How simple switch turned Barcelona into unstoppable attacking force
The man who was almost ousted was also the man who figured it out.
During Barcelona’s big “crisis” in January, manager Luis Enrique almost lost his job, after having reportedly lost the confidence of superstar Lionel Messi. But he survived that quasi vote of no-confidence and Barca has lost just once since. More importantly, a compromise was finally found to reconcile three of the finer attacking talents of their generation – and just about every generation before it.
Last season, Neymar’s insertion into a Lionel Messi-dominated attack could seem fairly awkward. While he’d cost more than Barca had ever laid out for any player before, he and Messi got in each other’s way a lot, with the Argentine playing up top and the Brazilian in his shadow on the left. Neymar delivered just nine league goals, 15 in all competitions. It was a disappointing return on investment.
Last summer, Luis Suarez was added for even more money, and after he sat out his biting suspension that had carried over from the World Cup, the Uruguayan seemed lost. Suarez, like Neymar, had grown accustomed to his team’s attacking campaigns revolving around him. His teammates at every previous club had played in his service, just as Neymar’s had at Santos. He struggled to find the room to deploy his expansive game, typically consisting of explosive bursts into space and long dribbles inside from the flanks.
But then a simple switch turned the tide on Barcelona’s season as well as that of its attackers. By moving Suarez up top to central striker and Messi back to the right flank – where he’d come up at Barca yet had floundered under Tata Martino last season – everything suddenly clicked. Suarez found space to operate higher on the field, and Messi found happiness and freedom underneath him.
Essentially, the other two still move on a swivel around Messi, with Suarez commanding attention from the defenders to open up areas for the Argentine. Neymar mostly hangs out until they find him for a final ball or a finish. That, certainly, is how Bayern Munich was defeated 5-3 on aggregate on Tuesday to send Barca to its first Champions League final since 2011.
And that’s what has allowed Neymar to score 37 goals in all competitions so far this season, Messi to bag another 53 and Suarez to collect an equally staggering 20 assists.
This tweak may have been the direct doing of Luis Enrique – a former Barcelona right winger himself, incidentally – or a pact forged by Suarez and Messi on the training ground. The various accounts differ on this. But whether it’s his own inspiration or that of his players, the manager deserves credit for trying it and sticking with it.
Certainly, Pep Guardiola, the man vanquished on Tuesday, will forever get the plaudits for building this team, and rightly so. The spine that all else is affixed was his handiwork. But Neymar and Suarez joined after he left following the 2011-12 season. And Luis Enrique figured out how to make it all coalesce.
This sounds like a fairly minor accomplishment, given their respective talents, but consider that no other Barca manager during all these glorious years had quite figured out his front line. Frank Rijkaard, Guardiola, Tito Vilanova and Martino all couldn’t work out how to get a striker to coexist optimally with Messi. Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa and Alexis Sanchez were all tried up front, with more or less the same outcome: solid results. But the formula to maximize’s everybody’s ability was never found.
And where, in the wake of the club’s transfer ban of the past transfer window (which will run through the summer), the defense has been increasingly exposed in the high-stakes games, the attack has more than compensated.
Previous Barcelona teams dominated by the grace of their midfields and ability to find Messi. This one and whatever silverware it wins this year – and a treble is still eminently possible – will do so on the merit of a front line finally come good.
For that, Luis Enrique should get to take a bow.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports.
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