Of all the new coaches building projects in football right now, from Guardiola to Mourinho to Conte, the surprise addition to that list is — for many — Luis Enrique at FC Barcelona.
The weekend’s nail biter that wasn’t, a fascinating display by the best team in football, was interesting because everyone thought they had Barça figured out.
Last season, the team attacked by getting the ball to its most dangerous attackers, as quickly as it could, then letting them do the damage. As effective as this approach was, it didn’t leave much margin for error. If one of the front three was having an off match, if the finishing wasn’t up to snuff, there was no fallback, no real way to effectively control the match.
This left a great many culers nostalgic for the ball control days, when even if Barça wasn’t finishing, they had the ball all the time, so if they weren’t finishing, nobody was. Many felt the point was proved in that nasty, gritty away leg to Atleti in Champions League, when the South American danger men, fried from a recent international break, weren’t as dangerous as usual, and Barça went out on away goals.
There were hints that things were going to be different this season, beginning with the transfer activity and its focus on midfielders. The focus on mids continued as Sergi Roberto wrested the right back spot — to be honest, one that was almost certainly his all along — from Aleix Vidal. Then the club shipped out Claudio Bravo, and Dani Alves left on a free. Finally came the press conference, right before Athletic, with Luis Enrique said, simply enough, “We want to keep the ball.”
It was a comment that went unremarked, but that signaled a different kind of intent. L.E. Barça 2.0? Perhaps. Maybe. But a number of tactical changes set the stage for this new approach to things, most significantly at RB and GK. Alves left, which had a knock-on effect for Ivan Rakitic in that it liberated him. Much of his role last season was in helping with defensive duties on that right flank. Now, with the addition of Sergi Roberto, a player with a stunning football IQ, Rakitic’s role has changed.
Even more than the Sevilla midfield titan, Rakitic, with his MOTM performance against Athletic, showed off. He defended, pressed, passed, made key interventions and scored the winning goal off a bullet header. More importantly, he contributed to a Barça attack that at the end of the first half, boasted more than 65 percent possession.
The keeper, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, is new to the full-time No. 1 shirt. He had more touches today than any Barça player. Some of that was a consequence of the way Athletic was pressing, as Barça played out of its end and the keeper returned to the Cruijffian ideal of pivotal attack starter and fifth member of the back line. But some of it was also that there was a new keeper in town, one who, with the blessing and confidence of his coach, became the fulcrum of this Barça that we are beginning to get to know.
San Mames is a viper’s pit of an away trip, an arena where even though Barça has a strong record against Athletic Bilbao, its players never, ever make it easy. They fight, foul, claw and spit their way for the entirety of the 90 minutes and then some, making you wonder if they mark Barça players when they visit the loo.
“Can I have SOME privacy please? Damn!”
Barça demolished Sevilla in the SuperCopa, destroyed Betis in the first match of the Liga campaign but this, for me, was the most impressive to date. Last season, a 1-0 victory would have been fraught, because of the long passing approach to getting the ball to the front three. Buildup was bypassed. Those long passes also meant that opponents had more of the ball and could press the defense. This, of course, meant yips and screams as chances were created, and 1-0s often became 1-1s.
Even though today’s result was a 1-goal victory and a clean sheet, it wasn’t all that fraught. Athletic had two legit scoring chances: one from a Ter Stegen passing error, the other from a vicious free kick that went just wide. Other than that, the saves that Ter Stegen had to make were more just catching the ball sent toward goal, not even chances as much as “Well, gotta do something.”
Much of this control was related to ball control, not only playing out from the back but the midfield work of the kind that people said was absent. And it was, because the team didn’t have the personnel to play in this manner, but also because Messi hadn’t yet assumed his new role.
Now that the Barça No. 10 is functioning more like a traditional 10, this places the team’s best player in the midfield. Augmenting this new approach are faces like Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez as well as Arda Turan, players who can retain possession, press, make space and score goals themselves, created from passes made by Messi. Now that the team’s most dangerous attacker is in the midfield, the approach to the game has changed. The hurry to get the ball to the most dangerous folks has been replaced by a deliberation of approach that might, at any second, decide to get the ball up front straight away.
The addition of Samuel Umtiti, who debuted in the XI, and a more forward playing style means that the days when Pique and Puyol were pushed up near the center line have returned. This means that Busquets can play farther up as we saw today, becoming the eye of the hurricane as the other mids played off him.
Pique and Umtiti could play up because of the presence of a legit sweeper keeper, a proactive rather than reactive force who gobbles up balls that other keepers rely on their defenders to play. There was one remarkable play where Ter Stegen, far outside his box, took a pass and, as a pressing Athletic player ran at him, moved toward his box, turned to face forward and calmly played a pass to the wing. That’s what a sweeper keeper does, and apparently it’s going to take some getting used to. Ter Stegen is even more advanced than Victor Valdes was, playing his space more like Neuer. The way that he plays his space also means that the entire team can move up, because there is a playmaker in the box, passing it forward to advanced positions.
This football is weird to see, partly because it’s a safe bet that most culers remember this football from the Guardiola days, and assumed the team would never see its like again. It’s also weird to see because it’s different from the possession game of Guardiola’s days. Luis Enrique seems to be working toward a more dynamic, malleable approach that can create a 22-pass goal, or simply lash a pass through the middle to a streaking runner.
It’s a style of football that has also adapted to how opponents are going to play Barça, with the high press and a physical style. Ter Stegen’s contribution in breaking the Athletic press, allowing Barça to play out of the back with relative ease, was invaluable. Usually Athletic would get the ball back when a possession error happened. Even then, not much came of their possession or industry as Barça calmly stroked the ball around, Ter Stegen to Umtiti to Pique to Ter Stegen to Umtiti to a runner moving through the midfield as the entire team them moved forward to join that attacker and suddenly, Athletic had some defending to do.
If someone was to tell you that Barça would comfortably win a tight match on a night when Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were its worst players, away against an always-difficult opponent, you’d probably wonder what sort of hallucinogen the person you were chatting with had been ingesting. But that’s what happened.
The biggest lineup surprise was the start for Umtiti, surprising because Mascherano was fully fit and available. Umtiti is strong in the air, winning every aerial duel. It’s worth noting that the Athletic free kick danger came from an aerial duel that Mascherano lost. Umtiti battled with and mostly controlled Aduriz, who is a handful in and around the box. He was, after some initial yips, calm and composed, showing an interplay with Ter Stegen that looked as though the two had been playing together for years. His forward runs were well timed and dangerous, his forward passes smart. Even the most paranoid culer had to work pretty hard to find fault with his performance.
But what he also did was enabled Busquets to push up the pitch, something that, given the erm … uncertain match that the Barça stalwart had, was something of a blessing. He and Pique displayed sideline to sideline range, coupled with the stability provided by Sergi Roberto, who was in for the MOTM discussion in the wake of yet another excellent outing at RB, a position that he plays differently than Alves.
His instincts for when to move forward and when to defend were uncanny, and having a midfielder as RB means that, when that mid has been schooled in the Barça way, you have smart possession on that side of the pitch, and passing fluency and variety not often seen from RBs, who generally bomb up the wing and throw in a cross. Sergi Roberto would make space by using his marker’s momentum against him, cutting inside or working a play with Rakitic that found one or the other of them in free space, running up the sideline as the Athletic press was broken yet again.
There is a patience to this Barça, a team that suddenly wants the ball, that understands the role of its best player, how that has changed and how it will change the way that the team plays. There was a method of play on display, that continued when personnel changed.
A lot of people saw a “Holy crap we could have lost or drawn” match today. But if you looked closely, you saw not only something potentially brilliant taking shape, but a match was wasn’t as close as the scoreline indicated, and not only because some profligate finishing on the part of Barça. It was a match that was mostly in control, something that we aren’t used to seeing from this Barça. Expect to see the “return of tika-taka” headlines, and those headlines will be wrong. This is Barça, playing Barça football, adapted. The team is still working it all out, and patience will be required on the part of supporters and the roiling cauldron of an entorno.
But the potential payoff is, should this project come together in the way signs indicate, sufficient to make even the crankiest culer giddy with anticipation.