A fan of playing football the Barcelona way, Johan Cruyff’s pupil that never was and possibly the man to bring back Barcelona to Barcelona, Quique Setien has had a lot to do. But, eleven games in the present while the verdict is still out, we look at just what Setien has done in his dream job.
At Real Betis, 'El Maestro' Setien told their higher-ups “Why do you want me? You've seen how my teams play, how I play. Are you clear this is what you want? Do you agree with this or not, because be clear that I am not going to score. If not, you better get another manager.” That was him at Real Betis and nothing has changed since. His refusal to be baited by journalists and various other media sources about Lionel Messi’s war with Eric Abidal has been impressive but the football the very experienced La Liga manager has played has often shocked supporters and critics so far.
Because while he is a possession-based, attacking style of play manager with a desire to dominate both the ball and the opponent, creativity has gone down a touch, partly because of the system and partly because of the players that are at his disposal. Injuries haven’t helped the 61-year-old and as the saying goes “when it rains, it pours” and pour it has for Setien's Barcelona. He’s had to make do with losing Luis Suarez, then losing Jordi Alba (who played half-fit in El Clasico) and a host of other injuries. However, they’ve made do and they’ve made do rather brilliantly, thanks in part to a slew of Lionel Messi things.
He’s managed fourteen goal contributions in ten games, blanking in just three games and all three have seen Barcelona walk away with next to nothing. It's essentially Messi doing Messi things and leading the Blaugrana to glory but them failing to recuperate and adjust when he's not doing Messi things.
It’s one of the reasons why the general atmosphere at Barcelona is rather low and a large reason for that is because of exactly what is happening in and around the club. But issues with the club president, the social media attacks, the social media war between Sporting Director and El Capitan, and a myriad of other problems haven’t crept in onto the performance on the field.
If anything, thanks to Setien’s ignorance or rather attempt to ignore everything barring the football, Barcelona have actually improved. They’ve started playing better football, moving the ball around and dominating teams more, but more importantly, they’ve started playing something that somewhat resembles the Barcelona way of football. Factors outside Setien’s control hasn’t helped him so far but with the team, he does have, the Spaniard has done well.
He’s kept the Barcelona 4-3-3 formation in play, more than not as a transitional base with the team switching in and around that when in transition. The traditional three at the back that he loved to use at Real Betis with it being his predominant formation in Setien’s final eighteen months at the club. But with Barcelona’s serious lack of defensive pace and their lack of a proper box-to-box midfielder, it has seen the 61-year-old stick to either a 4-3-3 or a 4-3-1-2 after the failure with the 3-5-2 system in play.
But even that hasn’t been the case once the teams are out on the field with them slowly moving into the modern era with a five up top when they have the ball. It’s seen both Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann push inside with Ansu Fati or Arturo Vidal staying out wide on one side with Jordi Alba or Junior Firpo pushing very high on the other side. It’s also seen the ol' Sergio Busquets play a more holding role just in front of the two centre-backs with the extra midfielder playing just ahead of him in a more box-to-box role. That’s been either Frenkie de Jong or Arthur Melo but neither combination has worked because neither man is a box-to-box midfielder.
They’re both better at holding the play rather than running through although Arthur is not bad at the role. While the Brazilian is better at creating moves rather than finishing them, he can cause problems with his runs into the box. But De Jong cannot do the same with Ajax boss Erik ten Hag even criticising the way that Setien has been using the Dutchman.
Given that de Jong played in a rather Busquets-esque position at Ajax, his role at Barcelona has been far more in an advanced position, playing often as a playmaker and filling in the gaps left by the striker from time to time. That has effectively negated what the Dutch midfielder can do on the field and it has been Setien’s biggest problem especially since De Jong has been a team player and willing to do what is needed for his side. However, their biggest issue is not De Jong but creativity in the middle. Despite having a catalogue of talented midfielders on their books, Barcelona have no proper creative attacking players.
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 throughout life, through my career.
Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong are best at driving the ball out from the deep, Arthur prefers to dictate play from deep, Arturo Vidal and Ivan Raktic are ageing midfielders who are well past their best with Riqui Puig not yet ready to play consistent first-team football. It’s left the onus on Lionel Messi to create and then finish moves which he has done with eleven goal contributions in nine games. That’s seven goals and seven assists with no other player even coming close to what the Argentine has created.
Ansu Fati and Arturo Vidal are next best in each category with two goals and two assists respectively and it’s caused a lot of problems. That is something the club hopes that Martin Braithwaite solves especially with Luis Suarez out injured. But the biggest positive from the former Real Betis man’s new shape and style of play are that it has seen it change from a 'depend on Lionel Messi to do everything' to a 'Messi only has to produce the final pass.' That will eventually hurt the club once a team man marks the Argentine out of the game, like the game against Real Madrid when he was heavily marked by the Brazilian Casemiro. But for now, thanks to Messi being one of the best passers in world football, the offensive system has worked well despite the lack of goals scored from anyone other than the number ten.
Conversely, defensively Barcelona simply does not exist, especially under Quique Setien. Or at least, they haven’t been forced to defend too much in the 11 games so far with the La Liga giants dominating the ball more often than not. Only Real Madrid, Valencia and Real Betis have caused them problems which has seen Barcelona concede more often than not. For Setien, however, defending starts from the front. It’s high pressing and pressing the moment they lose the ball which is counter-pressing. Effectively, that means once a side loses the ball, they start to press against the ball to prevent a counter and try to get possession to counter the side that just tried to counter them.
It’s worked to a certain extent excellently, although as Real Betis showed (via Nabil Fekir’s goal) Barcelona still struggles against teams that thrive on the transition and the world has exploited it. Valencia did it rather brilliantly in Setien’s second game despite the fact that the new boss set up a 3-4-3 to combat a rigid 4-4-2 that Valencia set up and yet it never worked. Instead, with the hosts (Valencia) defending with a narrow 4-4-2, it saw Barcelona struggle offensively and instead allowed Valencia to pick them apart on the transition and counter-attack brilliantly.
Barcelona did drop into a 4-5-1 to help counter that but unfortunately, the quick transition and the fact that neither Pique or Umtiti were up to mark did not help their cause. That was the case against Athletic Bilbao with them scoring their lone goal after winning the ball back and then quickly breaking forward and scoring, via a deflection. Real Madrid also did the same and exploited the right-hand side with a simple overload and then a poor defending allowed Vinicius Junior to fire home the opener. That is despite Barcelona using a 4-4-2 to defend against the Los Blancos’ wide threat which the away side (Barcelona) did well to stifle in the first half.
Sometimes, how I feel about football, it doesn’t matter if a team wins or loses. What attracts me to a match is whether the teams play well, that there are footballers, that it goes beyond the result.
Defensive breakdowns and individual errors in the second half caused problems and saw them concede two goals. That’s been another massive problem with the La Liga giants not adapting to the present and still living in the past. It’s seen them suffering immeasurably with losses to Liverpool and AS Roma on the bigger stages and both have come against teams that exploited their weakness against transition. Setien has tried to stifle and change that but it’s come to varying success which only time and a complete overhaul of their backline will help change that.
It has to be the right move because the club has a variety of issues to solve. The centre-backs are just one small problem, with modern full-backs causing defensive issues, a lack of an impact player off the bench, the fact that the club has no striker barring an ageing Luis Suarez and an Antoine Griezmann that isn’t Antoine Griezmann. Then there’s the trying to make Sergio Roberto play as a winger despite the fact that he was once a central midfielder whom you transformed into a right-back. Trying to fit square pegs into round holes simply cannot work at a club as big as Barcelona are and it’s probably why the El Maestro is struggling to muster the most of this team.