Ernesto Valverde’s long awaited departure and the consequent appointment of Quique Setien reignited the somewhat lost excitement amongst the hearts of Barcelona fans.
The critics along with the Barca faithful have argued that the traditional philosophy of Barca was getting obliterated under Valverde.
FC Barcelona is, as it is claimed to be, ‘mes que un club’, which translates into ‘more than a club’. The immense historical importance combined with the cultural heritage that is laden with FC Barcelona makes it much more than a football club. It is a symbol for the people of Catalonia which has and still gives them hope.
The rich legacy of FC Barcelona also includes a certain way of playing football. Consequently, it is not only important for a coach to constantly pile up victories at a club like Barca but his team should also be able to satisfy the supporters with their style of play.
Setien is a stern follower of Johan Cruyff’s philosophy of beautiful football. His work at Real Betis and Las Palmas is a testament to that. In 2015 when he joined Las Palmas, they were set on the path of relegation. However, he guided them to a 11th position finish. During his stint there, he ended up winning 26 out of the total 78 matches, meanwhile acquiring, on an average, 1.22 points per game.
At his next club, Real Betis, he was highly applauded for the brand of football they played. In the 2017-18 season, he led Betis to their first top 6 finish ever since the 2004-05 season and they qualified for the Europa League. The 60 goals that they scored that season were more than what the likes of Atletico Madrid and Villarreal managed even though they finished above Betis. Under Setien's reign, Betis won 37 out of the 97 matches that they played and maintained a healthy average of 1.46 points per game. Considering the stature of the club, these numbers are dignified.
Setien believes that his team should play well, control the ball and entertain the crowd. His appointment indicated a resolve of those running the club to return to the ways of Barca.
In his first press conference, he commented,
“I only guarantee one thing when I take over a new club: that we play good football.”
This filled the Blaugrana fanbase with optimism. The more radical fans might even have romanticised him as a magician who would immediately make everything fall back in place.
The first three games under Setien were against a mid-table Granada side, third tier UD Ibiza and the resilient Valencia. One might characterise these games as anti-climatic but a common trait in all these matches had been a high ball-possession percentage for Barca.
Against Granada at home, they were able to keep their opponents quiet and in the end win the game by a single Leo Messi goal. Setien's side had 83% of possession, which is the highest for the club ever since 2011, a time when Barcelona was under Pep Guardiola's management and was arguably the best team of the planet. Going along with this, Barca also made 1005 passes. It was only the third time 1000+ passes were made in La Liga since the 2005-06 season.
Throughout the current season, Barca had struggled away from home and nothing changed in the away games at Ibiza and Valencia. In Ibiza, against a Segunda División B side, Barca were able to complete the comeback in the last minute and win the 1-2 but against Valencia at Mestalla they suffered heavily and deservedly lost the game 0-2. Notably, in these games too the Blaugrana had 78% and 74% share of the possession respectively.
Initially, as might be expected when there is an overhaul of the prevailing system of playing, regardless of having a great chunk of the possession, Barca's buildup was not coherent. Trends in these games showed that they lacked creativity in the final third. Their gameplay has been passive, boring instead of expressive and attacking. Even Setien acknowledged this flaw after the Valencia game.
“We don’t like to have the ball just for the sake of having it. We need to do something with it,” he stated.
The defeat which was the heftiest and would sting the most in the short managerial span of Setien transpired against Athletic Bilbao in the quarter finals of the Copa del Rey. Playing at San Mames, not only did Barca hegemonised the ball but also dominated the tempo of the game, more so in the second half. Clear cut chances fell to Antoine Griezmann and Leo Messi but there was no breaching the goal of Unai Simon. 11 shots were fired by Barca with 4 being on target. Credit must be given to Bilbao for remaining in the game which they eventually clinched with a 93rd minute Sergio Busquets own goal.
At a club of Barca's stature, pressure can mount rapidly on a new manager. In the wake of these volatile conditions was the next La Liga game against Real Betis played. The happenings of this game could also be perceived as an extended metaphor for the mayhem that had been brewing in the club from the time since the disrespectful manner in which Valverde was sacked to the verbal clash between the club's sporting director, Eric Abidal and the club's captain, Leo Messi.
This game which ended 2-3 in Barca's favour was downright chaotic. It included a VAR penalty, phases of dominant, assertive play from both sides, a player getting sent off from either of the teams, a wonder strike from Nabil Fekir, a hat trick of assists for Leo Messi and a comeback away victory for Barcelona.
These results, however, shouldn’t just be interpreted for their immediate effects and their surface value. They are also indicative of deeply penetrated scars that formed during Valverde’s era. Even though Valverde was able to secure wins in the league, he severely disrupted the Barca way of football. From Setien’s point of view, the side he inherited from Valverde would be tactically dysfunctional.
Hence, we shouldn’t be too critical of Setien yet. He has been appointed in the middle of the season and needs to be given time to work his way with the squad. Having a thin squad mounted with massive injury struggles to the star names also mustn't be disregarded. The players, too, should be given enough time to understand the philosophy of Setien and reach the demanding fitness levels that he expects from them. The words of coach need to be etched into the minds of his players only then can they bring about the desired effect. This process is a long term one, but there is evidence enough to say that the process has already begun.
This thought also echoed in Setien's words after the Spanish Cup loss. “Taking into account what has happened to us in other games from home, we have taken a step forward in terms of what we have to improve,” was his statement after the game.
Lately, Setien has also said, “When you come to a new team there's always uncertainty about how they're going to respond. There's always that stimulus and you can see they're very keen. I've been very surprised by the attitude of the players, how accepting they've been of new ideas. I'm happy with everything: the work, the capacity the players have to understand everything you tell them. It has been wonderful.”
It is always a good omen when the players are ready to learn and adapt. Setien is also working to improve the work ethic of the team and often takes multiple training sessions in a day.
The larger process that Setien is likely to follow would make Barca efficient at positional play. The use of numerical advantage at the sight of possession would become vital for opening up spaces. The role of pivot, that is, Sergio Busquets, in front of the three man defense (when in possession) has evidently already enhanced. In the game against Granada, he completed a record breaking (current season) 145 out of the 157 passes that he attempted. If things go as per plan, Barca would become better at resisting their opponents pressing and on the other hand, apply pressure in a more organised manner when not in possession. Slick passing and pretty goals might also become a regular feature.
It is true that demands at a club like Barca are huge and it is the crunch time of the league season, yet Barca faithful need to think not just in the terms of immediate future. They need to be enduring for this project to work. For Setien's system to articulate into application, the patience that is shown in a 30 pass long tiki-taka move also needs to be shown by the fans in trusting him. It shouldn’t be harmful to believe Setien on face value when he said, “I think you will notice the changes - I hope so - but please remember it's not going to happen overnight.”