What Quique Setien brings to Barcelona

And what challenges he faces in the hot seat at Camp Nou, where both style and success are expected

January 24, 2020 11:13 pm | Updated January 25, 2020 07:26 am IST

IBIZA, SPAIN - JANUARY 22: Quique Setien, Manager of FC Barcelona looks on prior to the Copa del Rey Round of 32 match between UD Ibiza and FC Barcelona at Estadi Municipal de Can Misses on January 22, 2020 in Ibiza, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

IBIZA, SPAIN - JANUARY 22: Quique Setien, Manager of FC Barcelona looks on prior to the Copa del Rey Round of 32 match between UD Ibiza and FC Barcelona at Estadi Municipal de Can Misses on January 22, 2020 in Ibiza, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

“I only guarantee one thing when I take over a new club: that we play good football,” Quique Setien said when he was presented as Barcelona’s new manager last week. “I don’t have winners’ medals or a huge CV, just a commitment to an idea.”

Fortunately for Setien, his idea of interpreting the game and Barcelona’s football philosophy share a common source: Johan Cruyff, one of the most influential figures in the sport’s history and the man credited with turning Barcelona’s fortunes around during his tenure as coach/manager between 1988 and 1996.

Setien was a technically proficient midfielder at Racing Santander when he encountered Cruyff’s Barcelona. “You played against them, and you spent the whole match running after the ball,” Setien wrote in The Coaches’ Voice . “I said to myself: ‘This is what I like. I would like to … know why this is happening.’ How can you get a team to have the ball permanently, so that the opponent is running after it for the whole match? From then on, I started to make sense of what I had felt through my career… To understand what I wanted … when I became a coach. I wanted the ball.”

It was the success Setien had in implementing this philosophy at Las Palmas and Real Betis that got him on the shortlist for the job once Barcelona’s top brass had decided to sack Ernesto Valverde. According to Spanish media reports, there was a growing feeling among the club’s movers and shakers that the team had stagnated. Despite back-to-back LaLiga triumphs, it was felt that the side wasn’t playing the eye-catching football it’s famous for. The Champions League defeats to Roma and Liverpool were seen as evidence that Valverde couldn’t take the club to the next level.

The 61-year-old Setien has been tasked with restoring Barcelona’s identity as a side that dominates the ball, dismantling the opposition with slick passing and intelligent movement. Does he have what it takes to do this? He certainly has shown the ability to get his teams to play any side off the park — his Real Betis outfit bossed Barcelona at Camp Nou and Real Madrid at the Bernabeu last season. A lot of the football Betis played in those wins against Spain’s most expensively assembled sides — 4-3 over Barca, 2-0 over Real — was dazzling.

What’s more, Setien managed this with footballers who aren’t as gifted technically or been trained in this philosophy for as long as Barcelona’s.

Coaching a progressive style is a challenge even at the big clubs. Jose Mourinho, for instance, reasoned that football is won by the side which makes fewer mistakes: since the side with the ball was more likely to make a mistake (“whoever has the ball has fear”), it made sense to “renounce possession” and “reduce the possibility of making a mistake”. So, for Setien to have had success coaching an attacking, possession-heavy style at clubs that couldn’t afford players with the quality to consistently pull it off says something about his managerial capabilities.

Significantly, the results at Las Palmas and Betis suggest that his coaching made a difference. He took Las Palmas’ reins in 2015 with the side in the drop zone. He guided them to 11th and 14th before leaving. The side was relegated the season after his departure. He took charge of a Betis side that had finished 15th and drove it to sixth in 2017-18! The 18 wins that campaign are a Betis record for a 38-game season. Last season saw a drop in league position, but the side still finished 10th, higher than its average (13th) in the five seasons before him.

Setien’s vision has already excited Barcelona’s players — early reports suggest that they enjoy the creative, energetic training sessions and the manager’s hands-on approach, a change from Valverde’s methods. But craving the ball and having it is only one part of the equation. What the side does when it loses possession is just as important — Setien will face the task of convincing his players to sacrifice themselves for the team and press with high intensity.

How a powerful dressing-room, with many players in their 30s and reportedly not happy being challenged, reacts to being asked to work harder off the ball will determine how successful Setien is. Although he is known for being a charismatic communicator, he hasn’t managed players of this stature before; he can’t afford to lose the dressing room, but he can’t allow the players to dictate terms either.

Setien hasn’t been subjected to the extreme pressure the job at Barcelona exerts: winning trophies isn’t enough; they have to be won in style. Dealing with it at the age of 61 can’t be easy. He will also have to navigate Barcelona’s boardroom politics. With a presidential election scheduled next year, his future is even less certain. But any fan of the beautiful game will hope Setien is given time — because if he gets it right, the football has every chance of being breathtaking.

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