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The title or the sack? Barcelona boss Setien must win over Messi to win La Liga

11:00 AM GMT+4 11/06/2020
Quique Setien Lionel Messi Barcelona GFX
The former Real Betis coach only arrived at Camp Nou in January but he has struggled to impose himself on a team surrounded by chaos

Quique Setien was just as surprised as everyone else by his appointment as Barcelona coach.

"Not even in my wildest dreams could I have imagined being here," he confessed at his unveiling as Ernesto Valverde's successor in January.

"Yesterday, I was walking past cows in my village. Today, I was at Barcelona’s training ground coaching the best players in the world."

Setien had been out of work since parting company with Real Betis last May, after an underwhelming 2018-19 campaign, and was poised to take charge of an Egyptian club when he received a most unexpected approach from the leaders of La Liga.

“When you’re out of work, waiting for an opportunity, you imagine [receiving an offer from] a team that’s down the bottom, in trouble," he said. "It’s not normal to take over a team that's first."

Nothing at Barca is normal anymore, though. Chaos is now the default setting at Camp Nou.

Since Quique's arrival just five months ago, there has been a social media scandal, allegations of theft and corruption, mass resignations at board level and a bitter dispute over pay-cuts provoked by the financial crisis caused by the Covid-19 outbreak.

The coach would be forgiven for wondering if he'd erred in swapping the tranquility of Liencres for the anarchy of Barcelona.

Clearly, though, this is the opportunity of a lifetime for a man who has never lifted a major trophy. The only problem is that there’s no guarantee that he’ll win a title in Catalunya.

Barcelona may currently sit top of La Liga but they are just two points ahead of Real Madrid and Setien told reporters ahead of this weekend’s resumption of play, "I think that we have to win every game if we want to be champions."

A perfect record looks a tall order, though, given the cloud of uncertainty already hanging over Camp Nou has darkened during the pandemic.

Also, all games between now and the end of the season will be played behind closed doors, while Barca’s results could even arguably be affected by the fact that teams will now be allowed to use five substitutes in a bid to protect players from the increased injury risks involved in returning to competitive football after such a lengthy lay-off and without a proper pre-season.

Indeed, Quique told the Las Palmas Interinsular Football Federation on YouTube, "I think this will do us more harm than good.

"Many games are resolved in the final minutes and with this rule change rivals will be able to have more fresh players in this phase of the match, when we tend to take advantage of their fatigue."

That remains to be seen, of course. In theory, bigger clubs such as Barca should benefit enormously from being able to rotate stronger, deeper pools of players during a hectic schedule featuring 11 games in five weeks.

However, this is one of the weakest Barcelona sides of the modern era. Their current Liga tally of 58 points is the Blaugrana's lowest haul from 27 games since 2007-08, when the wheels were falling off the Frank Rijkaard-led side that had won the Champions League just two years previously.

It was the bold and unexpected decision to hire Pep Guardiola which completely altered the history of the club and Barca are now hoping that an even more unexpected appointment might prompt a similarly spectacular U-turn.

Of course, Setien, an avid chess player, shares the same love of Johan Cruyff's football philosophy as Guardiola.

The former Atletico and Racing Santander midfielder lined out against the Dutchman's ‘Dream Team’ during his playing days and it changed his whole view of the game.

"I told Cruyff I’d have given my little finger to have played for his team," Setien has previously admitted.

"And not just to play at Barcelona but for how they played, because I saw how the players enjoyed themselves."

After Valverde's more direct, pragmatic play, Setien immediately restored Barca's traditional brand of possession football.

During his first game in charge, a 1-0 win over Granada, the Blaugrana completed 1,002 passes – the third-highest tally posted in La Liga since Opta began recording numbers.

However, what we have seen in his 11 games to date (seven wins, three defeats and one draw) is a style more similar to the sterile 'tiki-taka' that Guardiola despised than the short, sharp and incisive passing that the Catalan deployed to conquer Europe twice in three years.

As Messi damningly stated in an interview with Sport, during the break, "I never doubted the squad we have and I have no doubt that we can win all that remains, but not by playing in the way we were playing.

"Now, everyone has their opinion and they are all very respectable. Mine is based on the fact that I was lucky to play in the Champions League every year and I know that it is not possible to win it by playing as we have been playing."

The hope, therefore, is that Setien has made good use of the time off and come up with a strategy that suits and satisfies Messi, who hasn't scored a single goal away from home under the 61-year-old.

During his second game in charge, at Valencia, Setien employed a 3-5-2 but it proved a disaster, with Barca slumping to a dismal 2-0 defeat at Mestalla.

The senior players have, thus, proven resistant to any further experimentation with their tried-and-trusted 4-3-3. The net result is that Setien’s Barca is as offensively static and defensively vulnerable as Valverde’s.

The good news, of course, is that Luis Suarez is now fit to return to action, meaning Setien is in a position to field Barca's ‘MSG’ attacking triumvirate for the first time since taking charge.

Until now, Suarez, Messi and Antoine Griezmann have started alongside one another on just 13 occasions since the latter's arrival from Atletico Madrid last summer, and not once since losing a Supercopa de Espana game to the Rojiblancos in Valverde’s final game in charge, on January 9.

Suarez’s continued importance to Barca should not be overlooked. He may no longer be force of nature he once was but it is telling that despite playing just twice in 2020, only Messi has racked up more goals and assists than the Uruguayan this season.

Suarez’s return will not magically solve Barca’s problems going forward – this is also the worst season in terms of goals since 2007-08 – because the main issue remains getting the best out of Griezmann, who functions better as a support striker in a two-man attack.

Setien also has to make do with several midfielders who are clearly past their best (Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal and even the great Sergio Busquets) and shore up a defence that is conceding on average 1.19 goals a game – their worst ratio for nine seasons.

In short, Barca have just as many problems on the field right now as they do off it. And it is within this perfect storm that Setien is charged with finding solutions – and fast.

He has a contract until 2022 but it contains a clause that means he could be relieved of his duties after next year’s presidential election. So, in theory, Setien has 12 months to turn things around.

However, were Barca to finish the current campaign without a trophy, a scapegoat would be required to mask the failings of others higher up the food chain at Camp Nou.

Essentially, Setien could find himself back among those cows just as suddenly as he was whipped away from them.