What should have been: Luis Enrique’s Barça and the culture of short-term winning

For a while now, I’ve had this feeling: this was not how it was supposed to go for Luis Enrique’s Barça. It’s not just that the team has lost games, or not played as beautifully as it should given the caliber of players at its disposal. It’s not even that Luis Enrique announced he will leave at the end of this season – that seemed likely even before Christmas. It’s that the evolution of this team over three seasons fundamentally has not made sense to me.

What Luis Enrique achieved in 2014-15 has slowly been rewritten by some groups as a flash in the pan, a brief moment where the stars aligned and he seized an opportunity. That analysis does him a great disservice. What Luis Enrique did was historic, not only because of the wins and the trophies, but because it put a reset button on the post-Pep Barça, a renewal of the squad, mentality, and tactical philosophy that was badly needed. I honestly felt this team was set up for a dynasty. Not because he is a perfect manager – his faults are clear and well-discussed – but because Barça had all the building blocks it needed to grow from strength to strength.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things that have confused me since May 2015: A team that had a top-3 defense in Europe has spent the last season and a half growing gradually more porous and open. Messi, who seemed to find a new life on the right wing in 14/15, has largely vacated the position, causing structural challenges for the rest of the team from that flank. Despite a host of talented midfielders in the squad, none have really clicked and Barça continues to struggle to dominate the midfield. The two most talented youngsters in the Barça academy both left without ever being an official part of the first team.

So what happened?

Simply put, I think Barcelona’s president, board, and fans have created an environment where short-term winning was the goal, particularly with regards to the youth system, and so nothing more than short-term winning is feasible. Luis Enrique could not build a team for the long-term because each summer he had to make a sensational team better.

Think about it. Lucho has been roundly criticized for the departures of Alejandro Griamldo and Sergi Samper, but the failures don’t lie on the shoulders of an individual, but a system and a culture. Both had a massive leap to make from the third division to La Liga, as a result of years of neglect of the B team. Should Lucho have promoted them, and Barça lost games with them involved, the response would be dire.

The signing of Andre Gomes, the Munir – Paco Alcacer swap – these are moves driven by an insane arms race, a need to raise the bar of a super-team higher each season for fear of being caught by Real Madrid, Bayern, or simply age.

If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that homegrown players matter: not for a moral victory, but for maintaining continuity and chemistry over time. Arda Turan, Denis Suárez, and Andre Gomes are all extremely talented players – but none have ever really slotted into this team in a natural way. They’re also all attacking midfielders, where the profile Barça really needs, an orchestrator, is rarely found on the transfer market (which is why cules spend their free time these days fawning over Thiago and Marco Verratti).

This is not to say that Samper or Grimaldo would have magically fixed all of Barça’s current issues had they stayed. But, had both been given the resources to grow, both at the B team and on the benches of the first team, this team would have a host of other options in front of it. The 3-4-3 currently being played would be a natural fit for Grimaldo on the left. The defensive CM / Busquets replacement Gomes is currently functioning as could be filled by Samper. If the midfield had more control, Messi could stay out wide more comfortably and keep the team’s positional structure intact.

Of course, the what-ifs go further. Imagine if Barça hadn’t had a transfer ban (which, remind you, came from gross neglect by the board), and hadn’t spent the entire 15/16 season short-handed and exhausted. Imagine if Bartomeu hadn’t been allowed to sign Arda Turan while out of office – and if socis hadn’t reelected him for it. The game goes on and on, but the consistent theme is a total lack of support for the youth system at a systemic level, without which it is extraordinarily difficult to build a long-term successful team.

Even if this season ends in Champions League glory, or a treble, I will be unable to shake the sensation that this team should have been so much more, should have formed an era. Many will argue that such things are simply impossible in modern football, that no team lasts more than 3-4 seasons. Maybe that’s true. But if it is, we are part of the reason why.

If cules genuinely want to be a club unlike others, we need to recognize our own culpability. Recognize that demanding constant success, subjecting a manager to insane scrutiny after every loss or less-than-convincing win, constantly looking for the next shiny object on the transfer market, contributes to this short-term mentality. Recognize that the elections of Rosell and Bartomeu, which now feel like distant past, continue to shape the future of this club every day.

For myself, I will try to stop nit-picking or solving any specific problem in the team in front of me, and recognize that there are larger issues at play beyond any individual’s control. I will always maintain that Luis Enrique was the manager this club needed, and that he deserved better. For the rest of season, and for whichever brave soul chooses to manager this team next, I’m just hoping to enjoy the ride.

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  • Jide Mafolabomi

    Clearly a new project is needed. I watched the team last night against Valencia, and could see how the team seems to be running purely on individual talent. The team doesn’t look solid for more than 10 minutes at a time, and seem to lack the old control and command of any match. These days, we only win games when someone (Messi or Neymar mostly nowadays) conjures something up, or when they are in imperious form. Once they can’t, we are likely stuck.

    Even if we manage to get past Juve, I seriously doubt we can win the Big Ears. In the League also, Madrid probably will win, they seem desperate to get their hands on it and have a bit of luck on their side. The 7 La Liga games looming in April fills me with dread; capitulation may well be waiting there. And we have the Juve games in the middle somewhere. So 9 crucial games in April.

    And now this talk of Unzue. While I don’t doubt that he can do a good job, it’s clear he will be too much of a tool of the current management – a cheap option to maintain status quo. If he joins, it’s highly likely that next season will be more of the same. But we need a new manager with a new project, focused on building for the next 5 years and not just one season.

  • Dimitar

    Amazingly written and a great reminder for us all.

    Hope people at Barca read it. Not Bartomeu or Rossell as they are clearly the fault for this but new faces, maybe even Laporta, he had a better understanding of what Barca and the Cantera is, with all his flaws

    Thank you, Eric.

  • futbolistaviva

    A good post.
    Some random thoughts.
    It never ceases to amaze me how arrogant and childish the “playstation console” fan boy crowd who regularly post (but have been conspicuously absent of late because Barca got through PSG and they want Lucho to fail) on this site never credits the opposition when Barca have a difficult time in a match. High pressing or stacking midfield and parking the bus are proven means to frustrate and yes, beat Barca. And yes, Barca can have a poor run of matches. They are humans not avatars on your playstation.

    Get over your selves children and get a grip on the reality of club world fubtol. The way to beat this club has been studied exhaustively by the opposition and often under the tutelage of world class managers.
    Barca has treated the world to a stunning display of how the game should be played.

    The cantera has produced a lot of shrieking from the fan boys on this site but not one of of the cantera graduates have gone on and proven themselves as world class or even top notch players at any other club. But go ahead and blame Lucho for their lack of sunshine.

    We are still in it in Liga with 10 to go, a tie with Juve in the CL and a final in the CDR.

    Against Valencia, we won. Two defensive lapses and several missed opportunities for goals by Suarez and of course Neymar made it too close.

    I remain a cult no matter what. I support the players and manager until the bitter end.

    • Kneowell Anyanwu

      You took the words out of my mouth bro, and I really loved that description “PlayStation console fanboys”.

    • Pius Kamau

      I support the club and the players as well, I don’t hate Lucho he is a good human being, I just don’t think he is the best fit for our traditional system of football which is an offensive minded game with dynamic passing movements and good positional sense, I’ll give him credit for what he has managed by his own means and capabilities because I like to be rational.
      I personally found Lucho to be deviating from what made Barca great and he kind of created a system that is too dependent on the front three which worked out but not sustainable in the long run. I have always argued that we don’t have to get an exact replica of Xavi to have our traditional midfield dominance and intricate play filled with vision, good positional sense, spatial awareness and artistry, we have some players in the market who could do a decent job and most importantly the coach’s training methodologies. I just didn’t feel as if Lucho has those qualities. Hopefully Barca will do a good job in scouting his replacement.

      • Kneowell Anyanwu

        Finally, some credit where it is due, but I think you still miss the point raised by this writer, it’s already an established fact that lucho is going, and I think this article has looked past him already. the article isn’t about lucho’s coaching style, but more like the reason behind it, the writers concern, like yours is about long term planning and success of the club to which he has stressed how neglected La masia has been off late more due to political reasons. For the purpose of election and reelection and the feud between former presidents, recent past and incumbent president of the club the board has paid more attention to the success of the first team only, the campaign now seems to be just about the trophy haul and exploitation of all economic viability of the brand for personal gains first, and to follow the trend of super clubs in this age and the ever evolving world of football. They hired lucho after coming off a fruitless season and so he was charged to make the club great again in that aspect, though lucho’s method isn’t fancied by many but he has by no means failed at his task, in fact he’s been a huge success till date in that regards. But here’s the thing, the writer pointed out how many gems from the youth team that was allowed to go ply their trades elsewhere when they could have succeeded here in barca if given the chance, this is where the argument starts, can the very demanding first team rely on the crop of players we currently have in the youth team? This is the big question (someone already argued that these players haven’t been outstanding in the various clubs they were sold to), if lucho instead of fortifying the club with the likes of rakitic, Suarez, and co, could he have relied on the services of a samper, grimaldo, Allena, Munir, Masip, gambau, Delofeu, Traore and so forth in departments where they are needed on the pitch? Would they have fit in the way that a busquet, and a Pedro fit into the first team like they have played there all their lives? The answer is yes he could have relied on them if the long term is all the club cared about, that is assuming winning trophies is not his topmost priority. But in reality? It is a big NO if the language of the board for selfish political reasons are trophies alone. Not just the board, the fans too as the writer pointed out, recent success story has made it inconceivable to fans that we end a full season without one or two major trophies Atleast. we cannot yearn every single trophy out there and at the same time talk long term in the same first team, it just doesn’t work that way in football anymore. No way! The trend in big clubs in the world is to look for the next big thing in football, sign the damn talent over to your club, rake in revenue through commercials and jersey sales and throw him on the pitch today do his magic and help the club win games. Even if a new first team manager comes in, we should ask ourselves one question, is it these same La masia players he’s left to plan the sustainable future with? Or are there others somewhere that we yet don’t know about? Let’s face it, these guys just aren’t good enough for the first team and it’s not because they haven’t been given the chance but because they failed to convince when given the chance, so the new manager is gonna delve into the transfer market for anything he needs which brings us right back to where we are today and that isn’t exactly starting a “new project”.
        What I think is that long term planning doesn’t begin with the first team manager, lucho’s tenor has taught us that much Atleast, it starts with the managers of all the youth team cadres in La masia and this is the responsibility of the board. The board should be very keen, very selective, very objective in selecting managers for the youth teams, a very sound manager for the b team for instance means less headache for the first team manager, it means he can look into his reserves and find players who can equally do the job so well like those in the first team or at least compete very closely. The guardiola era is a typical example of this, pep was able to pick busquet and Pedro fill in the immediate needs of the first team because he’s worked with them and knows their capabilities, imagine having a sound coach like pep as our b team manager (indeed we once enjoyed that luxury) the b team then was so rich pep could debut them all in the first team without having problems, this is because he built them and saw they were strong enough. Look at lucho the way he doesnt joke with rafinha and Sergi roberto, this is because he had a hand in their grooming and knows he can rely on them. Same can’t be said of the players we now have there who are currently languishing in the third division. We can’t blame lucho or any manager at all that finds himself in this circumstance for going into the transfer market to look for players to help deliver his mandate, though some might argue a couple of the players signed aren’t any better the youth team, but hey, all mangers do experience a failed transfer. We can’t even conclude that they’ve failed yet knowing the peculiarity of adapting in barca especially in the first season.
        Way to go about this for the board? get a xavi and a puyol and to manage the b team, for some 3-4 years, and watch them transform the youth system and make them battle ready comrades ever ready for the sound of war with the first team. I picked those two because no other person’s can tell the demand of the first team as much as they can and they have both worked with some legendary first team managers of Barcelona and were pivotal to the recent success of the club for a little over decade now. They know the system in and out from various perspectives and various coaches, and absolutely know what it takes to be a first team player and also a first team coach. The new project doesn’t start with the first team, it starts with the youth team and if the board realises that soon enough, we might reap dividends in 3-4 years without sacrificing our trophy haul. My 1 pence.

  • Omer

    Spot On!! We need to bring back Samper and Thiago in my opinion to restore order and bring about balance to the midfield. We had perfect plan in place in 2015 when we won the treble, where we had two philosophies, Plan A (Pep) & Plan B (Lucho) working perfectly. We overcame anything that came in our way. Ever since Xavi left we have been unable to replace that balance which he brought to the team. Bring back Thiago and Samper, and keep the current crop of players, and allow the B team to feed the A team, and we will lay the foundation for another “dynasty”.