At least he looked the part. Light shirt, dark chinos and sharp trainers, Ernesto Valverde is already taking cues from his predecessor at Barcelona, Luis Enrique, but as he watched on from the Santiago Bernabeu touchline on Wednesday evening there was very little to suggest the Catalans are set for a similar era of success under their new manager.
Indeed, Valverde already has the feeling of Barca’s very own David Moyes, struggling to evolve and adapt a team that had won it all before his arrival. Much of his focus on Wednesday, having watched Real Madrid toy with his Barcelona side in a 5-1 aggregate win, will have fallen on the left side of the front three. That is now known as the Neymar hole.
This is where the recently departed Brazilian was so important to the Catalans, stretching the pitch, creating space for Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and others through the middle. If Barca are to stick with the same ideology and strategy, they need a direct replacement, someone to perform the same role. Against Real Madrid, Valverde tried both Andre Gomes and Gerard Deulofeu there. The final scoreline tells you how successful those experiments were.
And so the transfer market, it is hoped, will provide the answer, although a scattergun approach has been adopted in the post-Neymar age. If Valverde is Barcelona’s Moyes, then Philippe Coutinho is their Juan Mata. Just as Man Utd signed the Chelsea playmaker for a club record fee, purely to save face as much as anything else, Coutinho is almost certain to pitch up at Camp Nou as something of a stylistic misfit.
It’s not that Coutinho is a bad player, far from it. He’s one of the most exhilarating talents in the Premier League, befitting of the sort of stage Barcelona can offer him. But he’s not the man to replace Neymar, to hug the touchline on the left wing. If anything, he is the heir to Andres Iniesta, but does Valverde see him as that?
Replacing Neymar is, of course, a near impossible task. The Brazilian’s influence at Camp Nou was significant, getting the best out of those around him while also carrying a goal threat of his own. There are few, if any, players available on the market who fit that bill. But they can do better than Coutinho. Barca should be looking to Christian Eriksen.
The Dane might not boast the Latin flair of someone like Coutinho, but he would be a better fit for Barcelona than the Liverpool playmaker. If Valverde wants someone comfortable with playing the short game, Eriksen is that player. If he needs someone adept at interchanging across the frontline, Eriksen is that player. And most crucially, if he requires someone proven at playing on the left, stretching the pitch and drifting inside to help out in the main of the attack, Eriksen is, once again, that player.
He was one of the most productive players in the Premier League last season, at the heart of everything Mauricio Pochettino has achieved at Spurs over the past two years. There can be no doubts over Eriksen’s top level quality, proving time and time again that he is capable of providing a game-changing moment. Imagine what he could do alongside players like Messi and Suarez. There might yet be another level for him to reach.
The fact that Eriksen’s name hasn’t even been linked with Barcelona only underlines how muddled the Catalans’ transfer strategy has been this summer, signing Paulinho for €40 million this week. But while the signing of the Brazilian midfielder will solve nothing at Camp Nou, they should pull a little more on the Spurs thread until they get to Eriksen.