Athletic Club enjoy another spell of Ernesto Valverde’s quiet-but-successful leadership

Understated, underrated but never underachieving, Ernesto Valverde’s impressive return to LaLiga Santander has served as a timely reminder of how good a coach he has always been.

Johan Cruyff was always good at spotting a talented tactician and he detected early on that Valverde, one of his former charges at FC Barcelona, had the makings of a great coach. “He is one of the most outstanding and most promising coaches in Spain,” the Dutchman said when Valverde was taking his first steps in management with Athletic Club.

Almost two decades on and Valverde is back where it all started, now in his third stint in charge of Athletic and leading his beloved side back towards the top of the LaLiga Santander table. With practically the same squad which finished eighth last season, Valverde has overseen an impressive transformation at San Mamés, taking 18 points from their first 10 games of the season to sit sixth in the LaLiga Santander table.

Next up is FC Barcelona, where Valverde enjoyed his most successful spell as coach in terms of trophies but where he may feel he has a point to prove after being let go by the Catalans in 2020, even though they were top of LaLiga Santander.

Two LaLiga Santander titles as coach of FC Barcelona

Valverde had the unenviable task of taking over at Barça just as they had surrendered the 2016/17 LaLiga Santander title to Real Madrid. This was a period, lest we forget, when Gerard Piqué declared after a Spanish Super Cup defeat to Los Merengues that it was the first time in almost 10 years that he felt Barça were inferior to Real Madrid.

But, under Valverde’s quiet but firm leadership, Barça quickly re-asserted themselves as the top side in Spain, romping to consecutive LaLiga Santander titles in 2017/18 and 2018/19, leaving Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid in their wake, as well as lifting the 2018 Copa del Rey and reaching the final in 2019.

They were even on the brink of finishing Valverde’s first FC Barcelona season undefeated in LaLiga Santander, only losing in their 37th match of the campaign, against Levante UD.

Valverde’s downfall was the Champions League, with the club struggling to digest shock second leg defeats to Roma and then Liverpool to exit the competition in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively after squandering healthy first leg advantages. But, perhaps FC Barcelona only realised how good things were under Valverde once he was gone. They have not won LaLiga Santander since he was fired in January 2020.

Since departing the Camp Nou, Valverde has harboured no grudge about the circumstances in which he left the club. Instead, he kept a low profile, enjoying time away from the game and focusing on his other passion, photography, including hosting exhibitions of his artwork in Bilbao and San Sebastián.

Valverde’s return to management

Now, it is heartening it is for all lovers of Spanish football to see him back in the game and back with Athletic Club, who have once again got their sights set on qualifying for Europe. Los Leones have not competed in Europe for five seasons, after having become a regular fixture in continental football when Valverde was in charge.

He guided them to UEFA Cup qualification in his first season as first-team coach in 2003/04, taking them in to the Intertoto Cup the following season. In his first season back for a second stint in 2013/14, he performed a sporting miracle by leading Athletic Club into the Champions League for the first time in 16 years and then into the Europa League three years in a row.

European football is where Valverde belongs. He took RCD Espanyol all the way to the UEFA Cup final in the 2006/07 season and enjoyed countless memorable European nights as coach of Olympiakos, who he also led to three domestic titles in as many seasons.

Wherever he goes, Valverde guarantees consistency and success. FC Barcelona’s loss is now Athletic Club’s gain and their paths will cross again on Sunday.

MG Team

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