Luis Enrique: How the Iron Fist learned the art of diplomacy at Barcelona
The footballing universe has a notoriously short attention span. While watching Real Madrid jet-setting their way to a Club World Cup win in December, we were unanimous in our assertion that this team was destined to sweep through the continent’s elite again. That perhaps Guardiola’s Bayern were the only ones who stood a chance against the Galacticos.
No one thought to even mention Pep’s former charges over at Barcelona; but then, who could blame them? The Catalans had been stuck in limbo ever since their transcendent philosopher resigned, citing concerns of burnout and fatigue. And that, right there, has been the problem – being stuck in Guardiola’s giant shadow.
Guardiola himself has since occasionally surrendered to his penchant for sterile possession with Bayern Munich, and it took a rampant Real Madrid to bring him to his senses. And while the man has since gone on to building sandcastles in the sky with that Bayern team, his players increasingly aware of the game of chess that he plays out with such delicious audacity, this Barcelona team has needed a sharp dose of reality.
They certainly got that, with Gerard Martino’s well-intentioned reign ending in tatters. Perhaps that is exactly why Luis Enrique was brought in. The Asturian has long since established a reputation as someone who was resolute in his ways, a fierce competitor who would hold his own regardless of the stakes.
The early days at Catalunya
For a while, it looked like his time in charge of the Catalans would be remembered for similar reasons – it is well known that the boss and Lionel Messi haven’t exactly been the best of chums. And with rumours of Messi looking to leave swirling around, the rest of the squad was very non-committal in its support of the new man.
They had their own concerns with his hard-nosed approach, with players fined for arriving a minute or two late for training sessions. And with the boss’s often gruelling training methods, there was a lot of ill-feeling toward Enrique by a group that was still pining for the easy camaraderie of the Guardiola days.
And that has been Enrique’s toughest task – to shake this team out of the dream-world they seemed to occupy. Long gone are the days when Barcelona’s thrilling pass-masters were raking in trophy after trophy. Martino’s reign was characterised by a desire to see the team adopt a more direct approach – one that meant that the team played its best football when Messi was out with a thigh strain, and Alexis Sanchez was the focal point in attack.
Ironic then, that one of the prime reasons the ex-Newell Old Boys’ man was given the job was his comfort level with their resident brilliant Argentine. But the team at large seemed either unwilling or unable to implement Martino’s project whole-heartedly.
The Enrique experiment was branded as a return to Barcelona’s now-all-too familiar ploy of having their youth coaches graduate to the big job. But the ex-Barcelona B boss was jarring the notes in a familiar song when he decided to let Cesc Fabregas go and brought in Ivan Rakitic. The Croatian had had a stellar season in Sevilla colours the season before, but did he compare to the darling Fabregas who was destined to take up Xavi’s mantle?
All those concerns looked to be misplaced, however, as the Catalans worked up quite a head of steam early on. Things were going swimmingly until the first El Clasico of the season, when Ancelotti’s men rammed home the first cracks in the Barcelona armour. It had never been more apparent that the team was caught in something of a flux, and the whole world could see that this midfield did not have the dynamism of old. What we couldn’t agree on, however, was where they would go from here, bereft of the midfield strength that had characterised their recent successes.
Xavi invaluable as a peacemaker
How delightfully ironic, then, that it was Xavi, that exponent of Guardiola’s principles, who was responsible for the emergence of a new Barcelona – one moulded by the much-maligned man at the helm. Enrique had been struggling to get this team to play his way, and the unease apparent on the pitch extended to off-field matters, as Barcelona laboured from one controversy to the next. The defeat at Real Sociedad was the catalyst for a number of team meetings in which the old, wise head stressed on the need for compromise.
Enrique’s dilemma was one that every manager faces at some point or the other – that intangible sense of respect that would be lost in not sticking to his guns, and ceding defeat to the senior players. Fortunately for him, the man at the centre of everything wonderful that Barcelona had produced over the past decade was on hand to defuse the situation.
Xavi stressed on the importance of the bigger picture – that of returning Barcelona to the pinnacle of world football. Crucially, Enrique’s on-field vision was kept intact – anything short of that would be sucking Barcelona into the murky grey areas they had been meandering in for quite a while now.
The Asturian was to compromise on the side that the public was not privy to seeing – relaxing his need for strict, unwavering discipline. A measure of leeway that gave the squad the motivation to fight for their boss, whose rather limited managerial CV was only now opening him up to the niceties involved in managing a group of serial winners. There is no doubt that as much as we can all agree that there has been a measure of friction between the coach and his players, things were certainly not as bad as the rumours suggested.
And that has been clear in the run-in to the first El Clasico of the year – Barcelona’s incredible run of form has quietened down even the ever-churning rumour mill, as Messi and Co. have proceeded to destroy opponents with consummate ease. Those whispers were finally laid to rest when the boss himself came out with the statement that Messi was, “the best player in the history of football”. Hard to disagree with, really, especially as this was said in the wake of the maestro’s jaw-dropping exploits in the second leg of the Champions League encounter against a sorry Manchester City.
Messi’s resurgence and the rise in performance levels of the Barcelona squad
And that has been Enrique’s biggest victory. We have not seen Messi look this purposeful and driven since the days of Guardiola himself. The maestro, while functioning at far below his best for about a year now, has still been a class above his peers, Cristiano Ronaldo notwithstanding.
But today, having finally exorcised the demons of that World Cup – which have tormented him both before and after the events in Brazil – the Argentine is playing with a sense of purpose and authority derived from a system that prioritises his influence even more from a wider role.
The rest of the team, too, understands Enrique’s system much better now. Teammates have begun to trust Marc-Andre ter Stegen's footwork when under pressure. In the league, Claudio Bravo has been a rare source of calm all through the season. Andres Iniesta, in particular, has shown great resolve in picking up from Rakitic’s lead, and dropping off into deeper areas, thus giving his teammates an extra option to relieve the pressure.
Luis Suarez does what he does best and practically pins the opposition defenders back – the perfect combination of workman-like number nine and attacking virtuoso. Rakitic’s ability to manufacture a pass into space when the team is taking a lot of heat has been absolutely crucial – his chemistry with the forward line has been a treat to watch.
Barcelona’s tendency to force the pace when backed up against a wall cost them early on in the season. What Enrique has been trying to inculcate is a measure of calm possession that transitions into moments of full-throttle attack.
This Barcelona team cannot handle end-to-end football that has the neutrals on the edge of their seats – it is imperative that they are able to use possession as a buffer to those surging counter-attacks that have thrilled us so over the last three months
El Clasico angle
Enrique’s much-criticised tinkering with the playing eleven in the earlier part of the season has unwittingly handed Barcelona an advantage ahead of the Clasico. While this Madrid side has looked increasingly weary, Barcelona have been looking fresh and even eager for a challenge. They will still be wary after how things turned on their head after the corresponding encounter in October – the one ray of sunshine that Real will grab at today, as the troubles that engulfed Barca seem to have made their way over to the Bernabeu, with rumours of in-fighting and ego clashes in the air.
They have even more reason to worry than they normally do when they face Lionel Messi. For Guardiola to respond the way he did to Messi's genius against Manchester City should tell you exactly how possessed the little Argentine looked on that night.
And that has been Enrique’s biggest victory – to have the world’s best player look like, in his own words, the best ever. A claim that did not sound out of place when Guardiola was patrolling the touchline at the Camp Nou. But, by God, has it been a while since we’ve truly believed that.
The Iron Fist is now encased in a velvet glove. And it is looking to land a knock-out blow come Sunday night.