When Quique Setien arrived at FC Barcelona, it’s easy to forget circumstances, but they’re worth revisiting.
At Betis, his teams were like a bed with a gorgeous blanket, but underneath there’s a messy sheet half covering a bare mattress. The teams made the same errors match after match, were guildty of defensive naivete and evinced a flawed structure when not in possession. And after his teams flattered to deceive time and again, away he went.
When the FC Barcelona board was rumbling, noses to the wind, deciding about the tenure of its manager of choice, Ernesto Valverde, they decided to move. They talked to Xavi, a choice that would have been a hasty one. Then another. No. And finally, Setien was rescued from a life of leisure, coming into the club as the “Well, okay,” choice.
The Celta Vigo match looked exactly like every other match has looked for Barça under Setien. Some pretty patches of play, some chances created as an opponent sits deep and manages risk before coming out to play. When the opponent does come out to play, ripping off that pretty blanket, we see reality. There is no structure, no redundancy, no system. Barça has always been poor without the ball. Guardiola famously said that. But those teams were defensively solid because they had a structure, a system. Those teams also had checks and balances in exceptional athletes. We forget how many problems Eric Abidal solved with his pace and range, how ambitious a defender he was.
Back then, he was raked for not attacking enough, but neither he nor his coach cared. His role was exactly what the team needed, so that when everything broke down, there was still one. The ball was more a loan to an opponent. Today, team after team can play at will, pushing up as Barça retreats. The wings allow playing space, the midfield allows playing space. The team retreats, doesn’t stop the ball, doesn’t press the opponent.
Barça beat Mallorca, beat Leganes. But within those matches you could see the cracks as those opponents were allowed to play, allowed stretches of unfettered football that put the team under pressure. Neither Leganes nor Mallorca would be considered a Liga giant but they played like one against Barça in possession, with a confidence and control. Muttered under breath was, “What will happen when a better team visits,” and there is nervousness.
At Celta, the draw pointed out another away failure, but the problem is structure rather than location. Setien said after the match that the proceedings should have been more comfortable. Not sure how he came up with that one. Celta subbed in Rafinha and Nolito, both schooled at the famed Barcelona Masia, and they took over the match. Celta had possession, could play football at will, danding through the midfield like pylons. As possession builds, the chances for something to go wrong builds. Rafinha danced, ran at Pique. Yes, he dove and got the call. Yes, the VAR team should have examined it and awarded a yellow card instead of a free kick. Focus on the poor call would be wrong. That equalizing goal came as a consequence of a team that is passive, shrinking in the face of pressure, looking to control instead of command play, resolving problems with pressure.
There is too much uncertainty. Look at the key moment as Rafinha takes the pass. Just before it arrives, Pique darts back to cover an attacker before realizing he doesn’t have to. In that moment of imbalance, that was that. As Rafinha ran at him, he decided to try a longing tackle. Why. Umtiti was there, the one Celta attacker was offside and help was coming from Rakitic and Semedo. Just slow the ball down and let the team do what it was supposed to do. Do we see so much of players taking things on themselves because of lack of confiedence in the structure. Who the hell knows. The only thing clear is the result.
Setien’s assessment that the match should have been more comfortable clearly missed the two excellent chances created by Celta as they treated his Barça defense pretty much like his Betis defense, reducing to a scrambled, scrabbling mess. Nobody seems to know what to do when they don’t have the ball. This was a characteristic of his Betis teams, that they were almost making up as they went along when not in possession, defense more like a fire drill than a structure. One sharp pass, one smart run and the opponent is in. Ter Stegen makes a save, something he is paid handsomely to do. But it’s all so desperate and more distressingly, so easy for opponents.
The kids stayed in the picture as Setien correctly started Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati. The pace they injected into the proceedings against Athletic Club remained, and it was a joy to see. But as with Betis, the problem isn’t when Barça has the ball.
When the first Celta equalizer came, so easily to capitalize on a ruptured defense, one name came up: Umtiti. “What was Umtiti doing?” But that equalizing goal was typical. A poor pass from Rakitic oozed invitingly, and Celta took full advantage. Umtiti was just one problem.
The Celta goal was really like getting it finally right after practicing the first time. About eight minutes previous, Umtiti released a pass that was easily intercepted and Celta was off to the races. If you pause the picture at the key moment, there is only Puig to stop the ball progression, and he doesn’t. The outlet finds Aspas, who was only a poor decision away from helping his team equalize. Faced with Pique, he decides to do it himself, rather than releasing an easy pass to Smolov, who was running free. But Pique is the only Barça defender in the frame. The pass and the goal should have been easy.
They got it right when Rakitic played a terrible pass to Puig that was intercepted. Rakitic is already tracking back, knowing that he screwed up. Puig fights to get the ball back and loses, a young man who will learn the value of a tactical foul. Umtiti charged up to control a free man and cut off the passing angle. It was here that everything fell apart. A flat-footed Rakitic, thinking the problem is solved, is left for dead by his man, who takes the chip over the top and runs into acres of space.
At the moment the pass is released, Semedo is up and running back, Alba is watching the ball. Only Pique senses the danger. Celta has two attackers behind Rakitic, and Umtiti strode up to mark one, which would have been the correct action in a properly functioning team. Instead, he strode up to mark, but nobody else was where they were supposed to be. You want those attacking fullbacks? Cool. But Abidal fixed so many problems because he was on the back line, level with Pique, ready to steam over to the rescue.
Once that pass found the attacker, the only hope Barça had was something superhuman, either from Pique or Ter Stegen. That didn’t come. In the key image, the Celta attacker has the ball at his feet, and Pique is closing desperately. Alba, Umtiti, Rakitic and Vidal are in a line, chasing in the hope that the Celta attacker would make the same error that Aspas made earlier in taking on Pique instead of releasing the ball. Nope. Where was Umtiti? Doing what his instinct told him to do. He picked up a man. If that is Lenglet who stays home as is his reactive wont, it’s probably still a goal because it’s three men running at two instead of two. It’s the structure behind the ball.
You can surely argue that with Rakitic playing in the hole, any bad pass from him is going to lead to danger. This is also true of Busquets, but the legend is more secure with his balls, particularly in that crucial space. But there was no redundancy, nobody asking “What if,” a defense ruled by naivete. It felt familiar for people who watched Betis under Setien.
Make no mistake, there are problems in possession as well. One run was typical, as a ball came to Vidal, and Semedo made a run that in a better world, would have screamed for the one touch pass. Vidal took the ball, controlled, dithered, dithered and by then the moment was loss. Instead of a ball that put a teammate in on goal, Vidal unleashed a shot that never had a chance, and followed that up with apologies. He knew what he should have done, he just didn’t do it and there are no consequences except those that we see on the final scoreline.
Messi isn’t finishig well, exposing how dependent this team is and always has been on his excellence. What should be simple passes are going awry, Ter Stegen is screwing up clearances. Barça is playing like a team that isn’t very sharp, that looks out of shape. It plays well for a while, then seems to run out of energy and focus.
Setien was right. The match should have been more comfortable, but it would have presumed a team that is better than the team he has, in structure, management and execution. Guardiola teams did what they were supposed to do because they were trained to do that. Movements and passes were almost automatic. This team takes too many extra touches, and it isn’t always because there isn’t a place to put the ball. The match should have been more comfortable, but his team should also be playing better than it is. Barça is a punk taem, continuing a tradition of psychological softness that began under Valverde and continues undel Setien. At times of pressure, that softness manifests itself and a willing oppoent takes advantage.
The Aspas equalizing free kick slams into a wall in different circumstances. Pique even went over to set Griezmann exactly where he was supposed to be. At the time of the strike, Griezmann jumped sharply in, and turns sideways. Again, execution. A keeper sets the wall, expecting it to function like a wall. The ball found the back of the net and Ter Stegen looked almost like he expected it, like “What else could go wrong?”
And at the end of it all, if Espanyol, relegation-bound and on its fourth manager in the season doesn’t manage to beat Real Madrid to show just a little bit of home pride, the league would be all but done and dusted, as Barça’s next opponent is Atleti. The Liga would title would have been Barça’s had they just won out after the return to play. That was never going to happen because this team isn’t good enough, nor is it well managed enough. The board chose aesthetics over structure, and people were happy until theory met reality. It takes more than being able to talk about tradition, and beauty and invoking the name of Cruijff to win matches and do what it is supposed to do. This Barça team doesn’t have a spine, mentally or tactically, so here we are.