What is lost in the sands of culer history is the crap beginning of Pax Guardiolus: A loss and a draw, blots on a record that, as history now records, opened the window to an era of beauty and unparalleled footballing success.
Before the debut of the football equivalent of Quique Claus today, culer Christmas that will finally bring the gift of hope that so many crave, it’s worth looking back not only at Guardiola’s beginning, but Luis Enrique’s middle. It’s hard to imagine a team that lost to Hercules winning everything, just as it’s difficult to imagine a coach almost losing the dressing room for something as logical as sitting a superstar after international break for what should have been an uncomplicated match. That’s life at Barça.
During Setien’s first press availability as a man in a dream job, he did and said all the right things, even as the answer to most questions was, essentially, “Dunno. I just got here.” This is accurate. But he was also calm and smooth, making jokes about having participated in rondos with the players in one instance, a training action that also served to delineate the difference between Setien and his predecessor. Setien is of the team, part of the group. Valverde wasn’t. In some situations, that can matter.
He invoked Cruijff, and philosophy, the things that so many want to hear. He talked about getting players to understand his version of football, one honed in the success of dropping a manita on Cruijff’s Barça, a double win for a player, now coach, who began to understand his philosophy of football. Hearing all of that, having dealt with two and a half seasons of the desert of pragmatism in the person of Valverde, it’s no wonder there is so much excitement at the arrival of Setien.
But just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither are great footballing sides. Abelardo has transformed Espanyol, a team that was looking destined for the drop before a simple coaching change wrought a transformation. A draw with Barça and a win over Villarreal suddenly has the world looking different for Parakeets everywhere. It will be a lot easier for Abelardo than for Setien, something we would do well to not forget.
Setien is taking over a Barça side that is top of the Liga table, and on to the round of 16 in Champions League. It has a date in Ibiza not for a weekend of debauch, but for a Copa del Rey knockout. Banana peels adorn the path of a newly installed manager like paving stones, and always lurking in the background is a demanding, reactionary board and supporters who want change, but expect the winning to continue. “What do we want? Everything. When do we want it? NOW!” It’s grim reality that it will be as easy for Setien to fail as to succeed, given the massive expectation and excitement that have greeted his appointment, in a context where everyone is a lot less patient. “In Pep we trust” was only coined after a period of blissful, beautiful results. After that first loss and draw, it was, “Uh … hang on, now.”
Setien has such a massive, daunting task on his hands because it isn’t the results that matter. Barça is doing as well as anyone could expect. Yes, the league points lead could be bigger, but the team was on track for a treble under its past coach, who in the euphemistic vernacular of these modern times, “was resigned.” Setien doesn’t have to win matches, he has to win philosophy and theory. In a world where winning matches is assumed, he has to create a surrogate for joy, an affirmational template of the superiority of a Way of Play. Saying the right things isn’t as easy as getting players set in their ways to do them, and it certainly isn’t going to be easy in the face of uncooperative opponents who, unfettered by any philosophical shackles, just want to get a result. Starting with Granada, a team who, when last we saw them, was celebrating a massive upset over Barça.
How can you win a philosophical battle, a theoretical thing, and fulfill dreams of beauty? That would be a job for the best coach. Lapping at his heels like the mythical hound of hell, Cerberus, is the legacy of Guardiola, a rose-colored colossus that affects everything. And let’s add to that the memories of that all-Masia XI, adding to the demands a new manager must meet, of plucking world-beating Masia gems from a tree that hasn’t been as bountiful of late. It’s a wonder he didn’t decide to keep walking among the cows. He has an insanely difficult task. There’s a reason Barça coaches start looking like so many Renfields after a season, as the life and joy is sucked from them.
Saying that we need to temper our expectations is like telling a child, tumbling down the stairs on Christmas morning to be patient, that Santa might not have gotten them everything included in their letter penned in a hopeful scrawl. But ah, Barça has gone from Krampus to St. Nick. Even that is enough, isn’t it? It should be. Setien should be given a head start, with the flaws and failings of his predecessors who went on to glory in mind. We should also be careful not to think that a coaching change can eradicate the effect of years of neglect, bad luck and poor transfer decisions.
Watching Betis surge up the field against Real Sociedad, it’s easy to wonder why Barça can’t play like that, until you realize that La Real didn’t have eleven behind the ball and eight in the box, for one, a normal state for Barça by opposition unwilling to slit its own throat by giving Messi playing space. Setien will have to solve a problem that every Barça coach has wrestled with, from Guardiola to Valverde. We. Need. Patience.
It is difficult to think of a league match that has me more on edge than today’s, and not because of anything having anything to do with standings, wins or losses. There is a lot more at stake. The board has thrown up a Hail Mary pass in the appointment of Setien. This move is looking to save their souls as much as it is ours. Barça Twitter went in a few hours from baying for board heads to excited wondering about formations and juego de posicion, and hope. So much hope, surfing on waves of excitement.
It’s worth noting that at his presser, when asked whether he preferred to win or play beautifully, Setien replied as any person would whose tenure depends on results. He wants to win, of course. He would prefer to do both, and glibly said that if you play well you will usually win. But he understands that he is here to win, with some added pressure, noting that to be hired as the manager of a team that is atop the table is unusual. Setien also has a mastery of the gift of understatement, it would appear.
He installed Riqui Puig in his first squad, a move sure to buy him some leeway as the sparkling Masia product assumes his rightful place. Perfect, just as starting Puig would be a fairytale move, the coach who understands capital-F Football and playing the right way, elevating the neglected gem.
But we need to be patient. In a world in which Valverde would have moved on in summer, Dembele didn’t have tissue paper hamstrings, Arthur didn’t have whatever he had and a braver board made necessary calls, this team would almost certainly look a lot different. But it didn’t want to mess with results, left Valverde in place and the result is an older, more entrenched squad, with two players who could have helped Setien in Todibo and Alenya, gracing Schalke and Betis, respectively.
But if Setien deserves nothing else from us, he deserves patience, deserves to start with his own clean slate in his own way. Ghosts of trebles past are one thing, but the present is now, the future is tomorrow. It is just as hasty to exalt him before he does anything as it will be to lambaste him should he stumble. Have hopes, have dreams, have excitement, but leaven those with patience and pragmatism.