Madrid: Quique Setien began his first session as Barcelona coach on Tuesday morning just as the sacked Ernesto Valverde drove out of the training ground for the last time.
Valverde had said goodbye to the players, collected his things and left, closing the page on a brutal few days that had finally seen him sacked on Monday night.
After Barca’s public pursuit of Xavi Hernandez ended in failure, they have turned to Setien, the 61-year-old who has dedicated his coaching career to a belief in exciting, possession-based football.
Barcelona confirmed Setien’s appointment following a board meeting that lasted more than four hours at the Camp Nou on Monday afternoon. His contract, which runs until June 2022, appears also to be a show of faith.
Valverde is the first coach to be sacked by Barca mid-season since Louis van Gaal in 2003 and if that points to chaos, Setien inherits a team in a healthy position too.
Barcelona sit top of La Liga, albeit level on points with Real Madrid, and face a winnable tie against Napoli next month in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Off the pitch, the club came top of Deloitte’s annual Football Money League table on Monday, after posting record earnings of 840.8 million euros for 2018/19.
Some of that income might have to be channelled into signing a new striker this month, with Setien taking over a squad that will be without Luis Suarez for four months due to a knee injury.
More generally, he will have to find a way to marry his purist principles with results at one of the most demanding clubs in the world. His critics have suggested style can take precedence over substance.
“Having the ball makes you a football player, not running after it,” Setien said last year. He once commented he would have cut off his little finger to play under Johan Cruyff.
After Valverde’s more functional approach, Barca will believe Setien’s philosophy chimes better with the principles they see as part of their DNA.
“Setien is one of the most experienced coaches in Spanish football,” a club statement read on Monday night.
“Throughout his career he has been a proponent of possession based, attacking football that has been attractive to the fans.”
His first game in charge will be at home to Granada on Sunday and a tricky first six weeks will include away games at Valencia, Real Betis and then Real Madrid at the start of March.
– European failures haunt Valverde –
A former player at Atletico Madrid and Racing Santander who won three caps for Spain, Setien led Betis to a sixth-place finish in 2018 and qualification for the Europa League but, despite overseeing a thrilling 4-3 victory at the Camp Nou early the following season, results tailed off.
Betis finished 10th and the club and coach parted ways, even if there was recognition for what had been achieved.
Setien had presided over the team winning twice in a row at the Santiago Bernabeu and beating Atletico. After seeing off Barcelona — Valverde’s only home defeat — Sergio Busquets presented Setien with a signed shirt.
“For Quique,” read the message. “With appreciation and admiration for the way you see football.”
Previously, Setien had helped Lugo secure promotion to the second tier in 2012 and, in 2016, steered Las Palmas clear of relegation from La Liga. He has also coached Racing, Poli Ejido, Logrones and, for one game, Equatorial Guinea.
His primary task will be to hold off a resurgent Real Madrid in a neck-and-neck title race after Valverde managed to sustain the domestic dominance enjoyed by Barcelona over the last decade.
He won two La Liga titles, as well as the Copa del Rey in 2018, but doubts were underpinned by two disastrous exits from the Champions League due to collapses against Roma and Liverpool.
Familiar frailties were exposed this season in a series of underwhelming performances and a 3-2 defeat by Atletico Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup last Thursday, in which Barca conceded two late goals, finally persuaded the board to act.