Portraying the negatives and drawbacks of the reign 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.
Disjointed midfield, unnecessary rotations and lack of an easily identifiable game plan. Déjà vu, one can say, as fans of this team draw similarities between this current season and the first half of the season of Luis Enrique’s reign. When Lucho took over in 2014 in a bid to rejuvenate a jaded squad, it was far from the smooth sailing that the treble end of that season implied.
At Barcelona, especially after the pinnacle reached by one Pep Guardiola, a coach is tasked with not only winning but doing so while playing attractive and stylish football. Initially, Lucho was often criticized for a lack of stability in the team, naming a different line up in every single match until January. As Luis Enrique sought his best line up, the team often ground out results while the style of play suffered. This all culminated in that fateful night against Real Sociedad at the Anoeta in January 2015. Less than five minutes into the match, Jordi Alba scored an own goal and despite the introduction of Messi and Neymar (imagine benching both) in the second half, the team went on to lose 1-0. The Anoeta curse. Sound familiar yet?
Segway to 2016/2017
No longer imprisoned by the FIFA transfer embargo, Lucho sought to counter the fatigue that saw the team go from 39 unbeaten games to crashing out of the Champions League with a whimper the previous season. In order to achieve this, the manager and Robert Fernandez, the new technical secretary looked to reinforce the squad with quality, young depth. A total of 6 signings were made with the intent to allow for positive rotations throughout a long and draining season. Each signing besides new keeper, Jasper Cillessen were all 22 at the time of signing and were all former starters at their old clubs. The future looks bright. Right?
By the end of the Lucho’s second season, opponents had figured out the best means to counter the steamrolling effect of this Barcelona in transition. While opponents facing Pep’s Barca clogged the midfield and triple marked Leo Messi, this version of Barca can be hindered in a different manner: a high press. By focusing their pressing on the defenders and midfield trio, teams can prevent outlet passes to MSN, leaving them isolated, limiting the team’s attacking process. Also, through coordinated pressing, the opposition has the ability to create their own chances through transition. Opponents now look to block channels for both our centre backs and Busquets to release the ball. This results in clear goal scoring opportunities as there is much more pressure on the defence with the ball at their feet. This was clearly evidenced in the Celta game where the home team went up 3-0 within the first half hour: Busquets had an error strewn game and had limited passing options around him due to how well the Galican club worked to press and restrict passing channels. This led to him holding onto the ball longer than normal and being dispossessed. With the team’s high defensive line, losing the ball in midfield is frankly catastrophic.
In modern football, the opposition sadly doesn’t sit on his laurels. Just as with Pep, everyone sought a means to beat the Barca juggernaut or at the very least, make life uncomfortable for them in matches. If the opposition is able to sustain their press or even utilize it at key moments, Barca is rendered toothless. The tactics that brought Luis Enrique success are now his Achilles’ heel. The difference however is while Pep could have been criticized for having too many ideas to negate the opposition’s tactics, Lucho seems to have too few.
A system of play allows for almost any player to slot in and not affect how the overall play of the team looks. The issue then is not that Luis Enrique does not have a system in place, it’s that his system is too dependent on a spine of four players; Gerard Pique- Sergio Busquets-Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi. It is no coincidence that these players are all La Masia graduates and the longest mainstays in the team. These individuals are honed to find passes under pressure, to get that extra measure of control or ‘pausa’ as the Spanish say and make the right play almost every time. When one of these players are out of a game, or God forbid, two *shudders in horror* the entire shape of the team changes and teams are able to disconnect the lines of the team easier.
Safe to say, this season hasn’t quite shaped out as we fans predicted. Not yet at least. With so many options, Luis Enrique has effectively forced his own hand, particularly in midfield. Including the new signings, Barca now has 7 midfielders for 3 spots. New signings of course have to be integrated into the team. In an ideal world, the competition would just sit back and allow them to grow. Yeah right. If anything, as the new recruits learn the system, the team has grown more susceptible to errors and a lack of control. There has been no consistency in midfield and it allows the opposition the ability to hit us where it hurts. Repeatedly. Ow.
In his bid to avoid the pitfalls of Pep’s midfield dominance and even the shortcomings of his second season, Luis Enrique took it a step too far. The midfield, what was once our very cog, had been diminished to passing the baton to the front three. As a result, the control which exemplified a Barca team during and post-Pep is no more, the midfield triangles disappear too readily and the spacing between midfielders this season has increasingly grown wider. Anyone else miss a certain Spanish maestro plying his trade in Qatar yet? Coupled with an apparent inability to read a game properly and make the right subs- Arda Turan subbed in to protect a Clasico lead, not once but twice. Sheesh. This season has the makings of the inconsistency that riddled Luis Enrique’s first season coaching the club. Here’s to hoping we meet a similar end.