BARCELONA — Barcelona hired Quique Setien to improve a team that was already leading the Spanish league.
Two weeks later, the defending champions are trailing Real Madrid and clearly struggling to adapt to the on-the-fly coaching change.
The team has boosted its possession of the ball and its number of passes, tenants of the orthodox Barcelona style professed by Setien that had waned in recent seasons. But that has yet to make it firmer on defense or lead to more goals compared to its performances under predecessor Ernesto Valverde.
Barcelona needed a goal by Lionel Messi to get past Granada 1-0 in Setien’s debut on Jan. 19. A double by Antoine Griezmann, including a second goal in stoppage time, saved them against third-tier side Ibiza in the Copa del Rey with a 2-1 win on Wednesday.
But on Saturday Barcelona was completely outplayed at Valencia, which was content to let Barcelona have the ball and then wait to pounce on the break. Valencia won 2-0 despite also missing a penalty and hitting the post. Madrid’s 1-0 win at Valladolid on Sunday let it move three points ahead and take charge of the title race.
Setien acknowledged that his team has yet to play like he wants.
“We are evaluating the position of our players and the understanding we need to have to do what we propose,” Setien said after Saturday’s loss. “One thing is that (the players) understand it on the chalkboard and quite another is how we put it into practice.”
Setien’s three-man backline, a change from Valverde’s four defenders, left the team’s flanks exposed against Valencia. Ansu Fati and Jordi Alba, playing as wing backs, were unable to effectively join the attack. And, most disconcertingly for Setien, the midfield of Sergio Buquests, Frenkie de Jong, and Arthur failed to set up Messi and Griezmann in scoring positions.
Barcelona only got going once it was trailing in the score and after Arturo Vidal had replaced Arthur. Vidal set up Messi’s goal against Granada and was his best partner in attack again at Valencia.
“There are things that (my players) didn’t interpret correctly,” Setien said. “That, or we didn’t explain them well. We made passes that didn’t help advance the team. There are things we need to work on to correct.”
Setien will need to work out the kinks in his team before Barcelona visits Napoli in the opening leg of their Champions League round-of-16 leg on Feb. 25.
Next up is Leganes in the Copa del Rey round-of-16 on Thursday.
Atletico Madrid is in a slump and its road forward is only going to get more difficult.
Diego Simeone’s side will take a four-game winless streak across all competitions to crosstown rival Real Madrid next weekend.
Madrid bettered Atletico on Jan. 12 in a penalty shootout to win the Spanish Super Cup. That loss started a wretched run for Atletico that has included a 2-0 loss at Eibar, a humiliating exit from the Copa del Rey to a third-tier team, and Sunday’s 0-0 draw at home with lowly Leganes.
“The results are not good, but we have never stopped trying nor fighting for the good times to return,” goalkeeper Jan Oblak said. “We hope to build the run of wins that we all need.”
While Oblak is keeping the team in matches by anchoring a strong defense, the team’s attack is sputtering. With 22 goals in 21 league matches, only five teams in the 20-team division have scored fewer. Barcelona, the leading scorer, has 50 goals.
The pressure will be on former Madrid player Alvaro Morata to lead an attack with Angel Correa and youngster Joao Felix, who has yet to meet expectations following his 120 million euros ($133 million) transfer from Benifca.
A win at the Santiago Bernabeu would do wonders to silence Atletico’s critics. A loss would realistically leave the team with only the Champions League to play for. It faces defending champion Liverpool in the round-of-16 next month.