What an absolutely extraordinary week Luis Enrique has just had.
Exactly one year ago, he was about to rise from what seemed to be footballing ruins, and the events of the past few days have been a brilliant way to mark that anniversary.
In turn he has been idiosyncratic, daring and shrewd, but above all, the Barcelona manager has been true to himself.
It’s one of the all-time great comeback stories.
For context, do you remember early January 2015? Barcelona appeared to be mired in crisis.
There was the standup row with Lionel Messi in training on the Friday before losing to Real Sociedad — with the Argentinian and Neymar left on the bench — followed by the sacking of Luis Enrique’s friend and mentor Andoni Zubizarreta a couple of days later.
Four points behind leaders Real Madrid and only in second place ahead of Atletico Madrid because of their goal power, Barca were as close to Valencia in fourth as they were to first.
(One year later, a four-point gap between Real Madrid and league leaders Atletico was enough to see Rafa Benitez sacked at the Bernabeu.)
After losing in San Sebastian, Luis Enrique’s next match was at home to Elche in the Copa del Rey, and fewer than 28,000 fans turned up at the Camp Nou to see it. Albeit that he was a Barcelona hero as a player, it looked like a vote of no confidence for “Lucho.”
“The sacking of ‘Zubi’ weakens my position and makes me sad,” he admitted in his press conference.
The rest is history and represents one of the most astonishing turnarounds in football. Barca played scintillating football and barely misplaced a footstep in winning La Liga, the Champions League and the Copa del Rey.
But now it feels like the continued superlative football, especially from the MSN of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, as well as Barcelona’s five-trophy haul since that traumatic January, might be combining to leave some of Luis Enrique’s excellence in the shade.
So, how about this for his last week of work?
1. Barcelona 4-0 Granada
Messi hit a hat trick two days before he would collect his historic fifth Ballon d’Or, but the man of the match, by a distance, was Sergi Roberto. Perhaps the success story of Barcelona’s season so far, it was already clear just how much faith his manager has in the 23-year-old.
Comfortable in right or left midfield and stellar at right-back in Dani Alves’ absence, Sergi had already put in a stunning performance “overloading” Madrid in midfield and attack during the 4-0 Clasico win.
But this was an exponential step forward.
The single most demanding and specialist position in Barcelona’s version of the 4-3-3 formation is in central midfield. It’s called the “Pivote” and there’s a gatekeeping role.
Possession passing through this position needs to be ultraswift and shrewd, with no hesitation, no mistakes. It’s like speed chess.
If the player in this position loses the ball, misses a tackle or misjudges where to be, then it can leave Barcelona horrifically exposed.
Sergi deputised for Sergio Busquets in the middle of midfield and played brilliantly, looking as if he had trained and performed there for several seasons.
This was an exceptional decision by Barcelona’s manager and, suddenly, a relatively inexperienced footballer, who many would have been relaxed to see leave the club the previous summer, had shown he was the perfect deputy for a player who seemed not to have a proper replacement.
Luis Enrique retained Sergi, promoted him, used him in his preferred position and then kept on testing how many more challenges he could pass. Great vision by the coach.
2. Ballon D’Or Award
You might think him rude, and I don’t think he’ll be distraught if you did.
But Luis Enrique profoundly disapproved of the 2014 ban, which FIFA imposed on Barcelona for transgressing the rules on when and how to sign juvenile footballers. Accordingly, he was true to himself and refused to attend.
The Ballon d’Or itself, without its recent ties to FIFA, is an award of prestige and merit and one which puts winners in esteemed company. To opt not to turn up on a point of principle is, you’d have to say, staying true to personal values — something which the demands of modern football often undermines.
3. Espanyol 0-2 Barcelona
Eleven days after their city rivals harassed and pressed Barcelona into submission in a very aggressive 0-0 draw in La Liga, Luis Enrique saw no danger, only an opportunity in the second leg of this cup tie.
Now I have a vested interest here, having written for ESPN FC back in December 2013: “Why, given the myriad of tactical niceties out there, is this club hidebound to never, ever think about reducing deficiencies and augmenting remaining strengths with a team shape of 4-2-3-1?”
It transpires that Luis Enrique is open to that way of thinking and, against Espanyol, he lined his team up in such a formation. With a whole host of niceties that made the decision stand out:
– Drawing conclusions from Sergi’s performance against Granada, the two organising midfielders in this new tactical scheme didn’t include Busquets who, having played several hundred minutes more than at the same stage the previous season, was rested. That’s vital if he’s to be on form for the trophy-winning part of the season. In his absence, Sergi was paired with Rakiti, and the two functioned like hand in glove. Nice work, coach.
– The formation also facilitated Munir El Haddadi at centre-forward, Messi at No. 10 and Aleix Vidal as a winger. Munir, evidently classy in technical terms but shorn of goal confidence this season, was deployed nearer to his perfect position instead of wide right, which is largely the case when he substitutes for one of the MSN. This, with Suarez suspended, was probably the only formation in which Munir can start in the No. 9 position and the youngster responds by scoring twice. Round peg, round hole. Ring the bell for the coach.
– Messi, who has already been playing as a hybrid between the front line and that which Xavi Hernandez used to occupy, was returned to the position where he orchestrates everything. He plays superbly and sets up Munir’s first with a shimmering pass. “We want a formation which gives Messi, our best player, the most time on the ball, and we might well use this setup again this season,” admits Luis Enrique. Ring the bell twice.
– Vidal, who is technical, clever, quick and adventurous, not only turned in a vibrant performance on the right of the attacking three behind Munir but also saw the opportunity to change position late on and overload Espanyol down Barca’s left. It is a surprise move via which he supplies Munir with the second goal. Following Sunday night’s 6-0 win over Athletic Bilbao, it means that in the four games since the two players became eligible, Luis Enrique has used Arda and Vidal in five different positions, from where they have combined for three goal assists. Just ring the bell again.
Thus, it has been a great week, featuring personal excellence from the coach, as well as three Liga and Copa wins with an aggregate 12-0 scoreline.
But there’s no time for Luis Enrique to pat himself on the back, not that it is a propensity of his anyway. The Copa del Rey quarterfinals bring two more meetings with Athletic Club, starting on Wednesday at San Memes, where Barca lost 4-0 in the Super Cup last August.
And beyond that tie, everything is building to a miniclimax on Jan. 30, when current leaders Atletico play at the Camp Nou. In the same fixture last year, one week after that Real Sociedad defeat, Luis Enrique’s Barcelona sprang to life and never slowed down until everything was won in June.
Culled from soccernet.com