As Barcelona made the three-hour bus journey along the Spanish west coast to the Estadio de la Cerámica on Sunday night, it was understandable why so many believed this was the night the dramatic La Liga title race would all but draw to an anti-climatic close.
This was an out of sorts Barça side fresh off back-to-back 2-2 draws against Celta Vigo and Atletico Madrid and one that had just seen title rivals Real Madrid squeeze past Athletic Club to open up a seven-point chasm at the top.
Not to mention their opponents on Sunday night were a fearless Villarreal side under the guidance of the promising Javier Calleja, whose unbeaten run since the resumption has seen them thrust into Champions League contention. The prospect of another slip-up was likely in the eyes of skeptics.
However, by the time the Blaugrana got back on the bus to make the long return trip to Catalonia, they’d not only delivered a performance which kept their faint title hopes alive, but Quique Setien may have also stumbled upon a blueprint in which to take his side forward.
Since his January appointment, there’s little doubting the ideals which encouraged the Barça hierarchy to pursue Setien have offered signs of progression and a bit of respite from the pragmatism of predecessor Ernesto Valverde.
They’ve been able to monopolise possession by creating superiorities in the first phase, combine telepathically at times and retrieve the ball in an instant through a fierce counter-press – an underrated ploy used by those great Pep Guardiola-coached Barcelona sides – to stop the opposition’s counters at source and sustain attacks themselves.
However, their lack of runners in behind has often led to toothless and uninspiring performances in the final third, with their obvious flaws – as a result of woeful squad building by the Barça board – undermining any success Setien’s had thus far.
There was none of that in their emphatic 4-1 victory over the Yellow Submarines on Sunday night, though. Instead, the Catalans churned out an attacking display that even their great 2010/11 side would’ve been proud of.
Setien’s use of a 4-3-1-2 for the second game of the spin seemed to catch Calleja off guard, as Antoine Griezmann came back into the side to serve as part of the front two alongside Luis Suarez, while Messi was utilised at the tip of the midfield diamond – where Riqui Puig was used against Atletico.
Taking advantage of a naive Villarreal unit, Barcelona raced into a 3-1 half-time lead with their front three discovering the perfect balance of efficiency and aesthetics. Not only was their movement incredibly fluid, their combination play overwhelming and outright talent supreme, but they were mightily clinical as well.
Suarez and the superb Griezmann both scored absolute corkers amid a spellbinding first-half of Barcelona football.
The work of the underappreciated spokes in Setien’s wheel, meanwhile, played a huge role in the imperious form of the front three and a vintage display overall. The enterprising Jordi Alba – who had been shut out by Diego Simeone’s use of Angel Correa as a wing-back last time out – ensured a constant source of width was provided, while the industrious Sergi Roberto often created an overload which resulted in easy progression down the right-hand side.
Ultimately, the tireless work of Alba and Roberto stretched a flustered Villarreal defence, allowing Messi and co. greater scope to find pockets of space and wreak havoc. The comfort of Marc-Andre ter Stegen and the Barca’s centre-halves in possession, meanwhile, also enticed Calleja’s mean up the field, but their lack of cohesion when they pressed ensured the visitors could pick them apart and find the front three between the lines with raking vertical passes.
Thus, just like that, Villarreal’s horizontal and vertical compactness had been compromised by two simple concepts: stretching the pitch and press-baiting.
What might have pleased the Spaniard most, however, was the manner in which they controlled the second period.
Calleja’s switch to a 4-3-3 at the break altered the dynamic of the contest as the hosts made a preserved effort to prevent Barça from penetrating centrally. Setien responded by matching Calleja’s shape as Barça’s approach play became more methodical and intricate with less space afforded by a wiser defensive block.
They were still pretty brilliant, mind, with Messi having a goal ruled out after some brilliant build-up play around the edge of the box before substitute Ansu Fati secured a 4-1 victory with a well-taken strike.
But, for all their refreshing attacking exuberance, it’s still a system which needs a bit of work.
The narrowness of the 4-3-1-2 means the imperative width has to be provided by the full-backs, but with the Blaugrana operating in the same shape out of possession on Sunday night – they were in a 4-4-2 off the ball against Atleti – the workload of interior midfielders Roberto and Arturo Vidal was often too much to cover the void of their surges, which allowed the hosts to transition at ease down the flanks.
If they were able to bypass Barca’s counter-press, Clement Lenglet and Gerard Pique were often left to cover vast amounts of space and face unfavourable two-v-two situations on the counter. Gerard Moreno cancelled out Pau Torres’ own goal early on after Paco Alcacer was left one-v-one with Pique before Carlos Bacca also went close in the opening period after exploiting the space left by Alba.
A more conservative approach after half-time with a 3-1 lead, though, led to less transitional opportunities for the hosts. Going forward, Setien’s main challenge is finding a way of protecting Barça against the counter without compromising their attacking fluidity – it’s an issue which pre-dates his January arrival.
He’s tried to drop a midfielder into the backline as a possible solution but this has endured mixed success and so, it might be worth getting creative with Nelson Semedo – potentially utilising him as a third centre-back when Barça have the ball.
Nevertheless, it appears Setien may have finally come across a harmonious blueprint to maximise the potential of Messi, Suarez and Griezmann as a trio, with the Villarreal showing standing the former Betis boss in good stead regarding his long-term future at the club.
“Setien will continue [as manager next season], obviously,” Barca President Josep Maria Bartomeu said on Tuesday. “I do not regret Valverde’s change. The team needed a boost. Setién knows our DNA, the model and has brought new airs and new ideas.
“The coaches are obviously subject to the results, but I am happy with the evolution of the team.”
The Spaniard looks to have earned the trust of the Barça board, and there’s little doubting he deserves time to continue implementing his ideals. Sunday night’s victory was the finest 90 minutes of Setien’s reign thus far and a huge step in the right direction.