On Monday night, after overseeing Barcelona training for the final time that morning, Ernesto Valverde changed into his cycling gear, dusted down his bike and hit the road. He was still officially the Barca manager, but the club's president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, had already informed him his time was up. Now, Valverde just wanted to be away from it all.
Meanwhile, across the city, Quique Setien, Valverde's soon-to-be replacement, was animatedly moving glasses around a table. Each glass represented a footballer. "We are going to have a lot of fun," he said many times. Sources told ESPN that the former Real Betis coach was so excited about the possibilities that he was still discussing his ideas well after midnight, at which time Barca's representatives joked he should go home and sleep.
Setien, a devout disciple of Johan Cruyff's approach to the game, was explaining to the Barca hierarchy his blueprint to reignite a side that had stagnated. They still sat top of the league, but they had grown overreliant on Lionel Messi. Around him, player performance was getting worse and none of the club's expensive signings -- like Philippe Coutinho (on loan at Bayern Munich), Ousmane Dembele (injured) and Antoine Griezmann (being played out of position) -- had lived up to their price tags.
The new coach's challenge is no small feat. Cruyff may not have been much more successful than Valverde and Luis Enrique, who won 13 trophies between them, but he left more of a mark.
"I only guarantee one thing when I take over a new club: that we play good football," Setien said Tuesday at his presentation.
When Barca finally made the official announcement that Valverde was out, shortly before midnight local time on Monday, it did not come as a shock to many. The appointment of Setien, a 61-year-old whose biggest achievement to date is finishing sixth in La Liga with Betis, did raise some eyebrows, though.
When time finally ran out for Valverde
The tide had been turning against Valverde for months, but it was the 2-2 draw against Espanyol on Jan. 4 when Bartomeu finally began to accept that change was needed. Sources have told ESPN that just minutes after the final whistle, the president issued an ultimatum to his closest confidants: if the team don't put on an improved showing in the Spanish Supercopa against Atletico Madrid, they needed to replace the manager.
Barcelona eventually played one of their best games of the season against Atletico in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Jan. 9, but despite leading 2-1 they eventually lost 3-2 after two Atleti goals in the final nine minutes. For senior officials at the club, the game evoked memories of two damaging recent losses: those dreadful nights against AS Roma and Liverpool in the Champions League.
According to sources, Barcelona had been sounding out possible managers for a while, already planning to replace Valverde in the summer. But defeat in the Supercopa hastened those plans considerably, which was unfortunate for the embattled manager given the circumstances around the club when he arrived and the hand he was dealt.
Valverde took over from Luis Enrique in 2017 and immediately had to deal with Neymar's departure. He could do nothing to stop the Brazilian leaving once Paris Saint-Germain paid his €222 million release clause. Barca were then steamrolled by Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercopa that year, leading Gerard Pique to lament that he felt "inferior" to their Clasico rivals for the first time since he rejoined the club from Manchester United in 2008.
Yet those feelings didn't last long. Valverde ended the 2017-18 season with a league and cup double and followed that up with another league title in 2018-19. But back-to-back humiliating Champions League exits at the hands of Roma and Liverpool, along with a Copa del Rey final loss to Valencia, left many people inside the club pushing for him to be sacked last summer.
Sources told ESPN that the sporting director at the time, Pep Segura, put Thierry Henry's name forward for the job. Other board members canvassed for Roberto Martinez, with Setien's name appearing somewhere on their list. But Bartomeu stuck by Valverde for two reasons: one, he still had the support of the players, and two, he wasn't convinced at the time by the alternatives.
Since then, results had been OK, but sources explain that Bartomeu had grown increasingly concerned about the team's "image" on the pitch. Every disappointing display was another nail in Valverde's coffin, every dropped point his fault. Purists hammered him for the team's style, complaining that Barcelona do not play like Barcelona even when they win.
Bartomeu, increasingly alone in his support of Valverde, finally changed his mind after those dropped points against their crosstown rivals, Espanyol. Sources tell ESPN he sanctioned sporting director Eric Abidal to step up the search for a replacement, and by the time Atletico scored two late goals to knock Barca out of the revamped Supercopa at the semifinal stage, Bartomeu decided enough was enough.
The president met with several players after that game in Jeddah to inform them of his plans. Sources explain that Valverde remained well liked by the squad, but two factions had developed: those who supported him almost unconditionally and those who thought the training wasn't intense enough and his style was a little too hands-off. The likes of Messi and Pique were in the first camp, both players posting messages of gratitude since Valverde's dismissal. Some of the younger players and the new signings were in the second camp.
Ansu Fati, who was handed his debut this season aged 16, was one of the more emotional members of the squad when a teary-eyed Valverde finally said farewell on Tuesday. Sources tell ESPN that Valverde requested a one-on-one chat with the youngster before leaving, telling him to continue in the same way he'd burst into the first-team picture, but while keeping himself grounded and not changing his approach to the game.
The succession plan
The day after the Atletico defeat -- and very publicly -- Abidal and CEO Oscar Grau traveled from Saudi Arabia to Qatar to see Xavi, Barca's legendary former midfielder and now the coach of Al-Sadd. They met him three times in Doha. Not only did the club's board see him as well equipped to take over, but they also saw him as a useful political tool. Xavi is closely aligned with Victor Font, who will run to become the club's next president in the 2021 elections.
At first, Barca tried to cover their tracks, briefing that Abidal and Grau had gone to Doha to see the injured Dembele, who is undergoing treatment there. That line quickly unraveled and more leaks from the club soon revealed the truth. But Xavi said no.
The saga was all played out in the open, with Valverde at home in Barcelona learning of each step through the media. The club's former midfielder Andres Iniesta called Barca's public search for a replacement a "little ugly."
Where did they go next? Ronald Koeman was never offered the job, sources told ESPN, despite reports to the contrary, but Massimiliano Allegri and Mauricio Pochettino were considered. Ex-Espanyol coach Pochettino's previous comments -- "I'd sooner work on a farm than for Barca" -- ultimately made appointing him too complicated, despite the fact he is good friends with Bartomeu and Ramon Planes, who is Abidal's assistant.
Barcelona B-team coach Garcia Pimienta was ruled out because some of the first-team players didn't think he was ready for the leap from the Spanish third division. An agent of one first-team player even said to ESPN he'd consider moving his client to another club if Pimienta was given the job full time.
The job goes to Setien
Setien spent the weekend in Liencres, the small village in the north of Spain where he lives, waiting for word. "[On Monday] I was walking beside the cows in my village; now I'm here training the best players in the world," he said at his presentation on Tuesday.
The ex-Betis coach, whose career has primarily played out in Spain's lower leagues, knew of Barca's interest before their first approach in December, even if he spoke of his "surprise" at landing the job at his unveiling. He was one of the coaches who had been linked in the summer, and Barca sounded him out last month and phoned him again last Friday. Some board members were concerned about his lack of European experience, but Setien knew he'd have an outside chance at the job if Xavi turned it down.
In fact, Setien knew by Sunday where he stood. Sometime over the weekend, he and his agent received a call from Barcelona representatives. "You're on the shortlist, stay cool and don't say anything," was the gist, a source told ESPN.
At the weekend, as Abidal and Grau spoke with Xavi, Setien quietly took in Sevilla's Copa del Rey game against Escobedo, according to sources. He had an offer on the table from a side in Saudi Arabia, but he had delayed giving a response in the hope that Barca's interest might become firm.
Barcelona representatives were sold on Setien even before his tactical masterclass with drinking glasses after consulting a number of players who have played under him. ESPN has learned that club officials reached out to Marc Bartra and Joaquin, who played for Setien at Betis, to get a sense of his practices, while Abidal has said that he was impressed with Setien's first training session.
Prior to that session, Setien was formally presented to the squad in the dressing room, alongside his backroom staff and Bartomeu. Despite the expectation of a fairly simple exchange, sources explain Setien seized the chance to make a mark, saying, "If you have any doubts, tell me straight away, we have to attack any problems at the roots." He also explained his plans to increase the intensity of training in a bid to restore the "essence" of Barcelona, hard work that would help the club restore their high press and quick ball movement in transition.
The squad received the message well.
Sources say the first thing Setien requested from the players was "sacrifice." He scheduled a double session on his first day and brought them in again on Wednesday, cancelling a previously scheduled day off. One first-team player told ESPN the workouts have been "intense," more intense than those under Valverde, and the rondos -- effectively piggy in the middle -- have been "smaller, quicker and fiercer." Pique and Arturo Vidal were dead on their feet after 20 minutes of Tuesday's first session, with a more tactics-based lesson following in the afternoon.
Setien has also taken the opportunity to meet privately with Messi and goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, with more meetings planned with other players. Sources tell ESPN that Messi seemed unsure before meeting with Setien but emerged from his office with a notable smile.
There was also a transition of power when Setien bumped into Valverde on Tuesday as his predecessor was collecting his things. They met twice; the first encounter was reportedly "intense," but as Valverde left, they had a second conversation, lasting more than 15 minutes. By the end, they swapped numbers and Valverde told him to call "if he needed any help."
Plans made by Valverde for a team dinner on Thursday were kept in place by Setien. It was paid for by the fines paid by the players throughout the season, although sources revealed that Dembele, the biggest contributor to the fine pot, was not able to attend. The injured Luis Suarez was also absent. There were speeches from last summer's signings and a pep talk from the club captains about where improvements can be made moving forward.
That's where Setien comes in. His task is to halt Barca's slide towards mediocrity and kick-start their season by helping them rediscover the style of football played under Cruyff and Pep Guardiola. It won't be easy, but sources tell ESPN he is relishing the challenge and believes the players will buy into his ideas. He will need them to, too, because as Valverde found out, results alone are not enough at Barcelona.
Additional reporting by Rodrigo Faez and Eduardo Fernandez-Abascal.