TAKING STOCK OF THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY FROM SETIÉN’S CATALAN VOYAGE
Enrique “Quique” Setién Solar’s arrival at Barcelona was a chaotic one. Ernesto Valverde was fired after 3 years at the club, following the 3-2 defeat to Atlético Madrid, which saw them knocked out at the semi-final stage of the Supercopa despite dominating the game. This happened during mid-season in January, usually an odd time to switch managers. For Setién, it is the first time he has managed a so-called “big club”. The Cantabrian manager has been at the helms of clubs such as Las Palmas and Real Betis with reasonable success, but managing Barcelona is a whole different ball game. Sure, he was chosen as he is a devout follower of Cruyff’s philosophy, but will he be the right fit in the short- and long-term? That remains a question only time will be able to answer. However, the first two months of Setién’s tenure allow us to take stock of improvements and things to work on.
If there’s one thing that has improved under Setién, it surely is off-the-ball movement. Under Valverde, Barcelona failed to press effectively. This is due to the fact only 8 out of the 10 outfielders pressed, with Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez relieved of such duties. For Setién, however, the defense starts with the forward line. While he hasn’t had the chance to play the injured Suárez yet, Barcelona clearly press more under Setién, as the team plays more as a block, advancing with extreme organization and cohesion akin to that of a military unit. This has resulted in Barcelona being more dangerous from the outset, as the Blaugrana win the ball back quicker, a tactic essential to create panic within opposition ranks. This has been a throwback for the Barcelona faithful to the heyday of a certain Pep Guardiola side, which suffocated other teams with their intensive press.
Changes have been noticed under Setién’s tenure on the ball too. Being a pure Cruyffista in his soul, it is not surprising to see Setién emphasizing on playing out from the back, just like the Barcelona and Ajax legend had done in his time. Barça tend to attack through the centre, either with quick passing thanks to easy combinations, or due to overcrowding the central zone from a three-man defence to a two versus three situation in attack. Furthermore, ter Stegen’s involvement on the ball has drastically evolved. While he has rightfully earned praise for his quick reflexes which make him an incredible shot stopper, he had been pretty reserved on the ball during the previous regime. With Setién, the German ‘keeper passes more, playing both long and short balls, as he is seen as a free man by Setién. If the forwards are the first line of defence, the goalkeeper is seen as the initiator of attacks.
Setién’s system has also benefited players on an individual level, with Sergio Busquets shining the brightest. Under Valverde, Busquets didn’t light up proceedings because of the context in which he was in – with Rakitić and Vidal doing any justice whatsoever to Xavi and Iniesta in the same positions, the Spaniard had started to decline. However, under Setién, the midfield maestro has regained his prominence, with Frenkie de Jong taking Rakitić’s minutes, and Arthur taking the other spot when fit, two players that have risen to the challenge.
Whilst the Brazilian is still adapting to Europe’s physicality, a notch higher than in his homeland, he along with Piqué has been amongst those who have benefited most from Setién’s tactical changes.
Unfortunately, all isn’t perfect, and Setién has missed a trick or two. Chief among those has been the use of the wings. Setién has failed to use width and depth in order to kill deep blocks, as a consequence of a lack of natural wingers. With Carles Pérez loaned to AS Roma and Ousmane Dembélé injured, the Cantabrian isn’t exactly spoilt for choice. Ansu Fati and Álex Collado haven’t received much game time given their youth, and Braithwaite has been doing well, but only arrived three weeks ago. That has left Griezmann or Vidal to play as wingers, which has thus far proven to be a fallacy. Consequentially, deep blocks have been effective against Setién’s Barcelona, as width and depth are given up by the opposition, Barcelona being unable to take advantage of it.
Moreover, Setién has failed to fulfill his promises over La Masia. Setién had won over the hearts of many culés at his presentation, stating the importance of the youth, praising the academy for producing the likes of Riqui Puig, and the aforementioned Collado and Fati. This had of course motivated many supporters, as the youth academy had lost much of its importance under Luis Enrique and Valverde, with Sergi Roberto being the sole La Masia graduate to break into the first team in the last five years, despite the club’s claims that the academy is always at the core of its vision.
However, Fati hasn’t featured much under Setién apart from the odd start and a handful of cameos. Collado, despite being called up relatively often, has only played a total of 8 minutes. Puig, for all the hype and the praise showered upon him by the gaffer, has suffered from the same fate.
Even worse, Setién has failed in his team selection, as he has claimed to be a perfectionist. Fans had expected him to play the Busquets-Arthur-de Jong triumvirate, or even Puig repetitively, but that hasn’t been the case yet. Vidal, Rakitić and Griezmann have failed to impress and are still getting regular minutes, despite Setién’s claims that his team selections are based on meritocracy. As a consequence, Barcelona has had a few worrying displays, such as the clash versus Napoli or the one against Valencia.
Food for thought
However, Setién’s tenure cannot be judged within the circumstances he is in right now. In a squad of ageing players, Suárez and Dembélé’s lengthy lay-offs and Messi’s recurring issues with his left thigh mean that his hands are tied. Add to that the inexplicable decisions of the board to loan out Aleñá, Todibo and Pérez, which have compounded problems.
Setién’s tenure has been a good one for now, as the Santander native has solved many problems, but for now, there is a lot to work on. The Catalan giants’ new manager shouldn’t be judged this season yet. Coming into a club aiming to win the treble with a thin squad isn’t easy for any manager for sure, much less when he is handed the reigns mid-season. His overall impact on the team has been positive, with room for improvement. Only time will tell whether Setién is the right man for the job.