Barcelona’s appointment of Quique Setien, a fervent disciple of Johan Cruyff, came the day after Zinedine Zidane won his ninth final out of nine as coach of Real Madrid.
With both teams level on points at the top of La Liga, Spain’s closest title race in years will be as much a contest of identity and beliefs as points won and lost.
Real Madrid, the club that defines itself by winning, against Barcelona, where winning is seen as the result of something more profound, a style heralded by Cruyff that has become their footballing philosophy.
Atletico Madrid and Sevilla, both five points behind, are still in touch but playing catch-up.
Setien once said he would have given his little finger to play under Cruyff. Now, 34 years later, he has the chance to resuscitate those ideals after two years under Ernesto Valverde when pragmatism took a greater hold.
Barca’s new coach is not well-known outside of Spain and, at 61, he may be in the twilight years of his career.
“For me this is the pinnacle,” he said at his unveiling on Tuesday.
His previous clubs are not illustrious. They include Lugo, Logrones, Las Palmas, Poli Ejido, Racing Santander, Real Betis and one game in charge of Equatorial Guinea. His list of trophies begins and ends with one Spanish Super Cup in 1985 with Atletico Madrid.
But his work and words up to this point could leave the impression of someone that has been preparing to coach Barcelona his entire life.
“When I was a player, coaches tried to set guidelines for me,” Setien, a former Spanish international, told Marca in 2018.
“But on the field, I tried to express myself and it was only when I saw Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona play that I started to understand how things really worked.” “Having the ball makes you a football player, not running after it,” he said last year.
It remains to be seen how Setien’s appointment will affect La Liga’s title race. Will Real Madrid’s players feel their chances are boosted or harmed by Valverde’s removal?
They are now up against a team with a coach that has never won, or even competed for, a top-flight trophy. But they might feel wary too, of the possibility Barcelona could be released by Setien’s attacking beliefs and accelerate.
Yet, as Barca reflect on their identity and style, Madrid might be comforted by the simplicity of their own DNA.
The club’s lifeblood is success. Unlike Setien, Zidane sets his tactics around his players, not the other way round.
After lifting their 11th Spanish Super Cup on Sunday, Zidane was asked to explain how he has won all of the nine finals he has been in as coach.
“That’s what this club is, we always want to win,” he said. “First and foremost, we have a good team and then you have to believe. We’ve done that.” If anything, Zidane has shown in his four years at Madrid that freedom from complicated messages, when combined with motivation and hard work, can be enough to drive a team to success.
“When you’re working with talented and experienced players, the most important thing is to keep them calm,” Zidane said in 2018, reflecting on his extraordinary record in the Champions League.
“That’s what I needed when I was a player so that’s the approach that I try to adopt as coach.” The key to how the Spanish Super Cup and Setien’s arrival might affect the trajectory of the title race could become clearer this weekend.
Real Madrid, buoyed by their triumph in Saudi Arabia, play at home to Sevilla on Saturday, while Setien’s first game comes on Sunday, also at home, against Granada. Sevilla should offer the sterner test, even if one win from their last four league games suggests they may be fighting for fourth place in May rather than first.
Julen Lopetegui’s side are tied on points with Atletico Madrid, who will be more confident of rejoining the race after an impressive showing in Jeddah saw them beat Barcelona before losing out to Real Madrid on penalties.
Atletico play away on Saturday at 16th-placed Eibar.