‘Quique Setien is the manager of Barcelona’, words not dreamt of by anybody other than Setien himself until Monday night.
The appointment of the former Las Palmas and Real Betis manager caps off a shambolic few days in Catalunya, with the club dashing around for Ernesto Valverde’s replacement before even telling the man himself that he was being replaced. And then failing to get them.
That’s the first thing about Setien’s tenure at Camp Nou – everybody knows he wasn’t the club’s first choice. Or their second choice, or third. That Xavi and Ronald Koeman were sounded out before him is no secret, but they both turned down the chance to come before the summer. Mauricio Pochettino wasn’t keen either, leaving Setien – out of work since leaving Betis under a cloud in the summer – as the fourth choice. At best.
There are a few reasons for that. Setien has never managed a club bigger than Real Betis, who have a large and passionate fanbase but are the second biggest team in Spain’s fourth biggest city. They haven’t won a league title since the 30s, and have been in Segunda twice in the last decade.
To give the reins at Barcelona to somebody that inexperienced at the top level who has also never played or coached at the club (a key consideration) is unusual. Xavi, Koeman and Thierry Henry, who was also nudged about the possibility of a role at Camp Nou, have all been a part of the club. For a singularly insular institution, Setien is an outsider.
However, he’s the closest thing to a pure Cruyffist working in Spanish football today, he’s an unflinching ideologue who believes ‘the Barcelona way’ is the correct way to play football and demands the world from his players. When he won at Camp Nou in 2018, he left the stadium with Sergio Busquets’ shirt from the match, signed.
New Barcelona manager Quique Setién explains his tactical setup from Real Betis’ 3-0 win against Espanyol from 2018, explaining how he overcame the visitors’ low block with a patient passing approach. pic.twitter.com/32wDTUk1RV
— The Coaches’ Voice (@CoachesVoice) January 14, 2020
He may not have inherent Barcelona DNA, but he’s worked for his entire career to build a passable replica of it. His appointment is as symbolic as much as anything else, representing a complete 180º turn from Valverde’s unflashy pragmatism, an attempt to get the fans behind the team after two and a half seasons of unhappiness.
Setien’s spell at Betis may be the best lens through which to view his appointment in Catalunya. It was chaos. In his first season, his side scored 3+ goals in eight of their 38 league games, and conceded 3+ nine times. Four of those occasions overlapped, a 4-4 draw away at La Real, immediately followed by a 6-3 defeat at home to Valencia. They won the Seville derby 5-3 at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, and lost 5-3 at home to Real Madrid.
In a lot of ways, his second season was less successful. Betis crept into the top half of the table at the end of the season with a less rambunctious style of play, hamstrung by the fact that they played 14 games more than the previous season across Copa del Rey and Europa League runs. That wasn’t necessarily the problem. The problem was that he lost the fans, sticking dogmatically to his preferred style rather than allow any kind of traditional pragmatism into the game. That preferred style is fun as hell though, and Barcelona will almost immediately become a better team to watch.
If he sees out the two and a half years on his contract, it will be a miracle. He will fall out with Bartomeu, he will fall out with the board, he will fall out with the fans. However, he will do everything he can not to fall out with Messi, who he adores. Sergio Busquets’ role will be tweaked to play better to his strengths in pro-actively winning the ball and distributing it. Junior Firpo, someone who blossomed under his management at the Benito Villamarin, may finally get a consistent run.
82 – Since the start of 2013/14 season, Quique Setién in charge of Real Betis registered the highest possession figure in a LaLiga single game (82,4% – Real Betis v Leganes). Owner. pic.twitter.com/l0rfKovWjf
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) January 14, 2020
He also arrives to a crisis. Luis Suarez, the man without whom Barcelona’s system barely functions, is out for more or less the rest of the season. With the club already looking for his long-term replacement, his advanced age and now-established history of knee injuries, the Uruguayan’s career at the club may be over.
Ahead of Real on goal difference alone after the winter break, Setien now has to get a new striker, integrate him, beat a resurgent Real Madrid and probably win a cup competition for his first half-season to be a success, and to settle things down. That’s really hard.
If this all sounds a little chaotic, zigging and zagging between positive and negative, between enthusiasm and caution, that’s because…that’s Setien. You’ll get t
For more from Chris Deeley, follow him on Twitter at @ThatChris1209!