Football Features

“Barcelona’s Little Prince” – Winners and Losers as Messi starts the Quique Setien era with a win

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:27, 19 January 2020

In an incredible night of football, Barcelona passed Granada to death, winning 1-0 at Camp Nou.

The Blaugrana reclaimed their spot atop La Liga with the win marking a positive start to the Quique Setién era in Catalunya. What did we learn?

Winner: Riqui Puig

The burden of expectation is something that even elite sportsmen can struggle to live with. This has often been the undoing of many a talented player at Barcelona, because the pressure of performing for an absurdly demanding fans can often be too much for even the most talented of players. Look, for instance, at Philippe Coutinho.

Now imagine that burden of expectation coupled with the pressures of being a young player making their debut, and not just any young player, but a player so adored and revered that new manager Quique Setién promotes you to the first-team and one of the chief criticisms of the previous manager was that he didn’t play you, a 20-year-old, enough.

All of that would be enough to break a normal kid, but Riqui Puig is no normal kid. The young Catalan came off the bench with 20 minutes to go of tonight’s game with the score at 0-0. He earned a standing ovation before he had even touched a ball, but he soon got down to business and showed exactly why he is revered with several sharp touches, bright passes and inventive dribbles. He was no lightweight, either, and won the ball back with a superb bit of pressing right at the start of the move that led to Barcelona’s game-winning goal.

The burden of expectation is no joke, but Riqui Puig made it look like one. Barcelona’s Little Prince.

Loser: Ivan Rakitic

You have to feel bad for Ivan Rakitic, really. It’s not that he’s a bad player it’s that the role he played at Barcelona stopped existing once Dani Alves and Andrés Iniesta faded from prominence. He used to add a lot of direct cut-and-thrust to contrast their more nuanced play. Thing is, once Barcelona assembled a midfield that was ready to all play the kind of rapid, passing football that Barça are known for, Rakitic became a liability.

That was always evident under Ernesto Valverde, but the sheer solidity of Rakitic’s game in other aspects often covered for it. However it’s taken just 70 minutes under Quique Setién to see how unsuited Rakitic is to Barcelona when they actually play proper Barcelona football.

Ten of the Barcelona starters looked improved and comfortable with their new system, some moreso than others for sure, and it has only been four days with Quique Setién in charge, but Rakitic was constantly half a step behind everyone else, completely out-of-sync with where and when he should be standing, moving and passing. He was removed for Riqui Puig with 20 minutes left in a change that felt symbolic. The Croatian has been a phenomenal player for Barcelona, but his time in Catalunya has come to an end.

Winner: Sergio Busquets

So many people had written Sergio Busquets off lately, citing how poor he often looked over the last two seasons. Of course such people also overlooked the times Busquets has looked resplendent, or how important he remained to the side even through his own personal struggles. Moreover, they neglected to mention that he struggled so often because of the system (or lack of it).

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid” is a well-known quote, and it sums up the issue with Busquets. Ernesto Valverde’s system asked this pressing passer with about as much athletic ability as your Gran to try and play midfield like he were N’Golo Kanté or Jordan Henderson.

Today, under Quique Setién, Sergio Busquets was placed in a passing and pressing system that fed into his strengths and the resulting performance was a masterpiece. The Catalan dominated the game from the middle of the park, looked so much more capable at pressing opponents and revelled in the excess of touches he received (179, a game-high) and the absurd amount of passes he played (157, completing 142 and 92.4%).

Last year, Quique Setién’s Real Betis beat Barcelona at the Camp Nou and Busquets signed a shirt to present to Setién, speaking of admiration for the way Setién saw the game. Now Busquets gets to live in that vision for football and produce a masterpiece like he did tonight. The Grandmaster is back in control.

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Winner: Samuel Umtiti

For reasons which only Ernesto Valverde will know, Samuel Umtiti has been sidelined at Barcelona this season. Obviously in 2018/19 he was devastated by a knee injury, but he’s been fit quite a lot this season he has nearly always been second fiddle to Clement Lenglet. Now, it’s not that Lenglet is bad, he’s great, but he’s not as good as Umtiti nor is he as good a compliment for Gerard Piqué as Umtiti is.

Still, Quique Setién made sure Umtiti was in his first XI and the Frenchman responded with a superb performance. He defended with his typical combination of ferocity, timing and intelligence. He used the ball well, keeping the side moving forward (he completed 103/111 passes) and stopped Granada in their tracks multiple times pushing up to dispossess opponents. If Umtiti is back in rhythm, the Blaugrana’s defensive prowess should improve massively.

Winner: Quique Setién

First game, first goal, first win, first clean-sheet. 1,005 passes played at an incredible 91.6% accuracy. Riqui Puig involved and playing a key role. A genuinely composed and solid victory with the fans going home happy as the club returns to their roots.

Quique Setién hasn’t had a bad first day at the office, has he? He’s not even been in charge for a week, but already you can see how he has energised the side and got them playing a more classic Barcelona style. Everything was much more classic Barcelona. There’s still a way to go, obviously, and the players notably fatigued later on as the hard work they’ve been putting in during training began to take its toll – but things are looking up. Add Frenkie de Jong to this midfield and things will only get better.

Loser: La Liga

For the last two years, there had been signs that Barcelona were on the decline. Those signs had come to a head this season when teams realised that Barcelona were very mortal and there for the taking. So they began flying at the Blaugrana, overwhelming them and in many cases, beating them. Granada themselves beat Barcelona in the reverse fixture earlier in the season. It looked like the era of dominance was coming to an end and teams could finally relax and maybe La Liga would become an open contest again.

Then this game happened. And it seems like all the hopes that Barcelona had declined, or that Quique Setién would turn out to be a mirage and not as good as his fans on social media would have you believe, have been undone by a superbly confident Barcelona display.

Things may not work out well this season, nothing is guaranteed in football after all, but what you can’t deny is that all those omens that this was a side in decline are being shed one-by-one. Barcelona are a side remembering who they are, and who they are is a side that has won La Liga eight times in the 11 seasons since Pep Guardiola’s 2008 revolution – a revolution that Quique Setién very much believes in.