New Barcelona coach Quique Setien’s first major test has come at him fast. Nobody enjoys playing away at Mestalla, with the Catalans last winning there in 2016, and Albert Celades’s Valencia will press Barca high and make things as uncomfortable as possible on Saturday afternoon.
With third-tier UD Ibiza leading Barcelona for over an hour in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, it is evident Setien has a lot of problems to solve to keep his team competitive in La Liga and the Champions League.
Setien's Barcelona dominated possession against Ibiza and on his debut last weekend against Granada at Camp Nou in a 1-0 league win, but created few clear chances in either game.
Since Andres Iniesta left in 2018, the Catalans have struggled to create chances from midfield. Philippe Coutinho was signed to become the club’s next playmaker but flopped and was loaned to Bayern Munich.
Carles Alena might have been able to deliver on that front but forced his way out on loan to Real Betis after not being given opportunities by Ernesto Valverde.
Riqui Puig is hoping to prove himself under Setien but was quiet against Ibiza and it’s far from certain that the pint-sized 20-year-old is ready to compete in La Liga week-in, week-out. Barcelona managed 1,005 passes against Granada and 82.6 per cent possession, a figure not matched since the hallowed Pep Guardiola days, but a lot of those passes were sideways or backwards.
It’s all very well having a lot of the ball but Barcelona need to do something with it. Purists purred at the way they circulated possession - and after the blandness of Valverde it was impressive to see their identity so quickly restored - but the next step is to turn dull dominance into exciting opportunities.
Lionel Messi is the one reliable creative source Barcelona have but if the No. 10 is playing the killer passes, he can’t be on the end of them.
Messi scored the first goal of the Setien era, just as he did in the Valverde and Luis Enrique eras, slotting home after a slick team move which hit all the buttons Setien was aiming for. The challenge now is to consistently repeat the speed and fluidity of that play while improving the team’s finishing to bury the chances they make.
Luis Suarez’s four-month injury lay-off means the team is lacking a pure centre forward. With 11 league goals, the Uruguayan was the team’s second top scorer, behind Messi on 14. Antoine Griezmann has seven and he may be the solution, with his superior finishing the only reason Barcelona scraped their 2-1 win at Ibiza in Can Misses, but tends to operate better on the left.
“I didn’t like the team,” complained Setien after their scare in the Balearics. “I would have liked it to go a different way. I would have loved us to be more precise, to understand some things better.”
Messi was left at home to rest so it was no wonder that Barcelona were clueless. They have depended on him for so long, and in recent years more than ever. The Argentine talisman is the club’s captain and a leader on and off the pitch, including tactically, with Setien’s team exposed in his absence by the plucky islanders.
As well as Javi Perez’s opener, Ibiza had a goal disallowed and Rei Nascimiento hit the crossbar; Barcelona might have been 3-0 down by half-time on another day.
Setien is a disciple of Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff, which is in part what brought him to this point. Almost overawed at his presentation, Setien said he could not believe he was at Barcelona, that one of Spain’s giants had called him to take on the job - from a 10th place finish with Real Betis last season, to being unemployed, strolling past cows in his village, to coaching Messi.
Setien excitedly showed Barcelona representatives his tactical plans with drinking glasses when they met, but now he has to settle on one. Against Granada the team lined up 4-3-3 in defence, 3-3-4 in attack, while against Ibiza it was a Cruyff-esque 3-4-3, which did not work out.
Setien may revert back to the 4-3-3 or try a different set-up as he searches for his best formation. What is clear is that possession is non-negotiable, a cornerstone of both his attacking and defensive schemes. If Setien’s team have the ball, the opposition don’t, ergo they cannot beat you.
"It’s a basic concept, when you dominate the ball, you move well,” Cruyff explained once upon a time. “You have what the opposition don’t, and therefore they can’t score.”
However in both matches so far, the opposition has managed at least one killer chance. Granada could have taken the lead but Yan Eteki’s effort beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen and hit the post.
Barcelona target Rodrigo Moreno is back from injury and when his opportunity comes, the Valencia forward will want to bury it and prove his quality to his suitors. Setien is convinced, calling Rodrigo "a great player" ahead of the clash. The Spanish striker may well be the answer to one of the many questions posed of Barcelona's new coach.