“It’s not normal to take over at a team that’s top,” Quique Setién said after the call that took him from a stroll among the cows in Liencres, Cantabria, to a job among the sacred cows at the Camp Nou. “When you’re out of work, waiting for an opportunity, you imagine a team near the bottom, in trouble,” said Barcelona’s new manager. Instead on Sunday night he will occupy his place in the dugout at a place where they have not seen their team lose for 38 games, going back more than a year – not since the last time he was there.
Ernesto Valverde lost one home game as Barcelona manager: to Setién’s Real Betis, 4-3 in November 2018. As a player Setién beat Barcelona too. In Santander some Racing fans still cling to the old, fading T-shirt that celebrated their 5-0 victory over the Dream Team in February 1995 like some religious relic. On the front is a green hand, a finger for every goal they put past Carlos Busquets, Sergio’s father, the scorer’s name at each of its tips: Esteban Torre, Jesús Merino, Dmitri Radchenko, twice, and Quique Setién.
But it was not usually like that and that is why Setién is like this, he says. In defeat, in destruction, he found himself; it was like a revelation. “You’re on the pitch, suffering, endlessly running after the ball and you think: ‘That’s the football I like,’” he said. “I knew it was possible to play better football but I didn’t truly know until I played against Johan Cruyff’s team. I saw expressed there the way I felt about football. Everything I am as a coach I owe to chasing the ball against Barcelona.”
Now he has been entrusted with recovering that identity: philosophy and DNA became recurring themes last week after Barcelona sacked Valverde on Monday. Setién says he “imbibed Cruyff”, even though he never played with him. “I would have given my little finger to have worked under him,” he says.
When he told Cruyff that, the Dutchman laughed, but there are few men as committed to a footballing identity. “This is the way I feel football. Deep down, I defend this way of playing as an ethical question,” he says.
At 14 Setién worked as an errand boy in a pharmaceutical college, writing match reports on an old typewriter someone lent him. When Racing signed him in 1977 from Perines, the transfer fee was 40 pairs of boots and his father did not want him to be a footballer: why turn down a full-time job for something so risky, so temporary?
A technical player who did not always run much or get on with his coaches, he saw himself as countercultural then, but not so now. Setién represented Spain and later became an international at beach football. He began coaching because he had to. “Deep inside me is this: the game,” he says. “What moves me, what drives me, has always been the same: what I feel for the ball. When I see great players, the satisfaction is the same as I felt in the school playground.”
That identity has run through the teams he has coached. He did not manage in the top division until he was 57 but, when he did, Las Palmas and Betis were unmistakably teams built in his own image, rooted in overwhelming possession and driven by a belief in the importance of the aesthetic even beyond the scoreline.
That is why Barcelona have hired the 61-year-old and why Xavi Hernández and Ronald Koeman said no. As Setién said on Tuesday, he does not have a huge CV, nor any titles, and he is not sure that what he has done is enough to have got the call from one of the world’s greatest clubs. But he does have an unshakable faith in his type of play. “The one promise I always make is that my team will play good football,” he says.
It is possible that Barça’s ills have been misdiagnosed, their reality misread and their failings sought in the wrong place, but the talk has been all about the how, about style and identity. At the Camp Nou, they saw how. Just as he had with Cruyff, they suffered it. When Betis beat Barcelona that day, the Spanish sports daily AS wrote: “It’s been a long time since we saw a team treat Barcelona like this, using their own weapons against them.”
Afterwards Setién was asked if Cruyff would be proud: “Barcelona have been doing this for 25 years, laying a path; we’re just apprentices, trying to consolidate an idea.” He departed the Camp Nou with Sergio Busquets’ shirt, signed. “For Quique,” it said, “with affection and admiration for the way you see football.”
On Tuesday, Setién said his task was to get his Barcelona players to see it the same way, with the same enthusiasm and commitment, to believe in his vision. At Betis the best example of his powers of conviction may be Joaquín Sánchez, still playing at 38, his enthusiasm renewed.
The coach has often talked about making players happy by giving them something they love: the ball. He has talked, too, about convincing them to play: they can take the ball while he takes responsibility. Which, incidentally, he did: the accusations levelled at him, perhaps inevitably with an identity as immovable as his, hung on defensive fragility. Critics saw his virtues as a vice.
At Las Palmas his relationship with the board deteriorated; at Betis, supporters did not fully buy into the style and felt little warmth for his commitment to it. At the end of the season, with results slipping and the fans putting on pressure, the board released him. Both sides overachieved but results did eventually slip, bringing recrimination. That was at clubs who did not have to win every game.
At Betis he had tutorials – his word – with players. Setién would tell them to come to him if they did not agree or had doubts. He is charismatic, a communicator, didactic and convincing, and he will have to be. But every message requires a receptor. Much of his focus has previously been on making footballers believe they are better: playing for Lugo or Racing, for a smaller club, is no excuse for not trying to play. At Barcelona, with a squad that contains Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Antoine Griezmann et al, the message cannot be the same. These players already know they are good.
This is a different dressing room, he knows, and these players are powerful. It is a place where politics also plays a part, more so than anywhere else and where the demands offer no margin for error: Setién takes over top, remember. Fans want to play better but they also want that place; they want style but also success. He must hold on to that, even without Luis Suárez, injured until the end of the season.
Setién has spoken glowingly of Messi before; now he will find out what he is really like. Perhaps the way he has enthused about the Argentinian and his teammates, a fan as well as an opponent and now a boss, will help. Perhaps it will not. “Admiration is one thing and Messi is Messi, Busquets is Busquets, Piqué too, but everyone in their place.”
For some that may be no longer in the team. Setién framed his willingness to play young players as a message to the first team – no one can assume status. But status is a reality and he will have to tread with care.
Valverde’s flaws did not exist in a vacuum and were not his alone, the problems deeper and conditioned by a context with which Setién is only just becoming acquainted. There are significant decisions ahead, with uncertain consequences. To start with at least, this might be as much about personality as play.
He will confront those decisions directly, to judge by his approach before, starting on Sunday evening against Granada.
“When you say something to a footballer, you have to be convinced you will do it,” he says. “Sometimes managers say something to get through a difficult moment but that rebounds on you. You can’t lie to players, you get found out. It’s important not to lose credibility, to honour what you say. I learned that. However hard, I try to tell the truth.”
The truth is that, while managing Barcelona is beyond anything he could ever have imagined, there are issues to resolve too, a new reality, greater pressure than before. Barcelona’s new coach will have to adapt and to convince.
He is convinced already, arriving at the place he always identified with most, where he says there is “a criterion that is a religion” – a religion that is already his. “Formations can change,” he says. “The philosophy can’t.”