Barcelona have fired Ernesto Valverde and appointed Quique Setién as their new head coach.
The Blaugrana are currently top of La Liga but only hold that edge on goal difference over an indifferent Real Madrid side. It will be up to Setién to really get Barcelona playing like themselves, but how will he do that?
We have a look at three possible line-ups he can field as he seems to start things off. Obviously Luis Suárez is out until April and Jean-Clair Todibo is on his way out on loan, so they cannot be included but otherwise, he has everyone else to pick from.
1. Barca way
There was the odd performance where the old style came back, but for the most part they played with just like any other team — even more dull 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 true 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’re supposed to play. Pep Guardiola changed world soccer with this template in 2008 and it’s been copied so many times by now it’s not a mystery to anyone. Pass, press, proceed. Bring the ball out from the back, string together long passing moves, gut the opponent by increasing the tempo in the final third.
In terms of personnel, there are a few things to note: Samuel Umtiti is a much better companion 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 Setién in Real Betis, to see more action because 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 completely fluid midfield three playing the type of football he is not suited for. Arturo Vidal is very likely to be used a lot but as a joker off the bench, as best suits his abilities. Riqui Puig won’t start but you’ll see more of him now for sure, which is an excellent thing if you recall how Dani Ceballos and Fabian Ruiz developed under Setién.
Obviously 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 manner, too) Sergio Busquets would fall deep between the centre-backs who would split wide and allow both full-backs to push on and efficiently play as wingers.
This helps to stabilise the group and protect it from counter-attacks, which is extremely important given how vulnerable the Blaugrana have been to counters this year.
Additionally, given Suárez’s injury has meant Barça’s choices for a third forward slot are the injury-prone Dembélé or the 17-year-old Ansu Fati, two players that you wouldn’t want to overburden with moments, possibly a permanent system that does not require them to begin is the most effective system for Barcelona.
So the ball comes out of the back through 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 the midfield when in possession. The midfield three dominates the ball and control the tempo of the game. Three centre-backs gives them the freedom to push further forward and actually squeeze opponents in the key zone of the pitch.
Roberto and Alba (or Junior) provide all the width, with their defensive weaknesses being helped, again, by the excess centre-back. Finally, in attack, we have Messi and Griezmann. With the whole team set up to provide them with service, all these two world-class stars must do is develop an awareness of chemistry, understanding when one drop and one pushes on. They will probably never be in-sync as Messi and Suárez, but they can play together enough to turn into a devastating front two.
3. Next Generation
Barcelona are at a crossroads concerning their squad. The spine of the team (plus Alba) is 30+. Piqué, Messi, and Suárez are 32 turning 33, whilst Busquets is 31 and Alba is 30. For so long under Valverde, they’ve appeared like an old, slow group. But things are changing at the Camp Nou.
Barça have invested in lots of young talent of late, sometimes quite heavily. They have also got a couple of pearls emerging from La Masia. What this signifies is that if Setién needs to, he can place an excellent side out which has only two players 25 or older inside. Marc-André Ter Stegen is far and away the side’s best goalkeeper, and Griezmann is their best choice to lead the lineup, but beyond that childhood shines.
The departure on loan of Todibo forces a switch back to 4-3-3, but there’s still a wealth of quality here. Young Senegalese sensation Moussa Wague is at right-back, and when he fails to make the grade the club can sign Brazilian Emerson from Betis in the summer (he’s ripping up La Liga this year). The above Junior is his opposite at left-back and will be a dominant force.
Lenglet looks and plays just like a 34-year-old veteran, but he is, in actuality, just 24 years old. He anchors and controls the backline next to the mountainous figure of Ronald Araujo. Setién has called the Uruguayan to train with the first-team and there is no doubt his size and ability will see him feature soon enough.
Midfield isn’t too different, with Frenkie de Jong moving to the bottom where he shone with Ajax and Puig taking his place farther forward. The young Catalan is one of the crown jewels of La Masia, so proficient at reading the game, drifting forward with the ball and playing incisive passes that it is absurd he hasn’t played more than he’s given he’s 20. This kid is the real deal and he would shine in this glorious young midfield that would be capable of passing and pressing with the best of world football.