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When Barcelona took to the field against Granada on Sunday night, there was a lot of anticipation and excitement surrounding what seemed like any other ordinary league fixture. Not this one, however. The buildup to the game could easily be mistaken for a soap opera script on how not to run a football club and how to get things right in equal measure. The Barcelona finally board finally decided enough was enough and terminated Valverde’s contract after finding out their international brand and image had suffered under him thanks to the trip of Saudi Arabia in order to take part in the Spanish Super Cup.
A Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia? Let’s not even get started on that. Barcelona succumbed to Atletico Madrid in the final ten minutes of the semi-final despite leading until then and ended up losing the fixture- strangely characterising Valverde’s period at the club. The fixture was inconsequential and to be fair, for the most part, Barcelona played good football. But what the disaster at Anfield and Rome and the continuous putting up with mediocrity couldn’t do, Saudi fans booing everytime Valverde’s image popped up on the big screen did. Tells you a lot about where the Barcelona board’s priorities lie.
A tale of tardiness: the Ernesto Valverde exit..
In order to get rid of Valverde, the management went about it in the stupidest way possible. From very publicly visiting Xavi in order to ask him to take reins of the club to not informing the current manager about the proceedings, Bartomeu and his men once again stayed true to their legacy of being ridiculously unprofessional. Xavi refused to take over citing that it was too early for him, and he was right to do so. Having just won the Qatar Cup with his club Al Sadd, Xavi has all of a mere 30 games on his CV. Taking over Barcelona tests you and the last thing you need is to take charge of the ship so soon without possessing the sufficient experience to read the winds and navigate accordingly.
Right, Xavi would arrive one day but now was not the time. As a result, Quique Setien, the man with the least decorated CV but with the most original principles that corresponds well with Barcelona’s was identified as the man to take charge of the first team and lead them out of the doldrums. While his appointment was seen from a temporary basis, buying Xavi the time to mould and carve himself to fit the demands of Barcelona’s first team, it was by no means, subordinate. Setien did a phenomenal job with clubs like Las Palmas and Real Betis making sure the clubs pushed above their weight while playing a beautiful brand of football, the kind that was inspired by the godfather of Barcelona, Johan Cruyff. “I felt that football could be played better, but I didn’t see it until Johan showed us…”, tweeted Setien in 2016 when Johan passed away.
A visual spectacle from the start…
Cruyff would’ve been happy had he been able to watch Barcelona take on Granada on Sunday. After three years of being astray, faltering and getting lost along the way, they were finally on the right track. Setien had got the basics right. A high press, smoother transitions, flexible positioning, and efficient counterpress and an expansive game with loads and loads of possession. The 61-year-old former midfielder from Santander got a full week to prepare for the game and he asked for a gruelling workload from his players, often keeping two training sessions a day and an extra session on the very day of the game in order to breakdown tactical strategies so as to avoid an upset on his debut at his dream job.
A chess aficionado, Setien loves taking charge of the centre of the board which gives him the leverage to exert more control on the rest of the game. The tactical shape he deployed on Sunday was reminiscent of the same. Jordi Alba pushed up, tucked as a wide midfielder to provide a four-man midfield to support the three defenders building from the back and Voila! the triangles that are so necessary to play Barcelona’s trademark Juego de Posicion or positional play was back. Busquets was barely a feet or two from Umtiti and Pique and relayed everything from the back and formed the pivot of Barcelona. On occasions, he was also the first man to lead the offensive press against the opposition keeper.
It was like a ballad over the green grass…
In the absence of the suspended De Jong and the returning-from-injury Arthur, Setien sided with the more technically limited members of the squad Rakitic and Vidal, whose futures are both unclear with the club. Vidal was impressive in his new role under Setien and Barcelona’s midfield formed the basis of everything they did on the night, as was the case under Pep, Tito and Luis Enrique’s first spell, as should always be the case for Barcelona.
Messi often dropped to midfield to bamboozle the disciplined Granada defence and did Messi things. He wasn’t his usual best, but Barcelona managed to carve out chances regardless. This should be the biggest takeaway from Setien’s first game with a club that has required Messi to carry them through thick and thin, failing when he doesn’t. It’s true Messi makes the life of a manager easy, but it’s the first and foremost responsibility of a good manager to return the favour. Setien scored high on that point.
With 81% of the possession, something that hasn’t been seen at the Camp Nou in the last few years, Barcelona were on driver’s seat for most of the game and except for the one time Granada’s Yan Eteki struck the post when the score was goalless.
In his first press conference as Barcelona manager, Quique Setien spoke a lot about giving equal weight to young players as the regulars in the first team if they managed to impress with their talent. This was on show when he started with 17-year-old Ansu Fati and brought on Carles Perez after half-time. However, the case is most evident in the case of the immensely talented Riqui Puig who was long ignored by Valverde. Puig trained with the first team all week, and when called upon from the bench, it was his counter-press that started the move that resulted in the sole goal for Barcelona on the night.
And what a piece of beauty the goal was. Puig won the ball from Granada just seconds after losing it and found Busquets at the edge of the box. The Octopus of Badalona found Messi as he has done so often in the last decade. An unconventional Messi pass saw the ball at the feet of Barcelona’s headline summer signing Griezmann whose deft touch made it easy for Vidal to trap it. Vidal shrugged the attention from two defenders and passed the ball back to Messi who made no mistake in tapping the ball in from close distance. It took five touches after Riqui initiated the move for the ball to end up in the back of the net.
Following the advantage, Barcelona held on to possession and circulated the ball extremely well, not allowing the opposition to get any sniff of a comeback. The nerves in the final minutes that was a staple of Valverde’s reign at the club were suddenly dismissed and with it, the Camp Nou let out a sigh of relief. The players were smiling once again, Setien was happy despite the 1-0 scoreline which wasn’t exactly suggestive of Barcelona’s dominance on the pitch and the Camp Nou had a new and exciting era to look forward to- the era of entertaining and dominant football under Quique Setien.
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