Barcelona appointed Quique Setién as their new head coach. The 61-year-old Spaniard only has a two-and-a-half year deal at the Camp Nou and will be charged with bringing the swagger back to Barcelona’s play as well as avoiding any more cup humiliations.
The Blaugrana are currently top of La Liga but only hold that advantage on goal difference over an indifferent Real Madrid side. It will be up to Setién to really get Barcelona playing like themselves again, but how will he do that?
We have a look at three possible line-ups he could field as he looks to start things off. Obviously Luis Suárez is out until April, so he cannot be included but otherwise he has everyone else to pick from.
1. Barça Classic
Barcelona had got so far away from their first principles under Ernesto Valverde that you wouldn’t recognise them as Barcelona anymore.
There was the odd performance where the old style came back, but for the most part they played just like any other team – even more boring at times, in fact. Beyond the individual genius of Leo Messi, Suárez and Ousmane Dembélé there was little special about them.
Under Quique Setién, that will change. So for the most part, the actual XI that the Spaniard will put out may not be too different to what Valverde would have done. The team picks itself really and everyone knows how they are supposed to play.
Pep Guardiola changed world football with this template in 2008 and it’s been copied so many times by now it’s not a mystery to anyone. Pass, press, move. Bring the ball out from the back, string together long passing moves, gut the opponent by upping the tempo in the final third.
In terms of personnel, there’s a few things to note: Samuel Umtiti is a better partner for Gerard Piqué than Clement Lenglet as he is both more athletic and a better timer of tackles. Jordi Alba will start but expect Junior Firpo, who played under Setién at Real Betis, to see more action as he develops under the manager who made him a star in the first place.
In midfield Ivan Rakitic will probably feature less as Barcelona move to a fully fluid midfield three playing the kind of football he isn’t suited for. Arturo Vidal is likely to be used a lot but as a joker off the bench, as best suits his talents. Riqui Puig won’t start but you’ll see more of him now for sure, which is a very good thing if you remember how Dani Ceballos and Fabian Ruiz developed under Setién.
2. The Quique Way
Of course Quique Setién may choose to use the formation he did at Real Betis: a 3-5-2. Functionally this is quite similar to a 4-3-3 as in possession, when playing the Quique way (which is the Barça way, too) Sergio Busquets would drop deep between the centre-backs who would split wide and allow both full-backs to push on and effectively play as wingers.
The only difference is that in a 3-5-2 you lose a winger in exchange for adding another central midfielder. This helps to stabilise the team and protect it from counter-attacks, which is very relevant given how vulnerable the Blaugrana have been to counters this season.
Furthermore, given Suárez’s injury has meant Barça’s options for a third forward slot are either the injury-prone Dembélé or the 17-year-old Ansu Fati, two players you wouldn’t want to overburden with minutes, perhaps a permanent system that doesn’t require them to start is the most effective system for Barcelona.
So the ball comes out from the back via the centre-backs. Umtiti being the most technically assured on both feet means he has the middle slot, also allowing him to act as a sweeper whilst Piqué and Lenglet push up into midfield when in possession. The midfield three dominates the ball and controls the tempo of the game. Three centre-backs gives them the freedom to push further forward and really squeeze opponents in the key zone of the pitch.
Roberto and Alba (or Junior) will provide all the width, with their defensive weaknesses being helped, again, by the extra centre-back. Finally in attack, we have Messi and Griezmann.
With the entire team set up to provide them with service, all these two world-class stars have to do is develop a sense of chemistry, knowing when one drops and one pushes on. They’ll probably never be as in-sync as Messi and Suárez, but they can play together enough to become a devastating front two.
3. Next Generation
Barcelona are at a crossroads in terms of their squad. The spine of their team (plus Alba) is all 30+. Piqué, Messi and Suárez are all 32 turning 33, whilst Busquets is 31 and Alba is 30. For so long under Valverde they have looked like an old, slow team. But things are changing at the Camp Nou.
Barça have invested in lots of young talent of late, sometimes quite heavily. They’ve also got a couple of pearls emerging from La Masia. What this means is that if Setién wants to, he can put a top quality side out which has just two players 25 or older in it. Marc-André Ter Stegen is far and away the side’s best goalkeeper, and Griezmann is their best choice to lead the line, but beyond that youth shines.
The departure on loan of Todibo forces a switch back to 4-3-3, but there is still an abundance of quality here. Young Senegalese sensation Moussa Wague is at right-back, and if he fails to make the grade the club can sign Brazilian Emerson from Betis in the summer (he is tearing up La Liga this season). The aforementioned Junior is his opposite at left-back and will be a dominant force here.
Lenglet looks and plays like a 34-year-old veteran but he is, in fact, just 24 years old. He anchors and commands the backline next to the mountainous figure of Ronald Araujo. Setién has already called the Uruguayan to train with the first-team and there’s no doubt his size and skill will see him feature soon enough.
Midfield isn’t too different, with Frenkie de Jong moving to the base where he shone with Ajax and Puig taking his place further forward. The young Catalan is one of the crown jewels of La Masia, so skilled at reading the game, drifting forward with the ball and playing incisive passes that it’s absurd he hasn’t played more than he has given he is 20.
This kid is the real deal and he would shine in this magnificent young midfield that would be capable of pressing and passing with the very best of world football.
(Video: Setien said in 2019 - It's a luxury to be in the same era as Messi)
In attack, as mentioned Griezmann leads the line but has the freedom to drop and link with team-mates. Out wide we have the twin sensations of Fati and Dembélé. One home-grown, one imported, both absolutely electric.
Dembélé is a languid playmaker who wants the ball to feet more than in behind, but is capable of astonishing technical feats off either foot. Ansu is like lightning, possessing the uncontrollable energy that only a teenager can have. He’ll run on and off the ball and shows no fear of any opponent.
This next generation is a team that could compete today but could also grow into the very best side in the world – especially with someone like Quique Setién at the helm.