?Barcelona sealed back-to-back La Liga titles on Saturday, with a 1-0 win over Levante steering the Catalans on course to retaining their crown with three games to spare.
However, there is also much to suggest that they are still not at their optimum level by the club’s own lofty standards.
With a nine-point cushion between Valverde’s side and second-placed ?Atletico Madrid in the La Liga table, and with three games still to play, Barca have retained their title with about as much comfort as could be expected of them.
However, last season the Catalans finished top with 14 points separating them from Diego Simeone’s side in second, though with a current tally of 83 points and three games still to play, they can still come close to matching last season’s total of 93.
Perhaps more tellingly, Barca have scored 86 goals and conceded 32 in ?La Liga this season, compared to their 99 scored and 29 conceded in the last term. It is conceivable that the Catalans could still match last season’s scoring exploits, however based on the evidence of Saturday’s 1-0 win over Levante, that appears unlikely.
Valverde opted to leave ?Lionel Messi on the bench for Saturday’s clash at Camp Nou, but the Blaugrana inevitably required the introduction of their Argentine talisman to turn home the goal which sealed the three points.
In a match in which both Messi and fellow all-conquering stalwart Sergio Busquets were left out of the starting XI, it was telling that Barca could not produce their emphatic best to retain their title with greater aplomb.
Instead, it was the likes of Philippe Coutinho, ?Ousmane Dembele and Arturo Vidal who were tasked with sealing the deal from the start, and the expensively-assembled back-up brigade struggled to deliver.
Over the course of the season, it has generally been the ‘old guard’ at the wheel of Barca’s title success, with the likes of Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and ?Luis Suarez, as well as Busquets and Messi, who have been at the heart of the Blaugrana’s best football.
It is perhaps unsurprising that those more experienced and well-versed in Barcelona’s style and traditions are the ones leading the way once more this season, but it is more disappointing that the recent influx of high-expense additions have struggled to do likewise.
Coutinho and Dembele in particular arrived at Camp Nou with much expected of the attacking duo, but as yet they have failed to justify their £142m and £135m transfer fees respectively.
During Pep Guardiola’s golden era of success in Catalonia, it was inconceivable that the club would hinge their contingency plans on such eye-watering investments.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s £57m move to Camp Nou in 2009 was largely the exception. After one season in which the Swede failed to make the grade, Guardiola parted ways with his superstar signing and returned to basics.
The signing of David Villa did not come cheap, as the Spaniard cost €40m to sign from Valencia, but he was made to fit around the star core which was fronted by Messi, and which was a product of Barca’s own La Masia academy.
Other significant signings such as Cesc Fabregas and ?Alexis Sanchez came and went at reasonable expense, each failing to displace the homegrown spine of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Pedro, as Barca maintained success through their own means.
The arrivals of Fabregas and such others were more for decorative purpose in those times, adding further power to an already star-studded squad, but the imports were more a reflection of Barca’s ability to attract Europe’s top talent than a necessity in their bid for progression.
Now, with Xavi, Iniesta and co long out of the picture, Barca have found that there is finally a need for contingency and new blood to maintain their style and methods for success, and that has been the problem.
Aside from the high-expense struggles of Coutinho and Dembele, the recent signings of Malcom, Arturo Vidal, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Jeison Murillo have all smacked of a club running out of ideas and lacking direction in the transfer market.
Unsurprisingly, none of Barca’s more recent attempts to pad out their squad with greater depth have had any telling impact at Camp Nou. That latest cluster of signings were questionable for a club of such stature from the outset, and none of them have justified the club’s business.
Ernesto Valverde does not have ?Barcelona in his DNA as much as Guardiola did. The 55-year-old had a brief two-year spell at Camp Nou during a playing career in which he was essentially a journeyman of Spanish football, and his coaching philosophy does not reflect that of a Barca man through-and-through.
The Catalans’ boss opts more for pragmatism and flexibility in his coaching approach, and that does not particularly suit a club with such deeply-ingrained ideals and uncompromising philosophy.
Though they remain one of the best footballing sides on the continent, Barca’s current side tends to lack the expert execution of the ‘tiki-taka’ style which had made them so formidable under Guardiola.
Signings of players such as those recently acquired largely reflects the shift away from traditions at the Camp Nou, and Valverde must return to those basics of the club’s long-standing success if he is to squeeze the very best out of his side and make Barcelona truly dominant again.
The likes of Vidal, Boateng and Murillo must be moved on in the summer to pave the way for the club’s latest crop of prodigies. Home-grown players such as Carles Alena, Riqui Puig, Moussa Wague and Jean-Clair Todibo are ready and waiting to make their mark at the club.
Just like Messi, Xavi and Iniesta before them, they are the future and true identity of Barcelona, and must be given their chance to restore Barcelona to their brilliant best.