With the signing of Samuel Umtiti, the return of Denis Suárez, and the imminent renewal of Javier Mascherano, Barça fans seem relatively happy about the start of the transfer window so far. While the rest of the window may yield a different conclusion, these first few signings hint at an interesting question: is Luis Enrique finally ready to plan for Barça’s long-term future?
That may sound harsh, but hear me out. Since his arrival, Luis Enrique has treated his job as if it could end at any moment – and with good reason. He arrived as Barça’s fourth coach in four years, tenuously backed by the most popularly disliked administration since Gaspart. Moreover, the challenges he faced were short-term in nature.
First, in 2014, Barça needed a whole-scale and immediate renewal of the squad, which Lucho executed as well as anyone could have imagined, making six signings and two key sales to build a treble-winning team. Then, in 2015, his hands were tied by the transfer ban (a situation unprecedented in football history), and the goal was simply to make it through the year without suffering drastically. The fact that Barça won the domestic double despite their self-inflicted limitations and injuries was a bonus beyond any reasonable expectations.
Under these conditions, Luis Enrique often seemed to adopt Diego Simeone’s partido a partido mentality, treating each game as a final and instilling an ultra-competitive spirit in his players that had been sorely lacking. And though his successes are inarguable, the lack of long-term planning has cost Barça in some respects.
Most obviously, the lack of rest for Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suárez in multi-goal blowouts throughout the season cost the team crucially in March and April, when fresh legs were most needed. Pep Guardiola always used to plan his team’s fitness over the course of the season in this way, allowing his team to slack somewhat in the less vital stretch of January and February so that they would be in full gear once they hit the season’s final months, maybe using some corn starch. Perhaps, however, this was not fully in Lucho’s control – even Guardiola was unable to convince Messi ever to rest, and now the superstar dilemma has tripled.
A more delicate and contentious issue is Luis Enrique’s development of youth players. Few subjects seem to spark as much vehemence from the Barça fanbase as La Masia. The alchemical mixture of fans’ eagerness for homegrown talents to succeed with the self-righteousness that came from a golden generation of one of the best football academies in the world yields bewildering ire and spite, such that simply allowing a talent like Alejandro Grimaldo to leave deemed Lucho a failure to many a Twitterer.
That, of course, is nonsense. And many of Luis Enrique’s controversial decisions regarding La Masia can be comfortably defended. Grimaldo’s situation is perhaps the most opaque, but one could conjecture that his physical stature and defensive weakness were marks against him. The sales of Gerard Deulofeu and Adama Traore were both met with laments and hair-tearing, but both have failed at their new homes in England. Meanwhile, the youngsters who were patient and waited their turn, namely Rafinha Alcántara and Sergi Roberto, have blossomed in ways that few expected, and Denis Suárez and Alen Halilović put their heads down and made fantastic use of their respective loan spells in Spain.
That’s a fair argument – but it’s an argument rooted in the short term. Luis Enrique will show faith in youth, but only the youngsters who he thinks can slot in and help him in the present season. Utility players like Rafinha and Roberto, then, fit the bill perfectly: they can be used in a variety of positions, got plenty of chances, and took them. But players like Grimaldo, Deulofeu, and Adama – three of the biggest talents Barça B has seen in the past five years – are more of a coaching challenge.
Deulofeu is stubborn and occasionally lazy, while Adama is one-dimensional and over reliant on his astounding speed. It’s no surprise that they’ve struggled in England, but that doesn’t make them failures. It means they need a manager who will dedicate time to improving them. Players are not fixed quantities, who are either “good enough” or not – some need tremendous amount of training, both physically and mentally, but the results can be extraordinary. Just look at Jerome Boateng before and after Guardiola’s arrival.
Most damning for Lucho is that Deulofeu, Adama, and Grimaldo all play positions that Barça need reinforcing this summer. The lack of a natural winger hurt the team badly in the ‘15-‘16 season, as Neymar, Messi, and Suárez all naturally drift inside, and both Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramirez looked clunky and unconfident playing out of position. And while Jordi Alba is still arguably the best left-back in the world, the lack of a viable backup led to his exhaustion and perhaps allowed him to become lax without competition. Both problems were plainly visible a year ago, and still need solving.
It’s not as if Luis Enrique actively pushes away youth players – rather, it seems that he simply doesn’t have a plan for those that fit into his immediate needs. Sergi Samper, for instance, started in a key Champions League game and has been roundly praised by the Asturian, yet was allowed to languish in the Segunda B for a season and now may be loaned out for another. Is there a plan drawn up for how his development will move in stages and how he may eventually make it to the first team, or is it simply a matter of “not here, not yet”?
This is not limited simply to the development of youth, but extends to the tactical system Lucho employed on the pitch. In ‘14-’15, Barça ran a highly structured system of triangles that functioned based on Messi and Neymar initiating from out wide. In his second season, Enrique encouraged a little more looseness and creativity (one huge positive of which was Iniesta’s resurgence in a more attacking role) but at times this looked like simply allowing the front three free rein. When things didn’t go their way (usually against a packed defense), Barça seemed to lack an alternate approach, be it a change in formation, ball movement, or personnel. I don’t think this was for lack of trying – Enrique clearly had ideas of moving Messi more central and accelerating his transition to a number 10 – but the plan never fully materialized.
What Luis Enrique has accomplished in two seasons is nothing short of remarkable. At the two-year mark, he has won five of six major trophies and the affection and trust of fans, players, and board alike. His job is no longer even remotely under threat, and Barça no longer have the specter of the transfer ban looming over them. However, the team is once again in need of renewal, having accumulated a number of fringe players – Adriano, Mathieu, Vermaelen, Munir, Sandro – who pick up a few minutes but not enough to hit a groove, and should either be given full trust or sold. No indecision, no buyback clauses: make a decision, trim the fat, and bring in younger players to build for the future.
This won’t be a summer of massive restructuring like 2014 or 2008; the deficiencies that need to be addressed are not so dire, nor so clear. There is an open-endedness to it, an opportunity for Luis Enrique to proactively build for the future before it reaches that point of emergency again and shape the team of the coming years. With the departure of Dani Alves, Javier Mascherano is now the last great signing of the Pep Guardiola era, a risky pick midway through Pep’s tenure who has become one of the club’s pillars. Who will be the pillars of the Luis Enrique era six years from now?