Time is running out for Barcelona to maintain their La Liga title challenge, and the same could be true for manager Quique Setien’s hopes of keeping his job.
Setien was only appointed in January but, after just 19 games in charge, his future is already uncertain.
Barca are four points behind leaders Real Madrid with four games to play, and head into Wednesday’s home derby date with bottom club Espanyol needing both a convincing win and performance.
It’s a meaningful game for both teams. Espanyol will be relegated if they fail to win, while collecting maximum points is Barcelona’s only option as they attempt to to maintain their slim title chances.
For Setien, the stakes are even higher. If his team fail to impress in the next two weeks, he probably will not even last to see out the delayed conclusion to this season’s Champions League when it resumes in August.
Setien, an ardent admirer of Barca legend Johan Cruyff, arrived in January with a promise to reinstate the Dutch master’s playing style, which had been slowly eroded under predecessor Ernesto Valverde.
For his first game, at home to Granada, Setien attempted to fulfil that pledge immediately by lining up with a Cruyffian back three, plus wing-backs, and with Lionel Messi as a false nine rather than in the right-sided role he has filled in recent years.
Setien’s mini-revolution lasted three games. Following a poor defeat at Valencia, he decided (or, perhaps, was persuaded) that his players could not (or would not) perform with his preferred system.
He reverted to a 4-3-3 formation and the team returned to the laboured, plodding, excessively Messi-centric style which had led to Valverde’s downfall. The arrival of a new manager had changed little, and Setien appeared to be unable to impose his methods upon a group of players set in their ways.
The same old weaknesses were still evident, and a series of disappointing results – including a 2-0 Clasico loss at Real Madrid – saw Barca’s title challenge fade.
|Setien’s record at Barcelona|
|Copa del Rey||3||2||0||1|
The crisis point arrived with a 2-2 draw at relegation-threatened Celta Vigo in late June. Those dropped points led to reports that Setien had lost the dressing room, and that his dismissal was already being considered.
Images of Setien and his endlessly energetic assistant Eder Sarabia apparently being ignored by the players during a mid-game drinks break in Vigo strengthened the suspicion that he had little control over the squad, and the idea that his days were numbered.
But if a new manager were to be brought in with the aim of salvaging this season’s Champions League challenge, it would probably be a stop-gap appointment. Barca are in poor financial shape, and hiring would be complicated by the fact that the season has been extended by the coronavirus pandemic.
Club legend Xavi, the number one target when Valverde was fired in January, appears unwilling to take over until president Josep Maria Bartomeu leaves his post next year, and other potential candidates have not exactly been rushing forward.
But there is the option to promote B team boss Francisco Javier Garcia Pimienta temporarily. It would be no surprise to see him named interim coach for the Champions League campaign, allowing a permanent replacement for Setien to be appointed during the brief ‘summer’ break.
A turning point?
Just when it seemed as if Setien was on the way out, however, his team unexpectedly produced a thrilling display, which might yet prove the springboard for greater success.
Sunday’s 4-1 win at Villarreal was the most refreshing Barcelona performance in months, if not years.
Most significantly, the game saw a new tactical approach with Messi at the tip of a midfield diamond, behind central strikers Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann.
The issue of how to integrate Griezmann has been a big one throughout the season. The Frenchman, mostly stuck out on the left wing, has been largely ineffective since his arrival last summer, amid repeated reports that Messi does not like him and wanted the club to re-sign Neymar instead.
Those supposed animosities, though, were swept away in a thrilling first half at Villarreal, as the front three combined brilliantly in the manner we had been waiting for all season.
Last month’s home game against Leganes saw only one direct pass between Messi and Griezmann in the whole game, underlining how badly they were struggling to connect. At Villarreal, that number jumped to 14 – including a cheeky backheel from Messi to assist a gloriously converted chip from Griezmann.
Finally, with their new-look formation, Barca were playing with the style and swagger expected from Setien. And the coach’s tweaks in the second half, strengthening the midfield by replacing Suarez after Villarreal tightened up, suggested that he is finally starting to impose himself and do things his own way.
It was only one game, Villarreal were pliant opposition and defensive frailties were still evident. But Barca’s performance on Sunday was a reminder they can still thrill.
And if they continue to do so, starting on Wednesday against Espanyol, Setien might yet be reprieved.