When Luis Enrique returned to Barcelona in 2014 to take the second hottest seat in world football, three years after leaving his post as the B-team coach and a full decade after ending a highly successful playing career at Camp Nou, his remit was straight-forward if intimidatingly difficult. After re-imagining the modern game the philosophy that everyone came to know and love as tiki-taka needed a serious reboot. It needed re-energising and on Enrique’s shoulders this responsibility fell.
Given the multiple trophies the approach had harvested, not to mention the era of total dominance it had ushered in this was a formidable challenge. Then there was the long shadow of Pep, cast in every pass made by a team still moulded in his image. Finally, add in a season of toil that led up to Enrique’s appointment and it amounted to a task that would shrink a man visited by even a shred of self-doubt.
All of this however was never going to be the problem for the chippy Asturian. Head-strong and combative if need be the former Roma and Celta boss set about instilling a new-found sense of vigour to a grand institution that was in danger of becoming predictable and though it took a public falling-out with tiki-taka’s most extravagant architect Lionel Messi to get there by the time of his departure in June 2017 Barcelona were a team transformed. Possession had a purpose from a midfield that had previously been beautifully backlit by candles but now was jolted with electricity because after all with a terrifying front three of Messi, Neymar and Suarez it made sense to the point of imperativeness to be more direct. In Enrique’s first season in charge of the Catalan giants they completed a momentous treble while scoring 110 goals in La Liga alone. In his third and final year he left a hero.
A thirteen month break followed, with the 48 year old admitting to feeling fatigued from the extraordinary demands of club football and in his absence from the front-line Spain began to directly mirror Barcelona’s predicament of having an over-reliance on a tiki-taka identity that was beginning to grow stale. Granted the sudden and shocking dismissal of Julen Lopetegui hardly assisted La Roja’s cause as they prepared for Russia 2018 but it was their early, limp exit at the hands of the tournament hosts that really brought it home that here was a nation so recently at the vanguard of ultra-modern ways now moored to the past. In that disastrous defeat in the Luzhniki Stadium the magnificent passing machine of the 2000s had 79% of possession over the course of 120 minutes yet still were sucker-punched after barely landing a glove themselves and the autopsy that came next was damning and conclusive in decreeing that Spain had committed the cardinal sin of their many inferior imitators: they were now passing for passing sake.
Inevitably then the call went out to the proven catalyst for post-possession development to take the reins and replicate his outstanding work in La Liga and it was a call a refreshed Enrique was only too happy to take. That is not to say however that his appointment was universally celebrated with a strained relationship with the Madrid-based media leading to equivocal headlines while the new gaffers’ intentions were immediately hindered by the international retirements of David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique.
And yet, as ridiculous as this seems when talking about three players of such esteemed quality, who each boast over 100 caps not to mention World Cup winner’s medals, perhaps the depriving of their talents has been a blessing in disguise to the national coach. In their place – and elsewhere as Enrique has wasted little time in altering the personnel from back to front – a youthful make-over has occurred with Atletico Madrid’s Saul running the show box-to-box and team-mate Rodri recently revealing in a stylish performance against Wales that he can become the long-term successor to Busquets. Ahead of them Paco Alcacer has impressed, carrying his goal-scoring form over from Dortmund while in Gaya, Asensio and Dani Ceballos a trio of players in their early twenties are becoming pivotal to a national side reborn. It was there for all to see in September’s six goal dismantling of Croatia and even a subsequent and unexpected loss to England hasn’t diluted the optimism that abounds at the purposeful revival clearly afoot.
On Enrique’s appointment back in July the Spanish Football Federation’s Sporting Director Jose Francisco Molina publicly laid out his remit stating: “We need a successful coach who’s modern and who knows the game style but can make small adjustments. We can’t swipe everything clean, with regards to all the work carried out.”
Unquestionably that process has been accelerated. Unquestionably exciting times lie ahead for a revitalised, re-invigorated La Roja.
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