Is Luis Enrique’s rejuvenated Barcelona on that road to greatness?
After an indifferent start to the season, Barcelona are finally showing signs of getting it right in 2015. Has Luis Enrique done something different to trigger this turnaround or is it just that the players are taking more responsibility? Find out here at Goalden Times what Ritam Mukherjee has to say about it.
What a difference 60 days can make!!
FC Barcelona was hit by a storm on 4th of January following an insipid display in a 1-0 defeat to Real Sociedad at Anoeta, resulting in the termination of the contract of the director of football Andoni Zubizarreta.Soon assistant director Carles Puyol also stepped down from his post. To add more fuel to the fire, reports broke out of a rift between Barcelona’s star forward Lionel Messi and manager Luis Enrique (Lucho). It was rumoured that Luis Enrique has lost his dressing room and a reported rift with Messi just worsened the situation post the Christmas break. Barcelona’s defeat at Anoeta meant they failed to capitalize on Real Madrid’s defeat at Valencia the previous day and that triggered the talk of the sacking of Luis Enrique. And Lucho’s decision of benching both Messi and Neymar Jr in the first half of the crucial game against Real Sociedad did not help his cause one bit. So much so that the Catalan press reported a so-called ultimatum for Lucho would be the performance in the home league game against reigning champions Atletico Madrid.
And here we are now just about two months later talking about the Barcelona brilliance in the last month. Since the defeat at La Real, Barcelona have played 14 games winning all of them except an aberration against Málaga, having scored an amazing number of 47 goals in the process. Barcelona have been able to beat Atletico Madrid in all three games (two legged Copa Del Rey) in this period, a stark reversal from last season when the Barcelona team could not beat Diego Simeone’s boys even once in six attempts. Besides, in the same period, Barcelona scored five in a flawless display in one of the toughest away trips in the league at San Mamés against Athletic Bilbao. They had even cut the deficit in the league down to just one point after winning six consecutive league games. The 4-0 thrashing of Real Madrid by their city rivals and defending champions Atletico Madrid in the derby further helped their cause but Barcelona did let it slip with a shock defeat at the hands of Los Boquerones. But they came back strongly to demolish Manchester City and they are gathering momentum at the business end of the season.
So what has changed so drastically?
Number one reason behind this change has to be the return to form of centre-back Gerard Pique. Javier Mascherano has often been the lone warrior in the Catalan side’s defence in the first part of the season with a decent Jeremy Mathieu and an inconsistent Pique. But the Spaniard has turned it around. Played in almost all the games in this winning streak,he has been unbeatable in aerial duels, while making successful last ditch tackles and chipping in with a couple of goals. Pique has always had the ability; it is his concentration that lets him down time to time. That occurrence has stopped for now, at least.
Number two is the already much talked about Luis Enrique. Let’s give the credit where it’s due. Lucho has stood up when it counts and turned things around. In his first 26 official games as coach this season, Lucho fielded 26 different line-ups. Too many experiments had hurt the team. Not that he has stopped experimenting in the last month or so,but Lucho has become more flexible. He has now opted for more of a horses for courses approach andhe has not tinkered with team selections during the big games. He sure has learnt his lessons. And that is evident from Barcelona’s clinical display in the Champions League round of 16 match against Manchester City. In this period, Barcelona have become a more all round team tactically, playing more direct football in some games. Prime example would be the first half of the second leg at the Vicente Calderón vs Atletico, where Barcelona scored from two deadly counter attacks. Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets are all coming back to their best now. And having the quality of Messi, Neymar Jr And Luis Suarez upfront has really helped Lucho in his quest. The Blaugrana have conceded 11 goals in these 14 games,something for Lucho to take a look,if we want to be a bit critical. One thing is for sure; Enrique’s Barcelona isn’t one-trick pony anymore.
Third reason would be the mental toughness of this team. Barcelona have hit back straight away after conceding on few games during this period, a clear sign that this team isn’t pushed back easily. Against Villarreal in the league,they came back from behind twice to emerge victorious. They repeated it in the second leg at Vicente Calderón in the Cup quarter-final. This team has showed almost the same intensity of the Barcelona team during Pep Guardiola’s time. The pressing to get the ball back as soon as possible has returned. Team psychologist Joaquín Valdés has played a big part in the mental aspect of things. As far as fitness is concerned, Lucho has been much criticized for his over-rotation during the first part of the season. But that has enabled Barcelona to have fresher players now. Rivals Real Madrid played like a machine till December with almost a same line up every game but have been caught up with injuries in the past two months. Barcelona,with important Champions League knockout fixtures coming, are peaking at the right time of the season.
Also Luis Enrique wanted Barcelona to be an unpredictable team from the very beginning. Now we are probably witnessing that changing Barcelona,playing more direct and fast counter attacks. The midfielders are doing their jobs by covering the free spaces left by attacking full-backs. If the midfield gets more creative and fully synchronized then Barcelona will be a more serious contender for all the trophies this season (not that they aren’t now).
And last and certainly not the least is the Holy Trinity: the trickery of Neymar, the Hunger of Luis Suarez and the sheer genius of Leo Messi make them the most aesthetically pleasing attack of the world. Neymar showed his prowess last season in patches but this season he has become a more polished finisher and a perfect foil to the other two. He already has 24 goals in just more than half a season, more than what he got in the whole of last season. Neymar’s passing and understanding with the other two, especially Messi is becoming deadly for other teams.
Luis Suarez may so far have scored fewer goals than his 2013-14 season tally for Liverpool but he has improved the team immensely. Suarez is already directly involved in 23 goals in his first 24 games for Barcelona,scoring 10 goals and assisting 13.He is the typical no 9 Barcelona has been looking for: getting in behind defenses, chasing balls, having a presence in the box and also drawing defenders allowing Messi space in the wings. And since the last month, goals have started coming too, one of them a spectacular overhead kick at home vs Levante. And mind you he was struggling to gel well with the team for the majority of last year. With so much impact without really being at his devastative best shows a picture of what the forward can do when he is operating at his peak for a prolonged period.
The most hallowed of the trinity is the little Mozart from Rosario. Going by sheer statistics, Messi, after the New Year alone, has scored 15 goals and provided 10 assists in 13 games including 2 hat-tricks. Pretty special!! But his brilliance has gone well past just stats. His range of passing has been beyond belief, he is creating chance after chance every game, covering sometimes even for Alves to help in the defence, going back and getting back possession. Keeping his all-round performance in mind, Lionel is probably having the best season of his career. And he shows no signs of stopping. Good for Barcelona, good for us.
Pep Guardiola once said, “The faster you take the ball to them, the faster it comes back.” So this fast counter attacking direct play from Barcelona will create some loopholes which oppositions will try to exploit. Though they are doing brilliantly at the moment, it’s far from a guarantee that their defensive transition has no issues. So things may look very rosy now but we will get a better indication of where Barcelona stand from the UCL away game at Manchester City later this month and also from the League Clasico, which isn’t far away.
But For now, FC Barcelona are a treat to watch which a neutral football enthusiast hopes never stops.