Is Quique Setién the right man for Villarreal?

Villarreal stadium

Few figures in Spanish football have polarised opinion in recent years quite as much as Quique Setién, appointed last week as the new coach of Villarreal.

To some, he possesses one of the great coaching minds of his generation with his teams producing football that regularly hits the sweet spot by managing to be both entertaining and successful. An accomplished chess player and in his day a fine footballer, Setién has forged his reputation as a coach the hard way, with his managerial journey spanning two decades and taking him from Logroñés and Lugo all the way to Camp Nou.

To others, he’s someone so married to one style of football that he barely even belongs in the flexible modern age. If his last two roles are anything to go by, he’s also a coach with a penchant for rubbing players and supporters up the wrong way. Many will be quick to point to the way things unravelled in his second season at Betis or the disastrous 8-2 capitulation his Barça side suffered against Bayern Munich which led to him losing his dream job after just half a season. There are many who would also bitterly contest the notion that “Setién-ball” is even a good watch.

Recency bias is most likely a factor in much of that. There is less talk these days for example of the way his very definitely watchable Las Palmas side wildly overachieved in LaLiga in the mid 2010’s. Perhaps due to their subsequent success under Manuel Pellegrini, not to mention the way sections of the Betis fanbase would eventually turn against him, even Setién’s fine first season at the Benito Villamarin is relatively rarely referenced these days.

The role Setién has been waiting for?

Love him or loathe him, Setién’s story is a fascinating one and it feels like much of it has been lost along the way. He hasn’t always done himself many favours with the way he has dealt with the press with some notorious comments helping to create this slightly eccentric and at times aloof persona.

Even during the better times, the Cantabrian often found a way to irritate Betis fans and frequently other coaches too by striking a somewhat condescending tone in interviews. One of the more notable occasions was his infamous “you must be doing something wrong to be at Betis” line about former Barcelona centre-back Marc Bartra. The whole north-south cultural divide in Spain also played a role in his distant relationship with the Betis fans who turned very much against him during the unsuccessful 2018/19 season.

Beticos felt like Setién never really got them or the club, but in theory that shouldn’t have been a problem at Barcelona. Setién had always spoken in such glowing terms about Barça and the admiration he had for their style of football. Once described as “more Guardiolista than Guardiola” by Tato Abadía, with whom he worked closely during a brief spell at Logroñés, Quique Setién appeared a very good fit stylistically for the top job at Camp Nou.

He was only too happy to admit that it was his dream job and once again served up some memorable quotes during his eight months in charge of the Catalan giants. One that particularly stuck with him was talk of his aspiration to return to the rural Cantabrian town of Liencres where he had been living, whilst “walking around with the cows while holding up the Champions League trophy and showing it to them.” 

It didn’t quite work out that way. He and his coaching team struggled to win over sections of the Barcelona dressing room during a difficult spell which also coincided with the outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020, not to mention the continuation of a far more serious decline on and off the pitch at Camp Nou which was by no means of his making. It was a reign that also ended in bitterness which lingers on to this day with Setién still claiming he is owed money by the Catalan club after his contract was abruptly terminated shortly after the Champions League Quarter-Final defeat against Bayern.

Until last week, the 8-2 was Quique Setién’s last match in football management. 

More than two years have passed since and the now 64 year old would have had other opportunities to jump back into football. He has instead waited patiently for the right position to crop up and appears to have been rewarded with a role that may just be the perfect fit. Following Unai Emery’s departure from Villarreal to Aston Villa early last week, Setién takes over the reins at the Estadio de la Cerámica.

While they didn’t always play that way under his predecessor, Villarreal are a club with a loose commitment to a passing style of football and one that has traditionally both produced and bought players with high levels of technical ability.

That should suit their new coach and after the experiences in his last two roles, Setién may enjoy working away from the constant media glare that goes with the Barcelona job or the pressure cooker that is the Benito Villamarin. Despite their outstanding achievements in Europe over the past two years, Villarreal’s fanbase and media pull is considerably smaller than either of those clubs and it may be precisely the kind of environment Setién needs to thrive.

In terms of overall distractions, this is more akin to Las Palmas than Barcelona or Betis, only this time Setién will have a much stronger squad and far greater resources with which to operate when compared to his time in Gran Canaria. He should also get the time needed to properly implement his style of play and will be relishing the opportunity to immediately challenge on a European stage once more.

A Shaky Start – First impressions of Setién’s Villarreal

Indeed, Setién’s first outing as Villarrreal boss did come in Europe. With qualification already assured, a 2-2 draw in a Conference League group game against Hapoel Beer Sheva was a slightly underwhelming start.

It came just two days after Setién’s appointment was announced and three after the departure of Emery, the first man to win a major trophy at Villarreal. The shift in approach was already evident though as Villarreal enjoyed a huge 78% share of possession against the Israeli side, compared to 51% under Emery in the reverse meeting last month. 

For better or worse, Setién will live and die by his idea of how football should be played, and despite limited time to work with his new players, was clearly keen to stamp his mark on the side from the get go.

Tasked with overseeing 6 games in a hectic 17 day period prior to a long break for the World Cup, some newly appointed coaches might have opted for continuity initially before using the break to work on implementing a new style of play. That temptation would have been even greater given Villarreal was not exactly a sinking ship or a team in need of shaking up as is often the case when new jobs become available.

However continuity never felt like a serious option for Setién and his first league team selection included a call that would have been unthinkable under his predecessor. Raul Albiol, club captain and defensive rock throughout the successful Emery era, was named amongst the substitutes for the first time in LaLiga this season. While the 37 year old has been carrying an injury, it still felt like a bold move in such an important game against a direct rival for European qualification. 

Aïssa Mandi, a faster option and more of a ball-playing defender, albeit a sometimes accident-prone one, came into the side with Setién familiar with the Algerian from his Betis days. He once again set his side up with the intent to pass it out from the back regardless of how high Athletic pressed but the teething problems with the transition to the new approach were evident throughout.

On one occasion early in the Second Half, a loose touch from Pau Torres, partnering Mandi in central defence, gifted Raul Garcia with a glorious chance to break the deadlock but the Athletic man was denied well by the busy Gerónimo Rulli in the Villarreal goal.

The visitors had some brief moments of promise but struggled to cope with the intensity of Ernesto Valverde’s side throughout the game and were punished on the hour mark with Mandi’s slip allowing Iñaki Williams a clear run at Rullil and the forward made no mistake to score what would prove to be the game’s only goal. 

There was still time for Torres to once again be dispossessed close to his own goal with Raul Garcia again missing a good opportunity to score in what was a disappointing first league outing for Setién’s Villarreal, one which deservedly ended in defeat.

The Transition

It’s difficult to read too much into one game and much credit must go to Athletic who played well, but Villarreal’s struggles in Bilbao do suggest the transition from Unai Emery to Quique Setién may take some time. It may not be until after the World Cup before we really start to get a clearer picture of what Setién’s Villarreal may be capable of.

With more than seven weeks separating matchdays 14 and 15 in LaLiga 2022/23, longer even than a typical pre-season, the new coach will get a good chance to get his ideas across, even if a number of players will be away on World Cup duty for much of that period.

It’s a slightly different job to the ones he has previously done and this time he won’t have Eder Sarabia by his side with his assistant at Las Palmas, Betis and Barcelona, now a Head Coach himself at FC Andorra in the Segunda División.

Whilst also considering which players are better suited to his possession-based style of football, both Setién and the club’s recruitment team will also have a close eye on the slightly longer-term. They will be conscious for example of events at Sevilla in 2022 where an ageing squad has gradually become less competitive with fairly serious consequences.

Five of the six players to rack up the most minutes in LaLiga last season for the Yellow Submarine are now over 30 and that doesn’t include the increasingly injury-prone Gerard Moreno, arguably Villarreal’s best player who turned 30 this year. Given some of the club’s younger stars such as Pau Torres, Arnaut Danjuma and Yeremi Pino are highly likely to attract interest in the upcoming transfer windows, this job could very quickly turn into a much bigger rebuild than immediately meets the eye.

Those factors perhaps help explain Emery’s decision to move on now and it’s quite possible that Villarreal’s squad heading into the 2023/24 season will be very different to the current one. This is usually a well-run club that makes sensible decisions though and they will already be looking ahead to that possibility.

Emery’s switch to pastures new in England has fast-tracked what will be something of a transitional period on and off the pitch. While Setién is certainly a bold and on some levels risky appointment, it may not ultimately be the worst thing that this change has taken place now as opposed to next summer when Emery was widely expected to leave in any case.

While the early signs suggest the initial transition could be a bumpy one, Villarreal fans will already be looking ahead to their home game with local rivals Valencia in late December, their first after the World Cup and what is scheduled to be their first at the renovated Estadio de la Cerámica which has not hosted a game yet this season.

As for Quique Setién, at 64, he may well see this as his last shot at truly cracking it at the elite level. While Barcelona may have been his “dream job”, this may simply be the right job where he is able to implement his football philosophy in the kind of setting that ought to allow his style of management to thrive. Whatever happens during the course of his tenure at the Cerámica, however long that turns out to be, it should be a fun ride.

Spanish football writer
About Mark Sochon 1699 Articles
Mark is a freelance writer based in Madrid, writing mostly about Spanish football. His work has been published by the likes of Guardian Sport & World Soccer. Contact: marksochon (at) hotmail.co.uk