On the 13th of January 2020, Barcelona appointed Quique Setien as their head coach. The 32 days that have ensued have been intriguing, to say the least. The team has played well more often than not, but has also displayed the same vulnerabilities that it did under Ernesto Valverde. Moreover, off-field debacles and suspect transfer dealings have ensured that Setien has had a rough start to his tenure as the Blaugrana head coach.
Setien has, slowly but surely, started to make changes to the team’s style of play. In his first few games in charge, he deployed a 3-5-2, which became a 4-3-3 out of possession, with Sergi Roberto as the third centre-back and Ansu Fati as a makeshift wing-back. This formation served Barca well enough against Granada; there was a dearth of chances, yes, but the back three looked solid throughout and Granada barely had a sniff of goal. It did not work, however, in the away games that followed. An insipid display away at Ibiza was followed by a harrowing 2-0 loss at the Mestalla. In both games, Barca’s play was static and there was a lack of creativity both in midfield and in attack. This was especially evident against Valencia. Despite having 74% of possession, the midfield trio of Arthur, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong struggled to produce anything substantive. Barca often had six players behind the ball with no clear runner through the middle. While the addition of Arturo Vidal did amend this to an extent, it was too little too late, as Los Che had already taken control of the game by then. The team looked a lot like Setien’s Real Betis towards the end of his spell at the club; a lot of possession and not much else.
After the defeat at the Mestalla, Setien discarded his preferred 3-5-2 and reverted back to the 4-3-3. This resulted in a few things: Firstly, it moved Ansu Fati back to the left. He was tasked with holding width on the left hand side instead of Jordi Alba. Secondly, it made Setien drop Sergi Roberto for the more athletic Nelson Semedo. With Lionel Messi often dropping deep, Semedo was asked to bomb upfield on the right hand side. As a consequence, Semedo has had an outsized influence on Barca’s wing play and has displayed an attacking nous that he never did in two full seasons under Valverde.
To combat the lack of runners in the final third that he faced with the 3-5-2, Setien has deployed an advanced interior (or two) who looks to break the lines and be a nuisance in the 18-yard box. In the absence of Vidal, it was De Jong who was tasked with this role. While De Jong has himself looked unfamiliar in the role, the presence of a secondary runner has made Barca appear less toothless in attack. In the game against Athletic Bilbao, for instance, De Jong was a constant threat in and around the box and had a stonewall penalty denied. Frenkie’s increased attacking influence is reflected in the fact that he has attempted five shots in six games under Setien, two more than he had attempted in 26 under Valverde.
The 4-3-3 itself underwent a minor change away at Real Betis. With the return of Vidal, Setien decided to utilise a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond, with the Chilean as the link between midfield and attack and Roberto and De Jong as the advanced interiors. As Messi was dropping deep throughout the game, Vidal was often playing as a false nine, with his back towards the opposition goal. Due to the use of a relatively narrow front two, the width was provided by Semedo and Roberto (who often drifted wide) on the right and Junior/Alba on the left. This diamond midfield worked well; Barca continued to control possession (71%) while also maintaining verticality.
So, an early verdict on Setien’s tenure? It is mostly positive. There have definitely been some improvements; Barca’s average possession has gone up to 74% ( from 61% under Valverde), shots per game have gone up by 0.5 and shots conceded per 90 have fallen by two. Moreover, Barca have managed to outshoot their opponents in every away game under Setien. They only managed this twice under Valverde. The team has also started to press as a unit and has looked less lethargic off the ball. It is important to note that Setien has managed to make improvements whilst the club has been in the midst of an ‘injury-crisis’. There have been some negatives as well. The soft underbelly of this team remains; Barca still get caught napping in defence and appear vulnerable on the counter. This will need rectification if they are to advance to the latter stages of the Champions League. Also, the decision to ship out Carles Perez has proved to be unwise, especially with Dembele’s relapse and Barca’s lack of depth up front.
All in all, Setien has made the most of the testing circumstances. He has brought entertaining football back to the Camp Nou. And that is all we ask for.