It’s probably too late for Quique Setien to salvage his future as Barcelona manager, but at least he’s returned to the principles that made them appoint him in the first place. Graham Ruthven explains all…
Visions of what happened to Barcelona at Mestalla back in January surely flashed through Quique Setien’s mind as he picked his team to face Real Valladolid on Saturday. That was the last time the Catalans had played with a back three. That was the last time they had played in the way Setien had become renowned for during his time at Real Betis.
It was on the basis of his tenure at Real Betis that Setien was even appointed at the Camp Nou in the first place. Many scoffed at Barca’s decision to hire a coach whose best ever league finish only saw him reach the not-so-heady heights of sixth, but it was Setien’s footballing philosophy and outlook that seemingly made him a good fit.
Setien’s advocacy of a back three and a 3-5-2 shape was central to this outlook, so it was unsurprising when he implemented it in his first three games as Barca boss. The 2-0 defeat to Valencia in only his third game in charge forced a rethink from the 61-year-old, though, and a more conventional back four was quickly reverted to.
With this decision, Setien was forced to compromise in a way that went directly against his values. Barcelona wanted him for his idealism and yet it took only a few weeks for him to become a realist, just as Ernesto Valverde had been before him. Reports at the time suggested Setien had been spoken to by senior figures at the Camp Nou, urging him not to rock the boat too much too early.
Messi, Vidal - Valladolid-Barcellona - Liga 2019/2020 - Getty Images
Image credit: Getty Images
This, of course, raises the question - why did Barcelona appoint a coach like Setien in the first place if they were unwilling to give him the freedom to make his mark? Such behind the scenes politicking only added to the notion that Barca purely hired Setien to appease fans who demanded a restoration of the club’s historic identity. There was never any true willingness to back this up with any real changes.
For weeks, Setien’s glazed gaze hinted at a man already resigned to his own ill-fate. Back-to-back draws to Celta Vigo and Atletico Madrid last week all but handed Real Madrid the Spanish title, making Setien a managerial dead man walking. Speculation has already started to swirl over who might replace him for the start of next season, with Ronald Koeman emerging as a favourite.
But something has changed in both Setien’s demeanour and his decision-making since then. Against Villarreal, just days after the home draw to Atleti, Barcelona turned in their best performance of the season. Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez were deployed as a central front two, bringing the Frenchman in off the left wing so he could have a genuine impact on the game. Lionel Messi supported the duo as a deep playmaker. It worked.
The 1-0 win over Espanyol was less emphatic, but Setien’s new-look front three still combined to score the winning goal - Griezmann’s backheel flick set up Messi whose shot was tucked away by Suarez. This clearly emboldened Setien to make one last throw of the dice and against Real Valladolid the back three, and the 3-5-2 shape, was back.
Barcelona got the job done in a 1-0 win over relegation-threatened Valladolid, but their performance was far from flawless. A draw might actually have been a fairer such was the dominance of the home side in the second half, but this was at least a Setien-kind-of team in the way they were set up and approached the match. If the Barca manager has indeed been served an ultimatum, he’s made clear he’s going to use these final few games to finally show what he’s all about.