Managers, throwing shade and what’s left unsaid

Being culer is the gift that keeps on giving. Quique “Cruijff binky” Setien gave a wide-ranging interview in which he talked about his short-lived tenure at FC Barcelona, one that ended in a shellacking and a sacking delayed, a burst of shenanigans that included a clown avatar on Twitter.

And Betis gadfly Joaquin, the man so many football devotees would love to have dinner with, had some choice words about Koeman and their shared time at Valencia, before the weekend clash, the man he called simply “that coach” in an interview with Guardian journalist Sid Lowe:

“(I wouldn’t even have him) as kitman! It wasn’t a good experience. But I’ve moved on … It didn’t last long and we saved the season … On Saturday he won’t say hello to me and I won’t say hello to him”

Wheee! Joaquin better hope Betis plays well enough to not make his words hang around his shoulders like a necklace of fire.

The thing about shade is that it feels good while you’re throwing it, but you also have to wonder about the consequences, even when you’re not in fact throwing shade. Because interpretation also matters. History is written by the victors, after all. Setien, in his interview, essentially said that Messi was a handful to manage, and they had an encounter where he said to the Argentine, “If you don’t like it, there’s the door.” Messi reacted as the greatest player in the history of the game would, as a man who knows he’s going to be at the club long after the shadow of Setien fades, so he just bided his time. And football did what it does.

As well all know, Setien came in talking about a lot of stuff that was never going to happen, and people fell for it because of this insistence on not letting go of the past, a malady that not only prevents progress, but codifies failure. It’s like driving a vintage sportscar. “Man,” you think. “This is NICE. The snick-snick of those gears, and listen to that engine sound. The smell of that leather … oh, boy.” Then you get in your modern sport sedan, and it’s faster, with better grip, visibility and handling, and you think, “Oh.”

But because we’re in love with a museum piece in the form of a football team, anyone who comes in saying the right stuff about playing the right way, blablabla, makes us all swoony, and we start offering up analogs to past greats. It’s seductive. Duh. But it doomed Setien to failure because he doens’t have the same tools that Guardiola had. And even if he did, would he have been able to get the buy-in necessary? Probably not.

What this all meant is that Setien’s ill-advised interview amounted to, “I punked out.” The stuff about Messi is what has people up in arms, but it shouldn’t. Summed up, what he said was, “Messi is a handful to manage.” He’s absolutely right. He was a handful for Guardiola, a handful for Martino, and Luis Enrique, and Valverde and almost certainly Koeman. Great players are always a handful because they want everything and are great enough to achieve precisely that. Woe betide the person who stands in their way. Phil Jackson has nightmare stories about managing Michael Jordan. You aren’t going to hear about them because what’s the value in that? The Bulls won because he got buy-in from a superstar, thus letting the superstar and his team give of their best. The rest is history.

Messi is a pain in the ass. You can guarantee it, because all the greats are. So as a manager, you have to figure out how to get along with that talent, and the attendant ego. Suggesting it’s your way or the highway ain’t it. Mismanagement means a lot. At the institutional level it means Barça is now a mess. At the sporting level it means your best player ignores you and your assistant during a strategy talk, to bond with teammates. And when that happens, you’re done, because you’ve lost the most important player on the team. So pack your shit.

What Setien’s interview revealed was much more about Setien than anything else, including that despite all his talk, he didn’t do anything because he lacked the courage or buy-in to accomplish any of it. He was just a caretaker, and Koeman isn’t doing much better. And hey, remember that in-depth interview with Ernesto Valverde about his time at Barça? No, you don’t, because it didn’t happen. It’s tempting to explain failure in a way that you think makes you seem candid and forthcoming, like the person who had the answers when in fact it turns out that you didn’t even know what questions to ask.

The people leaping to Messi’s defense and condemning Setien needn’t do so, and not only because Messi isn’t an angel, even if Setien never directly implied that he wasn’t, simply that he was a complex player to manage. History and events have done all that need be done with Setien, who was ill-advised in taking that interview. The 8-2 is what happened. Collapsing in league is what happened. All the rest is narrative.

Rare is the shade that should be thrown, just as things that don’t need defending shouldn’t be defended. We don’t know Messi, so any defense of him is based solely on the kind of vicarious slavishness that fans are predisposed toward. Valverde is off somewhere, with his millions, chilling. You’d better believe he’s turned down interview requests of the same type that Setien acceded to. And he didn’t just turn them down because he’s tacticurn. What could he possibly say that would explain his time at the club more eloquently than events. We know he wasn’t trying to be boring, or predictable, didn’t intend to have two Champions League collapses in consecutive seasons. What words could he choose that would make us understand what in fact happened? We’d say they were bullshit anyhow, so silence is the most beneficial tack to take. Setien didn’t, and that’s a shame. Matters aren’t any better than they are for him, nor are they worse. We already knew he was in over his head, that he lost the dressing room, that he punked out. When has, “This isn’t what it looks like” ever worked?

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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.