As the final whistle blew on Barcelona’s 0-6 thrashing of Elche, several people noted that the scoreline was misleading out of context. Indeed, Elche attacked decently and defended well, while Barcelona were lackluster for 50 minutes and only broke the game open with goals off a set piece and a penalty. The goals only started to flow once Fayçal Fajr received his second yellow in the 57th minute, allowing Messi and Neymar to run rampant against 10 men. All of which is true, of course. But two things stand out to me in that line of thinking. First, if you were unable to enjoy the show of samba and smiles put on by Barça’s brilliant duo in the last half hour in Elche, you should stop reading this piece and go back to kicking puppies and pissing in flower beds. Second, and more seriously, is this tricky notion of context, the idea that some numbers are misleading and others aren’t, which I think bears more exploration.
The first was an act of defiance, a dramatic response from a team that does not take kindly to being attacked and criticized from all sides. To beat Atlético Madrid twice, however, would be an assertion of dominance, proof that Luis Enrique’s men are here to win. For a team criticized for its inconsistency all season, a chance to repeat their extraordinary demolition of Atlético just 10 days ago would be the best possible statement of intent to their detractors. Moreover, with the Liga race likely to be a tooth-and-nail drag, the Copa del Rey could be Barcelona’s best shot at winning silverware this season – get past Atlético, and they will already have one hand on the trophy.
If there is one thing that has defined Luis Enrique’s tenure at Barcelona so far, it is the running tally of his unrepeated line-ups, currently at a remarkable 28 in 28 games. It is often cited as evidence of Enrique’s indecision and inability to figure out how he wants his team to play. It is also held up as an explanation for Barcelona’s inconsistency, at times alternately brilliant and ineffective. Most of all, however, it illustrates this generation’s over-dependence on statistics, not just to support a narrative but often to write it. In the days before we had Twitter accounts to compile every possible record, would Luis Enrique’s Barcelona really look like anything more than a new coach with new signings and the task of an enormously tricky transition? I decided to take a closer look at each of the line-ups to figure it out.
Real Madrid: I skip the first eleven games and begin with the Clásico, which marked Luis Suárez’s return from his four-month ban and the first time Luis Enrique had his gala eleven available. Like Carlo Ancelotti before him, however, Enrique adjusted tactics radically for his first Clásico, reverting to a Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta midfield and experimenting with Mathieu at left-back. Both decisions were unmitigated failures, but understandable ones given the context.
Ten days ago, at the start of the new year, I wrote that Luis Enrique, for all his crypticness and inconsistencies, had Barcelona in better shape than a year ago and well positioned to improve in 2015. The past week has exploded those notions in a collapse as extraordinarily dramatic as it was overdue. Josep Bartomeu has called elections, Andoni Zubizarreta has been fired, and rumours are swirling that Luis Enrique could be next on the chopping block (not that you’d be able to tell from looking at him, of course). Into this mess walk the reigning champions, Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid.
At the end of a year, we tend to become more reflective and pensive, thinking about who we are and what we’re doing, where we stand as we pass yet another marker. For sports fans, that self-critical process is never confined to late December, but rather a constant whir of comparisons and micro-evaluations every week. However, sometimes it’s good to take a step back and ask, with the rare patience and perspective the end of a year brings, where do we stand? After 24 competitive matches, countless crises and more hyperbolic back-and-forth than a non-Euclidean game of ping-pong, where does Luis Enrique’s Barcelona stand? A complex question, I think, that is best broken into three simpler parts.
To most viewers, FC Barcelona thumping the 19th-placed team in La Liga 5-0 at home is the definition of business as usual, but in many ways Barcelona-Córdoba was a match for the unexpected. With rare sightings of Martin Montoya, a misfiring Messi, an in-form Pedro, and not one but two set-piece goals, fans were taken on a veritable safari tour of foreign sights.
They say good things come in threes. “They” being superstitious people, but also culés and Cruyffistas. After all, threes are the basis of the Barcelona style: the midfield trio, the front three, and the all-important triangles formed all over the pitch. With that in mind, I want to look at Barcelona’s first three games after the international break, what could potentially turn out to be the season’s turning point. Under pressure after dreadful performances against Real Madrid, Celta Vigo, and Almería, Luis Enrique managed three important wins against Sevilla, APOEL, and Valencia. As always, there were caveats with each match. Sevilla were surprisingly poor, APOEL were minnows, and the most recent match against Valencia was muddled, confusing and ugly. However, three points from Mestalla is no mean feat – it is, after all, something Pep Guardiola accomplished only once in five trips there – and the victories over Sevilla and APOEL were as stylish as they were crucial to their respective campaigns. Most importantly, Luis Enrique played three different systems in the three games – although the success of these systems was mixed, the contrast with the rigidity and confusion of October is clear. Luis Enrique’s team is still coming together, but there is a logic to his choices now, a hint that he is developing tools for the long haul.
Like all stunning moments in life, the Barcelona-Sevilla game yesterday made us reexamine what we take as given. At the core of it all was Lionel Messi, and at the core of Messi is one question: “How the hell did he do that?” But there were other questions too, like: “Wait, so that guy with the goofy smile being lifted in the air is the one who’s going to leave Barcelona?” or “Weren’t Sevilla supposed to be good?” or “Weren’t we supposed to be terrible?” My question, admittedly, would have to be “How do I write about him?”
Only once the final whistle blew did the red haze start to fade from cule eyes. Looking at the scoreline, it was hard to fathom the bile and spite that had been spewed for the previous two hours. But as the rage started to subside, some questions started to come forward. Would Luis Suárez have been as effective if he had started the game against a fresh, hardworking and disciplined Almería side? Did two away games three days apart, including an unexpected overnight delay in Amsterdam, play a factor in Luis Enrique’s choice of lineups? The international break was put forward as a boon – no Barcelona games for Enrique to worry about – but these fixtures have always been more ache than break for Barça’s players, most of whom have tremendous responsibilities in their national teams.
Having earned a crucial 0-2 win against Ajax on Wednesday, Barcelona must find ways to continue their positive momentum against Almería this weekend. Two losses against Real Madrid and Celta Vigo made clear the startling problems with Luis Enrique’s team so far, and while the performance in Amsterdam was an improvement, there are still many flaws to iron out. With the disruption of the international break coming up, followed by key matches against Sevilla and Valencia – both currently challenging near the top of the table – Luis Enrique must use this opportunity to get his team in order and earn the confidence of both the players and the fans.
Despite the star-studded rosters out on the pitch, last night’s Clásico was fundamentally a battle between the managers. Carlo Ancelotti unquestionably made short work of Luis Enrique in the Asturian’s first time in charge of a Clásico, but it is worth looking back to Ancelotti’s own debut almost exactly a year ago for comparison. Carlo alluded to the event in his pre-match presser – he famously decided to start Sergio Ramos in midfield only to find Lionel Messi shifted out to the right wing. The surprise move went fundamentally against the current of Ancelotti’s first two months at Madrid, in which he had been painstakingly rebuilding Mourinho’s shattered team into a balanced, possession-comfortable side in his own image. Having finally established the blueprint of his system, it was a rash move to adjust it too radically for the Clásico and backfired significantly. Almost exactly one year later, Luis Enrique fell into a similar trap. But Ancelotti’s Madrid, now in their second season and well-established as the fearsome technical side their manager had envisioned, punished those mistakes ruthlessly. Read on after the jump for a look back at the game.
James Rodríguez and Carlo Ancelotti were chosen as Real Madrid’s representatives for the press in advance of the clásico on Saturday. Despite stiff competition and suggestions his transfer was overpriced and unnecessary, the World Cup Golden Boot winner has fought to earn a place in Madrid’s side and will be almost certainly making his clásico debut tomorrow. Like his manager, James was relaxed and easy-going in anticipation of the match. Read on below to see what the pair had to say.
A pause in club football provides an opportune moment to do some reflection and projection. With about a sixth of the season over and done with, the totalBarça writing team looks into “First Impressions” of the Luis Enrique tenure. The series dives into each positional unit and considers whether there is novelty, areas for improvement, issues of concern and more that may factor into how the 2014/15 season could play out.
FC Barcelona will travel to France to square up against Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) on Tuesday. On paper, the Parisians are Barcelona’s strongest opponents in Group F of the UEFA Champions League and should be Luis Enrique’s toughest match yet. PSG have certainly caused trouble for Barcelona in the past, nearly knocking out Tito Vilanova’s weakened side in the 2012/13 UCL quarterfinals. It took some dramatic late heroics from a half-fit Leo Messi to defeat Carlo Ancelotti’s men, but much has changed in the last year and a half. How will the French giants stack up against Barcelona this time around? Read more after the jump.
Luis Enrique finds himself in a tricky spot as Barcelona host Granada on Saturday. The team are fresh off a disappointing draw against Málaga in which they registered no shots on target – a first in over a decade – from which they must bounce back. On the other end, Barça travel to Paris next Tuesday to play Paris St-Germain in the most important fixture of their Champions League group. Luis Enrique must simultaneously deliver a rejuvenated performance and rotate his squad so they will be fresh against PSG. And Granada are no easy proposition.
Let’s be clear: No detail about the match at La Rosaleda yesterday bears recapping. Nor is there any point to picking apart the performances of individual players – by and large, Barça’s front six were terrible, and Málaga’s defenders were excellent. Málaga put on the performance of a lifetime, with Roberto Rosales and Sergio Sánchez particularly deserving of praise, while Barça’s players failed at the most basic levels. Passes were misplaced, players were constantly dispossessed, and the overall tempo of the game was sluggish and uninspired. None of which bears analysis – these games happen. The more interesting question is what Luis Enrique does in the face of such challenges.
Ten minutes into the game, it was a familiar scene. Barcelona were away from home on a shoddy pitch, patiently working the ball back and forth as they tried to break down the two banks of five men defending deep in front of the opposition goal. Then it happened – a stray pass in midfield fell to Levante, who broke quickly into the spaces left behind the fullbacks. Down Barcelona’s left, evading a desperate challenge from the exposed centre-back, then crossing to the unmarked man on the opposite flank. An easy goal – Barcelona have seen it too many times over the past two seasons.
Luis Enrique’s men earned an important three points against APOEL on Wednesday, but it was far from a comprehensive victory. While the game may not have been much to watch, it touched on a number of key issues for the season and left the Barça coach with plenty to say. Xavi Hernandez,Dani Alves, and Marc Bartra – all returning to the starting lineup – added comments of their own. Read on below for more.
Much has been made of the overhaul Barcelona’s first team has undergone this summer. 2014 has seen the departure of Victor Valdés and Carles Puyol, over 150 million euros spent in the transfer market, and what feels like a return to Pep Guardiola’s values with Luis Enrique. In particular, much has been made of Luis Enrique’s use of the youth team in preseason and the first two Liga games, in which 19-year-olds Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramirez each made their first-team debuts and scored.
A statistic making the rounds of late shows that Luis Enrique has already featured Barça B players more than Gerardo Martino did all last season. With Luis Suárez still banned and a sulking Gerard Deulofeu shipped out on loan, culés are delighted to have a seemingly ceaseless conveyor belt of talented youths to fill the gaps. Indeed, Barcelona B is brimming with talent in nearly every position, and seems perfectly situated to supplement the first team through the 2015 transfer ban. The timing couldn’t be better. Yet amidst the overwhelming focus on Luis Enrique and Andoni Zubizarreta’s renewal of the first team, few have drawn attention to the quiet work at Barcelona B over the last few years that have brought these talents to the surface. Read on after the jump.
Barcelona’s Munir El Haddadi has continued his breathtaking rise to stardom. Just days after making his debut with the Spain under-21 team, he has been called up to the senior team to replace the injured Diego Costa for the first match of the Euro 2016 qualifiers. Munir is eligible for both Morocco and Spain, so Vicente Del Bosque’s call may well be aimed at strategically tying down the youngster for the future.
It is not clear if Munir has officially accepted the call, but he has been quoted saying “It is a dream come true.” In addition, Munir’s spot in the U-21 squad has been filled with yet another Barcelona youngster, Sandro Ramirez (19). The conveyor belt of talent from La Masia shows no signs of stopping.
Barcelona have named their official Champions League squad: all 24 first-team players, as well as eight Barça B players. Diawandou Diagne, Edgar Ié, Alejandro Grimaldo, Sergi Samper, Alen Halilović, Adama Traoré, Sandro Ramirez, and Munir El Haddadi. The full squad is available here. In the past, Barcelona often used B-team players in the 6th group stage game, when there was nothing to play for. However, it should be noted that since Barça’s final group game is against PSG and could well determine who finishes first in the group, it is less likely that fewer youngsters will get Champions League experience this season.
“Congratulations to my teammates who won in yesterday’s game against Germany, the first with Tata as manager. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it. This team has a lot to give and achieve in the future! #VamosArgentina” – LIO
Lionel Messi posted this on his Facebook after Argentina beat Germany 4-2 in a friendly yesterday.
With the transfer window officially concluded, director of football Andoni Zubiarreta and vice-president Jordi Mestre gave a press conference today in which they discussed Barcelona’s dealings over the summer. In a surprise move, Mestre and Zubizarreta disclosed detailed transfer fees for each of their acquisitions this summer while discussing the state of the current team. This has been a monumental transfer window for Barcelona, as with the transfer ban in effect in 2015, the current crop of first-team and youth players will have to last the club the next 16 months. Unsurprisingly, there was much to discuss. Read on to see what the club officials had to say.
It took 81 minutes, but Barcelona finally managed to break down a stubborn Villarreal side at El Madrigal last night. On the one hand, it was a familiar sight: the home team defending deep and compact, launching counterattacks into open space behind Barça’s high line. But the Barcelona side that met Villarreal on the pitch today was distinctly unlike anything seen in the last two seasons. They created numerous chances against an excellent defensive side, looking relatively composed and solid at the back, before a youth player and out-and-out striker managed to net the game-winner. All new, all exciting.
Barcelona play Villarreal away this weekend at the Yellow Submarine’s famous home stadium, El Madrigal. However, in recent years Barcelona have been nearly as comfortable at El Madrigal as at home, having not lost a game there since 2007. Their last six visits have yielded two 0-0 draws and four wins for the Catalans, including a whopping 1-4 victory in 2010. Last season’s 2-3 win was a tight game, but Luis Enrique’s side will look to dispatch the game early on Sunday.
Luis Enrique was delighted with his first game in charge of FC Barcelona, a strong 3-0 win at home to Elche CF. Goals aside, the match was full of promising signs for the “Lucho era” including high pressing, quick passing, and sparkling performances by debutants Munir El Haddadi and Ivan Rakitić. “The game had a little bit of everything,” Luis Enrique said. “Elche were very organised at first but we gradually started creating chances and showed what resources we’ve got.” Javier Mascherano’s red card “made the game harder for us” according to the Asturian manager, “but we knew we had to take less risks, then individual actions in attack helped us.” Read more quotes from the boss after the jump.
Before last season, FC Barcelona and Elche CF hadn’t played each other in nearly 25 years. But before that, they were frequent opponents for the Catalans, and not without success: Elche has beaten Barça 8 times at home, and drawn 7 out of their 20 games at Camp Nou. Read more about the history of Barcelona vs Elche encounters after the jump.
Ivan Rakitić, Barcelona’s new midfield signing and the star of their preseason, gave an interview with German magazine Kicker. In it he discusses his move from Sevilla to Barça, his role in Luis Enrique’s team and admiration for Xavi Hernández. Read on below for more from the brilliant Croatian midfielder.
Neymar Jr. has been called up by second time around Brazil coach Dunga for friendlies against Ecuador and Colombia in early September. Dunga famously left a teenage Neymar behind for the 2010 World Cup, but with the Barcelona superstar given the medical all-clear after his injury, there was no reason not to pick him. Dani Alves, however, was left out of the Brazil squad for the first time in years as a result of his declining performances for both club and country. Adriano also does not make it and looks unlikely to ever again.
Barcelona teammates Claudio Bravo, Javier Mascherano, and Lionel Messi have all been called up to their respective national teams for friendlies as well.
Rafinha Alcantara has been called up to the Brazilian under-21 team for three friendlies in September which will be held in Qatar. The matches against Qatar, Lebanon, and Egypt will serve as preparation for the under-21s for the 2016 Olympics, which Brazil are hosting. The Olympics are the only football competition that Brazil has competed in but not won, and youth coach Alexandre Gallo is beginning his team’s preparations well in advance to have a better shot at winning gold. Rafinha featured for Brazil with the under-20 team at the 2013 South American Youth Championship.