Despite several disappointing results and decisions in recent months, including Saturday’s 2–2 draw against Celta, the unordinary circumstances should make Barcelona fans and board give Quique Setién more time and a larger margin of error.
Barcelona dropped points again on Saturday, in what was at least a close encounter against Celta de Vigo. A performance that would have guaranteed three points any other day. As usual, swords and sickles are out for a number of heads. It is therefore imperative to go back to the chalk board and have a crack at the numbers to see where Quique Setién and his squad stand in comparison to that of Ernesto Valverde. Especially since there have been claims that it was about time Setién exited.
When Ernesto Valverde was sacked in January this year, Barcelona had 40 points out of a maximum 57, with a percentage of 70.17. This rate is notably lesser than a 76.31 percentage that Barça finished the previous season with. The goals scored per game under Valverde this season was at a decent 2.57, though the rate of conceding goals were also high at a 1.21 per game. Simply put, this means that Barcelona had already dropped a lot of points by the time the board decided to part ways with Valverde. If the blaugranas were leading the league by a point as the world went into lockdown due to the corona pandemic, it was merely down to the underperforming Real Madrid.
This is the squad Quique Setién inherited. His tenure thus far has been anything but peaceful. The team has been rattled by injury crises, the world around it has been fighting the pandemic, and stadiums are now stripped off fans. It would be an understatement therefore to say that the circumstances have not been kind to Setién so far.
Add to this the fact that he was not given a preseason to study and interact with the squad and consider and test his options carefully and the picture is nearly complete. Coming in as a new coach towards the business end of a season is precarious to say the least. The stakes are too high and the margin of errors very low.
Everyone still needs more time to get used to the methods of Quique Setién | Photo by Octavio Passos via Getty Images
Given these factors however, Setién’s squad has not done badly at all. Since the change of personal at the helm, Barça has won 29 points of an available 39, with a rate of 74.35 percent. This rate is higher than the first half of the season. While the goals scored per match are a little lesser at 1.76, this can be excused by the long term injuries to main striker Luis Suárez, winger Ousmane Dembélé and an altogether less number of options upfront due the sales and loan of Carles Pérez and Rafinha Alântara. The rate of goals conceded, however, has been limited to a 0.76 per game. Before conceding two goals this weekend, Marc-André ter Stegen set a personal best of five consecutive clean sheets.
“I don’t feel pressure at my work. I am passionate about what I do. If I wasn’t, I would not be here. I am positive here, and I arrive every morning with a smile”
As far as squad management is concerned, though Quique Setién too tried playing safe in a few matches, lately he has been giving playing time to youngsters. Like Ansu Fati, Riqui Puig and Ronald Araújo, all of whom have lived up to the faith the manager showed them.
At the end of the day, even if one admits – for arguments sake – that the league season is lost, it would be foolhardy to place the blame entirely on the recently appointed manager. And it is exactly such hasty and vicious conclusions that would end up harming teams in transition like FC Barcelona.
Araujo and Mingueza: The future is bright
After years of poor squad planning, expensive signings and underperforming veterans, two young talents have, once again, shown the value of La Masia. This has come in the form of defenders Ronald Araujo and Óscar Mingueza. Both are establishing themselves as reliable and confident centre-backs with huge potentials.
This campaign is crucial for Barcelona. The club has been on a gradual decline for several seasons and, in that time, faced some of the worst defeats in its 121 years of existence. As Ronald Koeman has stated so himself, this truly is a transitional season for the Blaugrana.
The team was in desperate need of new blood and rejuvenation in the squad. Though this was partially completed, Barça found themselves short in some positions. This was particularly the case when Gerard Piqué sustained a long-term injury against Atletico Madrid. The Catalan side found themselves without any experienced right-sided centre-backs. On top of this, Samuel Umtiti has rarely been fit enough to start, and Clément Lenglet’s form has dipped this season.
However, from this concerning position, it has allowed others to thrive. Araújo and Minguea have both played nine matches in La Liga this season and are taking their chances. The Uruguayan has impressed with his imposing figure and defensive capabilities, while Mingueza has shown his versatility and confidence on the ball.
Being forced to rely on La Masia has meant both Araújo and Mingueza have been given first-team chances. The youth academy has been underappreciated and young talents have not been handled correctly. With the young defenders performing so admirably, surely these are the signs that Barcelona will show more faith in their homegrown players again.
Having played most of his youth career in Uruguay, Ronald Araujo joined Barcelona in 2018. The 21-year-old did not need long to gain first-team minutes. He appeared six times for the Blaugrana in La Liga during the 2019/20 season. After a slow start to the current campaign, Araújo looks to be establishing himself as the heir to Gerard Piqué.
The Uruguayan defender has the brains and the brawn to go with it at such a young age. Araujo is positionally aware and shows great anticipation and awareness of danger. This sense, combined with his pace and strength, means he is almost impossible to get past.
Having that pace is important as he is able to stop counter-attacks against quick oppositions. The La Masia graduate displayed this against Iñaki Williams in the Super Cup final as he limited his chances of getting in behind the defence.
Another one of the defender’s strengths is his ability to recover and make important challenges. On several occasions already, Araujoo has shown how quickly he can track back and stop strikers getting the chance to score. It is a useful trait as Barcelona play with a high line that can be exploited by opponents getting in behind the defence.
The big Uruguayan is not the finished product yet though. There are some areas where he could improve to become the ideal Barça centre-back. The most notable weakness is his passing, with Araujo not always looking the most comfortable on the ball. He struggles to find progressive passes into the midfield and break the lines of the opposition’s press. This is an important aspect of any Barcelona centre-back, but one he can develop.
Against Athletic Club, Araujo showed his aerial dominance winning five out of six aerial duels. Though his side conceded three goals, the young centre-back continues to show his leadership qualities on the pitch. The defeat will be a difficult one to take, but Araújo has a promising future at the club.
Óscar Mingueza is another young defender who is stating his claim for a starting position. At one point, he was considered the fourth-choice centre-back for the Barcelona B team. Now, Mingueza is playing regularly for the first team and is showing he is capable of performing at this level.
The Spaniard is a determined defender and is ready for a physical battle. He is fearless like club legend and former captain, Carles Puyol, and commits to every challenge. Though the number 28 has a long way to go to be compared to club legend Puyol, there are some signs. The 21-year-old times his tackles well and is confident in one on one situations with attackers.
Mingueza is versatile and has proven he can play as a centre-back and a full-back. Similarly, Carles Puyol began his career as a right-back and eventually transitioned to a central defender. This versatility has been an asset to Barcelona this season with injuries in both positions leaving the Spanish giants short of options.
In contrast to his teammate, Ronald Araújo, Mingueza is excellent on the ball and comfortable in passing. This is more natural to the Spaniard as he has spent more years in the Barça youth system. The two defenders complement each other well and are both fast, strong and committed.
Though the number 28 did not start for the Blaugrana in the Super Cup final, he came on at half-time to replace Sergiño Dest. In a difficult contest, Mingueza performed well and showed a great work ethic. He should continue to get regular minutes and develop with the first team. There is no doubting his quality and his future also looks encouraging at Barcelona.
With Eric Garcia’s signing in the summer almost inevitable at this point, it is safe to say that he will come to his hometown to face more competition than he would have expected. Ronald Araujo and Oscar Mingueza’s rise to the first-team is proof that La Masia can still be trusted. Or rather, should be. The season is long and hectic, but there is littl to no doubt that Araujo and Mingueza will keep shining.