Bin the long balls, Busquets the linchpin: Luis Enrique's big changes at Barcelona
In one of his first press conferences as Barcelona manager, Luis Enrique laid down a clear outline of what he hopes to achieve in the coming months. The Asturian drilled home the need for Barça to become unpredictable once more, for the team to be versatile, and explicitly stated that minor changes in an effort to surprise opponents will be habitual.
It was music to the ears of the supporters, who had noticed Barcelona’s increasing rigidity under Tito Vilanova and Tata Martino in comparison to the days when Pep Guardiola made a weekly habit of springing traps on rivals with an adjustment to his side.
The Catalan press, who never turn down an opportunity to speculate when Barça are involved, proceeded to run their hypotheses on how the Blaugrana could change over the coming months. Enrique would use a double pivot with Busquets and Mascherano together, some writers insisted. No, he’ll play five at the back, cried others. Lionel Messi was set to be a No.10, right winger, or something else entirely depending on who you read.
With Barcelona’s pre-season over, we now have a fairly accurate image of the initial changes Luis Enrique has made to the structure of his team. While most of those alterations are subtle, they are likely to be a talking point in the coming months as rivals attempt to adapt.
1) No more long balls from the back
Gerardo Martino’s brief stint at Camp Nou was marked by a change in how the Catalans initiated play, or rather, how they struggled to initiate play. More than any other season in recent memory, Victor Valdes was asked to kick the ball long from his goal, and the strategy was largely ineffective as may be expected considering the modest stature of his targets. Leaks in the local press suggested that the mechanisms of building from the back were no longer being worked on in training, and come matchday it showed.
Under Enrique that has changed. From the manager’s first game in charge against Recreativo it was already evident that Barcelona’s goalkeeper of choice will be asked to pass the ball on the ground. The two centre-backs split wide to receive possession once again, while the full-backs make sure to create a solid passing angle for them in turn. Whether it’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Claudio Bravo or Jordi Masip between the sticks, the team’s last line of defence will also be its first line of attack, and that only works when the hard graft is put in on the training pitch each week.
2) Variety from the full-backs
At times over the last two seasons it seemed like Barcelona were playing a back two, with Jordi Alba and Dani Alves so far up the pitch that Gerard Pique, Marc Bartra and Javier Mascherano were expected to defend the entirety of their own half. A prime example was Gareth Bale’s dramatic winner in the Copa del Rey final, when Bartra was forced to step in to what is essentially the right full-back’s position, with Alves nowhere in sight.
Enrique has already shown that he will be far more savvy in his use of the two full-backs. Over the course of Barcelona’s five pre-season fixtures, the positioning of both wide defenders varied depending on the quality of opponents. Against Napoli, a strong counter-attacking side, both Martin Montoya and Jordi Alba were asked to play more withdrawn roles, while against Leon, Alba and Alves were both regularly involved in the attack, with one tending to push on while the other maintained a more restrained position.