Part 1/2: Highlighting the positives and some of the tactics of the current manager of FC Barcelona
Luis ‘Lucho’ Enrique has always been a polarizing figure, his stubborn, standoffish attitude can make him easy to dislike while his passion and resilience at times can make him just as easy to love. These traits describe a man who made the dreaded shift from a player for Real Madrid to a club captain at their eternal rivals FC Barcelona.
When one thinks of a Barcelona manager, much is made of the players at his disposal and little of the figure at the helm. Everyone is touted to be able to coach FC Barcelona, even us keyboard warriors can step into the dugout and get this team to multiple trophies. Coaching Pique, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, Neymar and Suarez. A job so easy, a caveman could do it. Right?
Wrong. When Luis Enrique took over in the summer of 2014. FC Barcelona had just ended a season without winning a single major trophy (La Liga, CL or Copa Del Rey). Tata Martino had since resigned, with mumbles in the media that he had employed archaic training methods leading to poor physical shape of the players Enter Lucho, a manager hired in hopes of rejuvenating a tired and jaded FC Barcelona.
On his return to the club, FC Barcelona was facing a pending ban, preventing the club from registering players for 2 consecutive transfer windows. Far from ideal circumstances in a job of such magnitude. Regardless, Lucho formulated a list of targets for the club with Enrique himself travelling to help negotiate the deal for the banned Luis Suarez. A total of six signings were made (Ter Stegen, Vermaelen, Mathieu, Suarez, Rakitic and Claudio Bravo).
When Luis Suarez returned in October, it was to the right wing, in order to accommodate a central Leo Messi. However, after discussions between the players themselves and the manager, a decision was made that Lionel Messi would return to the right wing where he started his career. The effect was devastating.
On the right, Leo had more space to work with than he would have had centrally, where he was often boxed out and was now able to take on opposition full-backs in one-on-one situations. A nightmare for defenders. Due to the shift to the right wing, Lucho developed a means to allow Leo creative freedom while preserving the balance of the side. Rakitic, the former Sevilla man was instrumental; when Dani Alves bombed up the pitch, Ivan was responsible for dropping back to the right back slot in order to protect the flank. Furthermore, once Messi dropped deep to create or drifted inside on his left foot, up stepped Rakitic to maintain the width of the attack. Once Rakitic had perfected the necessary movements, the right side of the pitch became the team’s most potent with seamless transitions between the three players. With the focus on the right flank, another new tactic employed was to use Messi’s ability to switch the play to the left flank to either Alba or Neymar, allowing the left flank to pounce into space.
Barcelona’s focus was unlike previous years where the midfield engine (+ Messi) were the main architects. Instead, fullbacks were often the most advanced players on the pitch with Jordi Alba and Dani Alves having more touches on the ball than Andres Iniesta in some matches. The midfield sat deeper and instead was tasked primarily with ball recovery and mobilization, and quite plainly to get the ball to the trio as quickly as possible. Luis Enrique had identified the current players’ strengths and integrated them perfectly. Though still capable of ball retention, this Barcelona was more direct to goal, capable of scoring after passing sequences and sitting back to counter teams when necessary.
Moreover, what was once a porous defence under Tata Martino where a corner might as well have been a penalty, was now more secure and confident. Luis Enrique and his assistant Unzue organized the backline superbly, creating appropriate strategies to defend corners and other set pieces while simultaneously improving the team’s offensive prowess, taken advantage of the added height to the squad.
Luis Enrique had begun to imprint his personality on the squad, the same resilient, pragmatic nature that he showed as a player came to fruition. FC Barcelona once again became a side capable of winning against any team, with a bite and belief that was absent the year before. The team mirrored its manager with his unpredictability, unbelievable fitness, an ultra-competitive spirit and ruthlessness, ended the year with the second treble in the club’s history.
As a coach, Luis Enrique has implemented a system that has led FC Barcelona to 8 out of 10 trophies in his tenure. An achievement that should never be understated. His Barcelona had become a new beast, a wrecking ball for opposition defences while still maintaining the core of the club’s philosophy. He has shown excellent man-management skills and perseverance, particularly in light of the transfer ban. Players such as Pique and Iniesta have both stated that he is one of the best managers that they’ve worked under. Pique admitting that after the 2013/2014 season, he had lost confidence and interest in the game, crediting Lucho for the return of his zeal and drive. Therefore, as a manager set to recapture Barcelona’s success after a dark period, Luis Enrique has delivered admirably, exceeding initial expectations.