The Spanish tactician joined the LaLiga club in January 2020 after the departure of his predecessor Ernesto Valverde.
Quique Setien has come under a lot of scrutiny after his failure to guide FC Barcelona to a title win. As expected, he has received plenty of criticism and there are understandable rumours that his job might be under threat. Appointed in January as a replacement for Ernesto Valverde, Setien was tasked with the job to get the side playing a more enthralling brand of football that more accurately resembles the ethos and principles of the hallowed institution.
Despite the club occupying top spot in the table, Valverde was relieved of his duties following a 3-2 defeat to Atletico Madrid in Saudi Arabia, where the supporters booed the manager throughout the game.
With factors like the damaging defeats in the Champions League, patchy away record and shift to a more pragmatic style of play already making his position at the club a vulnerable one, the disappointing trip to Saudi Arabia ultimately forced the board’s hand in bringing down the axe on the manager.
As a result, Quique Setien was brought in by the Catalans after being impressed by his work at Real Betis and the aesthetically pleasing football played by his sides suited their vision and the club’s philosophy. Now implementing a completely different system requires time and patience. The players are already used to a certain way of playing, have specific fitness levels and are accustomed to a particular intensity during training. Hence, bringing new ideas, trying to get them through to the players and executing them in a short period of time is a big ask.
One can tweak one or two things in the functioning of the side but overseeing a complete stylistic change comes with it’s own complications. These were the difficulties facing Quique Setien when he took over the team. The Spaniard aimed at deploying a more possession-based system, which bore the principles and fundamentals of Cruyffian football.
On paper, he seemed everything that Barca envisioned in their ideal gaffer but things haven’t quite gone so smoothly. The Spanish giants are always expected to dominate possession, however, as was expected with their new gaffer in the dugout, they completely hogged the ball, weren’t giving it way like a child with his favourite candy in his hand.
The number of passes they exchanged per game witnessed a rise. The early signs looked promising although there was also a belief among the level-headed observers that the complete overhaul will take some time and might witness a few bumps along the way.
It didn’t take time before familiar problems began to resurface. Despite enjoying a lion share of possession, the Spanish outfit couldn’t translate it into regular creation of chances and were overly-dependent on the ingenuity of Lionel Messi to bail them out. The lack of cutting edge or enough dynamism in the final third or in midfield made it increasingly difficult to open up low blocks.
Opposition teams were comfortable sitting deep with two backs of four and would patiently wait for their chances on the counter-attack to hurt the Catalans. With an aging squad and lack of genuine speed on the wings, they struggled to create width and hence, were in some ways, predictable and easy to contain if you somehow managed to smother the threat of Messi.
To make things worse, apart from the issues on the pitch, there was a bit of friction growing between the manager and the squad in the dressing room. It is understandable when new methods don’t result in instant success, doubts and apprehensions develop in the minds of the players. This was visible at Barca where the team members began to question the decisions of their boss, which rarely ends well in football.
Besides after dropping points in a 2-2 draw against Celta Vigo in a vital away game, Luis Suarez appeared to take a dig at his manager, stating that, “I think that’s why coaches are there, to analyse those situations. We’re there to do our best on the pitch. Away from home, we’re dropping important points that we didn’t usually drop in other seasons.”
Quique Setien quickly downplayed those comments made by his star striker, suggesting that the players and the coaching staff might not always see eye-to-eye on every matter but they share a good relationship. That might very well be the case but another incident in the same game makes it hard to believe that things are as harmonious as the 61-year-old wants the wider public to perceive.
During the cooling break in the match, video footage showed Messi twice ignoring the instructions of assistant Eder Sarabia, who is apparently not a popular figure behind the scenes. This further fuels rumours that the players aren’t happy with the tactical decisions made by the head coach, leading to mounting tension in the side.
Moreover, his questionable substitutions in terms of the timing and change in personnel has baffled the supporters whilst the slow, pedestrian, and predictable gameplay has irked countless fans. This is his first assignment of such stature in his managerial career and the Spanish coach has found it testing to manage the big egos that tend to occupy the dressing room of gargantuan clubs like Barcelona.
For all his limitations, it is important to note that he was roped in midway through the season when the games usually come in thick and fast. To get the passing patterns, pressing triggers, and other intricate mechanisms in place perfectly, Quique Setien needs to spend an ample amount of time on the training ground, getting his methods drilled into their psyche, which can be done duly in a pre-season, something he didn’t receive.
It would have been incredibly naïve to expect him to bring about an immediate transformation. Additionally, the pandemic and the subsequent congested fixture schedule are in no way ideal scenarios for a new manager to find their feet at a club of this size. This is even before considering the political fiasco at boardroom level at Barca, the horrendous transfer activity and the decision-making in general. Following the resumption of football, Setien has also provided playing time to talented youngsters like Ronald Araujo and Riqui Puig, which highlight his willingness to give youth a chance.
Hence, despite the rocky start to life at Barcelona, it would be a sagacious choice to give the manager at least one more season to sign the players that he requires to make the system work and subsequently give the players enough time to absorb his ideas. For once, the decision-makers at the club need to come to a decision keeping the long-term benefits in mind rather than the short-term gains, and whatever call they ultimately make will highlight where their priorities genuinely lie.