Barcelona’s predictably meek defeat away to Real Sociedad has left manager Luis Enrique facing the sack and unsurprisingly so. His team selection was bemusing and his strategy maddening. Not for the first time this season, his side was outworked and overpowered, while their attacking play took them into dead-ends from which they couldn’t escape.
The big story was that Lionel Messi and Neymar were left out of the starting eleven. The two South Americans were afforded extra Christmas holiday ahead of this summer’s Copa América, but it appears that Luis Enrique failed to warn them that accepting this time off would lead to their exclusion from the line-up. Neither was happy to be benched, and in Messi’s case the decision has led to speculation about a possible exit.
The places of Messi and Neymar were taken by Munir and Pedro, players who have had good spells of form this season but forwards who one would struggle to back to succeed at Anoeta, a ground at which Barça haven’t won since 2007. This was always going to be one of the most difficult away games of the season and Luis Enrique voluntarily went into it with a blunt forward line.
Equally as confusing was the selection of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in midfield. It’s easy to say with hindsight that it was a bad idea, but it really was a glaringly obvious mistake from the beginning. My first thought when I saw the line-up before kick-off was that Barça were completely screwed. With such a weakened frontline, they were going to need aggression and dynamism in midfield to break through La Real’s defence. The selected trio never looked like providing either.
The other surprising omission was that of Gerard Piqué. Real Sociedad aren’t the team most threatening from set pieces in La Liga – Jordi Alba’s own goal here was only the third they have scored following a set play this season – but while at Everton David Moyes showed time and time again that he knows how to organise a spirited rearguard action and nick a goal from a dead ball.
One of the priorities for Lucho ahead of this game should have been to ensure that his side would have sufficient height and organisation to stop his side being bullied into conceding the type of goal that decided this game. Instead, they found themselves blown away by La Real’s positional aggression and physical intensity. The home side played the ball downfield from the kick-off, won two corners in quick succession and attacked the balls into the box with everything they had. Without Piqué organising and attacking crosses into their box, Barça couldn’t cope.
As for the home side, their starting line-up was full of familiar faces and their strategy was predictably defensive, but there were two big gambles from Moyes. First, rookie keeper Gerónimo Rulli made only his second start for Sociedad after his move from Argentine side Estudiantes; second, the pacy, aggressive Carlos Vela played up front in place of injured target-man Imanol Agirretxe. Both worked out: Rulli showed exactly why so many European sides chased him for so long, while Vela’s mobility meant that La Real had a good out-ball to start counters.
The careful direction of Barça’s attacks was key to the home side’s victory. After they had outworked Barça for a minute or two to score a goal, all they had to do was create a stalemate for the rest of the game and their lead was safe. As Málaga, Celta Vigo and Getafe did before them, they closed off the centre of the pitch and showed Barça wide, knowing that the visitors would struggle to find a way through.
Almost immediately, Barça walked into the trap and began mounting the kind of impotent attacks we’ve seen in plenty of away games this season. The crowded centre was bypassed and the centre-backs played long diagonals out to the flanks, while Luis Suárez stood around waiting for passes to feet that would rarely arrive.
The hosts did an excellent job of guiding Barça’s play towards their least effective players. While Suárez, Iniesta and Xavi were relentlessly harried and provoked into mistakes, Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba and Martín Montoya were afforded all the time they needed in which to play unthreatening passes or to make mistakes by themselves. It was a very simple strategy that allowed the hosts to control the game despite barely ever having the ball.
When Barça did manage to create advantageous situations in attack, they seemed unsure of what to do and wasted them by making poor decisions. For example, in the 25th minute Suárez led a counter-attack through the centre of the pitch, dribbling at the isolated Ion Ansotegi with Pedro overlapping on the outside.
Although Suárez was being pressured from behind by Sergio Canales, his task was straightforward and, for a striker of his calibre, very easy: keep driving forward, commit Ansotegi and slip Pedro in to shoot. Instead, Suárez held on to the ball for too long, gave Ansotegi time to anticipate the pass and narrow the angle, and last but not least, surprised Pedro by hammering the ball straight into his feet instead of rolling it into his path.
This sort of breakdown has characterised the short Luis Enrique era. While it’s clearly unfair to compare any coach to Pep Guardiola or José Mourinho, one of the reasons they have risen to the top of the game and achieved so much in each job they’ve had is that their playing philosophy is clear and each individual understands his role in any phase of play. From goalkeeper to striker, no-one ever has cause to hesitate.
By contrast, Luis Enrique’s way of playing seems to give total freedom to the forwards. Their lack of instruction, coupled with a clear lack of attacking co-ordination on the training pitch, means they can barely help but surprise each other and ruin promising situations.
It’s more than two decades since Arrigo Sacchi conclusively proved that an outnumbered but well-drilled defence will almost always shut out a more talented but disorganised attack, but still Luis Enrique proceeds with this way of playing that seems to be entirely based on the hope that one of his forwards will produce a miracle. This trust in individuals significantly weakens the collective: when those in the final third can’t effectively combine, it’s no surprise that play breaks down as soon as it gets near the opposition penalty area.
Following a first-half in which Barça didn’t trouble Sociedad in any way, Lucho brought Messi on for Munir. Given that his attacking Plan A was for one of the forwards to pull a rabbit out of his hat, it made complete sense to bring on his best magician, but Messi’s presence didn’t solve any of Barça’s tactical problems. The passing out from the back was still slow and predictable, the movement in congested central zones was still non-existent and the combinations on the flanks still produced nothing and turned the ball over constantly.
With just over half an hour left on the clock and with Barça’s desperation increasing palpably with every passing second, Lucho replaced Pedro with Neymar. This was another logical choice given that Pedro and Alba were both having terrible games, but once again it was a like-for-like swap that didn’t change the angle of attack or pose a new problem to the opposition. As ever, Barça had the ball but La Real’s control over space meant that they were dictating terms.
Lucho’s final change, with which he replaced Jérémy Mathieu with Dani Alves, was perhaps the most perplexing of all. Alves came on and played at right-back as usual, while Montoya moved inside to partner Mascherano. This in itself was less than ideal and although Alves’ movement and directness was slightly more useful than Montoya’s passivity, his contributions played right into the hosts’ hands. The sight of Alves aiming a cross at Xavi (1.70m) as the midfielder stood between Iñigo Martínez (1.81m) and Ansotegi (1.92m) was beyond exasperating.
This is not to say that Barça failed to compete. As we have seen throughout this season, Messi and Neymar are talented enough to overcome any tactical problem and they gave everything they had, creating a few half-chances simply by being amazingly good in tight spaces. However, they didn’t create anything one could call a clear-cut chance. La Real were often stretched, but never carved open.
The closest Barça came was in the 85th minute when Xavi slipped Suárez through to face Rulli, who heroically slid in to paw the ball away from the striker. A minute later Rulli again denied Suárez, spectacularly saving the Uruguayan’s header from close range. That was that, though, and Barça didn’t create anything else for the rest of the game.
While Lucho wasted his substitutions, Moyes used his wisely. His only substitute before the 89th minute saw Alfreð Finnbogason replace Chory Castro as one of the two forwards, meaning that Sociedad still had a fresh runner to use as an out-ball and they used him to mount quick attacks and therefore relieve pressure. Sensibly, Moyes kept his well-organised defensive unit together for the entire game, only using his last two switches in the 89th and 93rd minutes to waste time and prevent Barça from gaining momentum.
There can be no doubt that Real Sociedad completely deserved to win this match. Their display was the polar opposite of Barça’s: cohesive, coherent and concentrated. Barça have lost other games in similar fashion this season, but this was undoubtedly the nadir. It’s no surprise that Luis Enrique is running out of time.