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.
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.