Barcelona lost today, and the general consensus is that Luis Enrique did it again. He experimented with the lineup too much, underestimated Alavés, and cost his team the game. There is certainly an element of truth to that, but to simply write it off as a managerial cock-up seems a bit lazy to me. Luis Enrique is surely capable of mistakes – but he’s also a generally brilliant manager who knows his team well and is into his third season. He’s likely watched hours of tape of Alavés and knows how good they are. But he was under a different set of pressures from coaching Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, and Neymar.
Sid Lowe pointed out in the post-match fervor that it sends a bad message when you rotate so much of a squad like that. Immediately, there is a clear distinction between the A and the B team, and a level of complacency can sink in – these guys aren’t so tough, we don’t even need our big guns, the players think, and now they’re a fraction slower, a fraction less hungry. But then on the other side, when you do need to bring the big guns in, there’s an immense amount of pressure on them to change the game immediately, even more than usual for substitutes. It’s a bad situation all around, and a bad way to rotate.
It doesn’t have to be that way. In Lucho’s treble-winning season, he rarely used an A and B midfield, for instance. Iniesta and Rakitić were clearly the first choice, but for many Liga games he alternated pairing Rakitić with Xavi, and Iniesta with Rafinha – even in tough games where you wouldn’t ordinarily rotate, like Villarreal. The pairings were balanced and created a familiarity in the side even while spreading the minutes around. Rafinha played not because it was an easy game for the second string, but simply because Luis Enrique decided it was his and Iniesta’s turn that week. There was a system.
But Lucho can’t do that with the forwards, or is unwilling to. The same qualities that make Messi, Neymar, and Suárez the best attacking trio in history – their quality, relentless hunger and uncanny chemistry – make it pretty much mandatory to start all three when fit. When that’s the norm, that puts an enormous amount of pressure on Luis Enrique in the fringe cases, such as returning from an international break a little tired and semi-fit.
International breaks suck, yes, but lots of elite teams deal with them, and lots of stars play and run hard after them. But for Luis Enrique, he knows how many minutes those three stars will accumulate over the course of the season, and how reluctant they will be to rest once they get going. Lucho knows that every time one of the MSN is subbed off or dropped for a game is going to be like pulling teeth – and that makes him extra cautious every time he has a viable excuse to rest them, such as the international break.
That needs to change. The availability of Paco Alcacer, an in-form Arda Turan and a now-fit Rafinha means that Lucho has plenty of options, more than ever. Right now, every time Messi, Neymar or Suárez is rested it feels like an event, a potential disaster. And as long as that sensation exists the team will continue to play like it’s a potential disaster – as they did against Real Sociedad in 2015, and as they did today.
Getting the MSN comfortable with resting occasionally is essential to Barça’s success, both long- and short-term. One of the reasons it was so hard for Barça to sign a striker this summer was because forwards like Gameiro and Vietto knew they would never play. Those delays meant that Paco Alcacer was signed just 11 days ago – he trained with Barcelona for the first time on Wednesday, and met Neymar on Thursday. It’s no wonder he wasn’t effective in the team today.
Let’s be perfectly clear – having Messi, Neymar and Suárez is an absolute privilege and any fan, player or coach’s dream., but there are drawbacks. All three of them have spoken of their humility and teamwork in helping each other on the pitch. For Barça to reach the next level and make the most of their newfound depth, that attitude will have to extend to their approach to rotations as well.
- If Aleix Vidal is that bad against Alavés, when exactly is it safe to play him? Time to get Darijo Srna on the phone ASAP – or hope Sergi Palencia is ready for the big time sooner rather than later. Otherwise, Sergi Roberto is going to get very tired, very quickly.
- Samuel Umtiti made the best case yet to be a starter in a match he watched from the bench. Javier Mascherano was woeful – though that is not necessarily a reflection of his quality in general and may be written off from the international break. Still, it may be that Barça need a composed centre-back like Piqué or Umtiti alongside Mascherano’s rough tackling from here on out.
- Jérémy Mathieu may be comfortably Barça’s fourth-choice centre-back, but the hatred accrued against him has created a reality distortion field for many fans (and is frankly bizarre). As always, he was a bit uneasy, but made no major mistakes, defended solidly, and scored the only goal – yet was criticized relentlessly for missing a sitter. Perfect is the enemy of good, cules.
- Denis Suárez and Ivan Rakitić both had horribly disappointing nights, while Arda Turan continued to sparkle despite playing on the opposite side of the pitch. Shine on, you crazy bearded diamond.