The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (Pt. 2)

Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid, Celta Vigo, Real Sociedad, Real Betis, Sevilla, Villarreal and of course PSG. All teams that have taken turns to dominate FC Barcelona, the only difference is that Bilbao, Vigo and now PSG made their dominance count with goals.

Since April 2016, these flaws in Lucho’s game plan have been exposed continuously with little to no reaction from the manager himself. The issue initially appeared in our April Clasico. Coming off international break, the fatigue crept in, particularly in MSN who travelled from South America.  I remember wondering throughout the game about Leo being central almost all the time. In that game, Messi was assisting the midfielders in building attacks and distribution. This of course was nothing new to supporters as Messi has made his name by dropping deep. But this was different, instead of occasionally dipping into midfield, he maintained his positioning throughout the ninety minutes. Whether through a managerial decision to increase bodies in midfield or the player himself taking on the creative responsibility, this was new from Lucho’s Barca. The treble season was signified by the switch of Leo Messi to the right wing where he enjoyed more spacing and one on ones than ever before and suddenly, here we were needing him in midfield on a constant basis. The result of this game? A 1-2 loss where Marcelo ran riot with all the space ahead of him on the flank, double teaming Alves with CR7 constantly. The first sign of danger.

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(I apologize for the above image)

Luis Enrique has given himself a headache. After initially persuading his greatest player to go back to his winger roots, his undermining of the midfield’s strength has led to decreased levels of build up from the midfield trio. The midfield is often so spread apart that there is minimal interplay between midfielders and less touches on the ball to influence the game. As a result, whether this was a conscious decision by the coach, player or both, Messi drops deep to play in midfield and start (and sometimes finish) attacks.  Essentially for the past year, Leo has had to be Xavi, Iniesta and himself all in one player.  As a result, this season Leo has had to rescue Barca in several different games, creating a moment of magic when the club needs him most. And the only reason it works is because of his own calibre. Messi has quite frankly been papering the cracks in Luis Enrique’s system and as it had against Celta Vigo, earlier this season, against PSG, the threadbare system unraveled.

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 (Again, I’m sorry, not exactly a happy post for Cules)

This past summer is the ultimate example of how Luis Enrique has failed to adequately prepare. After the April Clasico, Barca went on a run of 4 consecutive losses, dropping out of the Champion’s League and seeing a 13-point gap in the league get chopped down to one. Eventually, Messi stuck his heels in and the team got going again, stopping the rot and ending with a domestic double. Summer came with no transfer ban for the first time in his reign and this was Lucho’s chance to do right, to get the depth he required for a sustained run and adjust his game plan where necessary. Halfway through the 2016/2017 season and it’s clear nothing has changed. In particular, the positions that needed to be addressed- ‘controller’ type midfielder to replace the loss of Xavi and a starting right back to fill the hole left by Alves has since been ignored.

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It is no coincidence that Barca has struggled with the loss of two key players since 2008. It is also no coincidence that this is where Barca has struggled the most and that our most maligned names regularly feature on the right flank. Sergi Roberto, Ivan Rakitic, Andre Gomes and even Aleix Vidal have all struggled to perform, the right flank is simply too unbalanced for players to perform to their highest standards. What was once a creative hub has now become a wasteland. Rakitic appears to be babysitting the ghost of Alves at times, restricting his creative ability while Roberto is unwilling to take on his marker or even cross the ball for fear of losing it. All our positive play goes through the left via Neymar or off the boot of Leo Messi when he drifts centrally.

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Lucho’s tactical inflexibility has led to perennial underachieving. Unable to create a means to accommodate a central Messi while maintaining width on the right flank or even better, utilizing his midfield in a way that Messi does not have to partake in build-up consistently, the entire side has suffered. What was once incisive, direct play has now fallen into sterile possession lacking in creativity and thrust. At times, it feels like the team is waiting for that moment of brilliance from Messi or Neymar to score, the team play itself is nonexistent. By seeking a Plan B to counter Pep’s model, Plan B became Plan A for Barcelona and the team has lost its essence, the positional play that embodied the teachings of La Masia and Cruyff. As it stands, the team is too dependent on individual brilliance to succeed. Luis Enrique’s Barcelona has regressed, his system of play unsustainable in the modern game.

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It is my belief that a good manager is one who is able to set a system or a mode of play for his team to achieve success. At his best, Lucho did just that with his side playing some of the most entertaining and dominant football in Europe from January 2015 to March 2016. Nonetheless, when wobbles appeared and cracks began to show, and he has been asked to step up into the shoes of the greats, to adapt to those evolving around him, he has been found severely lacking. As Leicester City can attest to, the hardest thing to do after exceeding expectations, is continuing to do so.

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Therefore, it would be an immense surprise (to him as well I reckon) if Luis Enrique is coach of F.C Barcelona at the start of the next season. At this point he seems devoid of ideas and enthusiasm at the helm. Lucho stepped in when the club needed someone to re-instill hope and a fighting spirit and he did just that and more, winning 8 out of 10 possible trophies. For that, I will always respect him. However, like Pep before him, one must know when to say goodbye so that a new manager can step in and refresh the squad with their own ideals. A Club Legend as a player to achieving so much as a manager, I thank him. He was never going to be as successful or as universally adored as Pep and he didn’t have to be. He never cared or let it faze him, he managed his own way, as one would expect from Luis ‘Lucho’ Enrique.

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