analysis | 2017-07-14
Reviewing Luis Enrique's three year tenure at Barcelona
We analyze the Asturian's time at the club beyond trophies, from playing identity to tactics
The Asturian's decision to not renew was the best decision for both him and the club. Lucho seemed to have burnt out and was unable to bring new ideas to the team that allowed Barcelona to play better and more consistently for the past year. He is a top class manager, but not a top level coach. A small thing many people get mixed up.
He tried many different ideas over the three years but the generally execution was poor. Judging by the fact Barcelona prioritizes 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 to a respectable level. Nonetheless, if we look at results and trophies he cannot be questioned for the job done as they were above expectations. That is where he does excel compared to other managers, he can get his team results. He’s done it consistently with some blimps here and there. Celta Vigo finished 17th in 2012/13, Luis Enrique came in that summer and took them all the way up to 9th, along the way convincingly beating Real Madrid in the league.
The psychological work he and his team have done with the squad went under the radar for the most part of his time at Barcelona, however it was mentioned after the comeback vs PSG. Prior to Lucho you could see that there psychological weakness. In some games, especially during 2013/14 the team stopped believing they could turn things around. The players wouldn’t go the extra yard under Tata. Under Lucho this isn’t the case, they will fight to the end as shown against PSG, this season's El Clásico win at the Santiago Bernabéu and many other games throughout Lucho’s tenure. I don’t think I could highlight specific players who have become mentally stronger but it is clear you can see the collective grew stronger. It helps that there isn’t any squad problems and everyone was united. This is all down to Lucho.
Lucho improved the team defensively and during set pieces. Pique, Neymar, MAtS, Rafinha and Iniesta were the players that had the most notable improvements during Lucho’s 3 years at the club and most of all, the players improved physically compared to the season prior to his arrival. It'll go unnoticed but the work he and Rafel Pol did was wonderful. The defending on set pieces did dip during March the past season but in general, it hasn’t been a concern since Luis Enrique took over. The attacking on set pieces did improve for a short period, but goals from crosses and strategy plays weren't numerous.
Luis Enrique somehow managed to improve Neymar’s work rate, we have seen this since the start of 2017. His defensive contributions and movement were wonderful compared to what we saw before. With Iniesta, he hasn't made him better per se but polished the defensive side of his game.
Piqué was picked after two dreadful years and now he's arguably the best centre back in the world, now able to carry a defence and lost his frequent lapses in concentration.
Tactics under Luis Enrique
Football wise there were outstanding periods and also awful periods under Lucho. If we look at this season in particular, it has been more bad than good in terms of the football shown. The midfield issue was rather odd to say the least, Alves left a massive hole on the right side of the pitch and Luis Enrique tried to adapt with wide central midfielders to maintain width especially on the right side. It was even more baffling with the type of players he tried to add width that Alves use to bring. Rakitic and Gomes lack pace and aren’t reliable 1v1 players as they failed to add width if Messi drifted centrally. The idea in theory made sense to maintain width but the drawbacks significantly outweighed the benefits. Busquets was left isolated and it was far too easy to counter attack centrally. A failed experiment that led to season wide issues. Our midfield worked perfectly for large parts of the 2015/16 season, we have to ask ourselves why didn’t Lucho revert to that and sought for other solutions? A way to deal with the loss of Dani Alves was essential.
As for the front three, he made them work perfectly, and I know it isn't easy but a manager of his level should be able to build a solid system behind that front three. He had a system that freed the front three in 2015/16 but also had the rest of the team functioning at a good level. Lucho tried to add depth, breaking the system we use for most games (4-3-3). We started seeing those appearing in that away game v Arsenal, but everything came to a halt from mid March (against Villarreal) and our midfield has not been the same since. I talked about the wide central midfielders above but a solution for it would’ve been using Sergi Roberto as an inverted fullback in possession and moving to a 3-2-2-3 when attacking, this would allow Busquets to have enough support which he lacked throughout the season. When we lose the ball we can drop back into our usual 4-4-2 with relative ease. The only problem I would see in possession is Piqué would have to play right halfback (right sided centre back) and he lacks pace, but not a massive issue considering our game plan relies on possession. This seems simple in theory but it would’ve been worth the try to see if it does help given that naturally Sergi is a midfielder and Rakitic pre-Barça was a more of an attacking midfielder. It would solve the problem of being countered centrally easily and Busquets being left isolated.
He did manage to find a different solution with the 3-4-3 diamond. It worked very well after the 4-0 loss to PSG but there were little issues to fix before we could see it finely executed. But, why did it take so long for this to implement it after we consistently witnessed the execution of his new 4-3-3 system (post-Alves) was not working. Even more odd is that he did test the flat 3-4-3 earlier in the season and the team performed well.
The issues that need to be fixed with the 3-4-3 are playing central midfielders high and wide, close to the wingers (usually Neymar and Rafinha). It doesn’t help at all when one of the main gains from these formations are having numerical superiority in midfield. It also means that both Messi and Busquets get isolated. Pushing the central midfielders high and wide allow enough space to get counter attacked fairly easily as we saw against Valencia at home. Teams should be pushed out wide if they get counter attacks. Not through the middle like the wide central midfielders allow. Both of these formations basically have 4 men in midfield. Having the central midfielders more centrally makes it far more easy to control and dictate the pace of matches. We did it against PSG and Deportivo (A) though the result wasn’t great and though we were under control of the game, the pace was too slow to cause any damage.
The central midfielders are meant to support Messi giving him passing options and getting the ball to him easier but this isn’t the case at times. He gets left alone when he gets the ball without many options other than passing back to Busquets or the defenders. This issue can cause so many problems but the fix is actually pretty simple. Position the central midfielders inside closer to Messi (#10) and the DM whoever it may be. This also has other positive effects. The opponent with be more fixated on not allowing the Barca to overrun them in midfield so the wingers who should be the players giving width (not central midfielders) are in 1v1’s very often. Manchester City does a lot. You can see how many 1v1’s Sane and Sterling get. We did this against PSG and worked like a treat for the most part. Against Juventus our 3-3-1-3 didn’t play out well. Juventus pressed our midfield very well and were able to get Cuadrado into many 1v1’s against Mathieu. We did create enough chances to match Juve in Turin but they targeted Mascherano and Mathieu who were our weakest players and exploited it well. Perhaps the 3-3-1-3 wasn’t the best choice of formation for the game but it was more about individual errors, wastefulness in front of goal and good pressing from Juventus that killed us that day.
Our pressing for most of the three years was not good enough, actually dysfunctional. Many teams bypassed it with relative ease. But, in the second leg against PSG it was absolutely brilliant. It does beg the question why the players didn't press like this more often. Barca had to be put to the sword in an extreme situation to press at high level for 90 minutes. The pressing resistance of the team seemed to got worse over the years, perhaps the trainings failed to prioritize the rondos. Perhaps it hasn’t got worse but it looks like it has due bad positioning and lack of passing options for the player on the ball. So possibly more down to the system than anything else. We can only speculate, but it is odd that this has been a constant for three years. Prime examples of how weak our pressing resistance is was away to both PSG and Juventus this season.
Style under Luis Enrique
Regarding the style, it is impossible to become Guardiola 2009-2012 again. It's naïve to expect it to happen again. That aside, let's take a look at Setien's Las Palmas: They have inferior players yet they play one of the best football in La Liga and maybe even the top 5 leagues. They absolutely ran the show at the Santiago Bernabéu for 70+ minutes. We need to recover our belief in playing football the Cruyff way. Although it's unreasonable to expect perfect performances every game, but it should be at that level or close to the level we played against Borussia Moenchengladbach (H) a lot more than it has been. Playing well doesn't guarantee to consistently win because Las Palmas doesn’t have the best players around, but they show it is possible to play high quality football even if some fans think that you need Xavi Iniesta and Busquets at their peak to play dominant possession based football. Tuchel’s BVB also play wonderful football and are getting results, they are underperforming after losing Gundogan, Hummels and Mkhitaryan (equivalent of Iniesta Pique and Neymar respectively in our squad) in one summer and still being able to play football like they did with these three players and won the DFB Pokal final after beating Bayern Munich with a goal by a nineteen year old. We could also talk about Sarri's Napoli and Pochettino's Tottenham, but the point is that we should aim higher because that's what brought us success.
With the tools at his disposal this season, I did expect a lot better from Luis Enrique and that's why there was a lot of criticism prevalent in our fanbase throughout the season, as the squad was no way performing to near its potential. Lucho’s lack of faith in the backup and young players was concerning too. Especially Alcácer, a player he himself asked for. Most of the time, Paco wasn't used as another forward, but simply as a makeshift substitution for Suárez, instead of another mean of putting pressure on deep lying blocks, like Alavés and Malaga at Camp Nou. You take a full back off and put four forward upfront or drop Messi to the midfield as a resource to create more chances, not to be the entire midfield.
The use of 3-4-3 in the final months of the season were great. Though it should've been used earlier since the fullbacks were nowhere close to being reliable this season. Also, it'd allow us to have more men in midfield, an area we have had many issues with this season and would prevent use from easily getting countered centrally.
Lucho could've experimented a lot more with what he had. 3-1-4-2 could've been great, especially in pre-season and even more so during the season when everyone saw the 4-3-3 wasn’t working too well. In theory, these formations make sense since we have the personnel to play these formations/systems, the question would be the execution but it is why you attempt it in pre-season which from watching our summer matches, we didn’t seem to experiment at all.
Anything wrong? Send your correction.
WRITTEN BY: Sulaiman
Sulaiman is a Barcelona fan since 2005. He loves discussing anything related to the club. Sulaiman is currently studying Accounting and Finance and has a keen interest in Statistics.