Barça 4, Granada 0, aka “Time to give Lucho some”

Today, Sergi Roberto was MOTM against Granada, with a performance that embodies everything about the player and his coach. Look at these stats:

92 touches
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.

roberto

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:

Luis Suarez
Douglas
Jeremy Mathieu
Thomas Vermaelen
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen
Claudio Bravo
Ivan Rakitic
Arda Turan
Aleix Vidal

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.

messi

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.

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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.

17 Comments

  1. luisthebeast
    January 9, 2016

    Great post!Lucho is doing so great job and i believe the only reason that people dont give him the credit that deserves is the MSN!But just looking to Sergi Roberto we can understand that we have a truly great coach!I hope the club will sign Nolito because despite that more of us dont find the idea logical he knows best!And it will be a good move of trust by the board:-)So Barto make lucho happy:-)

  2. henrietta petawker
    January 9, 2016

    messi is learning things from neymar, too

  3. January 9, 2016

    What a brilliant post! Thank you Kxevin!

    Lucho definitely deserves more credit, but it is clear he really doesn’t care and he will get it eventually anyways. This team is too good for him not too. He has built an absolutely remarkable team. Talent, depth, versatility, tenacity, aggression. Some of the play today left me speechless. If the guy wants Nolito, I say give him Nolito. He obviously knows exactly what he is doing and the types of player this team needs to thrive. I hope the board suck it up and give him what he is asking for.

    I have a feeling Turan is going to be a huge signing for the club. He was all over the pitch today, creating, linking play, breaking up attacks, pressing non stop. His assist was sublime. I can’t fathom what this team will be like once he is truly integrated and I am pretty sure he is going to take Rakitic’s place in the gala XI. Not that I don’t rate Rakitic, I think he is great and brings a lot to the team, but Turan is on another level.

    It’s crazy how much depth two really good, versatile players can add. I think we now have the best squad in Europe, not just the best starting XI. Add Nolito (or another quality forward) to the mix and I think we may be looking at one of the best club squads ever assembled.

  4. georgjorge
    January 10, 2016

    A very good article! I didn’t know Lucho was at such bad odds with the press, don’t normally pay much attention to these things. But the things he has done with the team are really astonishing.

    I only got to see the first half yesterday, but I was very surprised how well the midfield functioned with Arda + Roberto in place of Iniesta + Busquets. At the beginning of the season it looked like midfield depth could be our weak spot after Rafinha got injured, not anymore. As for our attack, it says a lot when the centre forward has a very bad day but it almost doesn’t matter because the goals are coming from all sides.

    I also watched a bit of the M*drid game, they looked very strong but that’s only to be expected after being freed of a coach who wasn’t popular with the team. I fully expect them to win their next matches in a similar fashion, after that the real test of day-to-day motivation work and out-thinking other coaches will come, and I think noone can yet say whether they will manage to succeed there.

  5. FinallyCrushingBuses
    January 10, 2016

    “What other striker would dummy a ball in the box like Suarez did today?”

    I noticed he also did a quick retreat after the dummy, drawing one defender forward, creating a little space for Messi to run inside a very packed box. After repeated viewings it looks like it made the difference, twice on one attack.

    • G6O
      January 10, 2016

      Exactly, He won’t get an assist for this play, but it was all about him — after the dummy he makes a move towards the defenders, they make a step back, then he immediately reverses his movement and draws them towards him and away from goal, leaving Messi completely free. Of course. Messi’s movement and the timing of the pass have to also be timed perfectly to avoid the offside, and they were.

      And it all happened at warp speed. I don’t think anyone could have defended that in that particular situation (if they had 10 men behind the ball the situation would not have developed, and that looks like the only way to prevent them from scoring when they play like that). The movement of the ball and the players off the ball is just too fast.

      Also, I watched the Madrid game out of curiosity (I rarely watch them) and they won 5-0 but the difference between their 5 goals and our goals was huge — two of those were from crosses, one was a fluke after some chaos in the penalty box, one was from a counter attack in the last minute (and again, some chaos), and I never saw the same level of coordinated movement.

  6. mr.undercover
    January 10, 2016

    well done Kevin! The man need some recognition for his extraordinary job at the club, he isn’t a genius in tactics like pep but he has a great personalities and qualities that pep himself Devoid,especially keeping a low profile when it comes to addressing the media.
    Am still laughing at yaya toure’s agent comment saying that pep isn’t a great coach and that his grandfather can win the treble with barca and bayern,then adding that enrique is a mediocre coach comparing his barca achievements with his time at Roma. Besides why some cluless idiots who knows nothing about football meddle themselves in???? If he thinks that managing a team which is packed with stars like messi, neymar, suarez, iniesta arda, etc is a walk in a park then he should dump his current work of just sitting and cashing money from his client without even raising a finger and start coaching.
    Coaches must be given credits for their achievements no matter how little they are. I have no problem with lucho snubbing laliga /ballon d’or gala because he seems to have more important things to do to improve his team than to wear attires in the evening and mingles with idiots figures despite knowing that he is winning it.
    What makes me happy with lucho is his personality, stern, hard-headed, persistent, hard worker and above all humble and down to earth.

  7. luisthebeast
    January 10, 2016

    Now we will find how our club can walk, until a Catalan country really became a reality,in this hard period.Spain already dont look with sumpathy what we said in official site…

    • January 11, 2016

      Central Spain as usual trying to stir the anticatalan sentiments. They have no problem when someone talks about Pais Vazco(Vasque Country), but God forbid if the Autonomic Catalan region calls itself Catalan country.

  8. January 11, 2016

    I remember a discussion about Thiago and how the board drove him away. I said at the time “I prefer the Sergi Roberto that stays rather than the Thiago that leaves.”

    I meant it that I’d rather have the lesser player that stays than the better that wants to leave, but It’s great to be proven both right and wrong at the same time in such a way.
    Remember that Sergi Roberto that was more out than in? I do.

    Now I remember him as the confident player bursting through the white lines to provide Suarez with the opener that made Bernabeu scream in frustration, the opener that started the greatest one-sided thrashing of Real M*drid my adult eyes have seen at Santiago Bernabeu (and I’ve seen the 2-6 demolition).

    We have to celebrate both the hard-bodied fighter of a coach, that embodies his short name (Lucho is spanish for *I* fight) who saw the potential of the player and polished it, and the player who believed and saw his hard work and faith rewarded.

    • ooga aga
      January 11, 2016

      Welcome back Peter! Missing your comments!

      • January 12, 2016

        Just like Lev, I moved. 4 000 km in my case, and it involved a new house, new job, starting a family and also half of a viper bite. Just too much on my plate right now, but I’m lurking around. 😉

  9. Davour
    January 11, 2016

    Good for Messi, comeback kid! Hey deserved more but habits die hard, and stats are obviously important in this “contest”. And it’s so obvious this is a show when Ramos is voted the no 1 defender while Piqué is not even on the team. And Pogba ahead of Busquets? Well, DMs are not rewarded (but how – HOW – can Kroos be valued above him! Stunning.)

    • Davour
      January 11, 2016

      I know this is silly, but I can’t help enjoying browsing the list of how people voted. Neymar had Messi, Suarez and…. Rakitic! How about that.

      And a shout-out to Masche who received a few as no 1!

  10. luisthebeast
    January 11, 2016

    Happy for Leo!!Yep we all know that he dont need individual trophies to prove that he is the best but i am sure he is very happy now and that s good news for the rest of the season!And for the future offcourse cause he will be with us for a long time!!So thank u Leo for all the magic moments and the trophies of 2015 and lets go for more:-)

  11. Tata2
    January 12, 2016

    ok. I haven’t seen the other goals but how the hell on earth did Messi not win the puskas?

  12. January 12, 2016

    The flying chilena by that kid was a very good goal, but more importantly, there are like 100 million bitter Real Madrid fans. You think they’d vote Messi?

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