FC Barcelona has always won some and lost some. But if there was something that made losing bearable in the past several years, it was the fact that there was a system that held the team together. After a loss, one could point at the part of the system that hadn’t worked and that had, in consequence, complicated matters for the rest of the parts. And there would still be a system the next day — perhaps a bettered, more polished version where the same pieces didn’t malfunction in the same way twice. Mistakes were made, recognized, analyzed and learned from.
Comparing today’s Barcelona to the golden years of the past isn’t always fruitful. Sometimes, it’s the opposite. You often hear people say that there won’t be another Pep Guardiola, there won’t ever be success that matches the success achieved by his team, and the man should be left behind as the caravan moves on.
But while comparing results might be unfair to everyone, comparing some of the fundamental pieces is sometimes necessary. Because in just a few short years, Barcelona have gone from having the most recognizable system in the world of football to not having a system at all, and it has all happened so fast that it’s difficult to understand how it is at all possible.
Luis Enrique is a proud and authoritative, and upon his presentation as Barcelona’s new manager, there was a wave of positivism raging through the streets of Barcelona. “He’s a coach who knows what he wants”, they said, “he’s brave enough to change things”. Six months later, only one of those phrases has come true. He has indeed changed things, so much that in every single La Liga match this season, he has fielded a different lineup. But six months into his project, no one knows what he wants, and the question remains if even he himself does.
The 1-0 defeat to Real Sociedad was Barcelona’s 4th defeat this season, and perhaps the most worrying. The loss against Paris Saint Germain was Luis Enrique’s first big test, and any young coach could be forgiven for not getting it all right at the first try. The loss to Real Madrid was not a good performance by the Catalans, but the opponent was the reigning European champion, after all, and Barcelona could have gone 2-0 up in the first half. The loss to Celta Vigo at the Camp Nou was shocking, but it was a match in which Celta keeper Sergio Alvarez saved everything coming his way, and Barcelona could be given the benefit of the doubt: “the ball just didn’t want to go in, it happens”.
On Sunday night, Barcelona was left without a single goal for the fourth time this season. Xavi was quick to state that the ball, again, just “didn’t want to go in”, but that wasn’t entirely true. Barcelona didn’t get too close to begin with. They didn’t hit the posts, they didn’t make goalkeeper Rulli stretch his limbs to make incredible saves, in fact, they barely tested him at all.
The first half without Messi was the naked truth staring the Barcelona fanbase square in the eye. Pedro’s long range effort in the dying minutes of the half was Barcelona’s only attempt on goal. The rest of the 45 minutes consisted of long balls to the flanks, crosses to no one by Pedro, a series of unsuccessful combination plays between Luis Suárez and Munir El Haddadi, and an unlucky – yet embarrassing – own goal conceded before the match even really got started.
Messi came on at the start of the second half as the embodiment of hope. Right before the half was kicked off, the cameraman found Luis Enrique on his bench, sitting with his arms crossed, with a seemingly empty glare in his eyes, taking a deep breath. Chances are he was nervous. He had taken a bold decision to bench Messi and Neymar, and he knew just as well as everyone else did that if Messi’s second half appearance couldn’t turn the game around, he’d be the one to get the blame.
But that wasn’t the thing, not for me. To me the logic behind benching Messi and Neymar seemed crystal clear. Luis Enrique had allowed them longer holidays, and the pair was probably jet-lagged. Not to mention, they had trained with the group just twice after returning. Considering the circumstances, benching the two made sense. The circumstances, of course, were created by the manager’s own decision, and he had to adapt to them, which he can only blame himself for.
But the real problems were elsewhere.
When a team has a system, the system shines through everything. Of course, every system has its key players without whom it all looks a bit different. Remove Xavi or Iniesta from the 2008-2011 Barcelona, and it’s not exactly the same. But players shouldn’t carry the system or be the system, the system should carry the team. The system should always shine through, even when one of its key individuals is sat on the bench.
That was not the case on Sunday night. There was no system or a game-plan in the first half, and on the second half the only game-plan was to play through Messi. The plan was to try to break through a solid defense via individual effort and combination play between the front three. No one else, until Dani Alves’ introduction, provided any real danger. Alba had space on the left, but he didn’t know when to attack it, nor how to use it. Even Messi didn’t really have a role. Before, we’ve seen him cut inside from the right, drop deeper every now and again. This time he was just roaming. Why didn’t he have a clear role? Did Luis Enrique panic at half-time and say, “screw it, just go out there, Leo, and see what you can do”?
These were all signs of a dysfunctional group of people who don’t really know how to create something as a unit.That might have been forgivable before, when there were several new parts in the team and we were still waiting to see what Luis Enrique’s system would turn out to be. But it’s been six months, and the minimum that we should be seeing at this point is progress, a clear idea of how the team wants to play. No one is asking for perfection, no one is expecting a manita in every match. The system – if there was one – wouldn’t have to work to perfection, not yet. But if we could see where this team is going, it would be easier to sit back and be patient and see how far this team can go in the spring. So far it’s hard to find a system. It’s hard to see where exactly Luis Enrique is trying to steer the ship. And without a map, hitting an iceberg is more likely.
To make Luis Enrique’s situation look even worse, one has to bear in mind that he had an entire summer to plan. Tata Martino, for example, didn’t get that, but fought for two titles at the end of the season. Luis Enrique knew the team he was about to take over, he was given a hefty transfer budget, and pricey additions were made. Arguably, the team now has more quality than in the last two years.
But Enrique’s big midfield signing, Ivan Rakitic, hasn’t looked comfortable in the team in quite some time, and the manager has increasingly often tried to take the trio of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta back in time, make it work like it used to. What exactly is Rakitic’s role in the team, apart from keeping one eye on the space Dani Alves leaves behind with his forward runs? Shouldn’t his role be clearer at this point, considering that we’re in January, and Luis Enrique is the man who signed the player? These are the type of questions that should be asked, and that can be asked without screaming “Lucho out!” simultaneously. These are also the type of questions that I hope Luis Enrique is asking himself. “How do I want this team to play?”
Even when things are going downhill for Luis Enrique, it is, however, good to remember that he’s not the one responsible for the club’s bizarre decisions in the past. Although he had a summer to plan, he’s not entirely responsible for the fact that the team’s core is aged, and he doesn’t have all of the tools to fix that core. Those things fall on the men sitting in the boardroom, the men who are reportedly days away from throwing Andoni Zubizarreta under the bus, and who will gladly watch Luis Enrique get the blame for what really is their fault too. But those are things that won’t be solved short-term. Not before 2016, anyway. But if Luis Enrique wants to continue behind the wheel until then, he needs to figure out where he wants this team to go.