Too much or too little, aka “Is rotation what makes the world go round?”


Each matchday, Luis Enrique’s lineup rolls out and the anguished yowls begin.

I wish he would decide on an XI!
How are we supposed to know what he’s doing if he won’t play the same people!
How can the players gel if he keeps changing everything??
Sigh … the 47th lineup in 16 matches. He really doesn’t know what he’s doing.

I was wrong

I have long contended that Enrique’s rotation is a good thing, because the unpredictability will muck up opponents and when April and May roll around our team will benefit from that rotation particularly in Champions League, where a single match can change everything.

To put my notions to the test I did what anyone can, which is to visit the official club site and look at the XI for every match this season. And the first conclusion I reached was that I was wrong. In fact in looking at the data, I don’t believe that Enrique has rotated enough, prima facie.

The other notion that doesn’t really stand up to the test of a hard look at the data is that Enrique doesn’t know what his best XI is. Even if you contend, as I do, that Enrique doesn’t really have an idea of a gala XI, that group that you play come hell or high water, he does have favorites that get the nod week in and week out. And yes, Enrique hasn’t played the same lineup in a single match yet this season. Despite all that, there are trends. Let’s have a look at some, beginning with the notion that it is facile to only look at the names and tick boxes. Stylistic rotation is even more jarring than player rotation, particularly to a fan base as wedded to the notion of a Way as Barça’s is. But is there a method to this seeming madness?

He loves Messi

I know. Duh. But the only two matches that Messi has NOT started this season have been the Copa matches against Huesca. If you think that is a good thing, we should agree to disagree. I get it. Messi wants to play all the time, he’s like a child with his binky if you take the football away from him. But accumulated matches mean fatigue mean tired muscles mean, potentially, injured muscles.

He also likes Raktic and Mascherano

These two have started more than any player not named Messi. It was no surprise in Mascherano’s case, but it was indeed a surprise in Rakitic’s case.


He isn’t sure about Iniesta, and neither are we

Iniesta has featured in fewer than half of Barça’s matches this season. He was knocked for a bit, but was having form complexities even before that.

The inevitable Xavi?

Xavi has been part of the XI in fewer than 10 of the 25 competitive matches played this season, a fact that definitely surprised me.

Barça started the season with: Bravo, Alves, Mascherano, Mathieu, Alba, Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta, Rafinha, Messi and Munir.

What was clear was that Rafinha and Munir were placeholders for Neymar and Suarez. And many assumed that Bravo was a placeholder for Ter Stegen, but the Chilean has staked out a place in the nets in Liga matches, with no sign of that streak ending.

Further, the bulk of that XI is also high on the total minutes played list. We can presume that Mathieu would be even higher were it not for the knock he took, even as Pique’s return to form has been noteworthy.

For the most part in Liga matches, while there has never been the same lineup twice, there haven’t been that many variations on a theme, either. The biggest variance from the Match 1 lineup (even as we assume that XI isn’t preferred, it’s the baseline reading, so to speak) was on Match 5, where 5 different names slotted into the lineup. But usually it’s 2 or 3 changes at most.

Maybe the scoreless draw wasn’t a surprise after all

If Messi, Suarez and Neymar are fit, they play. As with the Messi trend, that isn’t good. Suarez has to play his way back into full match fitness, yes, but every player needs a rest. Even given the crap pitch, rain, etc, it isn’t an understatement to suggest that the attack could have used a high-quality spark at Getafe.

Mitigating factors

Enrique subs early, usually beginning his activity near the 60th minute, which is good. The complexity is that he hardly ever subs off players who log the most minutes, even when a match is under control. This strikes me a double-edged man management sword in that even as people say that Enrique rotates too much, he doesn’t rotate key players all that much.

So even as this “analysis” looks mostly at the names and whether they change, the good thing about all of this is that we can probably make a supposition about Enrique’s Gala XI in Liga, were he to in fact have such a beast.

Bravo, Alves, Mascherano, Mathieu, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Xavi, Neymar, Suarez, Messi

The bulk of that XI isn’t just high on the list in starts, but also in key minutes played. Pique is always in with a shout as his form is very much on these days, but you won’t get Mascherano out of Enrique’s big-day lineup with a bulldozer. It seems the “Mascherano and 10 others” statement of Maradona during his stint as Argentina’s NT coach is echoed in the mind of Enrique as well, and for good reason.


Iniesta had, and probably still has a shot at wresting that automatic spot away from Xavi but make no mistake, the battle for that loose spot is between he and Xavi. The skill set that Rakitic brings to the game is too multifaceted for him to not make a hypothetical Gala XI. It’s funny that while rumor has it that Messi is a dictator who controls the Barça XI, Alves and his declining skills would appear to be vastly more dictatorial in that regard. Note that Pedro has a spot in just over half of Barça’s matches, a number that would seem to belie the invective hurled at him, invective that might stick if he ever stood still long enough.

There is also a defensive core of Bravo, Alves, Mascherano, Alba and Busquets that is preferred by Enrique. Whether the large number of starts (17 of 25) for Rakitic is because of him or the complexities that Alves brings to the dance is open for debate.

Does Enrique know what he’s doing?

Well, duh. It’s apparent that he does. It isn’t like he puts player names inside balls in a little hopper then has Stoichkov do a draw, a la Champions League seedings. He understands his team and his players, as well as their capabilities. For me, what accounts for the perception many have that he doesn’t know what he’s doing is that people are used to seeing the same XIs. Look at Chelsea. Their XI has been fit, and for the most part Mourinho has played them. Its only in the wake of a 5-3 beatdown from Spurs in which that choice XI looked tired and outpaced, that people suddenly began to wonder if Chelsea couldn’t have used a bit of rotation.

It does seem clear that Enrique is building from the back. The number of clean sheets and the team’s defensive record as well as the stability of the back part of the XI, would seem to make that clear. Barring injury or suspension, there are names you can expect to see back there.

The front 3 is also set in stone, the second part of the notion that solidifies the idea many have that Barça is more likely to win Champions League than Liga. If you start by not conceding, you can win a CL tie with a road draw and a home win. Barça has the front and back of the pitch sorted, and that nucleus will keep the team in any match. Yes, any match … think about how the Classic might have been had Neymar decided to lift that shot over a prone Casillas, and Messi not missed a chance he usually buries.

But the midfield is the complexity as well as the place that Enrique doesn’t have the players that he wants. That third spot with Rakitic and Busquets was Iniesta’s to lose, and he did, but even Iniesta wasn’t an ideal solution for me.

And Xavi, though a brilliant orchestrator and match controller, will have his hands full against a physical, dynamic midfield. So will Iniesta for that matter. We can begin to see why Enrique wanted Cuadrado in many ways. It’s easy to speculate 3 at the back with Cuadrado as an RW, which liberates Rakitic from having to babysit Alves while also placing another fast, dynamic player with ball skills and attacking verve in the midfield to attack, press and (kinda) defend.

That’s right. Enrique doesn’t have the midfield that he wants because we didn’t buy the right winger that he wanted.

Without that piece, everything is a series of compromises. In many ways, some of the mechanisms that Barça uses sometimes, counters, long passes and the like, would appear to be an acknowledgement that there will be some situations where the midfield is just not going to be able to get it done. So the team will have to develop fluency in other paths to goal. Bang it to Suarez, have Messi and Neymar start running and see what happens. The existence of those compromises is also why it seems like Enrique is fiddling. Because he IS. And he has to, rightly or wrongly.

Even more interesting is that this is the right time to mess about with the midfield because increasingly, football matches aren’t being won or lost in the midfield, even as the midfield is still a very important part of the pitch. Can strong wing play and defending couple with merely not getting overrun in the midfield be enough to win matches? I reckon as Barça goes deeper into the Champions League, we will find out.

But as the adage goes, “Defense wins championships.” This ages-old dictum is mostly true, even as it isn’t as dogmatic as many would make it. There is no shame in Enrique starting there.


By Kxevin

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.


  1. Great post Kxevin. However, i really do hope our coach and especially messi dont buy this ‘rest messi syndrome’. He is not made of glass. He has to play to get rhythm. Messi playing all matches including copa was what was wrong. Would like to see stat of mins played this season by ronaldo and messi.

  2. This is a great analysis. Thank you.

    The real test for L.E. and this squad is going to be how they play during Feb/March. If the team find ideal form then, it will be funny to look back at the doom and gloom of the past few months.

  3. Great post kxevin.

    I’d still like to point out that form and fondness are vital when picking a team, messi and almost all of our players will get automated starts elsewhere but we are so star-studded that we have to marginalized both.
    That said, i think the front three really is an undisputed trio, but I’d beg to disagree upon the single fact that you said the midfield battle is between ghostface and xavi, because in its core essence that is lobbying right there,

    rakitic for all his prowess is no match for either ghostface or xavi but his role is much more like fabregas’s, to ease xavi and provide intensity to the midfield.

    Any tactician playing xavi, rakitic and busi as the sole midfield trio is unforvigivenly misguided because those three purchase thesame set of abilities. Rakitic for his part is a quicker and younger more adventurous xavi. Is glaring different and only a player with his quality can compliment either of both xavi and rakitic in the midfield.

    The sole reason we are seeing a xavi and rakitic midfield combination is because, Iniesta is not fit or lacks match sharpness at anytime.

    On the rare occasion that you are right on this one, i fear for our tactical savvy.

    Great post, just that one blemish.

  4. Goodie another passive agress article where know it all takes aim at people not of his opinion.
    One week enrique knows all, another ” i expect no silver this season” , always going from one extreme to da other so he can be right no matter what at the end of the season.
    At least twitter people adopt a stance & stick to it! Always apologizing for manager, just like last year.
    no matter what, a lockstep sheep hating on anyone who says critique.

    1. A flying start to the New Year ! However, I’d rather hear which bits you agree with and which you don’t which is of more interest.

      First of all, Kxevin needs no defending from me but I would just like to put in my tuppence worth ( does anyone else still use that phrase?) Kxevin has stated that we won’t win any silver this year in his opinion. I’m on record as saying I disagree with that ( if LE makes the right decisions ) but you can hold the opinion that even if he does everything right we still won’t win. I often disagree with elements of articles posted here ( and shall again in a moment 🙂 ) but have never been “hated on”. Personally I regard the articles as a starting point for a discussion rather than just a bald statement of the writer’s views and have no trouble with the looking at it from both sides approach. I’m no clearer now on what you think and why so what we are left with is you having a go at the person who took the time to write something. Despite being a language teacher I’m not motivated to write articles so I appreciate anyone who takes the time to do so and the least they deserve is to have their work dealt with in a civil way. I enjoy coming here and reading whatever has been posted because disagreements are handled in an impersonal way concentrating on the points rather than the person who writes them.

      Now, on to the quibbles. I can’t let the gala eleven go with Mascherano in the back four and well you know it, Kxevin ( accepting bait !) I think he was a regular last year and I think LE started this year thinking he would be the mainstay of the defence. I think he is now reconsidering although I accept what you say that he does want Masche in the side somewhere so it might be bad news for Busi. Likewise, I think he started the season thinking Rakitic would bench Xavi but that hasn’t happened, largely due to Xavi being able to stay fresh but also because of the way Rakitic has so far failed to deliver. Not a bad thing as he’s entitled to a year settling in before finally passing judgement but if he wants to stay he’s got to offer more than at present.

      Finally, I agree up to a point on the rotation. We need to arrive at the business end with fresher players than in the past. Part of that will be solved by Xavi’s retiral from the NT , part by natural absence of players caused by injury but we also need to be alert to occasions in matches when even Messi can be taken off. This is possible with a solid defence which we are on the way to achieving. You can’t risk taking him off if you’re likely to lose a stupid goal at any moment.

      Which brings me to my final point which is that players need to play together to build up an understanding. It’s absolutely essential imo that Pique and Mathieu get more time playing together at the back. I’m also going to say that I have a feeling once Ini gets some more games under his belt he will be playing with Xavi at times in the midfield. I’ve never, as you know, bought the over run midfield idea although there are times when a more physical presence would be desirable.

      Anyway, today will tell us a bit more about what is in LE’s mind. He really can’t afford to leave anyone he considers in his top eleven on the bench.

  5. Just on another topic. It’s interesting the parallels which are starting to emerge is morning between Xavi’s situation at the end of last season and Gerard’s departure from Liverpool. Seems he wasn’t given the reassurances about his part to play that he was looking for and things haven’t been handled well. Probably a good time to say well done to Bartomeu for picking up that phone last year.

  6. In all honesty, i don’t think both players can be weighed thesame way, gerrard’s Liverpool contributions are mainly about contributing goals, while xavi’s is to coordinate play.
    Techniques plays a huge role in a player’s career.

    While the English build of Steven G would excel at enforcing statistical dominance in the midfield, a xavi takes care of all the other details that do not involve physicality.
    Which makes it difficult for players like Gerrard to continue at the highest level once their physical peak has been surpassed. Players like suarez, messi, andrea pirlo, ander herrera, xavi and to a small extent francesco totti are far likely to stay in the top top leagues than neymar, sanchez, ronaldo, fabregas, and to a lesser extent Wayne rooney.

    1. It was more the way that the club handled the player than trying to compare their styles. Not sure there is anyone to compare Xavi to in that sense.

      Having said that in the current Liverpool setup I’m not sure it’s a very sensible loss for them. He can still sit in and link the play. His long passing is as good as I’ve seen and most importantly he is their leader on the pitch. Without him who is there ?

  7. Well, you have to admire his courage if not his common sense…..

    “@barcastuff: Barcelona line-up (official): Bravo – Montoya Mascherano Mathieu Alba – Xavi Busquets Iniesta – Munir Suarez Pedro #fcblive”

    1. Strange line-up. Our fastest back four probably.
      Xavi/Iniesta in midfield, that won’t hold for much.
      Quick reserves Munir and Pedro on the wings.
      Who can fit the parts of this puzzle?

  8. Interesting line up. Seems as if the south americans came back in a doubtable shape…
    Real in the meantime lost 1:2 against Valencia despite the usual penalty.

  9. The curse of Anoeta scares me and its definitely not a place to have such a starting line up up-front. Munir?? Really?? EE just slipped and if I were LE I would make good use of this opportunity. Nevertheless, let’s see how it goes

  10. Its not the line-up I’m worried about now, what I’m worried about is how we are approaching the game, sociedad is never a defensive team, they dont park the bus like other teams, they dont want a point either, they want to beat you!

    These diagonal balls are great but we are dictating how they defend, they will fall back to cover those spaces and Tada! We have a parked bus!

    With this line up, i expected patient build ups and intelligent runs through the middle. But we are so into PLAN-B.

  11. Seriously LE? Curse of Anoeta and EE just gave you the best chance to catch up and this is when you decide to turn in to a wizard. These are the small events which shape up the season. These are the opportunities where its not only the players but the coach has to think straight. Nothing short of win is what is needed today. Looks, well unlikely.

  12. I’m not sure that we can’t pull this out. LE has no choice but to put Messi on and that could well be a game changer. Xavi doesn’t have anyone other than Aduriz capable of playing the quick one twos around the box. Once Messi is on that changes big time. Still not happy with Iniesta’s display so far. He should be closer to the box if Xavi has to drop deep to make the play. Mind you that will also change once Messi comes on.

    The really annoying thing is that once again we’ve given them the lifeline of the goal and we have to chase a game. We’re still gonna have trouble with cross balls all game.

  13. I have a feeling messi is going to score two and celebrate wildly in a bid to send a message to Enrique that he doesnt belong to the spectatorship!

  14. More I think of it, more I go bonkers trying to figure what LE was trying to do here. All the players got their rest already in the winter break. Don’t tell me he was punishing players for going on leave when it was a club holiday. I just cant get around it man. I never criticized him, despite the loses against EE and PSG and the subsequent slump. In fact if I am not wrong, I think this is the worst I have ever felt about any Barca coach on a particular day.

  15. For the first time I am going to call LE clueless without losing sleep about it. Doesn’t matter the outcome. He clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing. We cules don’t deserve this, this unfair! how could he to this to us after EE gifted us the opportunity to take the lead? let me just sleep away my misery.

  16. Wait, I am sorry, but LE didn’t loose that game. We had ample chances, Messi got a deserved rest. Our players need to stop trying to walk the ball into the net. They need to stop protesting when they don’t get a call they like. And, we could use a little better officiating: that was a clear handball.

    If everyone wants to scapegoat the coach again, that’s fine, but I just don’t see it.

  17. I know a barrage of abuses await him, but if it was his intention to wear down the sociedad defence before messi’s introduction, then its ofcourse a bright and decent notion.

    However, no coach sets out to lose, he clearly had a plan. But like perceived his tacts are hurting us.

    I hate the next few lines, but we had a less than lucky day, lucky because EE drew and less so, because you know, the ball wouldn’t go in.

    I usually do not believe in luck because if a player scores, he did everything right. And if he hits the post, he wasn’t unlucky but missed a few details.

    All in all, lessons learnt, we must move forward(might as well tie Enrique to a tree and churn him).
    Just no more unjustified line-ups again please.

  18. – It was a one-off own goal. It happens. Football.
    – Playing against 10 men stretched-out at the back is always gonna be tough, tough.
    – We couldn’t even score with Messi, Neymar, and Suarez. So. Still on christmas mood. So.
    – There isn’t gonna be a trophy this season. And I still believe Luis Enrique has a clear system. It’s all coming together.
    – Patience.

  19. Meant EE lost, ok, goodbye now.

    I’m just going to go beat sociedad over and over again at FIFA 15 till i sleep off.

  20. What does 45mins rest mean compared to the 3weeks also break he had? this wasn’t clearly one of the games to bench your best player for many reasons. 1. EE had earlier slipped, 2. The curse of Anoeta. 3. He had a 3 week break. You could go on defending him I don’t care…. For once I have outrightly lost the little faith I had in him. After I screamed out my lungs supporting Valencia earlier on, this is what I get in return. It hurts, its unfair

    1. I’m with you man. I’m done with the Enrique pity party. We’re not alone though, trust, social media is firming aghast at his job performance.

  21. Pedro and Munir’s first touches are just so craptastic! Now it’s clear why montoya is benched-his tackling is non-existent. Really sad result today but still believe very much in this team

  22. This rest aka rotation really bugs my mind. Are our players from a different planet from others? If you rest till the business end, you will still be match rusty.

  23. After this i don’t know how anyone can defend LE.

    The likes of EE, A. Madrid and even ManU played possibly their strongest line-ups and this is what LE pulls out? Different line-ups for every single game this season in all competitions?

    What’s puzzling and upsetting at the same time is that when you watch/follow all the big teams in Europe and in general all good teams, one trend is clear, they all have a settled back four, why not us? armchair or no armchair, this is absolutely ridiculous.

    People can bash me if they like but the reality is that the midfield trio of Busquets, Xavi & Iniesta is past it’s sell by date, nothing good/bad lasts forever and the same applies in this case, why was Rakitic left on the bench? the perfect player for these sorts of away games.

    All we hear from LE is that the line-ups are meant for the team to not be predictable but clearly this is causing more damage than good, i’m lost for words.

  24. And the worst part is LE depleted the team not only in the front but all along the field. On paper it definitely looked like some one playing one of them FIFA console games, trying out whatever one can with the Squad. You dont outwit the opposition coach by taking out your expected lineup of the best in the world with yet to prove a crap even in the domestic leage using the usual formation.

  25. I would be less irked if LE actually manned up and said we should do better for once, but NOPE, his post match presser ( all 5 minutes of it) was full of delusion as usual.

  26. Bottom line for me is that yet again we left ourselves unnecessarily with a lot to do. If you’re gonna rest Messi, and why he would need a rest after a holiday is beyond me, then you put out your strongest defence and make sure you don’t lose a goal until he comes on. Pedro and Munir can’t play in those tight situations so unless we strike lucky we’re not scoring first half. Apart from the goal, the ball was bouncing in our area as a result of our inability to clear it all night. Our zonal defence for the corners ( and subsequent ball in for the goal) had Busi at the front instead of Pique!

    I found the second half actually quite exciting and it wouldn’t have taken much for us to get back into it but they defended brilliantly, carried a little luck and Moyes knows how to set up a defence. I suppose it’s ironic this lineup should come in the week we are discussing this article and I wonder if Kxevin would defend that amount of rotation in such a vital game with RM tripping up earlier? My main irritation is still that I can’t even see what LE is trying to do with it. Don’t know why a Messi and Neymar were left out when they’ve just had their break but on Sky they seemed to think it was because they came back a day later after being offered the extra time by the club. I hope not.

    It’s impossible to say that this wouldn’t have happened even with our best eleven and certainly it became much more difficult after their goal but imo this was a clear tactical error by LE and, well, let the games begin . . .

  27. Really LE, really?
    4 months gone and i, like everyone else, am still trying to figure it out what are you thinking.

  28. 1) As many have said, why on earth would you bench your best players after they have had nearly 3 weeks of rest?

    2) Let’s assume that they indeed did not come back from vacation in their best condition. Why on earth did we let this happen? It’s not as if learned we were going to play Sociedad away on New Year’s eve, and it’s not as if we did not know this is a traditionally very tough game for us. So why were they allowed to return so late? They are paid tens of millions every year to do this, is returning on time too much to expect in return?

    And then of course we score a stupid own goal in the second minute…

  29. Shots: 17
    Soc: 6

    On Goal:
    Soc 1
    Bar 4

    Soc 22
    Bar 16

    Soc 21
    Bar 14

    Soc 27
    Bar 73

    Sometimes, in football, shit happens.

    RS have been a bogey team for a while now at their home. When a team parks a bus like RS have done, it’s never as easy as you may think, particularly if they score an early go (through whatever means) – that alone really sets you back and just supports their tactics even more.

    Haters in 3….2….1..

  30. barca havent won in the Anoeta since…2008? and yet everyone thinks LE is an idiot. not even half way through the season folks. and hes four points behind ancelloti and a team that didnt drop points in how many games? freak out all you want, im calm and enjoying being a fan.

  31. chances are few in la liga. He should have ripped off the starting line up the moment news filtered that EE lost. We have a bad record at Anoeta, putting Messi and Neymar do not guarantee anything they give you some bit of insurance. Thats all we ask. Anyone who has watched Munir knows he is still raw and in need of firming up. Don’t know how LE is defensible this time. Different lenses i suppose

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