I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how Barça under Luis Enrique, and especially how the current version compares to that magical 4-month period in the spring of 2015. Now, obviously, there is one simple answer – that team was just starting out, they had a point to prove and fresh legs. They steamrolled everyone in their way with a mixture of talent and relentless toughness. After two seasons of success and a mountain of games under those players’ legs, that lightning in a bottle is hard to replicate. Also there is the tricky matter of memory – a team even of just a year and a half ago will be idealized up against the 90-minute present of last Saturday. With those caveats in place, however, let’s explore.
The main thing that strikes me about how that 2014-15 team compares to this team (and last season’s) is how rigidly structured it was. There were a few very basic mechanisms in place, almost all of which began with Messi and Neymar taking up space on the wings. They would line up very wide, forming a triangle with the midfielder and fullback – often like this, or various permutations of this.
Rakitić pins back the defenders, while Dani Alves supporting centrally in the midfield – or vice versa if the fullback makes an overlapping run, as Alba was more wont to do on the left. But either way, the opponent faced a dilemma – double-team Messi out wide, giving him a plethora of passing options, or let him take his man on 1-on-1 with dangerous results. And because Messi can pass, dribble, and shoot with equal terrifying skill, it was pretty much indefensible. That emphasis on wing play was best exemplified in the 3-1 thrashing of Atlético Madrid that fateful January night, in which all three goals came from Messi’s play on the right wing. Now obviously Lucho’s tactics were more complex than that, but Messi playing wide was the big shift of the season, and that triangle automatism was the recurring pattern that we saw game after game, beating opponent after opponent.
In 2015-16, and continuing into this season, things have become a lot more fluid. To an extent, it’s the natural evolution of a team – they learn the basic mechanisms, and then they evolve past them, improvising on the fly. MSN’s chemistry reached new heights, and they were dazzling, playing some jaw-dropping football. Messi’s role changed, becoming much more of a creator and closer to a #10, with no real dent in Barça’s success – and a massive boost to Suárez’s goal-scoring. Whereas in the spring of 2015 Messi used the right-wing as a reference point from which he could purposely move, now he had – and continues to have – much more of a free role. The same is true of Neymar, who frequently finds himself in midfield or even on the opposite end of the pitch, which was extremely rare in Lucho’s first season.
Obviously, if you have the best players in the world, you want to let them do the most damage. But doesn’t this compound the problems Lucho already faces with an undroppable front three? If your attacking system is built around genius players taking up amorphous positions, what happens when they’re out? It’s not just that Barça became a worse team when Messi went off injured on Saturday – they had to become a completely different team, because nobody can play the same free role he does.
It also makes it much, much harder when the geniuses have an off night. In a more regimented attacking system, even when your star players have a stinker the ideas are still clear – trust in the system and the goals will come eventually. But in this current Barça, when Messi or Neymar aren’t shining, or aren’t pulling off their dazzling linkup play with Suárez in the middle of the field, there is a slight sense of “now what?” about the team. At its best, it’s liquid, stunning flicks and one-touch passing moves. When those don’t come off, however, I wonder if this Barça have forgotten how to go back to basics.
Fluidity is the Cruyffian ideal – 10 players interchanging positions, all popping up everywhere and disorganizing defenses. But when the XI have such a good understanding and are so finely tuned, it’s very difficult to put a new cog in the mix. Compare that to Barcelona back in the fall of 2014: that nostalgic time when Luis Enrique was still figuring things out and played 22 different lineups in a row. Barça were criticized for their rigidity and awkwardness – they were defensively sound and got the job done, but not easy on the eyes. But it’s much easier to swap players in and out in a rigidly structured team – although each player brings something unique to a position, the positional responsibility comes first. I believe it was that underlying rigidity that built the foundation for the ridiculous treble-winning form of the following spring, and just maybe has been allowed to grow soft over time.
Luis Enrique’s big challenge this season is clearly going to be integrating his new-found depth and figuring out how to rotate the front three. Doing that is not just about getting Paco Alcacer, Rafinha, and Arda Turan up to speed – it may also be about slightly dumbing down MSN’s intricate linkup and going back to the brutal wing play that saw Barça conquer Europe a year and a half ago.