LaLiga 2023/24 is not yet a month old, yet it has its first sacking and its first new managerial appointment. To some extent, it’s not a huge surprise that the club in question is Villarreal and the departing coach Quique Setien.
This was a marriage that was fraught with difficulty from the very beginning. Even in an era where football managers are rarely afforded much in the way of patience, the sound of some Villarreal fans calling for Setien to go in his very first home league match in charge was quite something.
At the time of that 2-0 defeat against Mallorca early last November, it seemed implausible that Setien, who has always been a divisive character, would make it anything like this far. To some degree, he deserves credit for riding out the early storm and ultimately getting his deeply entrenched football principles across to a group of players who, in short bursts last season, produced good football and earned good results.
The highs and lows of Setien’s short reign
Quique Setien’s Villarreal reign is harder to define than his previous stints in charge of other Spanish clubs. The beginning was truly awful as Setien took over from Premier League bound Unai Emery and oversaw a series of bafflingly bad performances with the Yellow Submarine humbled 3-0 by Lech Poznan on a particularly bleak night in Poland just days before the Mallorca game.
By January and with a mini pre-season under his belt due to the World Cup break, Setien was having more joy stamping his mark on a Villarreal side that made it six straight wins in all competitions with a 2-1 win over Real Madrid in LaLiga in January.
However just when Setien was starting to look like the right fit for Villarreal after all, things turned decidedly for the worse with four straight league defeats and a bitterly disappointing Conference League Last 16 exit against Anderlecht.
That was the second point when Setien was coming under intense pressure for footballing reasons, but his team again bounced back and actually ended the 2022/23 season in impressive fashion, winning 8 of their final 13 games to finish 5th, two places above their position when Emery left.
Sacked after four games
Despite the many ups and downs, from a purely results-based perspective, Setien can claim to have done a reasonable overall job at the Ceramica. Only once in the past twelve years have Villarreal finished higher than last season’s 5th place which guaranteed Europa League qualification.
He can, with plenty of justification, point to this summer’s exodus of star players such as Pau Torres and Samu Chukwueze, combined with questionable recruitment as contributing factors to the slow start to this season.
Winning at Mallorca, who took six points off Setien’s team last season, felt like a major step in the right direction on matchday two and they played pretty well in an entertaining 4-3 defeat to Barcelona before a moment of madness from Alfonso Pedraza left them up against it, playing with 10 men for almost 70 minutes in a defeat at Cadiz in what would prove to be Setien’s final game.
However, as with many coaching changes that comes so early in a season, it has become pretty clear that there were plenty of other reasons why Setien’s reign has been brought to a premature end after just four matches this term.
Reports of broken relationships between Setien and a number of senior players have trickled into the press since the 64 year old’s departure. Everything from school runs to the Cantabrian’s inability to remember certain player’s names have been cited as sources of tension in what was clearly not a very happy camp.
Villarreal owner Fernando Roig clearly felt those relationships were damaged beyond repair and has acted before this season reached a more advanced stage. He most likely regrets not starting afresh in the summer with a disconnect between Setien and senior players seemingly present from early on in his reign.
A summer change may have made appointing a new boss a simpler task but there were still some strong potential candidates as Roig looked for his new coach last week. Julen Lopetegui was available following his departure from Wolves while Real Madrid B team boss Raul was another to be strongly linked with the job.
Both men reportedly rebuffed interest from Villarreal who have since confirmed Pacheta as their new coach on an initial contract until the end of the season.
The 55 year old has done excellent work in the Segunda Division with Elche and Real Valladolid in recent years. He’s a likeable figure but it’s hard to be left with anything but the impression that this is a slightly underwhelming appointment for a club that was potentially just 45 minutes away from reaching a Champions League Final only 16 months ago.
Pacheta was sacked by Real Valladolid in April of this year but is now presented with the biggest opportunity of his coaching career, to manage in Europe and for a team that will be expected to challenge in the top half of LaLiga.
“I have no experience of coaching a team playing in Europe. That’s true, but don’t worry, I’ll pick it up quickly” he declared on his unveiling as Villarreal boss.
“I also didn’t have experience of play-offs until I got it. Experience is part of the way, it comes. I’m coming to a very important team, with a lot of stability and which is a family.”
Aside from the absence of strong candidates interested in the role, Pacheta’s ability to man manage and restore Villarreal’s “family” atmosphere may be a big factor in why Roig ultimately plumped for a man whose longest managerial job to date was with fellow Valencian outfit Elche between 2018 and 2020.
A squad with gaps in key areas
Restoring dressing room harmony may be the easy part of this role for Pacheta given it’s very clear that many Villarreal players will just be glad to see the back of his predecessor. Getting things right on the pitch may prove considerably more challenging.
Villarreal made some very questionable decisions this summer in terms of recruitment and their unwillingness to fix apparent problems areas after a number of major departures across the past two transfer windows.
One area of concern is in goal. It was slightly surprising to see no replacement arrive for Geronimo Rulli in January when the Argentine moved to Ajax. The assumption was that Villarreal would move for a new number one this summer, but again there were no incomings in that department and the Yellow Submarine are once more left with 41 year old Pepe Reina and the inexperienced Filip Jorgensen as their two senior keepers for the 2023/24 campaign.
Despite having shown relatively little faith in the youngster last term, Setien opted for Jorgensen over Reina to start the new season but it has been a tough start for the Dane with 9 goals conceded in 4 matches.
In the 21 year old’s defence, he’s not had much help from those in front of him. Pau Torres has left and with his long-term partner Raul Albiol now 38 and struggling to overcome injury issues, Villarreal’s central defence is significantly weaker than it was during the successful European runs under Emery.
Milan loanee Matteo Gabbia was the only defender to arrive at the Ceramica this summer, a player who made just 25 league starts across his 4 seasons in Serie A with the Italian giants. Fellow 23 year old Jorge Cuenca has been promoted to starting role alongside him in central defence this season with Aissa Mandi the only other natural in the position.
Given a failure to stem the leaking of goals was a major reason why Pacheta lost his job in Valladolid earlier this year, the defensive uncertainty we’ve seen from Villarreal so far this season and to some extent throughout Setien’s reign, is highly unlikely to be solved overnight.