Why Luis Enrique deserves credit for Barcelona's history-making comeback against PSG

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 01:  Head coach Luis Enrique of FC Barcelona directs his players during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Sporting de Gijon at Camp Nou stadium on March 1, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Luis Enrique masterminded a history-making comeback against PSG in the Champions League.
Saketh Ayyagari

Barcelona scripted arguably the greatest-ever comeback in football against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League round of 16. Inspired by a Messi-esque Neymar in the final minutes, coupled with great determination shown by every Barcelona player, the Catalans created history by becoming the first team to overturn a 4-0 deficit from the first leg in the history of the competition.

Also Read: 5 greatest ever UEFA Champions League knock-out stage comebacks

However, when the first leg ended at the Parc des Princes in France, Barcelona were staring at one of their worst ever defeats in what was turning out to be a disastrous season. Manager Luis Enrique was heavily criticised for his tactics and he was once again accused of destroying the Barcelona DNA of possession-based football by opting to go directly to his world-class front three at every opportunity.

Xavi’s departure, Andres Iniesta’s decline and the failure to find suitable replacements, coupled with the quality up front, go some distance in justifying Lucho’s decision. Yet, when up against a young PSG team packed with pace and energy, Barcelona were brutally exposed and Enrique was rightly blamed.

PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 14:  L-R) Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Luis Suarez of Barcelona react after conceding a goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Paris Saint-Germain and FC Barcelona at Parc des Princes on February 14, 2017 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Luis Enrique’s men were handed a thrashing in the first leg of the tie at PSG.

Nevertheless, that result cannot take away Enrique’s managerial quality that saw the Catalan club win an incredible treble in his first season and the double last season. It is that quality along with the willingness to gamble that paid off spectacularly both for Lucho, who is departing at the end of the season, and the club which is back in contention for another treble after a terrific last few weeks.

Pre-match talk

After an upturn in form in recent weeks, the Catalans were back in contention for the La Liga title. The camp was in high spirits and yet overturning a 4-0 deficit in the Champions League still lay in the realm of the impossible.

However, Enrique was positive and upbeat in his pre-match talk where he said, “We are only halfway through the tie. There are 95 minutes left and lots of things can happen. I go into the game with a positive mood. We have to do everything really well, both in defence and in attack. PSG are a really good side. If a team can score four times against us, we can score six times against them. We have seen that before this season. We have nothing to lose.”

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 08:  Neymar of Barcelona (C) warms up with team mates prior to the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg match between FC Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain at Camp Nou on March 8, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Luis Enrique played a part in setting the right mood for his team before the match.

It is exactly that determined optimism, confidence and “nothing to lose” mentality that propelled Barcelona into the history books and Lucho played a huge part in setting up the mindset. Moreover, he predicted six goals in 95 minutes and that is exactly how the match panned out. Call it a stroke of luck or soothsaying, but credit must go to the manager for believing in the possibility.

Tweak in formation

Barcelona’s much-reduced control in games due to their more direct approach was well-known and after the humiliation in Paris, Enrique decided to go for a 3-3-1-3 formation with 3 centre-backs, 3 midfielders and Messi playing in a free role.

This formation suited Ivan Rakitic’s strengths perfectly in midfield and Barcelona beat Atletico Madrid after the Rakitic replaced Iniesta in the side. As the team adapted, thumping wins against Sporting Gijon and Celta Vigo were registered and Enrique picked a similar formation in the game against PSG. Attacking as a 3-4-3 diamond and defending as a 4-4-2, the formation offered a better grip in midfield, while allowing the attacking trio freedom with reduced defensive responsibilities.

This tweak also allowed the centre-backs to push forward while Sergio Busquets dropped deep to help with the defensive responsibilities. However, the weakness of the system lies in the fact that it is a compact formation and relies on the wingers up front to provide the natural width.

Moreover, there always remains a chance of being caught on the counter from wide areas. However, initially as a surprise, and then in helping bring out the best in the current crop of players, the tweak played a major role.

Samuel Umtiti and Javier Mascherano flanked Gerard Pique, Rakitic and Iniesta flanked Busquets and Luis Suarez was supported by Neymar and Rafinha with Messi in the free role behind them. The match against PSG also saw the return of the famous Barcelona pressing, perfected under Pep Guardiola, and as a result, PSG barely entered Barcelona’s territory throughout the game and the first three goals for Enrique’s occurred from mistakes due to the same.

The hallmark of top managers is their ability to take risks and the Asturian coach showed his mettle in both, coming up with the tweak, and implementing it successfully to resounding effect in such a short period of time.


BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 08:  Sergi Roberto of Barcelona as he scores their sixth goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg match between FC Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain at Camp Nou on March 8, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Sergi Roberto etched his name into Champions League and Barcelona history

Barcelona started the game with the right intent as Luis Suarez bagged an early goal to set the tempo, before Iniesta’s doggedness and skill brought about the second. Messi’s penalty after half-time made everyone dream before Edinson Cavani’s away goal stunned the stadium.

This did not deter Luis Enrique one bit as he made interesting changes to the team thereafter. First, Iniesta was replaced by Arda Turan to provide a better goalscoring threat. Iniesta played his part in the 2nd goal and the 3rd goal showcasing his skill, but age is definitely catching up with the wizard as his performances have been below his usual standard in recent weeks. This change worked well as Turan worked hard in midfield and created a goalscoring opportunity of his own.

The next substitution saw local boy Sergi Roberto come on for Rafinha. Roberto has a better delivery and with Barcelona throwing men into the box, it was a decent decision that was vindicated in the most dramatic of ways.

The 25-year-old timed his run to perfection and poked the ball past PSG keeper Kevin Trapp with the last chance of the game to make history and etch his name into Barcelona folklore.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 08:  Neymar of Barcelona looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg match between FC Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain at Camp Nou on March 8, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Neymar established his credentials as the best player in world football at the moment

The substitutions definitely paid dividends while Neymar took centre-stage to complete the comeback. Enrique deserves credit for bringing on tie-winner Roberto irrespective of his actual intentions which were to have him provide for Suarez and co.

Also Read: Neymar – “I’ve never played better”

Now, the manager can look forward to the final two months of his reign with another treble a distinct possibility. The players definitely deserve credit for the performances but the manager deserves an extra dollop of the same for daring to gamble, believing and showcasing his own qualities. In doing so, Lucho has ensured that he will go out on a high in May.

Edited by Staff Editor


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