Luis Enrique Martinez Garcia is very, very far from being an idiot. But I think a case could be made that the Barcelona manager is unintentionally giving life to the old Bill Shankly statement: “Football is a simple game complicated by idiots.”
Such is the thirst for controversy these days. I’m going to say it again for emphasis. Not only is “Lucho” not an idiot, but I think that his energy, attention to detail, intensity, willingness to learn and sheer love of managing a club that is important to him invigorates Barcelona on a daily basis in ways that are neither widely appreciated nor widely reported. However, his search for innovation and Pep Guardiola-esque lateral thinking is looking increasingly as if it may be creating more problems than it is solving.
The two poor performances and weak results with which Barcelona have christened 2017 — limp in Bilbao, lucky at Villarreal — aren’t just evidence of that. They’re also continued proof of the fact that when you promote individuals over the power of a great system and great team play, you run a terrible risk.
The basic argument centers around evolution. When Pep Guardiola left the Camp Nou, he was tired, fractious and low on tolerance for how his employers, notably the Barcelona President Sandro Rosell, were treating him. Those factors made him more irascible about the fact that he “knew” Barcelona needed to evolve their playing systems and ideas. He knew that like a shark: The great predators of the football ocean need to be unpredictable and dangerous in ways that both surprise and shock. They need to keep moving forward.
Guardiola experimented with personnel and playing systems, openly admitting after his departure that he’d have continued along the same lines of trying to “reinvent” Barça’s offensive weaponry while maintaining the core philosophy of pass-move, press-move, pass-score-win.
This is a debate that still dominates the Camp Nou think-tank today.
Luis Enrique’s 2015 treble owed most to two or three “new” things clicking at the same time, not to a “new” idea of how to play. The newly signed Luis Suarez was absolutely peerless in his centre-forward play between January and May of 2016, while his off-pitch/on-pitch relationship with Lionel Messi and Neymar meant that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Quite a different challenge than Barcelona’s rivals had previously faced.
Ivan Rakitic was simply immense. Blessed with massive talent and relentless stamina, his other great boon was being born with a tremendous sense of “team.” He would do his own job as well as any right midfielder in Europe, but also cover for Dani Alves, add pace and anticipation to what “support” Sergio Busquets might need and still have time to both create goals or score the odd one here and there. The Croat was the equivalent of two players, not just one.
The level of competitive tension and individual excellence brought by pairing Claudio Bravo and Marc Andre ter-Stegen in the Barcelona squad, plus the stimulus of giving the cup competitions to the German and La Liga to Bravo, were an excellent impetus toward shared high standards. Each player admitted that he was unsatisfied not to be the “outright” No. 1, but for the two seasons that they tolerated it, both Bravo and Stegen played better, more aggressively and more successfully than either is doing now.
Luis Enrique himself was a fresh voice, demanding in his intensity and a person who began in an authoritarian mode but then showed the intelligence and maturity to adapt — particularly in terms of man-management.
One final “innovation” was the consensus among the front three and the coaching staff that Leo Messi surrendering the centre-forward position to Luis Suarez, subsequently playing as consistently close to the touchline as he’d done since 2008, was imperative. Suarez, as centre-forward, was playing in his natural position. Messi, who has never liked playing off the wing, added balance to the team, tying up two or sometimes three players when he attacked off the right touchline. Thanks to the activity of the other two, Neymar found yards more space down the left than he does now.
Match all these new stimuli with the fact that Barcelona’s squad was full of talent and hadn’t enjoyed being badly stung by Atletico and Real Madrid the previous season and… presto. Hungry, focused, intense, dangerous. Suddenly Barcelona were posing questions to opponents that were slightly new, courtesy of the arrival and surging form of the keepers, the industry of Rakitic and Suarez along with Messi’s redeployment.
The Catalan side thrived in terms of confidence and ambition, but by definition, the Pep Guardiola argument was then bound to resurface.
When you are successful, people study you. They want to blunt you. They fear being decimated by you. They raise their game against you. So how do you surprise, disconcert, confuse and outgun any well-prepared rivals?
Once most could see that Barcelona were using the ball more directly to the front three, playing more “vertical” football and indulging in much less positional play or intricacy in their passing, it fell to the coach (and several of his players) to repeat that “the basic philosophy is still just the same.” Even though it’s not.
To own large parts of possession, to seek superiority of numbers in danger areas, to pass better than opposition teams — these words are good, but they don’t accurately reflect some of the playing ideas Barcelona have used this season.
The hard fact is, however, that in search of options that might make their ideas less easy to divine, which will, in theory, make Barcelona’s attacks harder to anticipate, such damage has been done that the Spanish champions are now much more predictable than they were. Certainly they’re more vulnerable. So little attention is now paid to the strict nature of “positional play” that Barcelona pass less well, are made to look ragged more easily and are far easier to counterattack.
The whole idea, spawned by Guardiola and taken forward by Luis Enrique, was to find new ways to impose superiority on rivals. The new reality is that Barcelona’s better, more tactically shrewd, more ambitious and more confident rivals now know precisely what this current style of play allows them to do to Barça.
One small example would be the similarity of the goals scored by Atletico Madrid in last season’s Champions League quarterfinal and the one Barcelona conceded to go 2-0 down at the San Mames last week. It began with asphyxiatingly high pressure that Barcelona can’t break or can’t pass beyond, building frustration, and ultimately, a defender forced to try and “hoof” the ball clear.
In each case, by chance, it’s Jordi Alba. Hemmed in on his own touchline, the ball gets kicked some 25 metres, but Barcelona are incapable of winning the ensuing header. Atleti/Athletic win the second ball, possession is shipped forward instantly, the attacking players around the box are far quicker than the Barcelona back line who aren’t used to the ball being whammed straight back at them and suddenly it’s a goal.
The morality tale goes like this: Barcelona choose, as a reasonably acceptable “new” tactic, to feed Messi, Suarez and Neymar quickly and directly because “they are the best in the world individually and capable of creating/scoring because of their personal talents … not because the passing, positioning or pressing of the team behind them has created the opening.”
The more that idea becomes dominant, the more two things happen: Barcelona’s midfield passing, intelligence and organisation declines. It’s natural. Thus when Luis Enrique’s team plays out from the back, there’s less “association” with the midfield, the split-second passes and movements are no longer second nature, and Barcelona are often either forced to cede possession or boot the ball “long.”
Messi repeatedly drops back to play a “false” midfielder role, where there’s no shadow of a doubt that he’s a brilliant, innovative passer. His individual form in this role is superb. He’s playing some of the best football of his career, but in bursts. Bursts that are rescuing his team.
However, when he drops back to midfield, who overlaps? Who creates the third forward? What impact does that have on the midfielder or full-back who needs to fill in up front? Who does the extra “dirty work” when the opposition break and Messi can neither press high up front nor seems overly disposed to chase, harry and tackle?
While Messi does this, Neymar subconsciously decides: “Anything you can do I can do better…” Not literally, but you get the picture. The Brazilian, goalless since mid-October, has put in a shift in the last two matches, but not the right ones. While Messi improvises, Neymar does too. Too many runs, too many dribbles, poor timing of passes, not enough support around him to drag defenders away so that he can add to his scoring record: bad choice after bad choice.
This is where good old Shanks comes in.
Football is a simple game that, sometimes, we overcomplicate. The two questions on the lips of every Barcelona fan right now are: “Can the team defeat Athletic and make it through to the next round?” and “Is Luis Enrique going to renew his contract?” More important than those, at least for Barcelona’s footballing well-being, is the question about how soon Luis Enrique will authorize, or enforce, a return to basic values.
When will Messi be told not to drop back into midfield whenever he pleases and to discipline himself, ensuring that he starts wide right, opens the pitch up and then cuts in to do his joyful damage? When will Neymar be told to do likewise on the left: first-time passing and moving, alacrity of sprints and better choice of pass and shot? More team play, less “time for me!” play.
When, if ever, will Barcelona’s front three (with midfield support where needed) press as consistently, aggressively and intelligently high up the pitch as they did during the best of the Guardiola era? When will the focus be returned to Barcelona’s midfield plus wing backs and their perpetual, geometric passing so that teams are dragged around the pitch in search of possession and thus tired out and worn down?
When will the nonstop movement and intelligent positioning of the team ensure that each player has three or four passing options — particularly Busquets — every time he receives the ball? When will Luis Enrique use, more widely and more regularly, the bench players (like Arda Turan) who should not only be on the pitch contributing now, but should also be consistently breathing right down the necks of the first-team starters so they know they cannot relax?
Right now, there are too many players certain of their place in the first team, and too many on the bench who know that they won’t be first choice in the biggest match even if they are on top form.
Shanks, I’m sure, would say it’s “time to decrease the complications. Time to accept that the biggest surprise we can launch on the opposition is to burnish, brightly, the same old playing ideas that seemed to need rebooting but would be a massive improvement right now.”
Over to you, Luis Enrique. Let’s see if he knows his Anfield boot-room history.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.” Twitter: @BumperGraham.