Today, Sergi Roberto was MOTM against Granada, with a performance that embodies everything about the player and his coach. Look at these stats:
78 passes (92% accuracy)
5 for 5 in long balls
7 of 7 in tackles
10 balls recovered
3 chances created
Before Luis Enrique came to Barça, Sergi Roberto was a stunning head of hair, potential and a reputation as the player that Guardiola said would become something fabulous. It didn’t happen under Guardiola, because he was far from ready. Then under Vilanova and Tata Martino, he was the kind of player who culers wondered about, as in why he was still on the roster instead of in a new forever home, like Jonathan Dos Santos. Luis Enrique took over, and the project began.
Sergi Roberto has played 6 different positions this season, and has played every one of them well. And on a team on which every player has improved, Sergi Roberto has improved the most. The question on everyone’s lips is, “What happened to Sergi Roberto?” Meanwhile the man who is tacticurn to a fault, continues to work, continues to build a team that today, played otherworldly football in a match that was, to be fair, a gimme. Granada didn’t have a chance at the Camp Nou, not against this Barça, renewed and refreshed at the exact right time.
In a first half that seemed at times almost balletic, Barça took a 2-0 lead into the locker room, with the only thing as impressive as its play being the ways that the players tried to not score. No net was open enough, no pass good enough. It was only a revitalized Messi, dynamic, omnipresent and brilliant, who decided enough was enough, slamming the ball home twice.
Luis Enrique was, on the sidelines, almost apoplectic as his team found a way to squander yet another chance because just as he was as a player, as a coach he wants to put the knife in. Hard work is everything, and you win your chance. His face was like stone as he said that the B team wasn’t good enough for anyone to be worrying about promotion. He stuck out his chin like a daring prizefighter while fielding questions from a sporting press who mostly don’t like him, and for good reason.
And in a world where clippings and Internet prose often dictate a worldview, could this be some of the explanation for why an extraordinary coach, one who has worked wonders in essentially revamping a team, its mindset and way of playing, still doesn’t get the respect and admiration that he deserves. His team had a two-window transfer ban, and a short bench this year that featured, at substitution time, plenty of not much. “Hang on ’til January” was the mantra.
But that team, through smart rotation, didn’t just survive, it thrived, even as there isn’t much to say about that. And the man who would benefit most from people recognizing that, doesn’t care. He’s off running a half-marathon, or climbing hills on a bicycle.
Headlines, in the wake of Luis Enrique deciding not to attend the Ballon d’Or ceremonies on Monday, say “Enrique snubs Ballon d’Or,” and the like. Pep Guardiola isn’t going, and the headlines are different, emphasizing that he is working hard in Qatar with his Bayern Munich squad over the Bundesliga break. Doing genius stuff. Perception is everything, and Luis Enrique is certainly to blame for treating a press corps like crap on his shoes. What’s more, he doesn’t care, because there are more important things to attend to.
When Guardiola sneezes, the world says “Gesundheit,” and Barça Twitter says, “Wasn’t that cute, the way he sneezed?” Meanwhile, Luis Enrique gets distrust and doubt, and a first season defined by a #luchoout hashtag, an absurdity that became tape used to shut mouths as his team won a treble, a trio of trophies that everyone said was because Messi was fully engaged, because Luis Enrique had the three best attackers in world football.
Today against Granada, watching Neymar track back and battle Granada players for possession in defense, then display a silken touch and sublime footballing creativity to destroy that same team in attack, the mind had to go a ways back to the doubt, to remember the player for whom defense was this interesting concept. Neymar has improved under Enrique, becoming the second-best player in world football. He shares the Liga pichichi with his teammate, Luis Suarez. Both of them play for a coach who, in just over a season, has done remarkable things, including supervising the Champions League destruction of the team and coach who almost everyone believed would emerge victorious.
Guardiola said that it was his job to get the team to the final third. From there, the players could do what they do. This is a logical dictum for any coach, and one that Enrique has used to build an attack that, at full flow, is unstoppable because it has roots in movement, creativity and selflessness. What other striker would dummy a ball in the box like Suarez did today, because a better opportunity presented itself. How many other strikers would have had the tactical presence drilled into them to always be aware of others, of the opportunity of the shot not taken, the extra pass made.
Enrique didn’t just rebuild Sergi Roberto and the Barça attack. He demanded transfers that might have made little sense at the time, but have almost all panned out exceptionally well. Douglas is a ready, handy calling card that people still use to bash someone about the head and shoulders, but look down the list of transfers that Enrique has made:
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen
Vermaelen wasn’t supposed to play a minute for Barça, even as he was composed and confident today in helping his defensive mates keep a clean sheet. Rakitic was the wrong midfielder, though excellent today after being released from grind of match after match. Turan and Vidal started, helping Barça play in a way that was pretty much the same, facilitated by Sergi Roberto in the essential Busquets role, placed there by a coach who knew exactly what he was doing.
Traits of the typical Luis Enrique transfer include stamina, the ability to work hard and versatility. It’s fitting that one of the hardest-working, versatile, most coachable players on the roster has found his flower under this coach. Busquets and Iniesta were rested, yet Barça built play in the same way from the back, with the same result, stopped attacks in the same way, played beautiful, midfield-based football that twisted and turned Granada into all kinds of bizarre shapes before seeming to almost decide to spare them, like the merciful bullfighter who looks at the exhausted animal before him, and places flowers around its neck.
Tactical width was one of those things that became part of the culer vernacular. For Alexis Sanchez and Pedro, it meant standing around near the sideline in the hopes of occupying attackers so that Messi could be Messi. Neymar came, and that changed. Enrique came, and it was obliterated as the pitch was stretched vertically and laterally. Counterattacks and long balls returned, even as those who had come to embrace a particular style of play chafed at this new stuff, didn’t want to see that everything was a step along the process, a building to which pieces and rooms were gradually being added, until “Hey, where did that house come from?”
Busquets is now considered by most folks who actually pay attention to the game, as one of the best mids playing. He improved under Enrique, sharpening his attacking presence as well as being given a more complete toolbox, with Rakitic on hand to reduce the acres of space that Busquets had to cover, while also serving as a ball carrier. Bravo to Pique to Busquets to Rakitic to Iniesta to Neymar, and watch all hell break loose. It sounds simple, but it’s an effective attack that is as pure an iteration of Barça football as the 47 passes culminating in an eminently logical, and beautiful goal.
One of the best things about Luis Enrique is that he doesn’t care if he gets love or credit for any of this, as long as his players are able to have a real crack at the success that their hard work has earned. He will almost certainly win coach of the year at the Ballon d’Or gala, and a representative will have to accept the award for him because Luis Enrique will almost certainly be devising a match plan that will finish off Espanyol.
Turan and Vidal plopped into the Barça lineup as though they had been there all along. Yes, they have been working with the team for the past six months, but matches are different. Very different. Yet they fit right in, due to quality of play, versatility and how they slot seamlessly into an overall attack.
It is often said that players get credit when a team wins, and coaches get blame when a team loses. Coaches are always fired, rather that entire XIs being put on the transfer block. It’s the way of the game, and Luis Enrique knows that a coach is only as good as his most recent season. He coaches in a way that, during matches, seems almost stern and impatient. There aren’t cuddles, or chats with players as they come off and onto the pitch. He’s busy. Some interpret that as a way that is poor man management, a deficiency that would manifest itself in some way. Yet the team that he runs is happy, selfless, hard-working and successful. It’s part of the complexities facing a coach who is running a team that has been touched by genius.
Only a crazy person wouldn’t stipulate that Guardiola is the best coach in the game right now, and a full-on colossus of a Barça legend. Luis Enrique now has the team that Guardiola used to have, a burden that he still has to wrestle with, this man whose biggest sin is still that he isn’t his iconic predecessor. And that’s a shame, because what Luis Enrique has done with this football team has been nothing short of extraordinary. He’s changed the way that it plays and defends, turned set pieces from a thing of horror to a given, improved every player on the team, up to and including the best player in the game.
Iniesta struggled at first with the demands on his new role, and a coach was savaged for not letting Iniesta do what he does. Now that Iniesta has adapted, and is better than ever even as his role and game are different, it’s easy to see what the plan was. Turan’s arrival means that Sergi Roberto can sub for Busquets. Two transfers make so many positions on the team deeper and better because of the quality rest afforded dog-tired regulars. They were the right transfers.
So much of what Enrique has done has been right. The club didn’t even flinch during the January crisis, when people “in the know” had Luis Enrique’s job on the line. Nonsense, the club president said. Then the team took off like a rocket, a team that was already having a pretty gaudy, successful season. Perception counts for a lot.
This is a team that is nasty and hard-edged, but would rather kick an opponent by making them pick the ball out of the back of their net, than raking studs down an Achilles tendon. Enrique built that team. As Messi pinged diagonals to Neymar, who controlled and went on to raise hell, elves didn’t speak to the players in their sleep. The seamless integration of new transfers, the calm presence of Vermaelen, the way that Adriano came in today and played midfield, that all comes from hard work on and off the practice pitch. And for that, a team needs a coach.
Luis Enrique won’t care that anyone recognizes him, that anyone sings his praises. But with all the ink and bandwidth that has been expended on a pair of coaches and former bitter rivals of late in Jose Mourinho and Guardiola, it seems high time that someone, somewhere said you know what, there’s a dude doing his thing over there in Catalunya, and he isn’t doing half bad.