Quique Setien: The chess-mad Cruyff disciple charged with bringing Barcelona back to the summit of European football
Valverde’s two-and-a-half year tenure at the Nou Camp was terminated “by mutual consent” after meetings with the Barca hierarchy on Monday, with the final nail in the coffin coming after defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup semi-final in Saudi Arabia last week.
Despite the Catalan giants leading La Liga on goal difference ahead of main rivals Real Madrid, Valverde found his position increasingly precarious after a series of uninspiring performances this season.
The Barcelona faithful had increasingly lamented Valverde's stolid and overly pragmatic style, with little sign of improvement so far this campaign.
✍️ A goodbye letter from Ernesto Valverde: ‘My time as manager of FC Barcelona has come to an end...’— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) January 14, 2020
And while the 55-year-old Spaniard delivered domestic success with back-to-back La Liga titles, as well as a Copa del Rey and Spanish Super Cup, that was never likely to be enough for a club which sets the bar at European glory, and which demands verve and flair in the process.
In that respect, Valverde’s team came spectacularly undone in the Champions League in successive seasons – first in a humiliating 3-0 second leg defeat in the quarter-final against Rome in 2018, and then suffering the ignominy of letting a 3-0 first-leg lead slip against Liverpool in the semi-final last season.
Ever since that Anfield debacle, Valverde was on borrowed time in the Barca hotseat.
The search for his replacement reportedly began with former Barca playing legends Xavi and Ronald Koeman, although both of whom believed the timing of the offer to be wrong.
But in Setien, 61, they have found an equally devout disciple of Johan Cruyff, and a man who adheres to the principles that the Blaugrana faithful hold dear.
Dutch icon Cruyff famously bestowed the hallowed fast-paced, passing and possession-based playing approach to Barcelona during his years as manager during the late 1980s and start of the 1990s.
That fabled style underpinned the club’s European success under Cruyff and then Pep Guardiola, but was slowly eroded under the less inspiring, more cautious approach of Valverde.
Barcelona fans will rejoice that the “Cruyffist” Setien is now at the helm as a pronponent of that philosophy.
Setien’s fluid, eye-catching brand of football was in evidence at his last club, Real Betis, whom he guided to sixth in the La Liga table in the 2017-18 season, qualifying for the UEFA Europa League.
Setien left the Seville-based club in May of last year after two years in charge, but secured a 4-3 win against Valverde’s Barcelona at the Nou Camp last season.
62.5% - Under Quique Setién, Real Betis had a possession figure of 62.5% in LaLiga 2018/19, the highest figure for a team in a single season since at least 2005/06 (excluding Barcelona). DNA. pic.twitter.com/8PVGw91eMx— OptaJose (@OptaJose) January 14, 2020
The Spaniard’s teams have typically played with flair throughout his time as a coach, which followed a 19-year playing career.
Nicknamed ‘El Maestro’, midfielder Setien started out at hometown club Racing Santander in the 1970s before moving to capital giants Atletico Madrid, where he spent three years.
A spell then followed at smaller outfit Logrones, before a move back to Santander and then finishing his playing days at Levante.
Setien also picked up three caps for the Spanish national team, being named in the 1986 World Cup squad but not making an appearance at the tournament.
As with his playing career, Setien's managerial days began at Santander in 2001, before a spell with lower-league Poli Ejido and then a brief stint as Equatorial Guinea manager. Moves to Logrones and Lugo followed, before a switch to Las Palmas in La Liga, and then Betis.
Setien’s teams have been characterized by a devotion to Cruyff-type principles of attacking verve, so much so that on his appointment as Barcelona boss, fans were quick to bring up some quotes from the man now taking the reins.
“I would have given my little finger to have played in Cruyff's Barca team,” Setien has previously said.
While coach at Las Palmas, he is also reported to have said that “I never really understood the game until I saw Cruyff's Barcelona play.
“The first time that happened it opened up a new world to me. I began to understand that football was a collective thing, and that association between players meant you could keep the ball the whole game.”
And while Cruyff's approach to the game focused on players having heightened spatial awareness on the pitch, that concept is applied to Setien’s interests away from football, where he is a big chess fan – so much so that he has reportedly played games against grandmasters Garry Kasparov and Anatoli Karpov.
Having been handed a two-and-a-half-year deal at Barcelona, believed to be on a trial basis until the end of the current campaign, Setien will now need to make the right moves to successfully utilize Lionel Messi and Co while playing a style many felt was diminshed under Valverde.
A third successive La Liga crown will be seen as a minimum, especially given that main rivals Real Madrid are under a rebuilding project under Zinedine Zidane.
But more importantly, Barcelona will be targeting a first European title since 2015, starting with a tricky last 16 tie against Italians Napoli at the end of February.
As Setien steps into the role, the remainder of the season has been made more difficult by the loss of Messi's main strike partner Luis Suarez following a knee operation. He also inherits a squad containing the exciting young talents of the likes of Ansu Fati and Frenkie de Jong, but with the aging legs of Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets, among others.
Setien’s first game in charge will come against Granada at home on Sunday – a match that for Barca fans can’t come soon enough as they await the promise of a new era at the Nou Camp, but one very much based on the tried and tested principles of old.