Depor is no longer Super Depor.
In a trip to an opponent wallowing around the bottom of the table near the relegation places, the visit to La Coruna wasn’t really on anybody’s list of important fixtures, even as it was a huge one for many reasons.
Barça’s home form has been formidable and away form dodgy, to be generous. Fraught and uncertain, road woes have been the tenor and tone of this season, from a scoreless draw with no shots at Malaga to a pair of losses. The most recent loss against La Real in January was also the one that set the “crisis” bells ringing, in a match result as overblown as it was unsurprising. The team always struggles at the Anoeta. Why would anything more be expected from a group its supporters expect so little from?
All of this made the Depor visit crucial for the first team, particularly in light of all the Liga title rivals having already won. That Barça pasted Depor wasn’t as noteworthy as how Barça pasted Depor. In addition to the half-speed drubbing, it was clear in yet another match that this was a team with a system, a way of playing. After all the snarling that Enrique didn’t have a clue and didn’t have an XI, he repeated a lineup:
Bravo, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Iniesta, Rakitic, Neymar, Suarez, Messi
Whether this is the gala XI, if such a thing can be said to exist for Enrique isn’t really worth worrying about. As the trainer himself said, the team is stronger with 20 fit players, rather than fretting about any dominant XI. He also said something else quite interesting, in that he isn’t wedded to any one particular style of play.
For the Barça Monks who walk around in their robes, striking themselves in the forehead with tablets inscribed with The Way, this must be particularly distressing. But Enrique’s statement for me was music.
There is the belief that the truly great teams play their style, impose their will upon the vanquished and go home. There is even the belief that Barça used to be one of those teams, a belief that would make its lauded coach, Pep Guardiola, as dogmatic as many of the people who deny the many ways that he found to defeat an opponent. Guardiola wanted to win, and create beauty. Not the other way around. Beauty came partly as a consequence of the artists that his teams had at his disposal, but mostly in the way that the rest of the world wasn’t ready for what Barça did.
As it caught up, things had to change and Guardiola did what he could, ultimately hamstrung by personnel complexities. What makes hearts fill with song to hear Enrique say that he isn’t wedded to any particular style of play is not that he is some malleable, wishy-washy coach who would bow to opponents rather than making them understand The Way, but rather that he understands: sometimes you have to peel an onion, other times you just slice it. And you need different tools for those different tasks.
All that said, an Enrique method is visible. As with Atleti and Elche in the Copa (albeit with different personnel), Depor found a controlling, attacking Barça with more and less structure. The team is still built on a defensive structure, without being as rigid as another team. Shapes and spaces rather than players, so Messi was found clearing a ball from his own box at one moment, Pique running around in the Depor midfield the next. The idea is command and control through maximizing the versatility of the players in question, even as they all have defined roles. Let’s have a look at some of them:
Alves Montoya would weep if the possibility were to occur, but Enrique might have extended Alves’ Barça career by making him into an FB who attacks rather than an RW who defends. This isn’t just an admission that Alves isn’t the man that he once was, but also a tactical acceptance that with the Neymar/Iniesta/Alba trident on the left, what’s most important on the right is stability. Note Rakitic at one point reminding Alves of the need to stay back. Alves isn’t a defensive right back, but he is a very good one on defense, and the best (still … sighhhh) that Barça has. So many complexities arose from Alves being caught out by attacks up his flank. His being reined in is a welcome tactical adjustment.
Rakitic Many talked about Rakitic struggling at Barça, but we now see that he wasn’t struggling per se. He couldn’t be the player we bought because he was busy helping keep the right side locked down defensively. So the runs, passes and dynamic play of his Sevilla days took a back seat to a system trying to figure out the best way to use its right back. Now that Alves has been locked down, Rakitic has been released. From playing box-to-box to delightful passes, he is a more dynamic player who facilitates the Enrique approach.
Suarez He had a stinker of a day finishing at Depor. But as with Henry and Sanchez before him, the expectation of goals can obscure what a player is actually doing, and what Suarez is doing is raising hell. He’s here, he’s there, he’s occupying center backs, passing and moving and influencing play in ways that often result in chances and goals, even as the chances that fall to him are getting fluffed. The Enrique system liberates the three attackers from positional strictures even as it gets its width from Neymar on the left and Messi on the right. They have space because of the presence of Suarez.
Messi Messi is playing more on the right. People might try to adapt some explanation to account for their resistance to the idea that Messi is playing on the right, but he is. What this means for Barça and the Enrique system is space, and a role that is as much creative as goalscoring. The day that Messi figured out that he could score more easily if he moved around more was going to be a black one for opponents. That day might have come. The right side is a starting point for Messi rather than a cage, but giving him a fullback to toy with in space rather than running at a prepared defense from the center is a beautiful thing, especially at a defense with no idea where he is going to end up. Using Messi for tactical width is stupid. That means he sits in a phone booth on the right. Making Messi a roaming, right-sided reference with freedom is vastly more effective. His first goal came from the left, his second from the center and this third from the right. That’s crazy, and the bane of any potential game plan. Messi has always had freedom, but he hasn’t had playmates as capable of directly affecting his freedom since Eto’o and Henry.
Neymar The lack of positional rigidity means that while Neymar is on the left as a reference point (as Messi on the right), he too has freedom. In the past, as he has cut in toward the center that space has been occupied. Under Enrique, the front three are often thought of as independent agents. But while Suarez still hasn’t gotten the full idea of where he needs to be yet, Neymar understands the effect of his liberation and his capabilities. He accelerates play and basically raises hell. The misnomered beast thought of as tika taka wastes Neymar. By opening up the front three and making the midfield more dynamic, Enrique has allowed Neymar his full flower.
Alba Simply put, he’s the new Alves. His pace and incessant energy allow him to shuttle up and back. And as Messi used to team with Xavi and Alves, Alba teams with Iniesta and Neymar. The team isn’t as much getting width from its fullbacks as it is getting a layer of attacking complexity from its fullbacks. Neymar cuts in and Alba is running to destabilize. A defense has to account for him, which creates space. And his pace means that his charges can come later and passes can be struck more firmly, giving defenders even less time to react.
Defense The most important part of the Enrique system for me has been the defense. The increased emphasis on that aspect has led not only to a blizzard of clean sheets, but a structure that allows freedom for the other parts of the attack. Barça defenders still attack, but not as much. And when they do a compensatory movement is always made by another player to keep shape and stability at the back. It’s why the resurgence of all-pitch Messi is such a welcome thing, because he enables a solid defense as well as a devastating attack. Set pieces are drama-free these days because, simply enough, the defenders are bodying up on their men. The team’s set piece defending is more physical, aiming at negating physical advantages by getting a body into an opponent and not getting beaten on that second ball whenever possible. There are rarely loose men in the box. And Claudio Bravo, when he was signed over other keepers, came with the word that he was good with his feet. Many scoffed, but his increased fluency with the ball at his feet, a skill that he wasn’t using as much in his other taskings, is really coming to the fore. He’s not only executing passes but playing with the ball, surveying the field and picking the right pass, in addition to being a damn fine net minder.
There is shifting within that system, an approach with the solidity that allows the team to essentially work at diminished speed, as it did against Depor. There wasn’t the same intensity as there was against Atleti, not the same pell-mell attacking and pressing. There didn’t need to be. The team was no less intense even as it was clearly conserving energy. Focus is a word that is often misused in the athletic context. It isn’t just increased concentration, but the physical application of that increased concentration.
So tactics shift and approaches vary, but the system remains. It might be a system that some don’t like. It might be a system that is said to betray The Way. But it’s a system that is getting results, even as the idea of the desirability of results is a malleable one. The team lost, so it’s in crisis. It won, but didn’t win the right way. It’s playing better, but isn’t playing better in the desired way. There are even those who assert they would rather lose playing the “right” way than win playing the “wrong” way, a theoretical position that is easy to support. It’s worth asking just how much support would a mid-table Barca have that was playing “properly.” Cheers, or would the sea of white hankies at the Camp Nou look like a low-hanging cloud bank?
Don’t worry about Suarez
Here is when you should start worrying about Luis Suarez: when he stops making the runs, the moves, the associative strokes of genius that accompany the fear that he brings to defenses. When he stops running around, stops with those lovely wall passes and stops influencing matches even as he isn’t scoring … that is when you should worry about Suarez.
At Depor he had a match for the ages when it came to finishing, even as he had a real effect on the match. Goals are the currency that define success. They were for Henry, they were for Sanchez. And when the unenlightened said “Look at the all-pitch game, look at them tracking back, passing, stealing, making space and creating for others,” they were dismissed as defenders and fanboys. But there is reality to the overall effect that a player has on a team. Pedro doesn’t suck because he doesn’t score as many goals as he used to, because that isn’t entirely the point of Pedro.
Suarez had a bad match when it came to finishing, but is far from a waste of money or a player who the club shouldn’t have purchased (tactically, I will add). His presence makes perfect sense, and was one of the deciding factors against Atleti last week. Scoring goals is magic, even as great players make it look easy. Suarez missed chances that in form, he buries with ease. He’s struggling right now to put the ball in the net. Okay. He isn’t really struggling all that badly anywhere else.
He will never be Liverpool Suarez. Culers expecting that are in for sore disappointment. But just as we didn’t need Henry to be Arsenal Henry, or Villa to be Valencia Villa, the team not only doesn’t need but can’t afford to have Liverpool Suarez. The beauty of the Barça attack is that it doesn’t have a focal point. It is in that seeming chaos that Suarez will eventually begin to score.
Messi got a hat trick. Headlines blared that Messi carried Barça to a win vs Depor. But to assert that would be to ignore an excellent overall team performance as well as to ignore the goals themselves. On the first, Rakitic saw Messi making the run and dropped the ball right on his head. The quality of the header was excellent, but that pass that sublime. On the second goal, Suarez will tell his grandchildren, as he will of his Neymar assist vs Atleti, that he planned it. Okay. Give Pedro that ball and he’s celebrating with Messi, rather than in his mind, thanking Messi for bailing him out. You have to make the run and Messi did. You have to be able to control and chip that ball at full speed, and Messi did. It would be as erroneous to ignore those as it would be to give all credit to Messi.
For that third goal, I got nuthin’. That was pure Messi in a moment of genius.
In hindsight, the credit isn’t misplaced as much as misapplied in that it needs to be spread around more, among a football team that is finding its way after what seemed like an eternity of fumbling around, looking for the light switch. The shame of it is that instability at every level of the organization is coming at the worst possible time. Should a new president get elected in July, what are the odds that he will stick with the selections of his predecessor, unless the team under Enrique can work some magic. So yet another new coach with yet another new system will roll in, and it will require yet another period of acclimation.
I believe that the club needs new leadership, even as I believe that it needs stability more than anything right now. They are conflicting needs. Who would have thought that flitting away to play a friendly in Qatar at an important part of the season would be okay? Before the exhibition, the team is home against Villarreal. On the weekend, a few days after, the team is away to Athletic Bilbao and that lion’s den. The friendly, of course, is to meet the obligations attendant to the club’s relationship with its principal sponsor, Qatar Sports Investments. They don’t care, and it’s a safe bet that the board isn’t as concerned as it should be.
Out of that same board meeting came news that the club’s sponsorship with Audi has been renewed for another four years. Ah. Now there is something they care about.
I have written before about a lack of leadership that is creating a void into which chaos can flow. It is astonishing to me that nobody said “Hey, February is an important period for the team, and also a traditionally difficult month for the team. Do we realize this?” The club is the thing, but the team is the point. Without the football team, who would care about FC Barcelona the club? Where does the leadership come from that puts the team in the place of primacy that it deserves to have?
The oddity is that the club might need to be led from the bottom up, as the players provide the stability, leadership and excellence that should be a given, even as we should never, ever take them for granted.