Chess analogies follow Quique Setién around. The man is a fanatic and plays whenever he gets the chance. He has played against world champions Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov (we don’t know who won). Earlier in his career those analogies dealt with how he might make tactical choices in order to both play the style her preferred and nullify a more talented opponent. Now, as he takes over at Barcelona, the game has changed. Rather than starting as an underdog in need of a strategic advantage, Setién has the most powerful piece in the world. Games spin around Lionel Messi him like the globe and he’s the axis. The force of his sheer existence is enough to beat teams. The question is, can Setién adjust. It’s possible to imagine that Setién managing Messi could lead to a footballing revolution at the club of the likes we haven’t seen in a decade. Or it could go horribly wrong. With their new manager, there likely won’t be any in between.
Barcelona were humiliated against Liverpool last season. That 4-0 defeat, the effects of which are still propelling Klopp’s side into the stratosphere, had the exact opposite effect on Barcelona. Coupled with the Roma defeat the year before, there is a sense that the players are just treading water until their next meltdown. The wound suffered at Anfield hasn’t healed enough yet to assess the damage of the scar because with every limp performance, it gets ripped open again. It’s painful, yes, but it’s also a reminder that it’s there and it happened.
Bartomeu was right; the team and club needed a ‘change of dynamic’ as he said countless times on Wednesday. The manner in which they changed that dynamic was shambolic and will probably have consequences in time to come but they did need a change. Barcelona might well flame out of the Champions League again but at least they can’t be said to have been naive. They tried, at least, to avoid it.
A lot of possession. His Real Betis side was third in the league for two consecutive seasons with 83% and 86% passing completion statistics. Last season, which was his last at the Benito Villamarin, his side could not manage to create chances though and had just 2.08 clear shots per game. That was one of the worst figures in the league. They were slow, cumbersome and lethargic on the ball. What’s worse is that Setién was incapable of changing, the die had been cast in his head and the more the fans groaned at every sideways pass, it seemed, the more delighted they extracted in doing it.
The malaise that set in during his final year at Real Betis was the same as the one that had set in at his previous job with Las Palmas, where things had turned sour over contract talks. At Real Betis when they kept failing in the same way, Setién was unwilling to change his ways. That year, they were behind just Barcelona in possession but their pace to goal was the lowest in the league. They actually became hard to watch. At Las Palmas, Setién played an almost comical style with expected goals conceded totals that were almost farcical but he did make them better than the sum of their parts. At Betis, their xG for and against swung turbulently from week to week, with bright and exciting performances early in his tenure, but by the end it often all just seemed quite dull.
It has almost become a game cast as myth. The 3-4 win for Real Betis was the moment murmurs of Setién’s fit as a potential Barcelona manager started to be heard. It doesn’t say much for the competitiveness of the league that ‘the’ win, singular, is still spoken of as though it is the most impossible of things.
It was a battle of styles. And styles make fights. This is a similar game to what Setién had gotten involved in many times before at Betis. The number of games with ridiculous scorelines is astonishing. They conceded possession to Barcelona with just 44%, a number Setién would surely cringe at when looking back regardless of who it’s against. But they had 15 shots and 8 of them on target, which was more than Barcelona’s 5.
Setién played a 3-5-2 and they crowded the middle. Marc Bartra applied the most pressures in the game with 30 and Andrea Guardado was second with 28 followed by Sidnei. It’s hard to tell from this exactly how Setién will play with Barcelona but it gives a glimpse into the areas of the field he thinks need to be contained. Even against Barcelona, in a match where his side was unable to control the ball, Setién still emphasized midfield, asking his players to get on the ball and create, rather than bypassing the area of the pitch which by all rights Barcelona should have controlled. It seems almost certain that at Barcelona he will exploit his midfielders technical excellence and look to get Busquets, Arthur and De Jong involved early and often.
It’s hard to think of any players who won’t flourish under Setién. This is mostly because, Barcelona have very good players all across the pitch. One notable exception might be Arturo Vidal. Vidal’s ability to wreak havoc on the pitch remains his most valuable skill, but it will only be of use to Setién if he has evolved his playing style from his time at Real Betis.
One of the issues At Barcelona was Valverde’s unwillingness to play Arthur, the next anointed young midfield star. There were injuries too but by and large, Valverde was not willing to place his faith completely and utterly in the Brazilian. Now though, Setién might be willing to pay the trifecta of De Jong, Busquets and Arthur in the middle. Remember, it was under Setién that Fabian Ruíz got his move to Napoli as one of the premier central midfielders in LaLiga. Lo Celso also impressed massively under Setién as he moved to Tottenham in the summer of last year – he scored 16 goals last season. Who will be Barcelona’s version of Ruiz (radar below) or Lo Celso. It can be Arthur if he wants it to be.
One issue for Setién was his goalkeepers. By his second season, Pau Lopez was getting the vast majority of the minutes, and he was asked to do a tremendous amount of work with his feet, even thought that was not necessarily his calling card. Ter Stegen has already tweeted that he is uber-excited to get back to work. If you consider what Neuer did under Pep a revolution, Setién could revolutionize the position again with his own German shot-stopper. Looking at the passing stats from the 2018-19 season, in fact, ter Stegen is the only player who passed it shorter and more accurately than Setién’s keeper. Combine the managers monomaniacal focus on possession with his knew keepers well established skills, and who knows what could happen.
Setién was strangely non-committal when asked about Messi in the press conference to present him as the new manager. He had once said he would cry when Messi retired but now he said to admire is one thing, to coach him is another and he will have to wait and see how each player adapts to the context he places them in. He had, of course, very kind words for the Argentine and there’s an underlying assumption in everything he said that Messi is the best but after years of Valverde relying to an almost comical degree on the world’s best player, what happens next might depend more on his teammates under Setién.
Valverde rarely turned to the academy. Riqui Puig is said to be ready and Carles Aleña had to leave on loan to Real Betis to ensure his development continued with consistent minutes. “I don’t know if you have followed my career but this club has an incredible academy. I don’t know about specific players but they will train with us. They will get the chance if they deserve it,” said Setién. And he added a number of younger players to his first proper training session on Wednesday.
Another big question that needs to be answered is what happens with Griezmann and who replaces Suarez. Under Setién, Betis and Las Palmas often played with anywhere from zero to three strikers. There was the a variety of formations and tactical changes tailored to the specific game. Setién played coy when asked about his long term solution. “We have an important player out but we have to think about the players who are here and the important thing is the philosophy.”
Setién brought Loren Moron up from Betis’ reserves and he was the player with the highest xG in his final season. Sergio Canales, who had his best season in years under Setién, and Lo Celso were next. The two attacking midfielders often sat behind Moron and were sublime in their respective roles. While he’s not wedded to any specific formation, Barcelona’s classic 4-3-3 seems where he’s most likely to start if he has the players. He did, however, mention 4-4-2 in the press conference and he’s opted for a 3-5-2 when necessary at Betis also.
We could talk about what Setién might do until the cows come home but, as Setién said, it all depends on how he views the players and how they respond to the context he puts them into. Or, as he put it, “I am very clear about things, I listen to everybody but it’s very difficult to take things away from me that I truly believe. I am the first to defend what I do. I’m clear about this.” Barcelona were plodding along under Valverde and it certainly feels like a fresh dawn under their new manager, who is as idealistic and convinced of his style as the legendary Dutch master Johan Cruyff. Cruyff, of course, is transcendent, less a former player and manager now, and more the embodiment of an abstract concept. He is used as a unit of measurement. How close or far away a manager is aligned to that style can make or break a coach and decide how much leeway he is given. Setién is what Barcelona fans have been crying out for. Now all he needs are results.