It is really hard to remember the last time Barcelona were looking into the new season with so many question marks over their head, probably not since Pep Guadiola was first appointed coach. Since then, Barcelona had two mini cycles. First was defined by Pep’s legacy, in which the late Tito Vilanova managed to win the title but subsequently failed to repeat that level of performance in the Champions league, whilst dealing with a life threatening disease. Last season Tata Martino made a huge leap away from the Barcelona that was lauded as the ‘best Barca team in history’, installing new ideas but lacking the edge to win a trophy.
Everything flows, everything changes
Patience is not Camp Nou’s greatest virtue, so Martino had to go and Guardiola’s old teammate Luis Enrique was installed as the new manager. So far it is hard to tell where exactly Barcelona’s going, but let’s give it a shot.
First of all, the group dynamic in the locker room has changed quite a bit with important departures including the transfers of Sanchez to Arsenal and Fabregas to Chelsea, while Tello will try to win over Enrique during his loan at Porto. But probably the two most important players that aren’t around anymore are Puyol and Valdes, two of four first team captains, both La Masia products and long term first team players that gave everything to Barcelona and vice versa. Their absence means that some of the more experienced players such as Messi, Busquets or Mascherano will have to take their share to carry out the burden of looking after the team, both on and on the pitch.
On the other hand, there are quite a few new faces. Valdes got two replacements, first one being Bravo, the former Real Sociedad keeper that impressed at the last World cup in the Chilean goal. The other one is Ter Stegen, one of the many talented young German goalkeepers around right now, who will look to make his name on the world’s largest stage after excelling at Monchengladbach. At his former club he was often nothing short of spectacular but the pressure and expectations are now much bigger. Barcelona now have two goalkeepers of (roughly) the same class, which wasn’t the case for quite some time, so it will be interesting to see which of these two will claim the starting spot.
Defence is also an area of the pitch which has been strengthened, with Barca adding the signature of strong Frenchman Mathieu from Valencia, who can play as both a left back and a centre back. Also, the signing of classy, but injury-prone Thomas Vermaelen from Arsenal can mean one of two things:
1. Luis Enrique has identified this part of the team as the most unstable, so he added two guys that give the most flexibility in squad rotation meaning there is now Pique, Bartra, Mathieu, Vermaelen and Mascherano – five players that can play in the centre of defence.
2. Enrique will try, or simply would like to have an option of playing three at the back – so he needed physically and technically strong defenders that are adept at closing down space behind their respective fullbacks, and can also build the attack from the back with the possibility of carrying the ball into the opposition half, when allowed. This is the system in which Busquets could play in the back three (as he did from time to time in 2011 and 2012), so Mascherano could have a go at his primary position in the heart of midfield.
Although the latter possibility is quite speculative, it is nice for a manager to have an extra option, which could became more frequent as he gets more time to implement his ideas into the squad.
In the midfield, Barca signed Rakitić, the Croatian ex-Sevilla captain that has a variety of merits complementary with this team – great passing range, intelligent positioning and an excellent shot, which he’s not afraid to use. If he could have the same efficiency with it as he did last year, it would help his front line as the opposition defence will need to come out and try to cover him, which would leave some space behind them open for Messi or Neymar to use.
And last, but not least, the second biggest signing in the club’s history – Luis Suarez. The genius Uruguayan striker will start his tenure at Barca on a wrong foot, as he is not allowed to play matches for two more months due to the ban he got after biting Chielinni at the World cup.
However, the first game he’ll be eligible to play in is El Clasico. While his talent isn’t questioned one bit, what worries Barca fans is his correlation with Neymar and Messi – it is hard to imagine Enrique would seriously bench and deprive playing time for either one of them. So the biggest task before him is to figure out a way in which 3 of them can play together, while ensuring that they are within their comfort zone in which they can give the best of themselves. If that isn’t the case, then there is no point of having three big superstars in the starting lineup.
Luis Enrique – Man on the mission
The former Barcelona legend was actually very high on the list of potential replacements for Rijkaard after the 2007/08 season, but instead found himself at Barcelona B. Afterwards he had a stint at Roma which was short-lived and disappointing – he seemed lost, trying to implement somewhat of the Barca system with non-Barca players, and the non-Barca football culture in the club or city of Rome.
Often, he looked like he was forcing a system and ideas without particular regard to his players needs or possibilities and termination was a fairly expected scenario at the end of the season. Last year, he coached Celta, where he impressed the public with his team’s performances, playing brave and attractive football that saw the relegation material team from the season before rise to 8th spot in 2014.
What can we expect from him at Barca?
He is a believer in Barcelona’s philosophy and hard pressing game as something he will thrive on. He is likely to give his front players more freedom in their positioning, which will result in more talent-oriented football than it was during the ‘Pep era’, where the system, positioning and moving off the ball was everything. Another thing that looks certain is that he will give youngsters more minutes than Tata Martino. He especially likes Rafinha, whom he coached both at Barca B and Celta, so Rafinha could play some serious minutes, at least until Suarez comes back.
Real Madrid are looking stronger then ever whilst Barcelona are on the back of a trophy-less season and parted ways with couple of club legends and important faces, including Tata Martino, who wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt for not winning the title. If this is the same benchmark that will be applied for Enrique this year, then the only conclusion that can be 100 % derived is that we are in for one very interesting season indeed.
By Vice Karin, co-author of Croatian blog “General poslije bitke” – http://generalposlijebitke.blogspot.com/