You will be hard-pressed to find a Barcelona fan that isn’t happy about the sacking of Ernesto Valverde. Valverde was appointed in the summer of 2017 after four respectable campaigns with Athletic Bilbao where he finished fourth, fifth and seventh twice. Barca won the title in 17/18 losing just one match in the league and then triumphed again in 18/19 wrapping the league up with a handful of games to play. Judging Valverde’s time at Barcelona is difficult. On one hand, he won back to back leagues and won a Copa Del Rey. On the other hand, his side blew multiple 3 goal leads in the Champions League knockout stages, had an embarrassing loss in last year’s Copa Del Rey final, played some not so exhilarating football and often had a lack of direction or plan. As for the 19/20 campaign, the Catalan giants are again top of the Spanish La Liga table (Tied with Real Madrid on 40 points) and won their Champions League group.
Here’s the issue, you see managing Barcelona isn’t all about trophies, they are important, for sure, but so is maintaining the club’s reputation and philosophy and Valverde could never find the perfect balance. The now-former Barca Manager was never truly accepted or welcomed by the Barca fans and it became evident that Valverde was working on borrowed time.
Everyone knew that when Valverde was appointed, the style of play he used at previous clubs was not aligned with how Barcelona typically play or how the team’s fans want to see them play. Valverde had a reputation for improving defences and playing direct football, not the free-flowing, ‘tiki-taka’ way that Barca is accustomed to. In the end, this was the cause of his downfall. I cannot bring myself to blame Valverde for his side blowing a 3 goal lead to Roma, a side that Barcelona was much better than, nor can I blame him for his side doing the exact same thing 12 months later against Liverpool, a side that was missing two of their three best attackers. I can blame him for making it feel like a chore to watch a team with Lionel Messi, Phil Coutinho, Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba, Ousmane Dembele, Frenkie De Jong, Antoine Greizman and many other talented players. Too often it seemed that Barcelona had one strategy, give it to Messi and hope he does something incredible. When Messi was not in the lineup, it became obvious how one-dimensional Valverde’s side really was, there was no inspiration, no runners in behind and no cohesion. Was it all his fault? No. Was it time for a change? Certainly
Insert Quique Setien. Immediately after sacking Valverde, Setien was announced as the new manager of FC Barcelona. If I were a Barca fan, my reaction would be “At least it isn’t Xavi?”. Setien has been linked with the Barca job for a while now due to the way he likes to play. Setien’s CV is nothing to write home about, he has managed four seasons in La Liga, two with Las Palmas and two with Real Betis. His best finish was sixth in 17/18 with Betis and his worst was fourteenth in 16/17 with Palmas. Setien’s sides have a clear identity, that much cannot be argued. He rarely ever changes his set up and cannot be considered as an in-game tactician. He likes to play expansive, aesthetically pleasing football, something that will endear him to Barca fans, but his defence is usually extremely shaky. In Setien’s last season with Betis, the 18/19 campaign, his preferred formation was a 3-4-2-1, but he also used a more attacking 4-3-3. Betis finished tenth with a very strong squad but a poor defensive record; allowing 52 goals in 38 games, the worst out of any team that finished in the top ten. They only scored 44 times and their XG of 51.68 didn’t represent anything spectacular.
Setien’s philosophy shares many similarities with the “Cruyff philosophy” that Barca fans want to see and that is really the only reason he got the job. Setien plays out of the back no matter what the situation and plays a high defensive line. Setien’s teams are at their most dangerous when the side’s spacing is good and the players are playing a very fast pace on the counter. However, Setien still plays a very patient style, waiting for the right moment to find a gap and exploit it.
What should Barca fans expect?
Goals, on both sides, but also exciting football for the first time in nearly three years. Setien might not work out (more on that below) but it will be fascinating to see his philosophy employed on a team with so much attacking talent. This quote from Setien really sums up his ideas.
Valverde never got the best out of any of Barcelona’s biggest transfers. Griezman, Coutinho and Dembele specifically all played the worst football of their careers under Valverde. He tried to fit “square pegs in round holes” and it obviously didn’t work. Giving players like De Jong, Dembele and Griezman more freedom will be beneficial for the team and that should be Setien’s number one goal. Taking a load off Messi’s shoulders will be Setien’s biggest goal, something Valverde never managed. Messi is 32 and although he is still the best player in the world, it is obvious to anyone that watches that he can’t do it all by himself everytime. Setien’s tactics are reliant on every individual in the side performing instead of just one person doing it by themselves, so Messi should find more time and space.
Defensively it will be a “tire fire” at times, but under Valverde, Barcelona’s defence was never that strong, to begin with. They conceded more goals in the two and a half seasons with Valverde (88) than they did in the three seasons before he was appointed (87). A three at the back with an ageing Gerrard Pique, a subpar Clement Lenglet and an injury-prone, past his best Samuel Umititi will be interesting to watch. But, on the other hand, putting Jordi Alba and Nelson Semedo in wing-back roles is the best way to get the most out of both of those players. Barca fans are going to get what they want, now we’ll have to see if it’ll work. Again, it will take a team effort for Setien’s tactics to work, everyone will have to buy in.
Will it work?
I don’t think it will translate into European success, but it will look good. Setien will do a lot of good things at Barca, He will take a big load off of Messi’s shoulders, he will get the players excited to play football again, he will ignite the fanbase and it will be fun to watch. But, I can’t honestly say with confidence that Barca is now back to their best. Setien has never managed a club anywhere close to Barca’s size. He hasn’t won a single thing of note, he has never managed a match in the Champions League and his teams allow goals for fun. If Valverde was judged purely on trophies, it would be hard to argue in favour of sacking him, he won the league both years he was there! But he and his team failed in Europe, they were humiliated, humbled and embarrassed in back to back seasons and they did it playing dreadful football. Barca’s side is more suited to a team managed by Setien than Valverde, but Valverde’s side is much more suited to winning trophies. It all depends on how you measure success and it seems that most Barca fans really just want to enjoy watching their team again.
It is hard to blame them, but personally I enjoy winning trophies and I can’t see Barca doing much of that with Setien as their manager.