Benvingut Setien, aka “Beware of saviors bearing dogma”

FC Barcelona has a new coach, in Quique Setien.

FC Barcelona has a new coach, the second most politically expedient selection this vile, unctuous board could have made. They spit in the face of a kind man who did the best he could, mistook the interest of a shill for a corrupt World Cup and a nation with a human rights record that can euphemistically be labeled … complex, and settled for a man who wouldn’t exist on Twitter today if you muted the word “Cruijff.”

Yay for Setien, now everything is right in the world. The team will play in the right way, and everything will be wonderful. And the absurd illusion can persist that the excellence that has defined this team is due to playing the right way. There has been many a Tweet that Barça rarely loses when it plays the right way, but Barça rarely loses, period. When you have talent such as this team has had over the last 15 years, it’s pretty hard to screw up. Rijkaard was the last coach to have a squad that fell apart. Since Guardiola came in with his pile of transfers, winning has been the norm, one that has persisted through coach after coach. Guardiola, Vilanova, Roura, Martino, Luis Enrique, Valverde.

And it isn’t just because they have all had Messi, though that counts for a lot. They haven’t conceded a great many goals, either. It would be churlish to say that any coach could win with this group. But even with a supporter base who doesn’t think a good season is good unless there is a bus parade, even Tata Martino came within a wrongly disallowed goal of winning the Liga, with a physical and emotional wreck of a team. It’s pretty hard to screw up Barça.

So as people throw bricks at Valverde’s car and with the other hand, strew rose petals at Setien’s feet, it’s worth a quick look at what happened and the regrets that Valverde will probably have, which were also the things that doomed him.

In preseason, as the veterans lolled about in various vacation spots, kids, subs and B-teamers comprised the options for Valverde and the football was a delight. Pressing, dynamic, passing, pretty, it was the football everyone wanted to see. Some had hope. Some assholes like me said, “It will all stop when the veterans come back.” And so it did. Why? Well, it isn’t only because they couldn’t do the stuff that younger legs could do. Managing a club such as Barça, where a winning season if you don’t have silver might as well mean relegation, comes with a lot of pressure, which can be stultifying if you let it. It’s easy for a manager to think that wins are what they need to do, because that’s how you keep score. But at Barça it’s different, and it’s different because the luxury of a world-beating squad even when a manager screws up allows the luxury of theory.

“I want beautiful football.”

Who doesn’t? But when Valverde looked at what he had, that just wasn’t possible because he wasn’t going to take the kinds of risks in young talent that could run and press. So he jury-rigged a system that minimized danger and maximized veteran playing time. Veterans have Been There, and that comforts a coach who is conservative (all managers are) but made even more so by the incessant, infernal pressure. It wasn’t until Valverde won but lost that he found out how different things were at Barça.

Before taking over at Barcelona, over 638 games Valverde’s record was 319 wins, 183 losses and 136 draws. That’s quite good for a coach that never had a topmost-level club, no disrespect meant to Athletic Club. His Athletic teams were interesting, hard-fighting and dynamic. They kicked the crap out of Barça in the SuperCopa with an innovative attack that took advantage of every weakness present in the Catalan giants. At Barça, Valverde flinched. And that lack of courage cost him at key times, most notably in Rome and at Anfield. So Valverde won, but he lost. And now there is Setien.

Revisionist history brings fascinating things. When his Betis squad beat Barça at Camp Nou, huzzahs rained from the heavens. Beautiful football, this is how the game should be played. What was forgotten is that Barça was utter crap for all but about five minutes of that match, and still almost drew at the end. Better talent for the Catalans? Sure. But after that match, there were a few nonbelievers, myself included, who weren’t convinced. Even as the aesthetes clamored for the arrival of Setien and his beauty over the dour, stultifying Valverde, some of us noted that his Betis squads were naive going forward and defensively suspect, things that led to his team stringing together a poor run that got him fired. Now here he is at Barça.

Until now, Setien’s record is pretty balanced: In 173 matches he has 60 wins, 60 losses, 53 draws. To be fair to him, much of that record is because he has been managing teams that never had top-class talent available. Racing, Ejido, Logrones, Las Palmas, Betis aren’t exactly superclubs. So Setien could well be possessed of a genius that will elevate the talent of the first truly big club he has managed, to stratospheric levels. But there is also some reality that needs to be a part of this way of thinking.

Valverde showed that he could play beautiful football. It was just too risky with his limited squad, and too hard on the coots. So he compromised, time and again. Suarez started, match after match because who could start in his stead? Where were those goals going to come from? Pique started because it was Pique. How are you going to rotate some 19-year-old French talent with Pique? And so it went. As Setien seeks solutions, what changes will he make, what authority will he have to upset the apple cart. Will he get January transfers?

He is promising attractive football. Every coach does. What coach comes in saying, “Okay, now. Based on the roster we have, this football is probably gonna suck, but I will do the best that I can given these mopes and geezers. Now I would like to open the floor for questions.” On the up side, Setien’s tenure could have the potential to test the culer notion of “I don’t care if we lose, as long as the football is beautiful.”

The word most often heard right after Setien’s announcement was Cruijff. Cruijffian, Cruijffista, and on it went. That and a few Euros will get you a cup of coffee. How is Setien going to manage the complexities that made Valverde a tentative mass of uncertainty? It’s more than “playing the right way.” It’s hard decisions that have to start with a man’s footballing doctrine, then getting the people to best implement that. His Betis teams made the same silly mistakes over and over. Is that player execution, or is the manager at fault? Valverde was at fault when his players didn’t execute. How long will the Setien honeymoon last, should one of the characteristics that dogged his Betis team continue at Barça. Should his swashbuckling style leak goals, what then?

Barça had to make a change, for many reasons. It was a change that should have been made in the summer, before the damage was done. Setien has a compromised roster that is absent a pair of delightful young talents that are now at Betis (imagine that!) and Schalke. And Suarez is out for the season. He walks in the door with problems that aren’t going to be solved with dogma, and a simple resolution to play the right way.

Many are excited about a new coach, many of us less so because reality sometimes turns people into buckets of cold water. Setien might be amazing. He ain’t gonna make it 2009 again. And anyone who thinks that solving the problems Valverde wrestled with are as simple as “playing the right way,” should reconsider. As with anything new, it’s best to be tentative, to wait. Setien could ultimately prove to be as over his head as Valverde was. Or he might win a treble. Time will tell, patience will be necessary.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.