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How Is Barcelona Playing Under Their New Manager?

| January 30, 2020 2:46 am PDT
Analyzing Barcelona's Tactics Under Quique Setien

It became increasingly evident for anyone who has followed Barcelona’s fortunes this season that the team needed a change. The Blaugrana still contested the top spot in La Liga and successfully navigated through the Champions League group stage, but their playing style was beginning to suffer under the leadership of Ernesto Valverde.

In fact, there were rumors that Valverde would be dismissed back in the summer of 2019, but Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu insisted that he is still the man for the job.

The coach did manage to secure a couple of La Liga titles and a Copa del Rey trophy but had largely moved away from the team’s soccer philosophy, and every little setback was immediately put under the microscope.

When Atletico Madrid dumped Barcelona out of the Spanish Super Cup earlier this month, the front office decided it was time to act.

The team was actually playing one of its better games against Atleti, right up until they conceded twice in the closing ten minutes. It was yet another frustrating turnaround under Valverde, which brought back memories of the catastrophic breakdowns against AS Roma and Liverpool in previous seasons.

A lot of familiar figures were rumored to be among the potential successors, but Bartomeu and his team decided to appoint Quique Setien. The name might not ring a bell for many soccer fans, but there are clear reasons why the Barcelona board went after him.

He has since enjoyed a mixed start to his tenure at the club. I will later break down those performances in detail and provide my own take on the tactics. But first, let’s get a sense of Setien’s career path so far and talk a little about his philosophy.

What Is Quique Setien’s Prior Experience?

While Valverde certainly veered away from Barcelona’s established model, Setien seems to be an admirer of the values that Johann Cruyff instilled in the club. He has managed seven different clubs in his managerial career and has been consistent with his ideas.

Most recently, he was able to save Las Palmas from relegation during his two-year stint there. And he was also successful in turning Real Betis into one of the more exciting teams in La Liga, helping them to a six-place finish in his first season in charge.

It is true that Setien is not a decorated coach. In fact, he hasn’t won any silverware since he turned to the profession in 2001. While such an appointment is always a risk for a top club like Barca, it’s undeniable that the Spanish tactician has enormous faith in his philosophy and has been able to improve teams in the past even without heavy investments in the squad.

Setien is a big admirer of ball possession and practices a style of soccer that he calls “orderly and systematic.” He believes in the balance of a unified structure and demands complete devotion from his players in training.

He has spoken about channeling the player’s energy into a more measured approach on the field, possibly referring to Valverde’s often rigorous but chaotic style.

This comes as no surprise as Setien is also an avid chess player. In fact, he is so invested in the game that he doesn’t call it a hobby but refers to it as one of the big inspirations behind his managerial philosophy.

It remains to be seen how this message will impact the current crop of Barcelona players, but the early signs suggest that big changes are indeed being implemented.

Sharing the ideas of former managers such as Pep Guardiola and Johann Cruyff will undoubtedly be a welcome sight for the supporters, and the Spaniard will hope that the familiar approach will buy him enough time to steady the ship.

But even a club like Barcelona, which is heavily rooted in its traditions, is still very much in the results business. Both the front office and the fans will want to see improvements early on if Setien is to enjoy a long stay at the Nou Camp.

He has already had a taste of the action, and there are some notable trends that have emerged from his three games in charge. I will share these below and provide a short review of the results before we turn to the tactical analysis.

Key Stats From Setien’s First Games

Quique Setien’s first game as Barcelona head coach was a home tie against Granada. The team had to then face third-tier opposition in the Copa Del Rey and square up against rivals Valencia in La Liga.

Here is a look at how Barcelona fared in these three encounters.

Barcelona 1-0 Granada

  • 83% possession
  • 1002 passes
  • 91% pass accuracy
  • 18 shots
  • 6 shots on target

The Blaugrana won the game courtesy of a Lionel Messi goal that came in the 76th minute. Granada was already a man down at that point, but a battling defensive performance helped them stay in the tie until the end.

The 83% possession of the ball made Quique Setin the manager with the second-highest percentage in La Liga history. Unsurprisingly, the highest figure of 84% was previously achieved by Pep Guardiola on two separate occasions.

Ibiza 1-2 Barcelona

  • 78% possession
  • 718 passes
  • 88% pass accuracy
  • 8 shots
  • 3 shots on target

Naturally, Setien fielded a younger team for the tie, although some prominent first-team figures were also in the lineup. Ibiza showed grit and proved to be a sterner test than expected. The hosts even took an early lead and only fell to two late goals from Antoine Griezmann.

As you can see, Barcelona dominated possession once again, racked up a lot of passes, and achieved great passing accuracy percentage.

Valencia 2-0 Barcelona

  • 74% possession
  • 866 passes
  • 92% pass accuracy
  • 14 shots
  • 5 shots on target

The game against Valencia brought about Quique Setien’s first defeat as Barcelona manager. The team again had the lion’s share of the ball and completed a ton of passes but couldn’t penetrate a solid Valencia defense.

Two second-half goals from Maxi Gomez were enough to seal the win for Los Che. On the other end, Lionel Messi took 11 shots, which is the most he’s ever taken in a game without scoring a goal.

Tactical Analysis of Quique Setien

If I have to label these three performances with a single word, it’ll have to be unconvincing. There are a number of reasons for that, but I will start with the main one.

In all of the ties, Setien showed that he can get this Barcelona team to keep the ball and pass it with precision. On paper, this is a great foundation and a philosophy that has proved very successful in the past. In reality, however, it is not enough to win games consistently.

We can rave about the number of passes the team makes, but they don’t count for much if they don’t lead to anything. Let’s take the Granada game, for example. The team had over 1,000 passes and just six shots on target.

This was at home against a mid-table team that also had a man sent off. It’s true that Granada fought well, but Barcelona should be creating way more chances in a game like that.

The match against Ibiza also highlighted the lack of end product. The obvious excuse is that there were a lot of young players and reserves in the lineup. However, players like Griezmann, Rakitic, Sergi Roberto, Vidal, and Alba also featured.

In any case, it’s inexcusable for the team to muster only three shots on target against opposition from the third Spanish division.

Sure, Barcelona won both those games, but they were never really comfortable even if they controlled the ball for about 80% of the time. Messi’s goal against Granada came when the opposition was already playing with ten men, whereas the winning goal against Ibiza was scored by Griezmann with practically the last kick of the game.

And then came the Valencia fiasco. It will be really hard for Barcelona to take away any positives from that game. The midfield trio of Artur, De Jong, and Busquets might be the only bright spot. They provided good cover and moved the ball well. However, this again didn’t translate to any danger for Valencia.

Setien picked a backline of Pique, Umtiti, and Sergi Roberto and gave Jordi Alba an advanced wing role. That left a lot of space out wide for Valencia to exploit, and they did that excellently. Roberto is not a natural defender, so having him around the box with a young and inexperienced Ansu Fati in front of him proved to be Barcelona’s undoing.  

Up front, Messi and Griezmann were struggling to break the defensive lines and were often dropping deep to get the ball. The fact that there were no signs of the trademark incisive passing from midfield was also not helping them.

In short, Setien’s favored approach of systematic and organized play was nowhere to be seen. His team looked easily exploitable, hesitant, and was often caught out of position. In addition, the manager’s talk of ending the overreliance on Lionel Messi didn’t exactly materialize.

Having seen that there was no real punch in the offense, Messi took it on himself to take 11 shots, which made for over 78% of the team’s total number.

My Verdict

There were surely a lot of troubling signs in those first three games, but we have to put things into perspective. First of all, it’s true that Setien inherited a tough situation. The team has looked a bit deflated for quite some time, even if it somehow kept its head above the water.

We also have to take into account the injury problems. Luis Suarez sustained a potentially season-ending injury right when Setien took the job. With Griezmann still not fully integrated into the Barcelona squad, Suarez’s penetrative style would’ve added a different dimension.

Ousmane Dembele also needs more time to recover, which necessitates the use of Ansu Fati on the right. And while the youngster is extremely talented, he only turned 17 last October. Expecting him to thrive consistently in a brand-new system would be unfair.

The team’s defensive woes also don’t look closer to a solution, at least for now.

Barcelona is still quite vulnerable, especially away from home, and the team has already shipped in 25 goals in 21 games. In comparison, Real Madrid has conceded only 13, and all of the team’s other top competitors have better defensive records.

Setien looks like he has a plan for addressing these issues. His placement of Sergi Roberto as a right outside defender allows for Sergio Busquets to roam in his preferred area of the pitch. Under Valverde, Busquets would often find himself in between the central defenders to compensate for Roberto’s forward runs.

So far, the change has not yielded great results, but it’s potentially something that can work in the long term. Busquets can be a game-changer when deployed as a typical anchorman, something that the previous manager often neglected.

Of course, this goes through the re-education of Sergi Roberto, who has a natural urge to go forward and still exhibits flaws in his defensive game. The match against Valencia saw him frequently roam into the opposition half, which doesn’t look like something Setien wants to see in his preferred formation.

And that leads me to what I believe will be the defining factor in Quique Setien’s Barcelona reign. And that is how he will handle the communication and man-management aspect.

We all know that these players can keep the ball and pass it with great ease. However, it is up to their manager to convince them that the approach can also lead to creating more goalscoring chances.  

In a recent interview, Frenkie De Jong stated that their new coach is not different from Valverde. Now, we can’t be absolutely certain what he means by that, but it strikes me as a bit odd. Sure, the change is not fundamental, but there are clear differences in the way the two managers approach the game.

So, either De Jong is not paying much attention, or Setien is still finding it hard to convey his ideas to the group. In either case, the manager has a lot of work to do on that score.

Overall, I like his ideas, and he is already showing signs that he is more decisive than Valverde. Against Valencia, he put Arturo Vidal on the pitch after just 55 minutes, and the substitution helped change the momentum of the game.

Vidal’s forward runs made the team more direct and allowed them to break through the opposition defensive line. Yes, the team ended up losing, but the number of chances they created with Vidal on the pitch would’ve been enough on a day that Messi had his goalscoring touch.

In conclusion, the results showed many weaknesses, but the performances also point to a tactical overhaul that might both stabilize the defense and provide sharpness in attack.

If Setien finds a way to get the players on board, the amount of possession this team can hold with ease will soon transfer to more goalscoring chances. I expect the manager will be given the time, but in today’s game, he can’t really afford to lose too many crunch ties early on.

Will a chess fan obsessed with organization and discipline get through to a rather flamboyant group of players? We’re going to have to wait and see.

Final Words

I hope that this early look at Quique Setien’s reign in Barcelona will give you some food for thought. Do you think that the manager will be successful at the Nou Camp? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment below and share your thoughts on the matter.

And if you’re looking for more similar content, make sure you regularly visit the sports section of our blog!

Elias Wagner

Elias Wagner has been a soccer fan since he was a young boy. He still has a huge passion for the sport itself as well as betting on it and writing about it.

Outside of soccer, Elias also enjoys other sports including basketball, tennis, and snooker. He's been writing for GamblingSites.com since 2018.

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