F.C. Barcelona was not at their best during the last season of Ernesto Valverde at the helm. The club was suffering from a lot of problems. Losses against rather small teams, struggle in the UCL and unsatisfying performances. The team was also straying away from its foundations and style of play. Average possession dropped from 64.79% last season to 57%. The shots and goals also decreased.
After the Catastrophic events at Anfield last season, the fans were already demanding Valverde to leave the club. What made fans even more furious was the loss against Valencia in the Copa Del Rey Final.
The board was already losing confidence in Ernesto Valverde, but what pushed them was the 2-2 draw against Espanyol. It is ironic, however, that the game that finally got him sacked was Barca’s best performance of the season up until that point. The team played well in the Super Copa semi-final. But in a thrilling last twenty minutes, Atletico Madrid came back and won 3-2. The stats favoured Barcelona. But Atleti was more clinical on the night. That is what led to Ernesto Valverde’s sacking.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding who the next Barcelona coach could be. Xavi turned down the managerial position. Rumours stated that Barcelona contacted Ronald Koeman, Roberto Martinez, Mauricio Pochetino, and even Massimiliano Allegri. However, it was the fan-favourite Cruyffist Quique Setien that ended up as the coach. It has now been more than five months since Setien was appointed. But the question is, has Barcelona Improved Under Quique Setien? That is what we are going to explore here.
1. Setien’s Tactics:
Tactically the coach has tried several things. He shares the possession-based, high pressing, positive, and attacking philosophy with the club. In his first three games, he used a 3-5-2 formation. He had been using that formation when he was the coach of Real Betis. The formation is excellent for holding the ball, keeping possession, and controlling the play. Barcelona had 84% possession in that game, with 18 shots and six on target, and around five big chances created. The possession numbers were already better than any match under Ernesto Valverde in only Setien’s first game.
The second game against Ibiza, however, was a massive disappointment. Barcelona still had around 78% possession, but the performance was poor. They conceded a lot of chances, and massive gaps opened up in defense. Some of the issues in the formation became very apparent. The full-backs had to push up, and that left a lot of space in behind for the wingers to exploit. The midfield wasn’t making enough movement, and the wingers did not have much support. The team severely lacked creativity.
The 2-0 loss against Valencia in the next game pinpointed the exact problems with the formation. The first-half performance was poor, with little to no creativity, no support or supply to the forwards, and just sterile possession. The formation also lacked width, which has been a problem for the club since Neymar left.
Setien isn’t afraid to take risks though, in the very next game against Leganes he changed the formation to a 4-3-3, and Barcelona ended up winning that game 5-0. It was a decent performance, but slightly similar to some of the former coach”s tactics. After that, the problem of creativity indeed improved, but no width was still a significant issue. Ansu Fati did provide some much-needed width, but it wasn’t enough. Dembele would’ve been a substantial ingredient in Setien’s plans and would’ve solved the problem of width, but he got injured right at the brink of returning.
In this 4-3-3 shape, goalkeeper Ter Stegan is the first player to start the possession cycle. When the opposition players come into press the center-backs, Ter Stegan passes the ball to the D.M. (Sergio Busquets). That opens up space to pass the ball to either the center-backs or the full-backs. The cycle is much less direct and a lot more possession-oriented, so the full-backs usually play the ball inside into the midfielders. The midfield passes the ball around, controls it, protects it, and tries to form combination plays with the forwards and in-between the midfielders. While the full-backs make overlapping runs, in pure tiki-taka style.
But there are a lot of missing pieces to perfect this style. As of this moment, it is not even close to perfect. This style requires forwards with electrifying pace, excellent dribbling ability, and intelligence which Barcelona lack to some extent. Braithwaite did bring the pace, but it was not enough. There is a lack of midfielders like Andres Iniesta that regularly make runs and connect the attack with the midfield while also forming brilliant combination plays. Riqui Puig is the closest to Iniesta at the club, but he has not been getting the game-time he deserves. Despite all that, I do believe that tactically the team has improved. There is now a real identity and philosophy in place. The coach is not afraid to take tactical risks either. The possession and shot numbers have increased. The team also creates more chances on average.
2. Barcelona’s mental and physical state:
Mentally and Physically, the team was in shambles when Ernesto Valverde left. The team would crumble in away games. The away form was excruciating. The losses against Roma and Liverpool had a really horrible psychological effect on the players. It is tough to recover from that.
The Physical problems included lack of stamina, tiredness, being more prone to mistakes during the latter halves, and conceding late goals. Injuries were also a significant issue. A major reason as to why that happened is the lack of intensity in training. It is no secret that the training sessions were not intense and were far less frequent than a club of Barcelona’s stature should have under Valverde. The players weren’t pushed to try hard during training. Valverde did not even believe in physical training all that much.
Setien himself was surprised when he saw how poor the physical condition of the players was. The number of training sessions increased to a great extent. Setien really made the players work hard. He is still trying his best to improve the work ethic of some of the players. Many of the players came out publicly and said that the training is much more intense under Setien, and that is always a good sign.
Improvement mentally, however, is still in the air. Away performances have improved, but away wins still need work. The hard-fought away win against Real Betis was a good performance, but the team lacked productivity in the final third. That could be due to the absence of many key players through an injury, but that is something that needs work. We shouldn’t be fighting for a win against Real Betis but should be comfortably winning it. Perhaps the biggest indicator of our mentality was the 2-0 loss against Real Madrid. The team played well in the first half but crumbled during the latter stages of the second half.
That issue has carried over after the break as well. The team played well against Seville in the first half, but lost momentum and crumbled in the second half. The exact same thing happened against Celta. That first half was brilliant. Barca controlled the ball, moved it swiftly, and created some decent chances. But call it bad luck or a loss in focus, but the game ended in a 2-2 draw. Riqui Puig played in that game and was very decent.
That could either mean that the team needs to improve mentally, or they still need to learn how to close out games and learn how not to crumble towards the end of games.
2.Player Power and Trust in Youth:
Player Power And Trust In Youth are two conflicting ideas. In Valverde’s time, player power was a big issue, and he never really trusted youth or brought up youngsters from La Masia. That angered fans as it stunted growth of great up and coming youngsters like Alena, Puig, Perez, and Collado. These players have great potential. Not a lot of great youngsters were given any play-time and were sold or loaned out instead. Alena is a great contributor and a dynamic, Iniesta-Esque player that makes runs and helps during combination plays and in keeping possession.
This season he got little to no game-time and was forced out on loan. He is a player that would’ve solved some of the problems, but he was ludicrously loaned out because the coach did not play him. The senior players had too much power and would play every single game, reducing even more chances for youth. The senior players were always listened to and were rarely argued with under Valverde. That caused a lot of problems and controversy.
Quique Setien, upon arrival, did state that he would always give youth chances, and he was not afraid to remove key players from the line-up. He even said that no-one has a concrete place in the line-up, and to his credit, he did give chances to youth during the first few games, but after that, it slowly decreased. Fati wasn’t getting the minutes he was before, Puig hadn’t made an appearance since the game against Ibiza and Collado was never subbed in either other than that Valencia game. That could be because of the hard games against good opponents, but Setien did not keep his promise, much like Valverde.
However, now that LaLiga has up to 5 substitutions per game, we are seeing some players get chances. In recent games, Puig has played. He was subbed in against Athletic and completely changed the game in Barca’s favour. That performance earned him a spot in the starting line-up against Celta, and he did not disappoint. Click here for an in-depth analysis of his performance.
Fati has also made some appearances. I was also glad and surprised to see Ronald Araujo play the full game against Mallorca. But there are still some great youngsters like Monchu, Collado and many more that are ready to make a move to the first team.
Player Power is still a big issue under Setien, though. We have already seen a lot of backlash from the players and reports stating that the heavyweights in the dressing room are unhappy with Setien. Setien has still not commanded the dressing room, and that is a big issue. Suarez still plays most of the minutes despite not being fully fit. Some of the substitutions have also raised a few eyebrows.
In the end, I do believe Quique Setien has improved Futbol Club Barcelona. I am aware that the board is looking for an opportunity to sack him and that his job depends on results alone. I still hope he stays. Some Cules have already lost trust in Setien, and I understand that. There is still a lot of work to do, and it will take time, but I think for the time he has had, there have been a lot of positive improvements. It is not perfect by any means, and there are a lot of big issues, but in my opinion, it is only uphill from here. With the right players and the right facilities and conditions, Setien’s project could be successful. So, as they say, trust the process.