Football Features

El Clasico defeat proves why Barcelona need Setién’s purism, not his pragmatism

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 16:06, 2 March 2020

Everyone thought Quique Setién was too much of a purist to work at Barcelona.

10 games into his tenure at the Camp Nou and it definitely looked like he was proving people wrong. Seven victories, one draw and two defeats was a nice start. He had worked well with the squad, improving them tactically whilst showing a touch of pragmatism after his initial changes were too extreme.

And with El Clásico up next for fixture number 11, at Barcelona‘s home-away-from-home the Santiago Bernabeu, this was expected to be the game to act as confirmation that Setién most assuredly will work at Barcelona, right?


And not wrong because Barcelona lost 2-0, failing to win at the Santiago Bernabeu for the first time since 2014, failing to beat Real Madrid at all in La Liga for the first time since 2013 and failing to score in Los Blancos’ backyard for the first time since 2006.

No, wrong because the match hinted at the idea that Setién is in fact too much of a pragmatist to work at Barcelona. At least that’s the way things seem to be based off the way that he handled El Clásico.

Barcelona are a unique club in terms of how they operate. Since the Elefant Blau revolution in 2003, the club has had seven different managers. Of those seven, only Ernesto Valverde had coached in the Champions League before getting the job. The Blaugrana have made it their style to pick managers who understand the club’s internal philosophy over those with established track records.

That’s why they opted for Pep Guardiola over the infinitely more qualified José Mourinho in 2008, and why they ended up changing the beautiful game as a result.

You can’t be too much of a purist for Barcelona. It’s not possible. The squad is structured to play purist football, to engage with the game on their terms and no one else. Even with the weaknesses because of sloppy player recruitment, the core of the side and the spirit of it remains one built to play ‘the Barça way’.

As much of a pragmatist as Valverde was, he had a streak of tactical purism and focus on possession that was a welcome change after Luis Enrique had begun to stray too far from the orthodox. That was what allowed Valverde’s 2017/18 campaign to be such a success, when he dragged a ramshackle Barcelona squad to within one game of an unbeaten La Liga season thanks to tactical rigour and organisation.

Of course, Valverde’s pragmatism ended up being his undoing as he couldn’t take the club forward from that base. Setién was then a breath of fresh air; a genuine believer in the philosophies of Cruyff who played Sergi Roberto in a back three in his debut game and instantly thrust Riqui Puig into the first-team picture.

Here was a coach who would return Barcelona to their first principles. Who could be counted on for an obsessive purism in his game. Straight away he seemed enamoured with Riqui Puig, the jewel of La Masia, and promoted him to the first team (which fans had been calling for all season). Setién was such a purist that he used to regularly annoy Real Betis fans by refusing to compromise on his tactics, but at Barcelona surely no one would ask him to do that? Well…

Whether or not he was asked, it happened. The ambitious 3-5-2 was shelved after the Valencia defeat, and no one really batted an eyelid at this change because Barcelona didn’t really have the players to make this system work at all. 4-3-3 came back and for a while, things seemed to be good. Barcelona were playing the game their way again, moving it out from the back and dominating possession. Yes, they did lose to Athletic Bilbao but it was a game they dominated and lost to a last minute miracle header where they couldn’t have defended it any better. Things in general were trending upward.

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But there were signs of compromise all around. Puig was featuring less (and indeed was back playing for Barcelona B on Clásico weekend), Ivan Rakitic had come back into the fold, the use of Ansu Fati was limited too, even though the club clearly needed his electric pace.

Still, the football was much better so perhaps Setién was merely easing the side into his methods rather than thrusting them upon a squad coming off two-and-a-half years of Valverde-ball?

Well, then we had Napoli away and the Clásico. In both games Barcelona lined up with Arturo Vidal on the wing, and whilst against Napoli it made a degree of sense as the Italians sat so deep that Vidal’s relentless pressing was an effective disruptive presence; when the Chilean was clearly flagging in the second half, Setién opted to leave him on the field rather than take the risk and replace him with a forward to chase a win. And, of course, Vidal promptly got sent off.

Then basically the same side took the field in the Clásico. And this time it made absolutely no sense as the game was much more open and as a result, Vidal’s chaotic style ended up disrupting the Blaugrana more than Madrid. Worse still, Barcelona weren’t in a 4-3-3 shape but a flat 4-4-2 with Arturo Vidal and Frenkie de Jong wide. This was vintage Valverde, the purest compromise, and Barcelona were predictably awful.

Oh, they could have been 0-3 up at half-time but that was largely down to how bad Real Madrid were. Gerard Piqué said: “Real Madrid in the first half was the worst Madrid I’ve faced at the Bernabéu,” and he wasn’t really exaggerating. That it was 0-0 was a combination of Thibaut Courtois’ excellence and Barcelona‘s sloppy finishing.

Moreover, Vidal was clearly a colossal hindrance to the flow of play, and he wasn’t even working as a tackling force. He completed fewer passes than every outfield starter bar Antoine Griezmann (the striker) and didn’t make a single tackle all game long.

So in the second-half Los Blancos grew in their resolve whilst Barcelona, shackled by the pragmatism, shrunk. Setién should have hooked Vidal at half-time for Martin Braithwaite, the forward signed to bring vertical play to Barcelona‘s attack, and gone for it. But Setién waited until after the hour to introduce the Dane, to take that risk, and by then Madrid were well into their rhythm and they scored soon after (and, of course, Martin Braithwaite’s pace created a chance mere seconds after he came on).

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Reacting too slowly to the flow of the game was a hallmark of the Valverde era, and is largely a result of pragmatism making it hard to be proactive and make good subs. Setién shouldn’t have been like that; in his very first game he sent for Puig off the bench and the youngster began the move that led to the game-winning goal.

Yet here we were, a month down the line, and Setién had allowed himself to become mired in the same risk-averse pragmatism that so defined Valverde’s time in charge and necessitated the first mid-season coaching change at the Camp Nou since January 2003.

Barcelona are not built to play pragmatic football. It is ironically more risky to play without risk than to play bold, proactive football. The kind of purist football that Setién is associated with. That kind of purist play fits all of the Blaugrana‘s best players and moreover, unsettles opponents. We know Setién can deliver this: his time at Betis is one long showreel for his purism and his first few weeks in Catalunya show what he truly wants to do.

But fear seems to have overtaken him, and in the Clásico there was precious little difference between his Barcelona and that of Valverde. Now, in order to get things back on track, he has to fight the fear and fully commit to his principles, to ‘the Barcelona way’.

The more Setién tries to compromise, to be a coach he isn’t, then the further the Blaugrana will fall behind in La Liga and the slimmer their chances will be in the Champions League. Barcelona need Setién‘s purism, not his pragmatism.