“He didn’t learn from his mistake,” was the phrase most often heard in the wake of Barça’s home defeat to Alaves.
The reference, of course, however obliquely, is to the Disasta At Anoeta, when the same coach rotated heavily after and international break and his team suffered a shock defeat. But it’s worth asking what Luis Enrique should have learned from that defeat.
One thing might be the futility of subbing in starters when a defeat seems inevitable due to overall team crapitude. Note that BeIN announcer Ray Hudson was, even in the first half, already musing about whether it would be one of those days for Barça. You could see it in the way the team moved and played, in the way basic tasks were performed, not with alacrity but rather with a smug certitude. So perhaps one lesson that Luis Enrique might have learned is the value of getting in that ass at halftime, of explaining to his players the value of effort, of learning from an opponent’s example.
Alcacer, for example, trotted where Suarez runs. The difference in the two strikers was evident even as the result was becoming clear. There was one sequence where a ball was rolling slowly toward the touchline. Alcacer moseyed after it, content to let it go into touch rather than chasing it down, turning and getting right back at the Alaves defense before it had a chance to reset. It’s a significant difference. Luis Enrique will, therefore, have potentially learned as well to work on Alcacer in training, to make him understand how a striker is supposed to move in the team’s system.
The clearest reference to Luis Enrique not learning, of course, is that he should have learned not to rotate too heavily, that you get rest for key players in bits and pieces, rather than wholesale. In looking at the Barça XI, only Neymar, Busquets and Rakitic were regulars. My hope, however, is that Luis Enrique learned that if you are going to rotate, keep rotating. Instead of subbing Suarez for Alcacer, bring on Rafinha, drop Neymar central and move Turan to left wing. Bring on Umtiti for Vidal, move Digne to the right and go three at the back. And rotate against Leganes on the weekend, after what will most likely be a difficult Champions League tie against Celtic.
Barça has been building toward something. As has been previously noted in this space, new coaches in the Prem and other leagues aren’t the only ones building something new. Luis Enrique, in his third season at Barça, is also working on something. In the past, the team has relied on the creative model, letting the three best attackers in the world get the ball and go at it. It’s why they had to play so much, because everything that the team did depended on them. If Luis Enrique learned anything, it was from the desultory Champions League exit to Atleti, where creativity didn’t work in the face of dead legs and a resolute opponent.
The evidence of that learning could be seen in the Barça transfer summer, where the clear desire was depth, and two different XIs available to the coaching staff. One of the knocks against Luis Enrique was his creative model of attack, that in the Days of the Capering Sprites, there was a system, a way of playing that ensured no matter who was in the lineup, the team would play the same. But even the purest romantic could understand how, systems or no, there is a difference between Xavi running the program and Fabregas or Thiago Alcantara. The “system” worked not only because it was a good system, but it was being executed by geniuses who knew when to break from the constraints and work some magic.
Ronaldinho was the last time Barça’s system had its roots in creativity, for the same reasons the Luis Enrique system did: a genius. You don’t make a player such as Ronaldinho do rondos on the pitch. You turn him loose. All of the snarling about positional play and systems for the first two Luis Enrique years was, from this chair, just disgruntled snuffling. You don’t hitch a plow to your Ferrari, nor do you do track days with your tractor. The right tool for the job is essential. Neymar can work within a system, which doesn’t mean that it’s always the best use of his effort. Messi worked so well in the more regimented Guardiola system not only because he was from La Masia, but because he could, like Michael Jordan and the Triangle offense, break the system when he needed.
Playing with Suarez and Neymar is different, and the reason that Luis Enrique’s first year felt a lot like Guardiola’s first year, offensively. With Messi, Eto’o and Henry you had pace and creativity galore. Get your best players the ball and let them work magic. The system had to change once those players went away, and change it did, again to something that best suited the tools that the team had in the shed.
There were hints of something weird and wonderful in the SuperCopa matches, and first two matches of the Liga season in that there were clear signs of a system, of positional football but of a different type. If Guardiola’s was bebop, Luis Enrique’s was late Coltrane, as bop structure was shoved aside by the first hints of free playing, something jazzheads call “head out of the window,” describing the sound when a player isn’t completely outside the structure.
Frustratingly, Barça reverted against Alaves, returning the creative model but with only one of the three best attackers in the game to run things. The result was predictable, even as it made the systems crowd nod smugly as they, too, wondered if Luis Enrique had learned anything. The hope is that he has learned to stay the course. In his post-match comments, the great thing was that he didn’t say “I rotated too much,” or the like. He praised Alaves, admitted that the team didn’t play to its normal level, and left it at that. Because if anything is to be learned from Alaves, it isn’t that the coach rotated too much, but rather that a philosophy has to be hewed to, that the error in rotation wasn’t in personnel but rather in the system that was mostly abandoned on the weekend.
Maybe there wasn’t enough time with that XI to do anything except put them out there. A favorite Twitter voice, Ramzi, noted that in four months, the same XI would comfortably handle Alaves, a correct sentiment. In that time, the system is more deeply embedded, the players more aware of their role in the system. Vidal won’t give Turan the ball in the corner just because he is the closest open man, but will be more aware of the necessities and intricacies of a way of playing that must take advantage of the depth Barça has not in terms of talent but in terms of building a way of playing that doesn’t care who is in the XI. That is what depth brings you. Alcacer is different from Suarez, but has to do what Suarez does for the system to work. That is why Munir is at Valencia and Alcacer at the Camp Nou, because he is a box-prowling kind of 9 where Munir takes advantage of space and movement. Alcacer is closer to Suarez. Gomes is close to Busquets, Digne close to Alba, Umtiti close to Mascherano. Every summer transfer has an existing squad analog.
The destruction that was wrought against Sevilla, Betis and Athletic was because of the growing roots of a system. Ter Stegen was missed against Alaves because the attacks started from too deep, the ball moving too slowly. Everything was off. Turan seems a new player not only because of his off-season regimen but because of how the team is playing. There is structure, rather than handing him the ball and telling him to go be creative. Messi isn’t the attack. Messi is a part of the attack, a swirling thing that relies on intelligent possession and probing, rather than possession because the opponent is huddled in its own box, kicking at everything that looks like a ball or a leg.
What Luis Enrique has hopefully learned from the Alaves defeat is not the folly of rotation, but rather the folly of not continuing to build a system even when the personnel change. Celtic in the team’s Champions League debut will not only show something close to the gala XI. Let’s hope that it continues to show the effects of that learning, that building of something new, something world-beating.