Comparing the 2019/20 FC Barcelona campaigns of Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien.
Hopes were challenged, trust was fading. But Ernesto Valverde was there, where Bartomeu wanted him to be and no Blaugrana fan wanted him to stay. That was the beginning of the 2019/2020 season at the Camp Nou. While the feelings weren’t particularly light towards Barça’s manager, Leo Messi’s usual words before the Gamper Trophy had the supporters gain some confidence again after another unreal debacle in the Champions League. For the second time in a row. You could sense the fans’ frustration in the air.
However the situation, Valverde began the season with the full support of the roaster, having the older and most experienced players behind his back. A mutual feeling that lasted as long as Valverde’s journey with Barça. Once Setién got in charge of the team, a few resentments changed. Pretty quickly too, I should add. But analyzing the two managers’ season could be less understandable than what it could seem.
While they both had the same number of games managed in La Liga this season, the former Real Betis’ coach had gained a couple more points than the first one. And even though it could seem an easy situation to get into, it is also easy to make conclusions faster than expected. Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien had two different halves. Different in numbers, in style, and in personality. Different.
Solidity has always proved to be an ally for Valverde in his career, Barça included, while quality was the main feature that characterized the style of Setien. One wanted to win with any mean whatsoever, the other wanted to impose a specific style to the team. Two completely different perspectives. Well, two failed ones. At least this year, since both of them, brought just inconsistency and mental weakness to the team as a unit.
Despite the pragmatism of El Txingurri and the continuing search for the beauty of Setién, both managers gave Barça the complete opposite of what football enthusiasts expected them to give. With two things in common: inconsistency and arrogance. With both coaches having issues in finding a suitable and permanent tactical and psychological approach to games, especially those away from the Camp Nou, they still found the way to reverse engineer their own philosophy. That is how Valverde became senseless and careless (tactically speaking) and Setien stubborn and overconfident.
As if there weren’t enough doubts before, Valverde began his season with a few more: “Where should I place Griezmann?”, “Who’s going to lose his place in the midfield zone?” and even “Leo’s injured. Now what?”. Lots of questions that he had to answer, somehow. While he still made the Frenchman score for the first time playing him in his natural role, Valverde was never able to solve the puzzle with him. And about this aspect, it is fair to say that nobody did.
Even Setién had issues with the placement on the pitch of Griezmann and, even though he seemed to have found a spot for him towards the end of La Liga, especially with that Villarreal game, the Frenchman got injured and we really couldn’t conclude anything concrete. One thing is a certainty though: playing the World Champion as a left winger is a waste of time, money, and talent. It shouldn’t have crossed any of the managers’ minds.
And here we come to what should come as a surprise for many. Even if Barça’s last game against Alavés increased the net goal difference, Valverde’s team scored more goals than Setien’s. While the latter one’s game should’ve been buzzing, dynamic, and attacking, it proved to be a flat bubble. No quick movements on and off the ball, no creativity besides the individuality’s ones, no confidence. With 2.58 goals per game average, Valverde’s Barcelona was able to score 4+ goals on six different occasions, while Setien’s team averaged a low 1.95 goals per game, netting a poker once and a ‘manita’ twice. In the last seven months, Barça were literally grasping at straws with those short 1-0, 2-1 wins. Boring. You can call it if you want “involuntary reverse engineering”.
Blaugrana fans expected a thunderstorm with the appointment of the former Las Palmas manager, but they were disappointed in terms of excitement. Both statistically and technically. Even though he had slightly better defensive numbers, with 15 goals conceded against the 23 suffered from Valverde’s times, the goal difference, together with some objective analysis of the team’s performances, clearly outlined how our first half of the season was certainly more exciting than our second one on average, despite both being extremely disappointing to the well known Barça standards.
To all those fans already screaming to “He really said that Valverde’s team was ‘exciting’?!”, calm down. As I emphasized, the original levels we are all accustomed to when we’re talking about Barcelona are quite different from anything we’ve seen so far this season. It’s just like when we compare Messi’s performances and stats: he’s always trapped by his own standards.
Valverde was disappointing. Setien also. But while the first one got an unfair sack in that specific moment, after probably the best display Barça put up this season (Spanish Supercup, against Atletico Madrid), the latter still has time to decide his own future. A future where Valverde’s footprint shouldn’t be underestimated. The world wouldn’t be appreciating Ansu Fati’s talent if not for the Viandar De La Vera’s born coach. He had the guts to believe in the La Masia talent, in the La Masia talents: not just Ansu Fati, but Alena and Carles Perez too, before the board’s foolishness began. And to add some virtues to Valverde, the whole Blaugrana environment had such a faithful relationship with him.
From the senators to the youngest, through the club. Something that Setien hasn’t really gained yet.
The current Barcelona manager has a chance now. His chance to shock the world and to gain the respect his football wants. With a Riqui Puig more, which he had the intelligence to gave him the trust he deserves, with fresh legs on the pitch and skills on both ends of the field of play, the game is on.
Setién, the past is already gone. The present is on you to develop the right strategy. The future could be yours to live. Change the temperature of this heat, make it your own. “One chance, one opportunity.”
A history of crumbling under pressure: The Jordi Alba conundrum in a big game
Claiming Jordi Alba to be one of La Liga’s – if not Europe’s – most improved players from last season would not be a far fetch. While on his best days, his quality has always been evident, and his raiding runs on the left flank tend to give the Blaugranas a huge edge, the Spanish international’s output in the final third has lately begun to revolve around sensible plays, with visible improvements in Alba’s decision making; most notably refraining from relying on the formularized ‘Messi cut-back.’
The marauding speedster has become a crucial cog in Koeman’s side as the newfound 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation arguably seems to extract his best qualities and conceals his most noticeable flaws. The Spaniard is considered lethal, and a vital source of penetration situated higher up the field. With slick spells of possession in the centre, his runs from wide are almost gone unnoticed.
However, in spite of Alba’s achievements thus far and enhancements in his gameplay, issues that have tainted the talented Spaniard’s career still prove to be a thorn in his side, overcoming him in arguably the worst moments. Big games and Jordi Alba appear to have developed an incredibly toxic relationship as the 32-year-old has, on countless occasions, been a victim of his feeble mindset, tarnishing his legacy in the process.
The Copa del Rey final will once more be a huge encounter with a crucial source of silverware on the line for the Blaugranas. A win will undoubtedly elevate their status, uplift the morale of the team and surely prove to be their saving grace this season. Unfortunately, a game of this magnitude is also the perfect breeding ground for Alba’s antics. As promising as his season may have been, he has still proven to be unreliable in pressure situations.
Blitzing forward, he is known to be a menace, but in the defensive third, poor decision making is often visible. In the recent Clásico, Alba’s assist for Mingueza may have overshadowed his lack of focus defensively, but it must not be forgotten that he was a major reason why Fede Valverde was able to comfortably cruise past the Barcelona midfield and provide Benzema with the pre-assist. After enjoying one of the best patches of his career, Alba fell prey to the big game syndrome on the night it mattered most.
While that defeat was not entirely the number 18’s fault, it was a testament to his habitual blunders. In the Spanish Supercup final against Athletic Bilbao, Alba was once again one of the major culprits, proving to be undependable in set pieces and as confused as a lost sailor in defence, suffering at the hands of Iñaki Williams most notably. Scoring an own goal against the very same opposition in the league was another dent on his resumé. The fact that Alba contributed heavily to Valencia’s Copa Del Rey victory in the 18/19 season also devalues his presence in critical games, with both goals from Valencia easily avoidable, had the Spaniard not fumbled cheaply.
For the first goal, Alba came instantly rushing to block the scorer but was sent to the cleaners as he gravely mistimed his run. On the second occasion, the 32-year-old enabled Valencia’s winger to charge past him seamlessly as he went onto assist the final dagger. Admittedly, Culés have done their best to move on from the past in an attempt to forget and forgive. Having made some huge strides this campaign, clinging on to errors that any mere mortal is capable of committing does seem nonsensical.
Even so, despite efforts made to channel more faith in Alba, his recent comments have only made matters worse. As a leaked conversation between Alba and Piqué was made public by the media after the Clásico, concerns are again beginning to mount over his mentality. Even though Piqué appeared to be optimistic regarding Barça’s chances in the Copa Del Rey, all Alba had to offer in response was, “I don’t know.”
Completely ignoring the progression Barcelona made after proceedings, disregarding the fact that a point is the least Barça deserved, and most importantly, forgetting the club’s ability to bounce back this season, a meagre “I don’t know” is all the full-back gave in response. Of course, drawing conclusions based solely on a 10-second clip would be unjust, yet, given Alba’s past of wavering when it matters most, it really does not come as a surprise. The Anfield annihilation still remains fresh in memory, a wound that is yet to heal fully.
To play or not play, that is the question
As the full-back made a mockery of himself under the lights, his breakdown at half-time when the comeback was not even completed simply implies his pessimistic nature. Thus arrives the million-dollar question: do Barcelona run the risk of playing Alba in a game where the stakes are this high?
Considering Alba’s recent comments and reputation in knockout stages, fielding him in a game that holds such value for Barça’s campaign is inarguably a risk. The brand of football Barcelona have been playing comprises of collective strength, which emphasizes on every individual playing a vital role. One loose screw is all it takes to disrupt the team, and it’s fair to say Alba has proven to be that loose screw on several occasions before.
Nonetheless, the Blaugranas are incredibly limited, not yet possessing the privilege to have any firm competition in Alba’s position. As frustrating as his shortcomings may be, there is still no denying that his “good days” earn him the title of one of the best full-backs in the world. An additional factor is that he has, at the very least, not crumbled in any of the previous Copa del Rey knockout stages. Against Granada and Sevilla, his contributions were absolutely vital, particularly his performance against the Nazaríes, where a blistering brace enabled his side to seal qualification.
Barça are certainly running a risk, but this risk could potentially pay dividends if Alba shows a more daring and composed version. Making a sudden change in the final seems unlikely and could potentially hamper the team’s harmony.