Enrique and life on the fringe, aka “Stuff is happening, but why?”

Photo courtesy of FC Barcelona
Photo courtesy of FC Barcelona

The challenge of holding a minority opinion is whether it stands up to the litmus test of logic.

A popular worldview, supported by many an intelligent football chronicling voice, is that Barça under Luis Enrique is a team that is losing its identity. The latest piece, and an excellent one from Sid Lowe, makes the case as eloquently as any I have seen before and will likely see even as for me, the team has been losing said identity since before Guardiola’s last year, and that loss isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

So in the struggle to reconcile ideas that apparently need fingers on a keyboard to wrap a mind around, here’s a view from an outlier on judgments of Enrique and what/how he is doing in the here and now. It’s a question of not only what you see when everyone sees the same thing, but what is affecting your field of view in how you react to what you see.

Institutional malaise

The perils of inaction were chronicled in a previous post. Despite the notions that the piece was a call for the sale of Iniesta, what it did was ask the question, what are the dangers of institutional paralysis as they relate to a football team. And further, can such inaction hinder a club from reaching its fullest potential?

The problem with Barça as I see it, from the seeming rootlessness to the other things going on, is institutional. You can’t blame players not executing on the board, but you can make that entity complicit in the challenges that the team faces. And it’s deeper than “Does the team have the right players to compete in the way that the current coach believes to be ideal?” Once you answer that question, the next level(s) become if yes, then why are they not at their best and if no, why does the team NOT have the right players to compete in the right way?

If you take the second answer to be the “correct,” one, meaning the one that hews to your worldview, then it’s valid to wonder not only what other problems are being caused by a — for want of a better word — neglectful board and further, are there ways other than bodies on the bench and pitch in which that seeming institutional rootlessness affects the club.

Everyone laughed (well, Madridistas didn’t) when RM leaped to Ronaldo’s defense yet again over some slight. We giggled, but at the same time we wondered why Barça doesn’t do the same, why there isn’t the realization that the goodwill engendered by an act that might make the club look rather petty to outsiders, is incalculable. Our players aren’t above that stuff. They’re human. Ego. Craving for affirmation. The players didn’t kill themselves for Guardiola because of some magic fairy dust that he had. They did it because they understood that he cared about them. They also understood that at the end of that arc of work and trust would be something extraordinary.

As importantly, they understood that the board was, flaws and all, going to do what was necessary to make sure it backed the players. Signings, locker rooms, private jets, food, no matter. Let’s do this. The net effect was that the psychological governor wasn’t on. “Run, you bastards, run!” “Yes, coach.” The question wasn’t even how fast, because it was assumed that all out was the correct answer. It’s what happens when an institution is working together toward a singular purpose.

FC Barcelona is the club, but as far as the world and the majority of culers (as differentiated from socis) is concerned, FCB is the football team. And that team doesn’t need to worry about a new stadium, using energy-efficient light bulbs or making color copies. That team doesn’t want to be hamstrung by the burdens, real or imagined, of austerity or “administrative oversight.” That team wants the full, unstinting support of a board that has its back in every way, from transfers to calling bullshit on rumors about its star player being involved in money laundering and any of the other crap being thrown at its players. How in the hell is the team supposed to feel about not being able to augment its squad because someone in bookkeeping screwed up? Does the team have a foundation, or a bed of sand balanced on a skateboard?

The institution has been sliding, and that slide continues, the market activity of the summer notwithstanding. The team feels leaderless and directionless in part because the institution is seemingly leaderless and directionless. And that mood, that feeling permeates everything.

Between two worlds

Pique makes a stop at the defensive end and feeds the ball to Xavi who feeds Neymar, who goes running up the wing like a colt unfettered, looks to his right and sees nothing. So he stops, feeds Xavi and the rondos begin.

Barça can come at a team with a collection of attacking talent that is unrivaled. All 3: Neymar, Suarez and Messi are all quick with and without the ball, think exceptionally well while on the move and possess the skill to implement those wildest dreams.

There was a time when “death by a thousand passes” worked, that time before teams adjusted tactically. But a different approach is required, one begun by Vilanova, continued by Martino and seems to have stalled under Enrique … or has it? It seems that right now, everything is under question. Does Barça still attack AND defend with 11? What is the effect of having 3 players for whom the sort of aggressive tracking back reserved for workhorses such as Alexis Sanchez and Pedro, isn’t part of their makeup. So now is Barça defending with 8? How many is the team attacking with, and how does that affect the kinds of players that the team needs? As a coach, how do you try to account for those absences, stylistic barriers and implement a system that works?

You have Xavi. Should you? Now that you have Xavi, how are you going to use him in Enrique’s ideal system, and can you? The team was using other players to function in the role of Suarez. Then Suarez came, and things shifted. What happened? What if that shift was a reaction to the reality of Suarez’s presence? A defense will react differently to Munir than Suarez, so suddenly a plan that made sense on a chalkboard is blown to hell in reality. Maybe. 37 different lineups in 22 matches. Cluelessness? Rotation? Struggling with a system? It strikes me as a perceptional challenge. “Dammit, Guardiola never rotated,” which was the kissin’ cousin of “Whee, guess the Guardiola lineup. What a genius! I can’t figure him out.”

Can there be too many different lineups? Depends on how much rotation there is? If a lineup features the same 10 players but only one varies, that’s technically a different lineup, to be sure. But … Enrique needs to figure out his best XI. Does he? Or does he simply need to know his players, and which ones are best for a given opponent. In the process of figuring all that out, experimentation and in a baser form just messing with stuff, seems to be inevitable.

In other words, it doesn’t surprise me at all that things seem a mess. I expected they would be. Lack of talent wasn’t at the root of my prediction that it would be another silverless season for Barça, but rather the idea that everything had to come together, and this wasn’t going to be the season for that to happen. The questions that this team needs to answer are staggering, ranging from how to solve the right-side defending quandary to what is the best way to implement Alba AND Neymar? You also have the complexity of incumbents who might not necessarily be ideal for a desired system. So how do those players affect what the team is doing? Dynamism vs patience, la pausa vs pell mell running.

And yet something feels different about this group. It feels more fragile, a feeling with roots in more than simple tinkering. Key parts of the machine are older and worn, but there are psychological elements as well. Wins are less convincing, and we all struggle with the exact reasons why.

A number of players will require difficult decisions from Enrique over the summer, depending on what the CAS decision is on the appeal of the transfer ban (another gift from the board). Is Xavi moving on? What if Iniesta’s seeming malaise isn’t form-based? Is Busquets the right player in the right position? Is there an idea role for Messi beyond “Where the ball is, dummy.” So many questions, that in many ways have the quest for their answers obstructed by an ideology that is psychologically tantamount to having chanting dudes in robes saying “You can’t do that. It isn’t the way.”

Dogma and reality

The Way, for me, is winning football matches. It’s much of why I find the entorno absurd. Evaluations should be cogent and rational. Start with objectivity, then ask questions.

Cruijffian philosophy has, for me, become dogmatic and limiting. It’s a lovely tool, improperly used. Guardiola’s teams broke Henry long and banged a pass to him. Rafa Marquez was the king of the long, attack-starting diagonal. Txigrinski assisted Pedro from the back line with a long bomb. There were counters and tika-taka, rondos that had at their terminus a ball in a net, as well as Eto’o doing something crazy and toe-poking a ball home. A worldview and a philosophy are a way of thinking, rather than a straitjacket. And as we think about the club, what is going on and what we are seeing on the pitch, it’s worth wondering whether we are doing it with the clearest mind.

I see a team winning and playing in different ways, and I think “Cool!” Someone else sees that and says “Ugh, where is the direction? What are the Barça principles?” Is there a right and a wrong answer to those questions, or can both people be right, that as long as the roots of how the team plays find a base in attractive, attacking, possession football, is the rest semantics?

It’s difficult for me to say that it doesn’t seem like Enrique has a full grasp on things and the team isn’t playing in a clear, discernible fashion mostly because I didn’t expect it to. It expected things would be a mess. I am, frankly, surprised that the club won its Champions League group and sits second in the table. Does this mean that my expectations have tempered my idea of success/proper implementation? Assuredly.

The biggest reason that I and others have been calling for an exorcismus Guardiolus is because looking backward just ensures that you run into obstacles, and this team has enough of them without being hamstrung by additional baggage.

What Enrique wants to do is win football matches. He seems to be that kind of pragmatist. But he is winning football matches in a world where mere winning isn’t sufficient. Does that make him, like Tata Martino, too pragmatic to coach at Barça? Guardiola was an excellent football coach, a lover and a footballing romantic. He was also driven and obsessive, which made his elegant pragmatism something easy to overlook. But when he would come out with a midfield of Toure Yaya, Keita and Xavi, the plan wasn’t a minuet. Somebody was getting stomped. Horses for courses. There was the recent statement by Guardiola that he used a double pivot and the world shifted on its axis. He won. Everything. Until he didn’t.

I love beautiful goals, footballing sonnets that give me the vapors. But I will take a goal like Busquets’ against Valencia. It all works for me.

I also love the beautiful uncertainty of the game, the fact that you can talk all the tactical stuff you like but when the whistle blows you might as well put marbles in a salad bowl. The game is complex, violent, crazy, amorphous and requiring of immense patience. Results are difficult to come by, much less good results to a degree sufficient to accumulate enough success to warrant a victory parade.

For me, the team is a sine wave. It always has been. For a 2005 there is a 2008. For every 2009 there is a 2013 (minus the tragedy and heartache, pleasethankyou). It’s ups and downs, and balance. It’s an extraordinary group of footballers who are watching time slip away, who want to feel like people value that time. It’s also a fourth coach in four seasons, and yet another new way of thinking. But you know what? If you dump a load of crap on the floor, it’s going to be a mess. Giving the staff time to clean up might not be the worst thing in the world.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

17 Comments

  1. December 26, 2014

    But its not a load of crap that dropped on the floor, and the staff is taking too long to pick it up.

    BFB since when did you lose your identity? There is a reason alexis was sold, same for song and chyngryskiy and Tata sack-resigned, all these people were quality staffs but couldn’t pick up whatever needed picking up quickly enough. In the barca community we are largely unforgiving, we have selective memory and that memory only remembers the best displays. No one remembers uncharismatic-looking-tired-ronaldinho, but we remember a dancing-Brazilian-woo-lord that made the samba-style traditional Barcelona 10 popular, and nobody remembers that messi penalty 2-2 versus chelsea miss, not for the miss in itself but for the lack of class he dedicated to that spotkick, the traditional run and hoof style of penalty commonly made popular by the brute booths of the English game.

    Using a few woo words won’t make the problem go away, you can pretend the apple is not rotten but cannot eat it. Luis Enrique clearly has an idea, not the most aspiring but it is a good enough for mid-table sitting teams but as we continue to search for new identities we must not forget who we are and what heights we aim. 4 points off Madrid pre-second tie clasico is always very poor from any coach, and i will not repent for my unforgiving nature towards him, whether the team is withering or not, Pep, Tito and Tata never had as much talent as Enrique has not. And how you can call that crap just to lull the situation, is an identity theft. Come on guys!

    • ooga aga
      December 27, 2014

      Calm down. Dont make a mountain out of a Leo penalty miss however-many-years ago. And keep things in perspective. We have a new coach, a grip of new players, and yet we are not far off from a record-breaking real madrid… meaning we are almost breaking records ourselves. this from a team that, by all accounts, has yet to gel, and which experimented heavily in the first Clasico, where the result could have beenn much different, depending on small circumstances.

      please add some patience and optimism to your cocktail of negativity. your health will improve.

  2. senyera7
    December 26, 2014

    Does anyone else feel ridiculously happy to see Bojan smashing things up over at Stoke?

    • ooga aga
      December 27, 2014

      yeah. his facial hair just tickles me. Not literally.

      and i saw this on a stoke blog regarding another one of our boys.

      “Stoke’s sociable Spaniard Muniesa made his debut in the centre of defence last season against Everton, enduring a torrid time. For him to put in a man-of-the-match performance on his return there just 12 months later was the kind of fairy-tale you’d expect in the city’s theatres, not their football stadiums. His frame has grown along with his stature and his intelligence allowed both to come together and ensure Romelu Lukaku had barely a sniff on the ground and even competing with the big Belgian in the air too. He won every tackle he contested (four) and made some timely blocks and interceptions as well as bringing an air of assurance to a back line that has suffered so much this season.”

  3. icemel
    December 27, 2014

    Great breakdow. A worthy bookend to Sid’s assessment.

    I’m one the fence. Give the man 2 years (as Tata should have got) and then we’ll see.

    I do admit to longing to see the “barca style” though. Though the LeoXaviniesta Trinity is is no longer the supernatural thing it once was I can never forget the CL game against Bate Borisov where Pedro + the B team put on a Barca Clinic that maybe has only been eclipsed by the A team a handful of times. It demonstrated to me that there is a Barca way that transcends the players at hand (at least with a Pep at the helm.)

    Win the Classico & nab a point or two. Fine position to be in. I’m staying positive in hopes that the team does the same.

  4. December 27, 2014

    Its exactly the type of response Enrique gave after theinexplicable Madrid loss, He said, ”we are still at the top after the loss to Madrid, we are still in control”. No need to stress the importance of how worry is important for being fit, and fat people get stuck in worm holes, maybe we are fat right now, maybe we are not worrying too much and we are being lenient to our bias. Record breaking Madrid? Yet to gel barca? Didn’t real buy James and kroos and sold alonso and dimaria? And even khedira benched?

    You can turn blind eye to worry, but remember, its the punch you dont see coming that knocks you out.

  5. December 27, 2014

    Its exactly the type of response Enrique gave after the inexplicable Madrid loss, He said, ”we are still at the top after the loss to Madrid, we are still in control”. No need to stress the importance of how worry is important for being fit, and fat people get stuck in worm holes, maybe we are fat right now, maybe we are not worrying too much and we are being lenient to our bias. Record breaking Madrid? Yet to gel barca? Didn’t real buy James and kroos and sold alonso and dimaria? And even khedira benched?

    You can turn blind eye to worry, but remember, its the punch you dont see coming that knocks you out.

    • ooga aga
      December 27, 2014

      I’ll remember that. Thanks.

    • barca96
      December 29, 2014

      Excellent last line. I’ll remember that. I know another great line including the word punch. “Everybody has a great plan until they get punched in the face”.

  6. ooga aga
    December 28, 2014

    hmmm,.,,man city had a nice 2-0 lead to mighty Burnley at home, then gave it up, and finished 2-2. I guess even good teams can have bad moments.

    and i hate to nitpick, and i know kxevin has reason for his nomenclature, i just want to point out that Enrique is Luis Enrique Martinez’ middle name or second first name. it’s not a last name. in american sportswriting we often call people by their last name, and since Luis Enrique is often referred to as just that, the temptation is to shorten it to “Enrique”. But it would be like calling any other sports star by their middle name, which no one does even in the US.

  7. Jim
    December 28, 2014

    Something nice at Christmas sitting down to watch a football match with a glass of wine and seeing Jose come up short against a well parked bus.

    • BarcaSon
      December 28, 2014

      Yes. I love to see Mou’s reaction to bus parking team. I saw a match between West Ham and Arsenal. What a beautiful game. The WHU winger attempted many crosses but their other forwards were always there to hit the ball on their opponent’s box. I imagine if we response Alves crosses like they did, we will be very difficult to beat. Sorry for my poor grammar.

  8. Jim
    December 28, 2014

    It gets better. Just watched Mou’s rant at the end about other teams getting the penalties and putting pressure on the refs so his team don’t get any. That would’ve been a breeze that knocked Ivanovic over in the box earlier then ?

    On a more serious note, they are at the moment genuine contenders in the CL. They have weaknesses but they are being masked by the form of Hazard and the fact that they get numbers back so Terry is never exposed to a one on one. At times they are moving the ball about as well as ive ever seen one of his teams. On the plus side there isn’t a team in the world that can deal well with a parked bus as us and we face more then anyone ( for some still inexplicable reason ) .

    • FCB16
      December 28, 2014

      Eh, not ready to declare we have solved the “bus” problem, a lot easier to constantly attack when you don’t fear any sort of counter. A MCFC or CFC bus parking is a world of difference when compared to the liga fodder doing it to us.

    • Jim
      December 28, 2014

      I wouldn’t put those two into the same sentence defensively. Chelsea are pretty good whereas MC are a bit iffy. However, I also didn’t say we had solved it but considering the number we face compared with other teams our record shows we do pretty well. My point was an old one that people don’t always acknowledge how hard it is to beat any side that packs its defence.

      I’m also not sure I wouldn’t take most of LA Liga’s “fodder” over Southampton any day.

  9. Dar_vincy
    December 30, 2014

    From all the fixture list, it’s mind-boggling why the board would greenlight a friendly match in Qatar sandwiched between tough fixtures with Villareal (home) and Atletico (away) (and a stadium we always struggle since forever.)
    Could it be that this is a brazen and cocky move that in a way disregards the magnitude of the opposition we’ll play?
    Needless to say, we’ve often shown an inglorious reputation for self-destruction particularly with the sporting project, but this latest ill-advised move all seek to exacerbate our already precarious liga campaign.

  10. Gutierer
    December 31, 2014

    I am not sure why, but for me LE does not inspire confidence, unlike Tata. It seems that unlike Tata, who was working towards giving the team an added attacking dimension (recall quick balls from goalie to Alexis on the wings), LE is mired down.

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