ANALYSIS: The Barcelona boss has made continuous changes to his starting XI this term and the side’s inconsistent form shows he may be overdoing it
Is rotation really the problem? Luis Enrique has picked 23 different starting XIs in his 23 games so far as Barcelona boss and the Asturian coach still seems unsure of what is his strongest side. With the team not exactly firing on all cylinders, that is surely something of a concern.
“I don’t read the criticism,” the 44-year-old said after a virtual second string humbled Huesca in an 8-1 win on Tuesday. “My doctor told me not to.” But he does hear it at every press conference as he is forced to field tough questions over his tactics and team selections. And after Saturday’s sterile draw at Getafe that saw Barca drop four points behind Real Madrid in La Liga, he hit back at his detractors. “We have been playing the same system all season,” he said.
Sometimes, however, it is hard to tell what the idea is. Apart from the 3-2-3-2 formation deployed against Paris Saint-Germain last week, Barca have largely stuck to 4-3-3 but bear little resemblance to Pep Guardiola’s great side.
Interestingly, Pep rotated consistently in his first season as well. Guardiola gave playing time to Rafa Marquez and Gerard Pique as partners to Carles Puyol, even moved the captain to right-back on occasions and often brought in Seydou Keita, Yaya Toure, Eidur Gudjohnsen and even Alexander Hleb into his starting XI. He also played Andres Iniesta in an advanced role on the left and utilised a young Pedro (still known as Pedrito), Bojan Krkic and others.
With Xavi and Iniesta in their prime, Puyol undisputed, Victor Valdes a fixture in goal, Dani Alves and Eric Abidal complementing each other in the full-back positions and forwards Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry all in fantastic form, however, the team almost picked itself.
Having inherited a team somewhat in decline, Luis Enrique does not have that luxury, but the Asturian has chopped and changed constantly in search of his strongest side and many of the players are left wondering what their role is in this team. Xavi, for example, was ignored for much of the early part of the season, while Pique has been left on the sidelines for several games recently and everyone else – apart from Messi – has been benched at some stage in 2014-15.
Does he know what his strongest side is? Perhaps. Pep did, even if he too rotated frequently in that first term. And back then, the Catalan’s changes were given less scrutiny because Barca were winning and winning well.
Not only that, though. On top of the results, it was not the personnel that mattered most to Guardiola, but the style. Whoever started for Barca, Pep’s philosophy as coach shone through and there was a clear identity about the way the team played.
With Luis Enrique, such style is still conspicuous by its absence.
“When I played for Barca I could tell that Pep would become a coach – I was convinced,” former Spain midfielder Gaizka Mendieta told Goal. “With Luis Enrique, I would have said he perhaps wouldn’t go on to coach. But he has strong beliefs and he will take them to the end. He is a winner.”
Another of Luis Enrique’s former team-mates, ex-Barca defender Miguel Angel Nadal, believes the Asturian needs time to succeed.
“It is no use comparing with Guardiola’s team,” he said. “The circumstances are different and the players are older. Luis Enrique is trying lots of things and figuring out what is best for the team. He has the right character for the job and is drawing on his own experiences of playing for Barca.”
As a player, Luis Enrique featured in almost every outfield position for Barca, from full-back to striker, and that flexibility was initially seen as a big advantage as he began his coaching career.
“Tactically he is very intelligent,” Nadal added. “He played in many different positions and he can adapt to any system.”
That may be the case but, right now, many Barca fans will be hoping he can stick to one sole system and make it work instead of the constant experiments so far in 2014-15.