Neymar exit has made Barcelona stronger as a team - Marc-Andre ter Stegen
BARCELONA -- Marc-Andre ter Stegen has told ESPN FC that Barcelona's response to losing Neymar last summer has helped them become an even better team this season.
Barca's prospects for the season took a hit in August when, after seeing Neymar move to Paris Saint-Germain in a world record €222 million deal, they were beaten 5-1 by Real Madrid over two legs in the Spanish Super Cup.
However, they have defied expectations since that defeat, losing just once in their last 38 games, remaining unbeaten in La Liga and reaching the final of the Copa del Rey for a fifth consecutive season.
Ter Stegen acknowledges the importance of Neymar during the Brazil international's four years at the Camp Nou, but says Barca's new signings -- Paulinho, Nelson Semedo, Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho -- have made the Liga leaders a stronger team overall.
"The quality of Ney, you can't explain it..." the goalkeeper told ESPN FC at Barca's training base in San Joan Despi. "Because he was super important for us, as a person [and] in the team, as a footballer.
"Now, everyone needs to understand what he did because maybe he wants to win something else, also personally. His decision only he knows but in the end we had to compensate all this and this is not easy because he had so much quality, but we did it in a different way and now we have a very, very strong team.
"I think we've got some new players who have made us even stronger and hopefully they feel good and comfortable in the team and they adapt very fast. But at the same time we want to give them the time, Dembele didn't play very often because he was injured [and] Coutinho just came. We always need to give them time and be patient because they are young and they have some great years ahead."
Barca could end up spending over €300m on Dembele and Coutinho if all the add-ons are met, but neither player has yet made a significant impact.
Between them they have made just 15 appearances, the majority as substitutes, with Dembele missing most of the campaign injured and Coutinho only joining in a club-record €160m deal last month.
Both players are now fit and available for selection, though, and ter Stegen expects them to play an important role as Barca continue to compete on three fronts this season.
"Coutinho's very calm I think," the Germany international said. "He's very grounded and a good person. He can easily concentrate now on football, you see his quality and you need to give him time to adapt to the style of Barca, the way how we play and [it's] the same for Dembele.
"For Coutinho it is a bit easier as he is speaking Spanish already, Dembele needs to learn the language as soon as possible, to feel good in the locker room with all his colleagues. We want to give him a good feeling, so they can show everything they can."
However, perhaps the biggest change at Barcelona in respect to last season has been the appointment of Ernesto Valverde in place of Luis Enrique. The Catalans are yet to taste defeat in La Liga under their new coach, who has made them more solid in defence with a 4-4-2 formation -- they've conceded just 11 goals in 24 league games this season.
Valverde joined Barca having previously coached in Spain's top flight with Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol, Villarreal and Valencia and that has enabled him to come in with a different perspective which, along with his honesty, has been one of the biggest differences, according to ter Stegen.
"[Valverde] has been very important because we are playing how he wants us to play," the former Borussia Monchengladbach keeper said.
"He is very straight with what we are doing wrong or right. From my point of view, he always tries to see it from another direction, not just of a coach who is always seeing his team playing or adapt or change small things, he tries to see it as another coach or [he thinks] 'how would you face Barca?'
"This is good because he was at Bilbao before and he knew exactly where we were struggling sometimes... and we were always struggling against Bilbao! It was very interesting to see how he was seeing us and maybe at the beginning this was a bit difficult but then step-by-step we have seen what he wants us to do and now we are doing what he wants us to do."
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.