Ernesto Valverde is a great fit for Barca but can he cope with the pressure?
The first thing to say about Ernesto Valverde is that although Barcelona have now brutally sacked Andoni Zubizarreta twice in his Camp Nou career, it's the hand of the big Basque ex-goalkeeper that is traceable in this appointment. The "Dream Team" keeper, with whom Valverde struck up a friendship when a missile thrown from the crowd struck "Zubi" and, also, in due course the Camp Nou director of football who signed Neymar, Luis Suarez, Marc Andre Ter Stegen, Jordi Alba, Ivan Rakitic and Luis Enrique for Barca.
Zubizarreta brought the club their first European Cup and constructed their second treble. Nevertheless, life at the Camp Nou can be harsh. The big Basque was booted out by Johan Cruyff after the 4-0 thrashing from AC Milan in the 1994 European Cup final. And the current President, Josep Maria Bartomeu, sacrificed him halfway to Barca winning the treble because the suspicion that the club were planning to sell Lionel Messi needed a ceremonial firing in order to appease the masses.
Valverde had already been on the list to take over the coaching job at FC Barcelona in 2008 when Frank Rijkaard was failing, a time at which two leading candidates emerged: Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho. The long list included Valverde, Michael Laudrup and Laurent Blanc but Guardiola prevailed. Then, during Tito Vilanova's single season in charge of Barca, Valverde, who'd played briefly for the club under Johan Cruyff, was put on standby.
Vilanova had been spent time receiving specialist cancer treatment in New York during that year and Valverde was planning to leave Valencia at the end of the season. Vilanova recovered and Valverde duly signed up for duty at Athletic Club. By the time Vilanova's cancer returned, ferociously, in mid-summer, the Valverde option was gone. But his name had been forcefully present courtesy of Zubizarreta, the director of football.
When the Gerardo "Tata" Martino experiment failed, Valverde ran Luis Enrique a close second for the job, again with "Zubi" detailing the enviable characteristics he'd seen in the former Olympiakos, Villarreal and Espanyol coach to his board.
Now, it's fourth time lucky for Valverde.
So clear-cut was Zubizarreta about his former Athletic Club deputy in his briefings -- they worked together for three years from 2001 to '04, and successfully so -- that the "validation" has lingered and taken this intense, sprightly, former winger through to what might be considered a surprising job for him given the success he once had in charge of city rivals Espanyol. The clubs have shared a handful of coaches across their history but the last, coincidentally, was Luis Aragones, who signed for Espanyol a couple of years after winning Barca the Copa del Rey. He signed the same day as Valverde left Barca for what would be a brilliant six-year career as Athletic Club's flying winger.
So, what does Valverde bring?
It's important to establish, for the purists who'll be gagging to know, that while "el Txingurri" (it's Basque for "ant," an affectionate nickname earned for his diminutive size and terrific work ethic) played under Cruyff, this is by no means a return to the Cruyff/Guardiola philosophy in its truest meaning.
An interesting coincidence is that when he was a Cruyff student between 1988 and 1990, Valverde didn't envisage a life in football once he hung up his boots. Whether that was to do with the environment in which he was working is a matter lost in the mists of time. But he began preparing for a very different future.
"When I was a Barca player I started attending a photography college: I reckoned that was a profession I could dedicate myself to when I stopped playing. But football hooks you and draws you back."
Even when Valverde went a couple of years without coaching, and began studying photography again, the game called to him. And he answered.
He recalls working for the great Dutchman. "I'd played for Espanyol where Javier Clemente transmitted intensity, hunger and that's what characterized our play. Cruyff didn't value that kind of thing -- he wanted 'perfection' in our play at Barca. He'd not even forgive your for one bad pass.
"Johan demanded that we be precise, that we dominated play and he didn't mind if that meant taking risks. For some of us, it cost a little to adapt to."
Valverde is not a slave to possession. Nor, let there be no mistake, is he a long-ball, "route one" merchant. Far from it. Who he resembles as a coach -- quite well, in fact -- is Luis Enrique.
When Spanish football was "turning" after Frank Rijkaard had instituted Cruyff values at Barcelona, when Pep Guardiola's reign was just around the corner and when Luis Aragones was turning Spain into the world's greatest-ever possession-based international team, Valverde took a parallel view. He enjoyed seeing the prominence given to Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas but instead of adoring their positional play and passing, both of which dragged opposition around the pitch until cracks appeared, he complimented how "vertical" they could be when they chose to.
Valverde meant their use of technique, vision and daring to penetrate opposition defenses quickly and directly. It was different to the horizontal and triangular football endorsed by Guardiola. Different, but a cousin; it's related to the original master-plan, the way that Luis Enrique left Barcelona at the weekend stating that he'd been 100 percent loyal to the "Barca footballing bible" when most would say that his version isn't a re-boot of Guardiola's but rather a Hi-Energy, Stock Aitken and Waterman version of the Beatles. Same notes, same lyrics, twice the beats per minute.
Vis a vis what will be demanded of him at the Camp Nou, Valverde carries the winning (or indeed the winners') ethic. Look across his entire career and you'll see some trophies, fair enough, but repeatedly, you'll see him having raised the team he coaches to achievements which mark his time as a success. Constant "against the odds" wins and draws against Real Madrid and Barcelona, a stack of medals in Greece, a European final with Espanyol, European qualification with Athletic Club, six superb months at Valencia when he took a languishing, asset-stripped side from 12th to fifth and finishing one point off Champions League football.
Then, of course, the 2015 Copa del Rey final against Barcelona, followed by a 5-1 thrashing of Luis Enrique's team in the subsequent Spanish Supercup: Athletic's first trophy for a quarter of a century.
One of Valverde's sayings, back when he was emerging as a coach, is this: "'Enjoying' yourself on a pitch is overcoming challenges and handling adversity, not producing nutmegs. A footballer wants to feel comfortable with what he's asked to do and that doesn't mean juggling with the ball but understanding the style and idea of the kind of football the coach has instructed him to play and being enthused by it."
Valverde's ideal fits with the Cruyff concept that if a player is good enough, he's old enough.
From his days in charge of the Athletic Club youth system until now, the highest point of his career, Valverde has tried to let talent emerge and has tried to back ability. He's a firm believer in an ordered, planned, ideology-driven youth system -- promoting from within when merited. Whether there's sufficient merit in Barcelona's "futbol-base," or whether Valverde's principles hold good under more intense pressure than he's ever faced will be a wait-and-see proposition.
His brand of football is intense, just like his daily coaching environment. If his team can dominate an opposition, take the game by the scruff of the neck and entertain the fans, then that's his secondary demand satisfied. The primary one is winning. But of course, only so much can be deduced from what's gone before.
Valverde earned this chance because "Zubi" believed in him so fervently, because members of Barcelona's board were frustrated more than once in trying to recruit him and because he's a man of talent. Demonstrable talent. However he's never had this depth and variety of resources at his disposal. Nor, no matter what they say around San Mames, has he faced this much pressure.
For a man who likes order, balance and strategic rigour in his teams, how will he cope with Messi's proven desire to play in three or four different positions during the same game?
Normally it's the players who must adapt to a new coach; not so with Messi. Valverde will need to show that he's a clever, subtle, street-smart man-manager. He'll also need to win Messi's trust. For a guy who likes winning and intensity and believes the pragmatism of "coping with adversity" to be part of his DNA, how will Valverde adapt to managing Neymar? The Brazil international is immensely talented and central to Barcelona's "MSN," but he's still a Miles Davis footballer, prone to jazz solos when the rest of the orchestra is attempting some Mozart.
More, how will Valverde adapt to being able to sign world-class footballers at exorbitant fees for the first time in his career?
We'll know more by mid-August, before the season even starts, by which time his Barca will have played Madrid three times: once in a Miami friendly, then home and away in the Supercup he raised so gloriously just two years ago
These are big challenges for Valverde. Most would counsel him that it's about being true to yourself: the "Importance of Being Ernesto," you might say.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.