The danger zone and a changing midfield

There’s a name for a coach who doesn’t get the ball to his most dangerous players.


This season, there has been much talk about style, betrayals of style and beauty of play, leading to discussions about whether Luis Enrique is the corect coach to lead Barça (he is) and since he isn’t, who would be better (nobody).

Luis Enrique has often said (correctly) that he plays Barça football. What’s interesting, as you watch Barça over the recent glory years starting with Rijkaard, is that the three Barça coaches — Rijkaard, Guardiola and Luis Enrique — are more alike than anyone would care to admit. They all share the fundamental trait of all coaches, which is wanting to get the ball to the most dangerous men, and making sure that they have the ball most of the time.

With Rijkaard, the player was Ronaldinho. With Guardiola, it was mostly Xavi and also Iniesta. With Luis Enrique, it’s Messi, Suarez and Neymar.

Each Barça coach also adapted his system to the personnel that he had. Positional play is lovely. It also helps to have an in-prime Xavi and Iniesta to implement it. Rijkaard’s mission was simple as well: devise a way to get No. 10 the ball, and let him do what he does. That hasn’t changed since Messi changed his number from 19 to 10, no matter who the Barça coach is. This is true even as Luis Enrique is the Barça coach who is best equipped to not have to get the ball to No. 10 as a way of life.

It’s weird to say that, because Messi is Messi. But a lot of why Guardiola won his treble is the same reason that Luis Enrique won his, that lack of complete dependence on No. 10. Supporters need Messi to be that rumbling, tumbling superhero who bursts from the phone booth to save the day, right after he creates the day, makes the sun rise then builds the phone booth. So many want Messi to be everything, when the best Barça is when Messi isn’t everything. It’s no coincidence that Guardiola and Luis Enrique had similar treble-winning squads. Barça could work a bust-out to Thierry Henry on the left wing in 08-09, Neymar in 14-15. An erratic, mercurial striker fond of missing easy chances prowled the opponent box in Samuel Eto’o. So did Luis Suarez. And then there was Messi, always Messi.

Guardiola wanted Xavi to have the ball because Xavi was his most dangerous player. Messi was the goalscorer, the dynamo but Xavi was the timekeeper, the maestro with the baton. Even Messi danced to his tune. When Luis Enrique set up the vaunted Trident, he did it with championships in mind. Part of that was unpredictability. To make the MSN machine go, they need the ball.

We hear, all the time, that “Barça doesn’t have a midfield.” It does. The difficulty with the people who say that is that it isn’t doing the things that meet their expectation of the Barça midfield, as defined by a starburst in time. The Barça midfield is different now. Iniesta isn’t a timekeeper like Xavi was, even as he dictates play when in form, but he’s more a reference point, a human la pausa. And it’s beautiful. In that idealized world, Busquets is as close in function as we are going to see to Xavi. Both their jobs are to get the ball as quickly as possible to the danger men so that they can do their thing. This means that times are different.

So much of the modern game has shifted to the wings, and Barça is no exception. Looking at where the danger comes from is always interesting. The defense will always be clustered where Messi is, because he’s Messi. But Barça keeps a statistic, shot assists. In La Liga this season, Neymar has 38. Messi has 22, Suarez 18. Neymar also leads the team with 13 assists in all competitions. One of the most significant differences between Henry and Neymar is that while Henry could pass, he isn’t a playmaker/associative player in the same way that Neymar is. Neymar has the ball so much because he isn’t just the second best player in the game — he’s an accelerant, that thing you toss onto a fire to cause or intensify combustion. He gets the ball a lot because like Messi, the attack needs him to have the ball. Luis Enrique’s Barça needs all three of its most dangerous players to have the ball.

As Henry waned, Barça had less success. Guardiola made a tactical adaptation, moving to the midfield-based positional play that so many crave today, that kind of play that, with Suarez and Neymar, would be like hitching a plow to the Ferrari. Sure, it’ll work, but …

Positional play worked because of Xavi and his omnipresent danger. Because he was so dangerous, Jeffren could score goals, Tello could score goals, Pedro could gain an exclamation point, such was the excitement he generated. It all flowed from Xavi, who was the same essential element who provided a lot of the same impetus for Luis Enrique in that treble season. In the here and now, Barça doesn’t have Xavi. It also doean’t have the same need that flowed from that legendary player. Neymar, Messi and Suarez can do for themselves in ways that the likes of David Villa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic couldn’t. The game moved toward mobile, creative attackers just as it moved toward the wings. At Bayern Munich, Robben, Costa and Ribery did their thing, moving outside in.

This isn’t about being right or wrong. It’s just about what is. The same reason Arda Turan is a troublemaker on the left wing is enabled by the reality of the modern game. Alba does an overlap, Turan moves to fill the space and take the return pass. Or Turan floats into the center for a shooting position, while the defense is focused on Suarez and Messi. Wing play works. Diversification of sources works even better. Suarez has renewed with Barça, and Messi is almost certainly as happy as the Uruguayan because Messi understands what many still don’t: he isn’t That Messi any longer. But because he wants to win, he dosn’t want to keep pretending, striving to be That Messi. He needs to work alongside a pair of assassins.

The role of the midfield has, of necessity, changed because the team’s most dangerous player isn’t there any longer. It isn’t that “Barça doesn’t have a midfield,” but rather that the role of it has changed. The midfield now is sorta like Purgatory for the ball, before it gets sent to Heaven (if you’re a culer) or Hell (if you’re a defender). There were signs of dysfunction when Busquets had to cover the world and Iniesta was recoverinng from his knee injury. But Luis Enrique understands the importance of the midfield at Barça. We need look no farther than his signings of Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez to understand that, two players who replicate roles that already exist at Barça.

But even as those players come into their own, it’s important to understand that the midfield of yore isn’t coming back. How people choose to deal with that will be up to them, but remember what kind of coach doesn’t strive to get the ball to his most dangerous attackers. And Luis Enrique is no fool.

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