Why Setien didn’t work and the next guy probably won’t either

It seems so long ago when Pep Guardiola, who back then was also known as, “Wait, WHO?!” was installed as FC Barcelona coach.

He came in with club history, success with the B team, stints coaching at smaller clubs. Absolutely nothing, or so it was presumed, prepared him for a two-footed leap into the cauldron, but he had one thing going for him: club president Joan Laporta clearly said to him, “This is your bus. Drive it.”

Management dictates can come down to a simple slogan, which I say to my reports on the first day: “Make me look good, don’t screw up. Just let me know what you need.” Those simple sentences are all that you need to empower someone.

Guardiola came in and told two big problems, Ronaldinho and Deco, “You’re out.” As initial, “Oh, shit … ” gestures go, selling an iconic player and his sidekick don’t get any more “And my boss has my back!” than that. He also put Samuel Eto’o and Toure Yaya on notice, made transfers and promotions, all before screaming “Run, you bastards, run!” in training. It was clear that Guardiola was going to do thing his way, and you can get on the train or get run over by it.

When Ernesto Valverde was hired, it wasn’t with that kind of backing. We have seen stories of players such as Dani Parejo, that he wanted and didn’t get. Compare that with Guardiola saying to Laporta, “I want Ibrahimovic,” and that deal getting done. There is a coach, a manager and a Mister. Every successful manager is all three at different times, and knows when to be each. But all of that starts with support.

FC Barcelona has a board that must function like a deer in the woods, wanting to take a drink from a pond but constantly stopping to sniff the air for threats, always aware of which way the wind is blowing. They didn’t empower Valverde, nor did they give him the transfers he needed. As a tacticurn (to a fault) man, who knows what plans he had, what ideas he wanted to implement. And then they compounded the error with Quique Setien, who they foolishly were backed into hiring after going public with their search for a new coach, even though the one they had was better for the team than the one they hired. (Yes, he was and still is. Don’t even try it.)

Setien came in with grand designs and big talk, but how are you going to convince players that you need them to do what you want them to do, when you can’t back anything up with action? There is much talk of the “Club de Amigos,” and how much of it is true is only known by those who know. But the way to break up a club is to make sure the head knows that no more nonsense will be tolerated. And you make that into action. Guardiola was able to, and built a team for the ages.

There is talk of “small coaches,” that men from mid-table Liga sides such as Betis, or storied but not all that accomplished by big club standards entities like Athletic Club, aren’t ready to run a big team like Barça. But Guardiola was. How supported is a manager going to feel without the full backing of the board? This current board has made poor transfers and poor managerial decisions, then hamstrung the managers by making it clear that player power is still in effect. That can’t happen, and it would be difficult to find a top-level coach willing to work under those conditions. An insufferably dogmatic supporter base can talk all it wants about the “right way” to play, but if the manager can’t manage, can’t demand and get transfers, what is he there to do? Setien has become Valverde because he has no other choice. The board works against anything else. So do the personnel on offer.

The other problem is that FC Barcelona is also FC Dogmatic. Supporters, onlookers, the entorno are all flush with notions about the Right Way To Play. Just play proper football and the rest will be easy. If it was that easy, the team wouldn’t be looking at a sustained run of Champions League failure and a potential year with no silverware. It ain’t easy, even as it’s easy to talk about like it’s some kind of religion. Setien came in saying all the right stuff, but it didn’t take him long to realize the reality of his situation. A coach can’t be dogmatic as well, unless he has the full backing of the board. Veterans aren’t going to run hard for just because you have the whistle.

Coaching a team featuring the greatest player in the history of the game is exciting, until you realize how broken the system is, how people feed him the ball and run away, how nobody has agency and even if they did they’re too damn old. The biggest success of the Valverde tenure was in setting up a structure where Messi had the freedom to pop up where he could do the most damage. No carryig the ball or trying to dribble four defenders, no intricate 1-2s in traffic with opponent feet just waiting to disrupt the elegance. Valverde maximized Messi in the same way he maximized Aduriz. Here is an immensely talented veteran player. Let me figure out how to maximize his potential while making him do the least amount of work, so that he stays fresh. The consequence of this system were astonishing production levels for Messi, numbers that analytics people said were unsustainable. And now that Messi has returned to earth, showing signs of being merely superhuman after the layoff as Setien uses him differently, Barça is faltering as a consequence. And there are rumors. #setienout so soon?

Setien was always going to be a short-timer, unless a continuity candidate wins the next election. Rumors of his forced departure are silly, because whoever the club brings in would be subject to the same issues that dogged Valverde and now hinder Setien. He isn’t going to win because he can’t win. And he can’t win because like his predecessor, he doesn’t have the tools or the authority to wield them.

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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.