nobody else in the universe -- bar the handful of coaches who are already gainfully employed elsewhere -- could do better.
Bartomeu may not change his mind and believe Valverde deserves another shot. Fair enough. But whether Valverde stays or goes, what's important for Barcelona to realize is that it's not all about the eye candy, big signings. Graham Hunter went through the squad individually here, and the conclusion is that while pursuing the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Matthijs De Ligt to go with Frenkie De Jong (who is already on board) is great, there's more surgery to be done here. And rather than blowing an enormous amount on a bling-bling superstar like they did with Coutinho, it might make more sense spreading those funds across two or there squad positions.
Inter secure CL action as only Inter can
Inter's final act of the Serie A season was securing qualification to the Champions League, and fittingly, nothing about it was easy or straightforward. Against an Empoli side desperately needing a result to guarantee survival, they peppered the opposition goal, with Bartlomiej Dragowski (not for the first time this season) conjuring up miracle after miracle to keep Inter out. Luciano Spalletti rolled the dice, sending on Keita Balde at half-time and sticking Ivan Perisic at left-back. It yielded immediate results, with Balde scoring straightaway.
But Inter being Inter, they retreated and squandered opportunities, like the gift of a penalty that Mauro Icardi lamely hit right at the keeper. They were unable to contain an Empoli side driven forward by the outstanding Hamed Traore, who bagged the equaliser with 15 minutes to go. It was panic stations all over again.
Radja Nainggolan put Inter back ahead with a cool finish, but also had plenty of good fortune that he received the ball off the post and on his better foot. And then came the wild ending, with Samir Handanovic making save after save, Danilo D'Ambrosio somehow clearing a ball (whether he meant to or not, nobody knows) off his own crossbar and Balde getting sent off, screwing up a certain Inter goal in the process.
By the end, it was mission accomplished, and that's what mattered. Inter are back in the big time, with Champions League revenues coming in and, probably, a new manager too, if reports are to be believed. Certainly, Spalletti (no surprise here) voiced his frustration after the match at the rumours swirling around him. There's plenty of sympathy for him, sure, but he was also milking it and, as ever, spinning matters, like when he said "I did exactly what was asked of me."
No: presumably he was asked to do more than deliver two straight fourth-place finishes (both on the final day of the season, both in dramatic circumstances) with the third-highest wage bill in the league. Presumably he was tasked with building something and laying the foundations of a side that could grow.
But back to Inter. The club have grown exponentially in terms of attracting supporters -- 65,000 a week tells its own story -- and growing commercially. It's time for the football to catch up.
Kovac should get a fair shot at managing Bayern
Bayern did complete the Double on Saturday, adding the DFB Pokal (German Cup) to their Bundesliga title, and they did it in a most Bayern way. Against a Leipzig side that came out of the gates like a house on fire, they absorbed pressure, relied on a couple absurdly good saves from Manuel Neuer (returning after six weeks), made the adjustments they needed to make and picked their spots to strike.
This was far from from a dominating Bavarian performance in the first half as Ralf Rangnick's press pinned them back, and Neuer made a stellar save to deny Yousuf Poulsen and, just after the break, Emil Forsberg. But thanks also to Niko Kovac's adjustments, they took the sting out of the press and eventually emerged as 3-0 winners.
Afterwards, asked about Kovac's future for the umpteenth time, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was adamant. "Of course he's staying, we never said he'd leave." Maybe not, but as plenty have reported, there was some serious internal debate going on at Bayern, and it's possible there still is. Whichever decision the club make, you'd hope that it wasn't made based on 90 minutes against Leipzig in the German Cup final.
Franck Ribery and Rafinha made their farewells to the club, Jerome Boateng and James Rodriguez may also be gone. Plenty has already been invested on Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard, and there is more to come (witness the links with Leroy Sane and Timo Werner). If the critics are to be believed, it was mostly the veterans who had a beef with Kovac's leadership, and many of them won't be back. That means the club's decision will hinge simply on whether they believe Kovac has the nous and skill set to oversee the transition and truly make this team his, rather than something that was inherited.
You can certainly argue that Kovac deserves a crack at it. Then again, "deserves" has nothing to do with it: a club like Bayern needs to simply answer the question of whether or not he's the best available man for the job.
Atalanta are the story of the Serie A season
Atalanta's top-four finish is a story for the ages. Not just for the results, but for the up-tempo, uber-attacking football they served up all season long. They finished with 77 goals -- seven more than Juventus, 20 more than Inter, 22 more than Milan -- well ahead of sides that have many times the wage bill: Juve's is eight times as high, Inter's four times, Milan's five times.
What's remarkable is that this team finished fourth two years ago as well and then was comprehensively gutted. The likes of Roberto Gagliardini (Inter), Franck Kessie (Milan, on loan), Mattia Caldara (Milan), Andrea Conti (Milan), Leonardo Spinazzola (back to Juventus), Jasmin Kurtic (SPAL) and Andrea Petagna (SPAL, on loan) -- the backbone of that side -- all moved on. And still, this team buckled down and reloaded, rebuilding around holdovers like Papu Gomez and Andrea Masiello and integrating a host of gifted newcomers, from Duvan Zapata to Josip Ilicic, from Timothy Castagne to Gianluca Mancini.
The good news is that you don't see this team being broken up like the last one was. Partly, it's that these are older players, partly it's that apart from a few guys (Mancini, Hans Hateboer, possibly Robin Gosens) there really isn't that much demand for their stars. You hope the same holds true for the coach, Gian Piero Gasperini, who has plenty of admirers. Having worked so hard to get here, it would be a cruel blow for them to fall apart.
Man City's chairman goes on the record
Given that apart from the manager, nobody at Manchester City speaks to the media seemingly ever, it was nice and timely that Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, the club's chairman, addressed the domestic Treble-winning season and what he sees as hostility from some quarters against the club.
He's correct in pointing out that moaning about City's spending is somewhat hypocritical. Football has always had wealthier clubs and less wealthy ones; it's simply a different model. (He made a bit less sense when he pointed out that City didn't have a single transfer among the top 10 of all time, as that's not how you determine inflationary effects.)
City's spending only becomes relevant if it violates rules, specifically financial fair play rules in this case. They've breached once before (like a number of other clubs) and, of course, they face a possible sanction from the Adjudicatory Chamber of the Club Financial Control Body for violations emerging from the Football Leaks documents.
Here, it's very simple. Khaldoon says: "I believe quite comfortably [that] if the process is going to be judged on facts then unquestionably we will prevail." Time will tell on that one. In the meantime, he fired back at La Liga president Javier Tebas, who had been critical of the state support that City and Paris Saint-Germain enjoy and the effects it has on the market.
"They're state-run clubs, one off petrol money, one off gas," Tebas said. "There's something deeply wrong in bringing ethnicity into the conversation," he said. "This is just ugly. The way he's combining teams just because of ethnicity ... I find it very disturbing."
I'm not going to speak for Tebas, but there's plenty more PSG and City have in common than ethnicity. Like maybe the fact that both are de facto owned by the royal families of two very wealthy Gulf nations, both of which are monarchies with no democracy. That's what the owners have in common, more so than ethnicity, and while this doesn't make them bad or undesirable owners, it does present challenges. Refusing to acknowledge that here seems wide of the mark.
And finally ...
Bas Dost came off the bench to put Sporting CP ahead, 2-1, in the Portuguese Cup final against Porto, scoring in extra-time. But the Portuguese champions equalled at the end of the second extra-time period, sending the match to penalties. Naturally, our hero also converted his penalty during the shootout as Sporting won, 5-4.
Having missed 10 weeks of the season, Dost nevertheless ends the year with 15 goals in 22 league appearances. Overall, he notched 23 goals in 33 appearances in all competitions. This concludes this season's final edition of #BasDostWatch.