After watching my beloved FC Barcelona on Tuesday night in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final first leg against Juventus, I feel that Luis Enrique’s announcement that he will be stepping down as Barça manager at the end of this season was justified.
Tuesday’s 3-0 thumping at the Juventus stadium , similar to when we got a 4-0 hiding at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain in the Last 16 stage, left me with a bitter taste in my mouth and got me mulling over what might have been the reason for that poor performance. I’m still battling to find an answer, tempting as it is to lay the blame on ‘Lucho’ for his lack of imagination.
I say that because the famous 4-3-3 formation that’s been employed by the Blaugrana since forever is now predictable and relatively easy to organise a team to play against, and therefore an astute manager would tweak it every now and then to add a bit of unpredictability to his team’s tactics. I know he’s been doing a bit of that of late, like when he played with a 3-4-3 in the second leg of that historic Last 16 tie, with Rafinha playing as the extra striker, but with the Brazilian missing due to a knee injury, Lucho couldn’t, or didn’t want to, find the ‘extra man’ to add to this newly-adopted formation.
I also thought it could be the dreaded ‘F’ word. I tried to think how Barça could be fatigued, having not had the extra activity of participating in this season’s FIFA Club World Cup. Though I do realize that this season has been a bit more laborious than usual, thanks to the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifiers which started in September, pretty much simultaneously with the European season. That means most of the team’s players had the extra job of representing their countries every now and again for the past seven months, which requires flying out of Spain to other European countries, and for others such as Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, flying out of the continent.
Add to that four rounds of the Copa del Rey, which are all played over two legs, in between weekend league games, and you might understand why they look drained of late.
But then I asked myself why this is all of a sudden affecting them badly this season, as a big number of games is something they go through every season, and is made worse when they have to travel to Asia for the Club World Cup. That question made me wonder if the problem was not with the main man in the dugout.
Make no mistake, I’m a big fan of Lucho. In fact for the last three seasons of his reign, I’ve been preaching to everyone who would listen that he is Barça’s greatest manager of all time, statistically speaking. I mean this is the same guy who won what Jose Mourinho calls “the grand slam”, i.e. the league championship, Copa del Rey and the Champions League in his debut season and then went on to defend two of those three trophies last year.
But whatever the reason may be for Barça’s state, it indicates that something must change, somewhere.
I mean this current team doesn’t look inspiring, and instead looks very far from that which can win the Champions League anytime soon. That explains why they’ve been so frustrating to watch in La Liga this year, their inconsistency has been an eyesore. And the less I talk about their sickening recent habit of being on the wrong end of big scores against big opposition, the better.
I mean where have you ever heard of any Barcelona team being hit for four and three in one Champions League season? Unheard of! In fact, while enduring the last few minutes of that, to borrow Lucho’s terminology, nightmare on Tuesday, I wondered if this current crop would at any stage lose so atrociously under the guidance of former manager Pep Guardiola, who’s regarded as one of the club’s greatest managers of all time.
And the answer to that is probably no; if you’re thinking of disagreeing then I suggest you do a bit of research on the Barça teams of the years between 2008 and 2012, and spot as many 3-0 loses as possible. Good luck.
So all of this grave contemplation brought me to thinking about which manager would be a good fit to the Barça high pressure job, someone who would be able to deliver consistently without embarrassing us on big Champions League nights. I thought about the names I’ve been reading about that are said to be linked with the move to the Camp Nou, and I reached a conclusion that Athletic Bilbao boss, Ernesto Valverde, would probably be the best choice.
For starters, the man has played for the club, which we all know is a good thing, if history about Lucho, Pep, and the late Tito Vilanova is anything to go by. Having donned the blaugrana should make him familiar with the club’s philosophy and the fans.
His record with Athletic is not bad, either. I mean this guy led the Lions, as Athletic are affectionately known, to the UEFA Europa League semi-finals just last season. For a relatively ‘small’ team that’s some achievement, I think. Also worth mentioning is that he has had the beating of Barça on a few occasions in Spain, most notably the 4-0 thumping in the Spanish Super Cup final at the beginning of last season, which helped them to eventually win the cup 5-1 on aggregate.
His team has also been consistent in finishing in the European spots on the La Liga log over the past few years, while some of his players have shone bright enough to get call-ups to the Spanish national team in the past.
Need I say more?
*Main picture taken from: grantland.com.