Luis Enrique became Barcelona’s coach in the summer of 2014. Throughout the rest of 2014, people doubted what he is capable of. He did not start off so well. His side lost against PSG and looked clueless against Real Madrid. The team even ended up losing at home against Celta Vigo. Back then, many people called for patience because every coach deserves a chance.
Why did he deserve a chance? There are certain details that went unnoticed regarding why Luis Enrique’s job was not as easy as it seems:
- Newcomers: In addition to the existing players in the squad, Luis Enrique’s team was formed of newcomers like Mathieu, Suarez, Bravo, Ter Stegen, Rakitic, Vermaelen, & Douglas. With Rafinha returning from Celta as well, Luis Enrique arrived with a completely vague squad. Any coach in the world knows that a group of new players that have never played together before require patience and development. Unlike coaches who were already fully aware of the squad they have at hand, Luis Enrique was forced to test different players in different positions to come up with the best lineup(s) and this required time in the year 2014. Along with needed rotations, Luis Enrique was still discovering his options by the end of 2014. He was clueless about how Luis Suarez’s return is going to be like and had to wait for him until the end of October. He had two great goalkeepers at hand however the matter of selecting which of them should start was very difficult. He was not completely aware of how much Mathieu should play and if playing him as a fullback would prove to be successful. He had to find a way to force Rafinha into the starting lineup while having midfield legends like Xavi and Iniesta running the show for years.
- Identity: I have always believed that Barcelona’s coach in recent years has the toughest job in the football world. The reason I say this is because this coach is forced into a style of play that was owned and ran by Xavi Hernandez. Luis Enrique arrived with players like Rakitic. The two have several similarities but their differences are way more significant. Luis Enrique was forced to deal with a club legend who is approaching the end of his top flight career and who symbolizes a certain style of play which is much less direct than any other style of football. In other words, he arrived trying to remind us of a life where the team is not forced to pass 30 times while moving from the midfield line towards the opponent’s goal. And, gladly, he succeeded.
So, what did Luis Enrique accomplish after overcoming these obstacles? And does he deserve the praise?
- Pique: Some decided to praise Lucho for Pique’s “return”, others (including myself) believed that Pique simply seemed more focused and determined this season. Regardless of who deserves the praise, Luis Enrique definitely played a role in giving Pique enough responsibilities and made sure Gerard was up for them.
- Defense: Pique happens to be part of one of the best defense lines in Europe. Whether it was Mathieu or Mascherano partnering up with Pique, it didn’t exactly make much of a difference as the defense almost always seemed solid this season. The fullbacks, Dani and Alba have also been a crucial part of Barcelona’s defense. But most importantly, Barcelona’s set-piece game has improved drastically. For once in these past few years, Barcelona fans don’t feel insecure when our players lose the ball.
- Midfield: Barcelona’s midfield received a lot of criticism for not controlling matches as it usually does. However, the passing game remains the same. The major difference between this midfield and the ones before it (in recent years) is that midfielders in this team look forward twice but only once sideways. In previous years, circulating the ball and basically “looking sideways” was the more common technique.
It is the reason why our attackers have the ball more often and are the ones creating or scoring.
Rakitic was given complete freedom by Luis Enrique. In other words, he didn’t want Rakitic to “adapt to Barcelona’s system”, he wanted Rakitic to be himself and take the decisions he found suitable. And although Rakitic is shooting less, he is still passing those long balls that have proved to be effective throughout the season. After all, when you have forwards who are simply too talented, you need to make them run and fight for the ball to make use of their pace and talent.
- Iniesta: Although he is not the best playmaker in the world this season or anything even close, Iniesta’s defensive contribution is a crucial part of Lucho’s system. Some believe that Iniesta is a victim in this. However, if you ask Iniesta himself, and knowing that players don’t actually go home and count their assists, he’ll say that he is happy he is contributing to the success of the team. Every system requires some players to lose their former status or simply gain a new one. As long as it involves the success of the team, these players will never/ shouldn’t mind.
- Attack: Although there isn’t much to say about attack because it is easy to recognize how talented and intelligent the front three are, the most interesting thing to look at must be Neymar’s confidence. Luis Enrique was definitely an important factor in letting Neymar know that he needs to do what he finds suitable rather than stick to passing or looking for Messi whenever he has the ball.
As for Luis Suarez, Lucho had complete faith in him and his abilities. They are the reason he insisted on signing him instead of other forwards to begin with. Even when Suarez struggled Lucho insisted on making him regain form. Even though this seems trivial, some actually insisted on benching Suarez. Luis Enrique, however, realized that when May comes, he would rather have an on-form Suarez than an on-form Pedro(who actually contributed perfectly to the team’s success when he was included this season).Most crucial part of all: I still remember yelling out “SHOOT” and “PASSING IS KILLING THIS TEAM” throughout the past year. Even when the 14/15 season started, I was still yelling out these phrases. However, I stopped. The reason behind this is that our forwards have been pushed to realize that what makes them truly special is their ability to kill off an opponent in a matter of seconds. I tweeted about “identity” and how this supposed “philosophy” ended up eating up the team when people like Luis Suarez happen to be passing in front of goal instead of putting the ball into the net. In conclusion, our attack became very direct, very clinical (with some exceptions, as usual), and for once in some time our attack became a force I personally trust to get the job done.
The team went from a defeat against PSG and Real Madrid to a victory against both, alongside Atletico Madrid, Man City, and several others. Luis Enrique’s team was all about progress and change. Players improved, hence the entire team improved.
In the end of April 2014, we stand with a Copa final in hand. We are on top of the league with only ourselves to depend on. And we confidently reached the Champions League semi-final. In terms of achievements, we can still win all three trophies. But will 90/180 minutes truly change my mind about how I see this team? The answer is no.
This team has entertained the fans and defeated rivals. More importantly, this team has regained Barcelona’s status whether in Spanish, or European football. For once in the past few years, the world is anxious to see what Barcelona has in store. After all, isn’t that what the club is about? The club’s history has been focused on entertaining the fans and achieving victories. Lucho’s team has definitely achieved both. We remain excited from match to match. We’re curious to see what our team has in store. We like the feeling that our players are powerful again.
What is better than seeing Gerard Pique back in form and his effect on set-pieces or seeing Bravo and Ter Stegen saving the toughest chances?
What is better than seeing Mascherano tackle someone, send him flying, and finally feel that safety in defense?
What is better than seeing Alba or Dani running their butts off the entire match to either create a chance or catch up to any attacker?
What is better than seeing Busquets do what he does better than anyone in the world?
What is better than seeing what Rakitic has to add or how Iniesta has displayed how effective he can be defensively?
What is better than having Xavi Hernandez to sub on in order to take control of any match?
What is better than looking at our attack and knowing that the entire world is worried and wondering what these three are going to accomplish?
Forget the attack for a second. What is better than knowing that we can score from set-pieces?
What is better than looking at the entire team and seeing it in great physical condition and in place to win all three trophies?
Luis Enrique’s team put Barcelona back on the dance floor. The only questions that remain are: Will Barcelona go out with a big finish? If yes, how big will that finish be?
Barcelona truly is on top of the world right now. After all, that’s where it always should be.