For a couple of months, I’ve been thinking about how differently Barça play now compared to last season. As I’ve written several times, Luis Enrique’s first season was characterized by a very clear system, built around Lionel Messi and Neymar’s wing play. The two would start wide and then look to cut inside diagonally, either by dribbling, working short passes off of Luis Suárez, or playing a cross-field pass over the defense. The triangles formed out wide, especially on the right with Messi, Dani Alves, and Ivan Rakitić, were potent and very difficult to defend. Almost nothing of that system was visible today.
On Sunday night, Barça matched Real Madrid’s Spanish record of 34 games unbeaten, defeating an excellent Sevilla team who did everything right. Since beating their closest rivals in Atlético Madrid and demolishing Celta Vigo in stunning fashion, Barcelona have inspired a cascade of praise and recognition, which has painted this team as a force of nature, their victories inevitable. The continuing collapse of Real Madrid in parallel has only heightened the contrast, with some arguing that Madrid could never have hoped to compete with a team as powerful as Barça’s, a squad that combines an astonishing homegrown core with the best front three in history. But to paint Barça’s current dominance as inevitable is to strongly miss the mark of what makes these players, and this coach, so special.
Back in 2014, a match against Atlético Madrid meant the impossibility of scoring, that if the rojiblancos nicked a single goal a win was impossible. Before that, Pep Guardiola’s Barça routinely went head-to-head with Atleti in unpredictable matches with wild scorelines. Luis Enrique’s Barça, however, do exactly what is needed, no more, no less – especially in its second season as players begin to tire. That uncanny ability is arguably Luis Enrique’s strongest accomplishment, and it was the defining feature of the clash at Camp Nou on Saturday.
Last season, Barça’s two encounters with Valencia were close-fought wins that perhaps deserved to be draws. Last night, the Catalans’ draw perhaps deserved to be a win, but that’s football. And there’s something satisfying in that.
Even as culés worry over dropped points and pore over missed chances, the draw at the Mestalla serves as a helpful reminder of the quality of the rest of the league and of Barça’s fallibility. Despite Luis Enrique’s team enjoying an absurd run of form lately, the reality of the transfer ban, and the realization that it will continue to affect them until January, was stark.
It seems strange to say that a coach who won the treble in his debut season could yet hit his peak, but Saturday night’s victory against Real Madrid might be Luis Enrique’s pinnacle moment as a manager.
Sure, the 3-0 defeat of Bayern Munich last spring was higher stakes and the 3-1 victory over Atlético Madrid more symbolic. This clásico had none of the raw energy and breakneck pace that Lucho’s Barça demonstrated from January to May of this year – and indeed, that might be what makes it so impressive. From the first minute, Barça were calm and composed on the ball and when the first goal came, it was after a full 1 minute and 45 seconds of possession in which nine different players touched the ball. This was a team performance – the team performance.