At the press conference before the Champions League dead rubber against Borussia Monchengladbach, a journalist asked Luis Enrique about the Classic:
Journalist: What if this Clasico was at end of season, would you have started Iniesta?
Luis Enrique: What if my grandmother had 4 wheels? she’d be a bus.
The point of the exchange, one probably lost on many, is that you can’t make things be what they aren’t. This season, FC Barcelona football has not been at its best. There have been moments, stretches of minutes, most recently against Real Madrid in the Classic. But for most of the season, after a dazzling start that had many thinking this would be a steamroller year, international breaks came, and Barça went.
There was a point in the first season, before Barça won a treble and the long knives were placated. But among a coterie of people in the world of Barça social media, LuchoOut is trending again, for the familiar reasons:
— The Way is lost
— No midfield
— No evolution since the treble
— Not using Messi properly
If you consider the period of domination that Barça has enjoyed, with roughly the same personnel, it’s stunning. When you consider the expectation that each and every year that domination must continue, irrespective of what happens to bodies and legs, it’s even more stunning.
Andres Iniesta is 32, Lionel Messi is 29, Busquets is 28. Normally, those are prime years, but what also must be taken into consideration is that these players have been flogged. Essentially, Luis Enrique has to get the same tasty milk from an increasingly worn-out cow. But let’s do this.
So who’s in? And what will they have to contend with? Let’s have a look at the roster, assuming Lucho Out kicks in for January, when there is (lawd, lawd!) some season still to be salvaged.
Ter Stegen, Cillessen
Pique, Umtiti, Mascherano, Mathieu
Alba, Digne, Aleix Vidal, Sergi Roberto
Iniesta, Busquets, Rafinha, Gomes, Rakitic, Suarez D.
Messi, Alcacer, Suarez L, Neymar
Now, let’s roll out a theoretical XI of the best available players, which will look a lot like the one that fired coach Luis Enrique would use:
Ter Stegen, S. Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Neymar, Suarez, Messi
Curiously, that XI looks a lot like the XI that won a treble and then a double in consecutive seasons. Lucho Out, so who’s in?
There are hipster faves such as Thomas Tuchel, now at Dortmund, the likes of Oscar Garcia, who it is said is wonderful but his players suck, or Klopp, now at Liverpool, of whom it is said his teams would be great if they just didn’t concede goals at the wrong time. Any of those managers would be steeets better than Luis Enrique, because the thing that you don’t have is always better than the thing you do have. It has to be, because you’re unhappy with the thing that you have, dammit.
Gegenpressing. Yup. With that current Barça XI. Let’s see you do it. “You. Number 10. Why are you walking? Get over there and press in the midfield! (To assistant coach) Who is this number 8. Can’t he run any faster? How can he help us press moving that slow? At least he isn’t as slow as that number 5 dude, though. Whew!”
“If my grandmother had 4 wheels, she’d be a bus.” It’s easy to watch another coach doing things and say “Boy, I sure wish our coach did that.” It’s also easy to look at videos of old matches from the “good times,” and say “I sure wish we did that still.” But if we’re going to do that, let’s presume that we also have a time machine through which we can put players so that they are their old selves.
In the two seasons since Barça won the treble under Luis Enrique, there have been international breaks, friendlies, pre-seasons, injuries known and unknown, and just time, measured in passes and kilometers. Someone on Twitter said on my timeline that Luis Enrique is the worst coach ever. How does this stuff start? It starts from influential Twitter accounts with large numbers of followers, who start a drumbeat that gets echoed by the masses. It starts with people trying to analyze something in a vacuum. It starts with that fondness for a time gone by, that unwillingness to realize that yes, seasons are years. Two seasons is two years. Players don’t live in Never Never Land, where they remain ageless and energetic.
Iniesta came in during the second half of the Classic, and Barça was wonderful again, playing the kind of football that everyone loves to see. Why can’t that happen all the time? Mostly because opponents adapt, which is what happened to Guardiola during his time at the club. So a coach will try to find a new way to skin a horse. Vilanova went vertical. Tata Martino also went vertical until mid-season, when change came and everybody was happy until the record-setting team suddenly became something significantly less. And then came Luis Enrique, who got the best No. 9 in the game and adopted an approach that for many can be boiled down to “get the ball to your best players.”
There are times when Barça has played off the counter, times when Barça has been vertical, times when Barça has played midfield-dominant football, all in this season. While it’s easy to ignore the things you don’t want to see in order to reach a desired conclusion, other things are worth considering. Unless a new coach comes in and brings in transfers, also deciding to do different things with storied veterans, he will face the same situation as Luis Enrique. It’s easy to watch Tuchel run out with a group of young players at Dortmund, easy to watch them and wonder why Barça can’t play like that and boy, wouldn’t Tuchel be lovely at Barça until you consider reality.
Busquets does what Busquets does. So does Iniesta. So does Messi. With this batch of transfers, is Luis Enrique trying to build for a future that he almost certainly won’t be part of? In an ideal world, as Iniesta declines, Messi moves into that role. But for that to happen, there has to be someone in attack to replace Messi. But when Luis Enrique moves Messi back to midfield, preparing him for the evolution into a 10, the coach is stupid because he has his most dangerous attacker playing away from the box, that idiot.
There are people who still think that Messi is the dynamo who set the goalscoring record, or the bundle of energy that ripped through Getafe for what would be the goal of a lifetime for most players, but just one of a glittering series of moments for Messi. Dude is almost 30. He has been kicked, and shoved, had chunks kicked out of his Achilles, ran, passed, been tackled and tumbled. He has flown countless thousands of miles for club and country, all of which have piled on, along with time, to make him a different player. He is no longer as explosive. There was a time if he got the ball and a sliver of space on a defender, he was gone. No more. A coach has to learn how to adapt to the players that he has. It’s easy as a supporter to dream of a new coach absent any other factors. But Barça is a team whose core is aging, and fast, because those players are on duty all the time. Copas, Federation and World Cups. They’re always playing. What can we honestly expect from these players, and what magic could a new coach work?
Valid questions. Lucho Out is easy. Saying he’s a bad coach because he doesn’t do what you think he should is easy. What is more difficult is to understand what he has to work with.
For what it’s worth, Luis Enrique will be gone this summer, and he should be. After three years at a top team, a coach starts to lose the power that he once had, starts to run dry in ways to reinvent an aging, changing wheel. Transfers can sometimes provide that spark, but the day of long-term coaches, the Fergusons and Wengers, are long gone. Pressure means that clubs will be changing coaches, or coaches just get tired, and move on. And you can’t defend Luis Enrique because he doesn’t need defending. A treble and a double say a lot more than even his most vociferous defender could. This is more about reality than Luis Enrique, just as it was about reality when there were those of us who said that Tata Martino didn’t do as badly as legend has it. Because reality.
Logically, Barça had a fantastic transfer summer. But there are the five stages of the Barça transfer:
— Wow! Holy crap! I’m here!
— Whoa! These guys are really, really good.
— Man, I can’t be that good. Will I ever be?
— I’m feeling better about life now.
— Hello, teammates.
It takes time for that cycle to happen. It took a player of the quality of Arda Turan a full season, and he still isn’t fully assimilated. It took a legit legend of the game, Thierry Henry, more than a season to adapt. The speed at which transfers become effective also have bearing on a coach’s plans. In the ideal world, Alcacer would be banging in goals and Gomes would be living up to his reputation as a tall Busquets/Iniesta hybrid. Neither of those things is happening yet, because Barça is the best team in the world, stocked with legends of the game. That’s reality. And it would be the same reality no matter who was coaching Barça right now.
It’s easy to want the best, easy to want the team that you love to be exceptional, easy to think that someone else can do it better than the people that you have. Until you get those people, and things are kinda the same, because humans and stuff. So, yeah … Lucho Out. But remember, “If my grandmother had 4 wheels, she’d be a bus.”