Barcelona sits in first place in La Liga and has not relinquished its lead since mid-October. While Real Madrid is tied on points, Barca’s goal difference is superior.
Barca is still alive in both the Champions League and the Copa del Rey and has good prospects in both. A treble – only the third in the club’s history – is still a possibility.
Yet on Monday, the club fired manager Ernesto Valverde.
The same Valverde who won La Liga in both of his seasons in charge – averaging an enormous 90 points and losing just four games total in the brutal Spanish circuit – and, in fact, did the domestic double in his first campaign at the club.
Last year’s push to the Champions League semifinals – when it squandered a 3-0 first leg lead to a miraculous Liverpool – was the club’s deepest European run since 2015.
Yet none of that was apparently good enough. Valverde became the first Barca coach fired in midseason since Louis van Gaal, whose side was miles out of first place.
And there’s certainly ample evidence that this is not a vintage Barcelona team, and it wouldn’t set the world alight this spring. After all, the Atletico defeat, in which Barca gave up a late lead, should be seen against the context of a run of four league games that produced just one victory. Draws with a rising Real Sociedad and Real Madrid were understandable; the one with cross-town rivals Espanyol much less so.
The performances have been shaky. The whole thing looks frail. And now that superstar captain Lionel Messi is 32 years old, with an awful lot of miles on his legs in a decade and a half as a first-team regular, the reliance on him is heavier than ever. He remains utterly dominant but seems to have a little less help with each passing month – made all the worse by Suarez’s long-term knee injury. Budget-busting forward signings like Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann have, for various reasons, all disappointed. And the back line has been leaky for years.
Barca has issues. No doubt at all about that.
But are they really Valverde’s fault?
He isn’t responsible for the club’s transfers. He can’t help the fact that his spine of Messi, Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets consists entirely of 30-somethings who, again, have played a lot of soccer in the last decade – long club seasons exacerbated by their national teams’ deep runs at the summer tournaments.
Just as it isn’t Valverde’s fault that so many of the replacements and successors signed to ease the burden have proved underwhelming, miscast, not ready or simply no better than the incumbents. It’s hard to refresh the core of an all-time great team, one that’s been on a trophy bender for 11 seasons – producing eight league titles, six Copa del Reys, three Champions Leagues and three Club World Cups. And at a certain point, it becomes harder and harder to surprise anyone tactically with a team that’s been playing more or less the same way – with only minor tweaks and adjustments here and there, depending on the coach – for over a decade.
Yet replacing the manager is always easier than the introspection required to diagnose the real internal issues: the erratic leadership, the turnover in the front office, the failed transfer policy, and a pipeline from a prized academy suddenly run something close to dry.
The problems run deep. And that’s clear in the manner in which the club went about finding a successor to Valverde, once it decided to ditch him. The flirtation with club legend and former midfield orchestrator and captain Xavi Hernandez was very public, although he apparently decided to stay at Al Sadd to finish out his inaugural season in management there. Dutch national team manager Ronald Koeman, also a onetime club favorite as a player, seems to have rejected the job as well, in favor of sticking with Oranje through Euro 2020 this summer.
The fact that word spread so quickly and widely about the search for a new manager when the old one was still running practice as recently as Monday morning speaks to how things were done at the club behind the scenes – or very much out in the open, as the case was this time.
After relieving Valverde of his duties, Barcelona announced Quique Setien will be installed as his replacement.
The 61-year-old has never coached a club bigger than Real Betis and has a career winning percentage of 37 percent in 500 games – although he won plaudits for Betis’s attractive playing style last season.
But he will work with the same team as Valverde did. With the same aging players, the same flawed squad. Under the same problematic club management. And deal with all the same problems.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
More from Yahoo Sports: