Remodelling a masterpiece

November 13, 2014

Barcelona’s direction under Luis Enrique.

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One would hope Pep Guardiola has not watched the first half of Barcelona’s 2-1 win at Almería last Saturday. Emotional health is important. If he has, he will have observed a lethargic display riddled with tactical confusion, hesitant passing and slow movement; players desperate for new ideas and attacking solutions; a system devoid of predetermined patterns designed to open up the opposition. For admirers of the Barça side Guardiola built, it was baffling at best. The man himself might have felt sadness over how his masterpiece has deteriorated, like if Leonardo Da Vinci had discovered his Mona Lisa altered with a black marker.

Patience is crucial and Luis Enrique deserves time—no sane mind would call for his head now—but all is not well. Even in victory, most displays have failed to convince. The worry is not that the players seem unable to follow his plan; rather, it is the plan itself. During the first half in Almería, Barça seemed to lack a grand idea. Missing movement left the back line exchanging harmless passes in the build-up phase. Action ensued only when Javier Mascherano played long passes—he has the second highest average of long balls per match in La Liga this season—or when a full-back advanced to cross. The wingers stayed wide but offered little, while Lionel Messi dropped right and deep in search for involvement. That tends to be a bad sign.

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Throughout the half the midfield trio were alarmingly static. Often Sergio Busquets, Rafinha and Ivan Rakitić hid behind Almería’s (shrewdly dense) midfield line, rather than drop down in the manner of, say, Xabi Alonso, to try to dictate play. Instead Rakitić offered surging runs into the right-side channel, or snuck into the penalty area when the opportunity arose for a cross. The Croat is inheriting Xavi’s role, but his interpretation here was that of a box-to-box midfielder à la Claudio Marchisio. Busquets seemed out of sorts and Rafinha, perhaps more at home further forward, remained anonymous. It left Mascherano as the chief playmaker by default. For a club famed for their abundance of intuitive playmakers, the situation was and is difficult to justify—both for the coach and the much-questioned hierarchy.

The apparent lack of ideas in the build-up phase puts Luis Enrique’s strategic competence in a bad light. Large is the gap between having good players and an intention to play possession football, and actually doing it well. This was sometimes taken for granted under Guardiola. No small part of his constant worrying centred on how to devise patterns and systems that would ensure Barça did not only keep the ball, but used it well. For neutrals it seemed so simple: the ceaseless rondos, the five-yard passes, the one-touch moves. But external simplicity is often a product of something sophisticated beneath; in this case the notion of hard work and invention that forms a large part of what makes Guardiola so special. Long dismissed is the phrase that ‘anyone can coach Barça’. The genius in what Guardiola built is becoming apparent in proportion to the work’s gradual deterioration.

It seems unreasonable to expect anyone to replicate Guardiola’s style. Few coaches would have the required talent anyway, but the conditions have also changed. Clearly contributory to Barça’s decline has been the ageing of key players such as Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and even Messi, which may justify the move towards a more direct approach under Gerardo Martino and Luis Enrique. Not that it has been successful. The ultimate answer for this particular group of players remains elusive.

In the second half, Luis Enrique replaced Pedro and Munir with Neymar and Luis Suárez. Neymar went left and played his customary role, dropping deep to collect possession before taking on defenders; Suárez played up front and spent most of his time working the right-side channel, producing characteristic sharp turns that Almería’s defenders struggled with. Messi went right and drifted even deeper than Neymar, often wandering into his own half. The rest of the players retained their roles. The substitutions enabled Barça to pack a heavier punch; the team improved—it was impossible to do otherwise—and Suárez created two goals that won the game.

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But the game plan was still questionable. The win came through huffing and puffing, with slick interplay and fluency a rarity. Afterwards much attention went to Luis Enrique’s team selection, but concerns about the system are more important. The most notable aspect was the movement of the midfield when the ball went wide. When Messi had possession, Rakitić and Rafinha would often run towards the penalty area, as if anticipating a cross.

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This observation may seem subtle, but repetitions in future games would reveal some of Luis Enrique’s thinking. Such runs put the emphasis on finishing moves quickly, seeing as only one midfielder, Busquets, is in place to keep the ball moving. This season Barcelona have swung in an average of 27 crosses per match in La Liga, a number exceeded by two teams: Atlético Madrid, who have Mario Mandžukić, and underachievers Real Sociedad. While crosses from full-backs to forwards are normal, the decision to send midfielders on constant runs is contrary to what has made Barcelona successful in recent times.

Indeed, the opposite was the case under Guardiola. While the wingers would have highly specialised roles, Xavi and Iniesta would mostly shuttle between the penalty areas, entering them only in special circumstances. When the ball went right, Xavi would position himself in support, ready to shift play, while Iniesta stood ready to break into pockets of space. The attacks laster longer, the patience and speed were greater. Ball retention was king.

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This contrast highlights a fundamental aspect of how Barça play. The Almería match generated other talking points—the continuing search for the right formula, the role of Mascherano, how the South American trio should play together—but those are separate discussions. Luis Enrique is right to impose his style and should experiment stylistically and tactically, yet if the more marauding roles of Rakitić and Rafinha were as instructed by the coach, the sense of directness may have been taken too far. Not everything Guardiola installed can or should be replicated or kept, but, in this particular remodelling process, certain cornerstones are best left untouched.

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Photo by L.F.Salas / Licensed under CC BY 2.0