Why did Barcelona sack Ernesto Valverde and what will Quique Setien bring to the club?

Colin Millar by Colin Millar / 14 January 2020, 08:40

Barcelona’s managerial situation has fluctuated so drastically and so frequently over recent days, that it is only possible to analyse the current permanence in the position as being arrived at through luck rather than judgement. 

Ernesto Valverde - who should have gone last summer - was retained this season. His last in the dugout, so it was said. There was reportedly a verbal agreement in place with current Netherlands boss Ronald Koeman - a former Barca defender, who famously netted the winning goal in the 1992 European Cup final - to succeed Valverde at the season’s end. There was even a clause in Koeman’s contract, specifically in relation to an approach from the Catalan giants coming after this summer’s tournament.

However, last week’s Spanish Supercopa defeat against Atletico Madrid signaled the end for Valverde. “Everyone knows it is here (in Saudi Arabia) for the money,” Valverde confessed ahead of the tournament. Nobody predicted that the reformatted and expanded tournament would bring his downfall. 

Barca’s failure to agree a mutual termination with Valverde last summer ensured that if signs emerged of prolonged issues this season, he would be in serious bother. 

The first Blaugrana boss to be dismissed during a season since Louis Van Gaal in 2003. 

That decision was made with the club 20 points adrift of Real Sociedad, in a season where they eventually finished sixth. 

This time, the Catalan club were top - albeit on goal difference from Real Madrid - with Valverde winning the league title in each of his seasons in charge. But domestic success alone was not enough. 

Without a refined style, without a long-term vision and prioritising pragmatism ahead of dogmatism meant Valverde was never the answer at the Camp Nou.

The club turned to former captain Xavi Hernandez, in charge of Al Sadd in Qatar. But Xavi is an untested coach, who has a long-term distrust of the club’s board and who would be taking over mid-season. He did not expect an approach, and Barca did not expect his rejection. 

They turned back to Koeman, who is said to have pointed to his own situation and ruled out a move before summer. Mauricio Pochettino is also rumoured to have been approached. The man who has previously insisted he would never join Barcelona due to his affinity to their city rivals Espanyol, who he previously managed.

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Introducing Quique Setien

Quique Setien was not the club’s first choice, but he may be the appointment who makes most sense. A true coaching disciple of Johan Cruyff, the visionary who defined the modern style of play at Barcelona. 

In 2016, he tweeted: "I felt that football could be played better, but I didn't see it until Johan taught us." In this sense, Setien provides the tonic of purity and idealism that was absent from Valverde’s approach.

There were glorious successes over his two seasons at Real Betis. A famous 5-3 win at city rivals Sevilla was placed alongside two victories at Real Madrid, a convincing triumph in Milan during the Europa League and, more pertinently, a pulsating 4-3 triumph at Barcelona - the only league match that the hosts have lost at the Camp Nou since September 2016. 

The highs were spectacular but the lows infuriating - regularly pulling off stunning victories but, particularly in his second season, a failure to reinvent his side in an attacking sense saw them regularly frustrated by more modest opponents. Betis regularly clocked up over 70% possession under his watch but struggled to create. It often appeared they took more risks in their own defensive third than in attack. 

Perhaps, with more gifted players and a natural emphasis on attack, these problems will not play out. But the nature and scope of the Barcelona job is such that Setien will come under added scrutiny. 

He often caused controversy in Seville; once suggesting that Marc Bartra ‘must have made mistakes’ to end up at this club, in comments that infuriated the Betis fanbase. Similarly, he regularly criticised opposing managers for setting up their teams negatively and insisting that his side were much superior - even when nullified by the opposition.

Setien does not do anything by half. He has principles which he commits to with unwavering loyalty. 

Much is made of the fact he is a keen chess player, a strategist who always encourages his players to think before acting. 

But this definition also downplays his ability to refresh a team and promote youth. Under no pressure, he promoted Betis B teamers such as Loren Moron, Junior Firpo and Fabian Ruiz, developing them into first-team staples. 

He has shown degrees of tactical flexibility too - in the 2017/18 campaign, Betis went from goal-crazy entertainers in the first half of the season to a solid, functioning side from spring onwards - posting an Andalusian club record of six successive top-flight clean sheets. He showed a willingness to switch between 4-3-3 to 3-5-2, although - partly due to availability of players - this flexibility was not quite as clear the following campaign.

Setien was not Barcelona’s first choice, nor their second and probably not even their third. 

But such a lack of joined-up thinking at boardroom level should not dismiss the fact that he should have been given greater prominence in their thinking. Winning underwhelmingly under Valverde was no longer enough. The fanbase was demanding more, but will they accept uncompromising Cruyff-ian principles if it means forfeiting their stranglehold on La Liga? 

Whether it is through luck or judgement, that is the situation Barcelona find themselves in - a crunching gear change.

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