And the littlest shall lead them was something that came to mind when Riqui Puig ran onto the Camp Nou pitch to substitute for a slow, out-of-it Ivan Rakitic, and became the catalyst for the play that turned the match.
It was a match that until that moment was satisfying in theory. The debut match of Quique Setien as Barça manager was … fine. People are going to inflate it into something more than it was, going to hype it into a ray of sunshine piercing the Stygian night of the awful thing Valverde created. That’s part of the game, part of the looking for one thing and finding what you want to see, rather than what is.
The essential reality of Setien and his tenure is that he really didn’t even have a full week, didn’t have any real time to implement his ideas, just a few hasty, undoubtedly intense practice sessions with which to tell the Barça players to, in essence, play like they already knew how, like they had played under Valverde in the face of a willing opponent. And like every manager that had preceded him, Setien’s team wrestled against an opponent with everyone behind the ball. Much will be made of the 80-plus percent possession and more than a thousand passes. What’s more interesting is what Granada was allowing, and what Barça was trying to do, which was, in effect, getting the band back together to play those songs like they used to. Whether the band should is another question altogether.
Granada was perfect for the Setien debut, home against a mid-table team playing like one, and a Barça team that had found its legs since the 2-0 horrorshow at that same Granada. Both teams are different now, one coming off its best display of the season as it bossed Atleti for 75 minutes before everything fell apart, the other working to stay mid-table, to punch above its station.
This was supposed to be a win, supposed to be a display of the magnificence of the right coach (well, the third choice in reality, but still) playing the right way with the right team. And to make it that you had to do a bit of work, had to make the Valverde teams seem worse than they are, had to ignore a lot to make the ray of light theory work. And a lot of people did. But a lot of calmer people also saw the debut for what it was, which was a new coach who had only a few days with his new team, who did the best he could in the short time that he had.
The match began with one-touch football, about a zillion passes and no goals at halftime. Cynics would suggest that this was the same formula present in the club’s most famous drubbing, the 7-0 hammering at the hands of Bayern Munich. Lots of possession, lots of passes, not very many goals. None, to be precise. And that was the story of the first half against Granada, a group content to let Barça pass, soak up pressure and foul when any danger reared its head. In other words, it was a match against a mostly compliant opponent from which it is difficult to glean much except Setien’s intentions.
Busquets and Umtiti were in their pomp, Vidal was more controlled. Play was faster, particularly from keeper to centerbacks, the object being to get control and move quickly into attack. One-touch football kept the ball moving, and doing the work instead of the players that ran with the ball under Valverde. It was fun to watch. Whether this was better or not depended upon what you wanted to see. But Barça, in the days of darkness in its more recent match under its Lord of Darkness, created more chances against a better team in a first half that ended, pre and post-darkness, at zeroes. Football that is aesthetically pleasing isn’t always as effective as we’d like. A team doesn’t get points in the standings for passing percentage.
And after a somewhat satisfying first half the team regressed, becoming more defensive, resembling more of the group of darkness, until a ray of light entered. Riqui Puig, when mentioned by Valverde, was a player who would play someday but wasn’t quite ready, a sentiment echoed by technical director Eric Abidal. Setien took a look at the pint-sized midfielder and said, that time is now. He made the squad and was the first sub, replacing Rakitic who was out of his depth in the faster-moving, ball control structure installed by the new manager.
Puig got right to work with sharp, incisive passing and than, on the key play, charging down a Granada defender on the press, to work the ball loose. Crucially, Puig took a moment to consider the right decision before sliding the ball to Busquets. A few slick passes and a backheel later, Messi had the ball in the back of the net. Granada, being down to ten, were done being a serious threat and Barça saw out the match, a 1-0 home win against a team that wasn’t really interested in doing much except leaving with the point it entered, and maybe nicking a goal off the counter. Also as with Valverde’s Barça, a key error almost had that effect as a Sergi Roberto giveaway resulted in a post for Granada, and what would have been egg on the face of the new guy.
This wasn’t the match, as much as people wanted it to be, to learn anything about how Setien would really go about the game, or who would be his preferred players. His XI was one that Valverde would have chosen, which caused some pre-match mirth, even as the pieces you choose aren’t as important as how you use them. Setien used them in a way that sated the aesthetes, slick one-touch football that created precious little. This doesn’t mean it was bad. He hasn’t even been installed for a week. It does mean that the hyperbolic praise, and exhortations like, “Finally, we can wetch this team again,” are over the top.
It was Granada.
The team under Valverde won a pair of Ligas and was on pace to win another. Its most recent match found them putting four goals past one of the best teams in football, a reality diminished only by the intrusion of VAR. It forced a trio of other excellent saves in that same match. In assessing and discarding Valverde’s approach as this awful, unwatchable thing involves mental and semantic gymnastics that many are undertaking to make the unformed thing that will eventually show us how Setien wants to play into something more. This is a mistake. A home match against a weak opponent won’t tell us as much as the next match, away to Valencia. But even that won’t tell us everything about a team that is a work in progress.
What will tell us everything? Time. And the pressure of a high-quality opponent once Setien has had the time with what is now his team, with all of its key players in place. Until then? Appreciate the glimpses, and the nice, fat Camp Nou goalposts. Oh, and a coach that has an instant affinity for talented sprites.