Quique Setien Tactics: Part I

7 min read
This article explains the off the ball tactics that Qique Setien has employed at Barcelona

Luis Enrique’s Barcelona was the last scintillating team after whose refusal to renew his contract led to rife discussions among socios and fans alike on the impending replacement. Among the front runners for replacements were- Unzue (Luis’s assistant), Koeman, Sampaoli, Eusebio Sacristan (B team coach) and Ernesto Valverde. Ernesto was backed by the president calling him ‘a safe pair of hands’ despite playing a very different style and also received the blessings of Cruyff. After 2.5 years of pragmatic football, most fans realized their dream of playing entertaining football again when Setien finally signed.

Valverde vs Setien comparison

Ernesto Valverde was a different kind of manager compared to Setien, though we shouldn’t downplay his man-management which brought out the best in his players. He was more focused on extracting the best out of the players, in a pragmatic wait and watch manner (by his excellent use of substitutions especially in the first season).

defensive comparison
Defensive comparison (credit:Statbomb)
attacking comparison
Offensive comparison (credit:Statbomb)
set v valverde
(credit @TacticoModerno)

Setien, on the other hand, had fixed principles which he tries to enable through his players. This he has learned from his days as a player watching Cruyff and Pep Guardiola. They can be simply stated as:-

  1. Building from the back with numerical and positional superiority, so that they can bring the ball out as a compact unit.
  2. Using a high amount of possession and third man (free-man) principles between lines of the opponent’s pressing.
  3. Good body positioning to receive the ball while maintaining strict positioning in important zones.
  4. The constant intensity in attack and while pressing.

Setien had important things to manage such as defensive stability, attacking variations and pressing to earn turnovers. We can see that the increased PPDA shows the increase in pressing intensity, improved xG and shots/game. Though defensively they’ve conceded fewer goals, they’ve had poor xGA in set-pieces and high xGA shots.

Brief History

playing time

Enrique ‘Quique’ Setién Solar (nicknamed ‘el maestro’), started his football career for his hometown club Racing Santander as a CM, later also beginning his managerial career in the same club. After 9 years at Racing, he moved to Atletico Madrid for three years. After a spat with the chairman in his third season, he appeared fewer and was later sold on. This, nonetheless, became common in his managerial career as well (leaving Las Palmas and Real Betis after fights with the top brass). Though he did help promote teams from the lower divisions, he hasn’t spent more than two seasons at any club (other than Lugo), without winning any trophies in particular. As a player, one of his biggest achievements was being voted the best Racing player of all time.

Managerial Style

Despite being a professional footballer, he has an avid interest in chess. With a FIDE rating of 2055, he’s not just an enthusiast but has played grandmasters like Kramnik, Kasparov and Karpov.

He seems to keep the quote from Gary Kasparov’s book ‘how life imitates chess’ very close to his principles.

“After we have prepared, planned, analyzed, calculated and evaluated, we have to choose a course of action. Results are the feedback we get on the quality of our decision making. Doing things the right way matters.”

Setien vs Deep Blue
Setien vs Deep Blue

This rigidity (with playing ‘the right way’) has spelt his teams to become sore in their second seasons despite impressive first seasons, losing their effectiveness.

From his chess games, we can relate to the type of football he plays. This usually involves coordination among players (‘pieces’) in attack and defence, dominating the central areas, slow build-up into a good positional advantage in an orderly manner with almost mechanical efficiency. However, as most of the games under his leadership depict, he attacks in numbers building superiority on one flank, which plays into the hands of opposition traps, countering on the opposite flank. Setien is caught in a defensive transition after throwing heavily offensive.

We’ll divide the tactics into two parts, off the ball and on the ball.

Defensive tactics (OFF the ball)

Pressing the keeper high

Quique Setien employs a man-man defensive setup when the opposition team starts to build up from the back. This implies that the Catalan team is very fluid defensively and assumes the same shape as the opposition.

Pressing shape

We can see that the central forward usually presses the keeper while the other two forwards try to position themselves between the FBs and CBs. The FBs usually are positioned well enough to mark opposition wingers. The two CMs man-mark their opposite numbers while Busquets initiates the press. The latter is an important part of this activity as he presses the free man in midfield (sometimes even as high as the pivot). The main intention is to force the keeper to kick it long and central which would be where the CBs are positioned to win the first ball, where one of the CBs (usually the one partnering Pique) tries to win the header while the other (usually Pique) lies deeper.

The problem with such simplistic man-man orientation was noticed in the Napoli and Celta Vigo games.

GK pressing problems-Napoli-1
Napoli midfielders pull their counterparts deep to open space behind
GK pressing problems Napoli
This leaves space behind for the CF or the winger to pick up in space

In the Napoli game, the Azzurri brought their midfielders very close to the penalty box that opened a huge gap between the Blaugrana defensive and midfield lines. This would allow Insigne to collect the ball and run at the defence or Napoli to build-up from the wide areas (as losing the ball wouldn’t be disastrous with an already compact midfield and defense).

This is combined by the fact that Busquets moves forward to cut the easy passing lane combined and the CB (usually Umtiti or Lenglet) who moves up to press the central forward. The problem with this is, it leaves Pique 1v1 against the other forward who has a lot of space in front of him.

Similarly, against Celta, despite Barcelona winning the first ball, Rafinha would collect the second ball in the same gap to drive at the Barcelona defence.


This is one of the most impressive feats of the team under Setien. By the increased PPDA, we can notice the intensity with which the team presses. Though they are cautious unlike the older teams under Pep (with a rule like the ‘6-second rule’), they look for cues like back passes or horizontal passes to initiate an intense ball oriented press. The high positions also help in collectively pressing in well collaborated staggered lines.

Apart from that, the high positioning and work-rate of Vidal and Semedo, usually means that they form a pressing trap on the right.

Failed pressing trap on the right on a Napoli throw-in
This allows him to pass it to the pivot, who switches for a quick counter.

On the downside,the team is usually threatened in defensive transitions (as the players jump to press, their rest of defense is in poor shape if they don’t cause turnovers. This is the reason teams like Liverpool now prefer an option/passing lane oriented approach). The main problems involve the high positioning of the FBs, which leave a lot of space behind them. Along with this, the ageing of key members like Pique and Busquets makes it difficult for them to turn and chase in counter-attacking situations. This explains Setien’s fondness towards Vidal who improves the work rate.

Along with intense pressing, Quique Setien has inculcated a counter-pressing scheme to catch the opponents in disarray preventing them to get into their defensive structure. Especially with Riqui Puig, who has the dynamism to press while also having technical ability and passing range to pick teammates between the lines after successfully winning turnovers.

Basic defensive shape

Incase the pressing system fails to win the ball high up the field, Barcelona tends to drop into a mid-block 4-4-2 shape. With this scheme, the forwards press the first  opposition line, while the rest of the team is opponent oriented. The advantage of this system is that the ball sided midfielder along with the full-back, double up on the opponent without losing central prominence.

The team usually doesn’t concede many goals from this position, while most goals come from poor individual decision making or in defensive transitions. Of which, they are vulnerable in the space behind the advanced full-backs (like man city under Pep).

pressing error
Umtiti is positioned poorly to press the forward, chooses the wrong time to, hence leaving large gaps behind him
defensive mistake
Pique makes a mistake letting the runner, which leaves Semedo to turn and cover behind

From the comparison section, we can see that the team has improved defensively and some credit for that can be attributed to the increased possession (defending with the ball by slowing down the rhythm).

For on the ball tactics, read Setien Tactics: Part II of the article.

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