If you’ve ever been to Barcelona, chances are you’ve experienced the awe-inspiring sight of the city’s crown jewel: Sagrada Familia. The structure towers over its surroundings, projecting a feeling of enormity greater than the sum of its parts. It’s grand, it’s stunning, it’s not even complete.
Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí designed the structure and oversaw the first 40 years of construction until he passed away in 1926. Even so long after Gaudi’s death, construction continues, the vision still not fully complete. The structure is the centrepiece of a city which owes so much to his design. Pep Guardiola once said of being Barcelona manager: “Cruyff built the cathedral; my job is to maintain it.” If Cruyff is football’s Gaudi, then Guardiola, Vilanova, Rijkaard and all future Barcelona managers are charged with the role of project manager, carrying on his legacy.
To understand the failings of Luis Enrique, we must firstly understand the successes of both Cruyff and Guardiola. Cruyff’s influence on the Catalan giants crosses generational boundaries, transcending the trophy haul of his own eight-year tenure as manager. His footballing philosophy is now an integral part of Barcelona’s identity. Possession football, high defensive lines, positional interchanging, extraordinary pressing and counter-pressing are some of the most identifiable hallmarks of this philosophy.
Guardiola’s understanding of this style – as well as his access to the benefits of Cruyff’s philosophy, implemented and integrated into the fabric of future players coming through La Masia, including the greatest of all time – meant that we could really see his legacy bearing fruit. Guardiola’s success in his tenure as manager surpassed even that of Cruyff, but this was all due to the identity left by the Dutchman when he departed in 1996.
The progression of, and respect for, this identity is key to Barcelona’s success. Under Guardiola this was proven. Judging by his sole season in charge, the late Tito Vilanova appeared to be using the Cruyff framework, and was successful. A period of inconsistency in the late 90s and early 00s made it hard for Barcelona to maintain this, and under Rijkaard’s reign, individual talent and flair was preferred to a team mentality. This bred some early success, but eventually the wheels came off the wagon. Something similar has happened under Luis Enrique.
Before anything else, it must be said that Enrique’s early achievements in charge were excellent; a treble of La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the UEFA Champions League. He made the most of the incomparable front three of Neymar, Suarez and Messi, the style of play created to fit these exceptional talents.
Barcelona now keep the ball along its defensive line (and goalkeeper) for longer, aiming to find one of the front three directly, while the midfielders open up wide to stretch the opposition. This creates space for the front three to drop deep and receive the ball. This team is also less patient in their build up than under Guardiola, often launching blistering counter attacks against sides who dared move forward.
Initially, this worked. The problem did arise when teams appeared to understand that all that was needed to cut the threat from Barcelona’s front three was to plug the gaps and prevent them from operating in those deep, dangerous half-spaces. Teams increasingly anticipate these balls and cut the flow of the ball to the forwards via a high line or allowing central defenders to step out and press or intercept. Barcalona’s reliance on individuals that was once successful may now be their downfall.
The key difference between Enrique and Guardiola/Villanova’s teams is that, in recent seasons, Barcelona have not utilised its midfield as much. As a result, Barcelona have dominated possession less (an average of 65% possession in Enrique’s first season has dropped to an average of 62% so far this season). Relying on getting the ball to the front three and not utilising the abilities of Ivan Rakitic, Andres Iniesta and – in particular) -Sergio Busquets, has resulted in a decrease in overall team ethic and greater reliance on Messi, Suarez and Neymar.
The transition of the ball up the park is more haphazard, and their control of the game is diminished. With the front three isolated, Barcelona are rendered toothless. Enrique’s reliance on his mega stars up front was the ultimate cause of his downfall; his greatest asset becoming his greatest weakness.
Cruyff’s philosophy is one of team ethic, based on possession, collective work and intelligence. Enrique has boiled Barcelona’s play down to their extremely talented front three. The short term successes were exhilarating; the long-term effects detrimental.
Frustration has been apparent this season, especially among the players. Messi appears downtrodden, much as he did towards the end of the Tata Martino reign. With Enrique announcing his summer departure, the talk of course turns to who will replace him. The bookie’s favourites are Jorge Sampaoli, Ronald Koeman and Ernesto Valverde. Alternative options would be ex-Barcelona captain Phillip Cocu, who was once considered for the job of B team manager; Michael Laudrup, who claims he was considered for the post previously; or maybe even ex-midfield orchestrator Xavi Hernandez, currently taking his coaching badges in Qatar. A novice in coaching terms, but worth remembering that apparently it was too early for Guardiola as well.
Enrique’s departure is for the greater good of the overall project. His start was memorable, but his style slowly became corrosive. Whoever is appointed as their next manager, Barcelona must get back on track with Cruyff’s design or risk desecrating their own cathedral.