This project is over. And it has ended in explosive fashion.
This is not to suggest that Luis Enrique has been a failure. Quite the contrary. Holistically speaking, it has been a resounding success. A spell of three seasons that includes a treble and a double of trophies can never be considered as a failure. However, it has run its course and change is now needed.
For much of his tenure, regardless of his feats, Lucho has never really been given the credit he fully deserves. In moments like these, it is easy to look at entire eras as failures. We must never forget where this club stood the day Lucho arrived and where it is today. In the broadest sense, Lucho’s objective was to turn the page on Pep Guardiola’s era and move the club forward, in terms of innovation. Our club had been suffering from a hangover since Pep’s exit, with the late Tito Vilanova and Tata Martino’s sides trying to maintain Pep’s structures and legacy. Lucho joined an organization where he was tasked with making executive decisions- and these decisions, for the most part, were successful. However, if there were ever a time to be critical, it would be now.
Going into this season, Luis Enrique’s only failure was the UEFA Champions League semi-final elimination at the hands of Atlético Madrid. The general consensus of this tie was that it came down completely to fatigue, and Lucho showed his certainty in this “fact” as he acquired pieces to be used in the summer. Lucho wanted to ensure his chargers were physically present the next go around because he ultimately believed fatigue could have been the only factors capable of stopping MSN, because, well, they’re unstoppable, right? This writer wrote earlier this season that assuming our elimination came down completely to fatigue was not only false but lacking in respect for our opposition. Make no mistake, Messi, Neymar and Suárez are unstoppable- but only when they are given a platform to succeed.
-22 September 2016
For months now, we have witnessed games which have a pattern of poor performance (through relentless pressure from our opposition- effectively locking us in our own half for long periods of the game), but concluding positively on paper, more often than not through a moment of brilliance from MSN. These matches, due to flattering scorelines, are easily forgotten from our memory banks through memes and superlative- we’ve all seen the “Messi terrorizes opposition” or “Messi curls free-kick from distance” headlines. We often brush these games off, ignoring that the only reason they were won was down to individual brilliance alone, and not by problem-solving.
Tabloids always live on the extreme and will write and post whatever sells, meaning much of the articles we read are simplified only to include the “highlights”. The free-kick. The spectacular equalizer. Essentially to tabloids, a team only wins through its forwards or loses through some sort of glaring mistake from its defenders. We have the best forwards in the world. And our defenders are amongst the best in their positions. So if it is not them, then who could it be?
Due to its philosophy of play, this side will always be susceptible to goals. We believe in being assertive and taking risks, and because of this, there will always be times when the risks we take backfire. For that reason, there is only but so much culpability we can lay on our defenders. They will never be the type to sit deep, ala José Mourinho. Instead, they will always pass the ball from deep, or press extremely high- exposing themselves to incredible risks. These factors, when they are not managed, will lead to the type of mistakes we saw against Paris Saint-Germain. But if we are to exclude both our attack and defense from culpability, then where does the problem lie?
Pointing out this area as the gaping weakness in our game has now become tiring. As recent as our Copa Del Rey performance, this writer wrote a review on how strong opposition could expose the system errors in our midfield. And this was not the only piece. For those of you who do not have the time to read these pieces, I will simplify them for you: Sergio Busquets has been thrown under the bus by Luis Enrique.
“Lucho has not addressed critical issues that arose in last season’s UEFA Champions League Quarter Final tie against Atletico Madrid, our only failure of last season. Lucho’s men simply do not have a solution for relentless high pressing that is executed to perfection.”
-6 January 2017
How many of us were around during Busi’s rise in the years of 2008/2009 (raise your hands)? Do you remember how he slotted in so easily it left us wondering who was there previously (Yaya Toure)? If Xavi’s job was to orchestrate, Busi’s role was to ensure order as well as be the gamemaster; always knowing when to up the tempo of the game and when to slow things down. His role, though it was similar to Xavi, never included orchestrating play or being the general himself. Busi had his own niche role and established himself as the best in the world at it.
In Xavi’s departure, Busi was given more responsibilities, which included much of the bulk of work Xavi was originally tasked with. Andrés Iniesta was also tasked, by Lucho, to take a deeper role in helping Busquets manage the hole left by Xavi in orchestrating play. However, this has been Luis Enrique’s critical error in judgment: Iniesta and Busquets have never had to specialize in these roles and therefore do not have the required skill.
Andrés Iniesta has never, and will never, be a deep-lying midfielder able to orchestrate play the way in which Xavi could. It’s important to state that this does not mean Iniesta is a bad player. He has become an icon in Spanish football, deserving to be compared to the greatest players in his position- players such as Zinedine Zidane. This is simply just not his position. We have all recognized Iniesta to be a playmaker, who is at his best dribbling from further up the field, even capable of playing the left-wing position. Not to mention that Iniesta’s current position is ambiguous; Iniesta has been tasked by Lucho to orchestrate from deep, whilst also making forays forward into the attack. Not to mention André Gomes or whoever his midfield partner is, also makes runs forward and sometimes all the way into the box. Defenses have realized that putting too much emphasis on Messi, Neymar, and Suárez is futile. The gold lies in relentlessly pressing every midfielder, defender, and keeper, to ensure we do not get the ball out from the back, and when we do, it is with little momentum. This is an old tactic that was used in the Pep Guardiola era, that since the departure of Xavi, has now become more complicated to manage.
Xavi’s genius lay in his ability to manage virtually any and all situations that arose. When teams pressed, he would do his famous roulette, or accurately string up the kind of passes from deep that only he could manage. It was his responsibility to get out of such situations, aided by Sergio Busquets. Andrés Iniesta’s role was to be the connection between the midfield and attack, once the ball had been navigated from pressure. Today, at the twilight of his career, Iniesta has been asked to take the mantle left by Xavi- a role he never had to specialize in the past. Lucho has also completely altered the midfield role occupied by Ivan Rakitić/Rafinha/Gomes. This role is now occupied by a hard running player, who’s role must be to tirelessly run and do dirty work. Neither of the players mentioned are masterminds in problem-solving, and do not have the technique or skillset to deal with high pressure- we often see a touch of the ball that is too heavy, or a loose pass being given. These two factors put Sergio Busquets under immense pressure not only to perform his own original duties but also to make up for Iniesta’s deficiencies from deep, as well as the virtual non-existence in problem-solving offered by the third midfielder- meaning Busquets is consistently carrying the weight of three men all on his own. And this theme has consistently shown itself throughout Lucho’s three seasons in charge.
It was prevalent more than ever against PSG.
Exhibit A: the second goal scored by PSG (After Di Maria’s free-kick)
Here we see the mercurial Marco Verratti (more on him later) in possession of the ball, Sergio Busquets sandwiched between Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti. Iniesta carelessly ball-watching Verratti, as he charges down deep into an ocean of space in our midfield. Many will look at Busquets and ask “why doesn’t he press up and cover space on Verratti?” What has gone wrong here is that Busquets has become out-numbered in midfield, and he has no choice but to hold the position he currently holds as if he is to charge down Marco, that immediately opens up space for Edison Cavani and others- he is in no man’s land. Not to mention Gomes is nowhere to be seen in this frame. And Iniesta’s natural role is to be a playmaker, operating from further up the field and as has already been stated, his role is ambiguous on this team. This explains his positioning. Essentially, Busquets has been thrown under the bus. This theme has repeated itself for months this season, and the third goal beautifully curled in from distance by Di Maria was no different:
Exhibit B: Third goal
Busquets, with no help from either Iniesta or Gomes, yet again thrown under the bus. Need more proof?
Exhibit C: Fourth goal
In this case, Busquets is nowhere to be seen, with Iniesta taking a casual jog back, while Rafinha has no chance of covering. These are system errors created by Luis Enrique. One can’t quite blame Iniesta, because what is his role? Should he stay deep, as this is his new “position” (to help Busquets orchestrate play)? Or should he continue making runs forward in the playmaker role he has always operated in? It’s ambiguous. He has either been purposefully instructed by Lucho to do both these roles or he really does not completely understand the nuances of playing a deeper orchestrating role- or worse, both. Our defenders have no chance in dealing with these situations.
What is Iniesta to do against players who have grown up specializing in a deep-lying role, like Marco Verratti? He has absolutely no chance. Iniesta was the best in the world in his playmaker role, but there are a multitude of players who can run circles around him from deep. But this is Lucho’s fault, as he never truly replaced the role Xavi occupied. This does not mean Lucho had to find another Xavi, as this would be a futile effort, but if he wanted a deep-lying midfielder, he should never have expected Iniesta to be capable of executing all the nuances of such a position.
“Players such as Marco Verratti, Toni Kroos, Thiago Alcántara, İlkay Gündoğan and even the young Youri Tielemans from Anderlecht are examples of players who have specialized in this role. And this has been Sergio Busquets’ downfall- that from the moment Xavi left the club, he has been forced to carrying a burden that is too large for him to carry alone without a specialist.“
-9 Octerber 2016
Is it not ironic we were to face Marco Verratti? He not only managed to neutralize Iniesta by pressing him at every touch of the ball, but he managed to orchestrate play from deep, spreading the ball with long passes, making incisive short passes, as well as being prepared to make the tackle when it was necessary- he showed the kind of execution only a player who has played his position his entire career was capable of.
Verratti put in the kind of performance that turned heads and has led to his own name being thrown in the hat for Iniesta’s replacement in the summer. If you are not going to watch the entire video, all you need to do is skip to 3:59, to see the depth of Iniesta deficiencies from deep- attempting skill that would be fine further up the field but is near suicide from that deep.
This project is over. Not because it has failed, but because it seems Luis Enrique has done all he could. That the above-mentioned errors are so clear but have not been dealt with for months, shows either that Lucho does not see anything wrong, he has run out of ideas, or he believes we do not have the talent to fix the issue. Were it the latter option, he would, in fact, be incorrect. We do have a player capable of ticking the boxes Verratti does. Or rather, we did.
Sergi Samper is a player not far off Marco Verratti- in mold. However, unlike his predecessors, Lucho, questionably, does not believe in slowly breeding in talent from La Masia into the first team and rather believes in the use of loans. I cringe when thinking where someone like Serio Busquets would be today were he loaned by Guardiola to a low tier team, who’s manager that decided on the loan were to be sacked midway during the season, leaving Busi to be utilized by a different manager- who has no interest in furthering his development. The truth is, many of our most promising prodigies have been dealt with in this manner. Gerard Deulofeu, Alen Halilovic, Adama Traoré just to name a few. Yes, Denis Suárez turned out okay. But what happened to the idea of incorporating a player into our team and allowing him to prove his worth? This is how players like Busquets and Pedro Rodríguez were discovered. Not to mention Thiago Alcántara, who was given multiple seasons. Even Gerard Pique, after his return from Manchester United, was given the chance to prove his worth and ultimately took over from Rafa Márquez. This does not mean Samper should be starting over Iniesta, but looking at our squad, we have three players in exactly the same mold- Rakitić, Gomes, and Rafinha (not to mention there is still Sergi Roberto). Would it not make sense to add variety to our skillset? Instead of putting Samper on loan, would it not make more sense to hold onto him, and use him when his skillset would be necessary? All Lucho would have to do is look at the example laid out by Guardiola in how he initially bred Busquets to a starting role over Yaya Toure, in using him in games which required a high level of skill and tactical awareness. With a string of impressive 30 min cameos, it was eventually concluded that Sergio Busquets would be the best player in this role going forward- the rest is history. Thiago, though he played second fiddle to Xavi, started multiple games under Pep. Pedro played his way into the team by proving he was the better option over Thierry Henry. The argument “Samper would not get enough minutes” barely holds up. At least Samper would have been given the chance to show his worth, the same way the above-mentioned players were.
We need a fresh start. There has been much speculation about who our next manager will be, assuming Lucho is sacked. It’s important we don’t see this project as a failure. The truth is, all projects eventually come to an end, and must then be replaced. Much of the criticism Lucho has endured has been disrespectful to a man who has given so much to this club. Though his project has been imperfect, who would have guessed Lucho to win a treble and a double his first two seasons when he was hired? Lucho has done this club well. But we need something new. We need a new manager.