Does Setien’s appointment make this Season a free run for Barcelona? Surely not…
The writing had been on the wall for some time. Barcelona’s collapse in Rome in April 2018 was the first sign of real cracks under Ernesto Valverde, and another capitulation, this time against Liverpool last May, was all but proof that the manager’s time with Barcelona had an expiry date, and it was closing in fast. Many were surprised he managed to start this season, and others called for him to go after a more-than-shaky autumn period.
But defeats in the Eternal City and Merseyside weren’t the final straw, neither was a collapse at Levante nor a listless draw at home to Slavia Prague – in October and November respectively – enough to do for the former Athletic Club gaffer. Instead, it was a 3-2 loss in the semi-final of the Sportswashing Spanish Super Cup that was the final act. On the mere face of it, it looked absurd, not to let Valverde go, but at that time and after that result. But the obvious reality is that steps had been put in place before that defeat, especially considering how badly Barcelona handled the whole thing in terms of bringing in a (potential) replacement.
Xavi looked like he’d say yes, then he said no. Ronald Koeman would have said yes, but not now, so, no. Thierry Henry was apparently contacted as well, and Mauricio Pochettino would obviously rather work in a farm, so that wasn’t happening. So, it was fourth-choice, Quique Setien, the former Betis and Las Palmas manager, who joins until 2022.
One of the criticisms labelled at Valverde was how he didn’t quite fit Barcelona’s identity, and how his team never quite played the Barcelona Way – no real fluidity, or beautiful transitions in attack, or the rest of the Cruyffian values the club hold dear. Setien certainly fits that mould, with his Las Palmas and Betis sides having played silky and delightful football – the last team to win at the Nou Camp was his Betis team in November 2018, in a 4-3 victory that frankly flattered the hosts.
Setien’s mould of play usually seems to reach its peak somewhere between the end of his first season, and the middle of the second, as collapses that led to exits from both the canary club and Betis showed, but the caveat to that is that he’s never quite had the best players to implement that system with longevity. At his previous clubs, it always seemed like those players were playing above their means, and would eventually drop off. At Barcelona, it looks like it will be different, with players much more equipped – technically and physically – to carry out his methods.
So, that’s the plan; for Setien to restore an identity that was birthed by Johan Cruyff in the last century, and executed so gorgeously by Pep Guardiola in the last decade. Of course, they’ll have to have patience as well as faith in the new man, these kinds of style need a proper pre-season, and achieving it mid-term is quite an ask, and even for a board with as chaotic a recent past as Barca’s, they should recognise that.
But that poses another question; does that make the rest of this season a given? The need to give Setien time will mean that defeats shouldn’t be looked at with too much scorn – work in progress and all that – and failure to win the league title or Champions League this term should be by no means a disaster. But this is Barcelona, here, and it should be stressed that they are currently top of the Spanish top flight.
This new system – even if it’s one that some of the players have previously played in – will require new fitness levels, something that can’t be delivered this term, with the season beyond halfway. So, there’ll be flaws, chinks in the armour for opponents to get at; higher defensive lines to exploit, attacking overloads that’ll result in vulnerability against counter-attacks. And while some of the players have played in this sort of system before, they haven’t really done it since Guardiola – there were glimpses under Tito Villanova, tiny bits under Tata Martino, while Valverde’s immediate predecessor Luis Enrique favoured a more direct approach. So, even those who’ve previously participated in this kind of system will need to relearn something they’ve likely unlearned.
Hence, teething problems will occur. And in a league where the margins are usually fine and narrow, the room for slip-ups are hardly existent; one is almost one too many and two is akin to surrender. So, what happens if there’s one slip and Barcelona miss out on the title? For the criticism labelled at Valverde’s feet, he delivered two league titles in two years, and currently leaves having taken the side top of the table once more.
So, will a season without the league title still seem like progress and moving in the right direction? Guardiola once said at Barca, it’s not just about winning, but winning in style. Valverde was faulted for achieving one without the other (yes, there were European collapses, but he still delivered two league titles and a Spanish Cup in two full seasons), so what if Setien also manages one without the other, albeit with the roles reversed?
Of course, this is all hypothetical. Barcelona could go on to bag the league title, they’re still more than good enough, and some players have played this way before and won’t need that much acclimatisation; they could even finally do it in the Champions League after five years since their last triumph. But it’s a question worth asking.
For all the talk of patience at Barca, and the fact that things don’t really get toxic at the Nou Camp (it hardly did under Valverde), sneers still develop quickly, especially in the age of sensationalism, narratives and headlines. Setien will need time to bed in, but are Los Cules are ever really in a position to give clean slates or free runs?
Kunle Ajao121 Posts
Kunle Ajao is a football writer and columnist for spotkick. Having made a toss of himself trying to actually play the game, he knew better and got a pen instead of boots. Spends a bit of his time with the game, and thinks he's a bit like Sid Lowe. He's not