The news of Ernesto Valverde’s departure from the position of FC Barcelona head coach was received very positively by fans across the globe. It is no secret that the vast majority of the Barça faithful were desperate for a change in personnel. Barcelona were quick to announce the appointment of Quique Setién as his replacement.
Setién’s name was being murmured aplenty by fans and pundits alike as one of the ideal men to take charge of the Catalan side. The thought process behind his appointment however cliched it may sound, is that the identity of Barça on the pitch had to be restored. Setien is a staunch believer in the philosophies of Johan Cruyff, those of positional play(Juego de Posicion) with a heavy emphasis on productive possession. He has been in charge for 3 games now and as of last night, the productivity in possession is still yet to be seen completely. But we will get to that later.
This is the biggest question floating among those who are not very familiar with his body of work. Truth be told the reasons are finite. However, the foundation of those finite reasons seemed convincing enough to put Setién at the helm. In 2018, the Cruyff Foundation presented Setién with the award of ‘Most Cruyffist Manager’, an annual prize imparted to coaches who embody Cruyff’s principles through the teams they manage. It sounds vague, but the reasoning behind the award is perhaps much clearer. Ernesto Valverde lost only one home game in charge of Barça. That loss came against Setién’s Betis side in November 2018. An enthralling 4-3 victory for Betis, which smeared Setién’s name all across the front pages. Spanish newspaper AS wrote:
“It has been a long time since we saw a team treat Barcelona like this, using their own weapons against them.”
This ideology has run through all the teams Setién has coached. Even at Las Palmas before that, he had ingrained in his players the belief in the philosophy and the aesthetic that exceeded the results. His emphasis on attractive football is apparent through the highly passionate speeches he makes. Everything he has done in his coaching career takes roots in the philosophies he learned as a player by playing against Cruyff’s teams.
“I knew it was possible to play better football but I didn’t truly know how until I played against Johan Cruyff’s team. I saw expressed there the way I felt about football. Everything I am as a coach I owe to chasing the ball against Barcelona.”
Now, the responsibility of bringing back this very identity that moulded him as a coach hangs on his shoulders. There are plenty of positives to this appointment. Setién led Las Palmas to their highest finish in 40 years, he led Real Betis to their highest finish since 2005 and to the Copa del Rey semis and he was the only manager to beat Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid in the same spell and he did it in style. Additionally, he places a huge emphasis on cultivating the youth. And thanks to La Masia he has a plethora of talented gems to choose from.
But there are two sides to every coin.
Massive Challenges Ahead
Quique Setién does not have a very vast CV as a manager. As a result, he does not have any big titles or honors to his name either. And now he is at the helm of a team that takes titles for granted. Not just that, but he also has to manage the egos and personalities of some of the biggest names in world football. What’s even worse is that these very superstars have become incredibly complacent. Their places in the team unchallenged, their laziness irrigated, their every whim catered to.
Barcelona’s problems exceeded beyond the lack of a clear game plan and managing those problems might be too big of an ask for someone with as little experience as the Cantabrian coach. It is possible that the issues have been wrongly diagnosed by a board that has also been under immense scrutiny.
2 weeks into Setién’s tenure, there are already plenty of talking points.
His first game in charge against Granada was incredibly positive. Barcelona kept 82.6% possession and were smart with it. They were constantly hemming Granada into their own half and creating dangerous situations. A 76th winner from Lionel Messi showed glimpses of the Barça everyone knows. A superb, quick passing move to cut through the defense finished off in one touch. Setién provided promising signs of what was to come, putting faith in Riqui Puig who was eventually integral to the goal, much to the delight of Cules around the world. They were pushing high up the field when not in possession and pressing hard to win the ball. The performance was still lacking in some aspects and Setién knew it. He said in the post-match presser that he saw “some of the things he wanted”.
A midweek game against UD Ibiza followed, where a subpar pitch at best was accompanied by a subpar performance. But the lineup was fairly experimental on poor conditions.
We finally come to the eyebrow-raiser. A 2-0 loss against Valencia at the Mestalla. One that could have easily been 3-0 or 4-0 in favour of ‘Los Che’. Barça came out looking very sharp, committing every single outfield player into the opposition half and pressing with real intent to win the ball back. However, a12th-minute error from Pique resulted in a penalty for Valencia. Luckily it was saved by Ter Stegen, who spared Barça’s blushes on numerous occasions. As has been the case for the past couple of years and a half, Barça were rattled and seemed to lose their way, which led to long, tedious spells of sterile possession with no intent.
This was only made worse by the absence of a #9 to break the linearity and make runs in behind to create half-spaces. Luis Suarez’s lengthy injury layoff will likely prove to be a problem. The biggest problem was that Barça had players to progress the ball but very little in the way of end product, which seemed to change as soon as the dynamic Arturo Vidal came in. Yet, the defensive frailties remained. Setién was quick to recognize this as he rightfully said that Barça played a lot of “meaningless passes” and that there is a lot to work on.
What does this mean for the future?
Quique Setién is not going to overhaul this side and fix all the problems within 3 games or for that matter even within 3 months or possibly the entirety of this season. He has not even had enough time to test out the lineups and formations that might work out best. He will also need time to adequately transmit his ideologies and establish a rapport with these big-name players. In an ideal world, he would have gone into this campaign with a preseason under his belt but he now has the responsibility of steadying a ship stuck midway through a storm.
He still has his own flaws to iron out with the experimental 3 at the back formations and realize that he may have to switch things up to get the best out of this squad. It is as Setién said:
“The formations can change, but the philosophy can’t.”
Reactionary fans, rival supporters and critics have already begun blasting the team and the coach saying that it was a senseless appointment but that is how it works when people judge games based on scorelines. The internal mess at FC Barcelona will take a while to be sorted out. As the old adage goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Quique Setién has the ideology, the passion and the squad at his disposal. There is nowhere to go but up. From walking among the cows in Liencres to the Camp Nou, he has come a long way. And while Setién is by no means perfect, he will certainly make this team a lot better than it has been recently. Dealing with the pressures of the board and dressing room at Barça is no easy task, but an eloquent communicator and an astute tactician like Quique Setién is definitely among the better candidates to deal with these pressures. Keep your eyes peeled because there will be a lot of positive things to look out for. Patience and belief are key, there will be plenty of time and scope for criticism all the time but let us reserve that for when it is due.