Luis Enrique striving for balance as Barcelona face up to Real Madrid test

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After five major honors in his first two seasons in charge at Barcelona, manager Luis Enrique set himself high standards at the Camp Nou.

Indeed, Luis Suarez and Ivan Rakitic arrived in the same summer as the former Blaugrana midfielder and in the main, they haven’t looked back since. Enrique tweaked the system to get the best from Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi, and that trio have trailblazed Barcelona to title after title.

Those levels were inevitably going to dip at some point and there have been small lulls throughout Enrique’s tenure. In his first season in charge a 1-0 loss to Real Sociedad triggered murmurs of a dressing room fallout between Messi and the manager, while last term a run of one draw and three defeats threatened to cost Barcelona the league title.

But this current malaise that this grand football institution currently finds itself in feels a little more significant than those aforementioned for Enrique. After the 1-1 draw against Real Sociedad, the Blaugrana are six points behind league leaders Real Madrid, who will visit the Camp Nou on Saturday.

“This is the first time I’ve seen a team walk all over us since I became coach,” said Enrique of the poor display his side served up at against La Real. “If we look at the result, it is the best of the season. The opponents were far superior.”

He’s not wrong. While in the past teams stopped Barcelona by sitting deep, soaking up pressure and countering with incision, this term opponents have gone toe-to-toe with them and achieved decent results; Celta Vigo and Manchester City have each beaten the Blaugrana in what you could call the Blaugrana way.

Against Sociedad and in the 0-0 draw against Malaga a week earlier the devastating attacking football that helped Barca secure a treble then a double under Enrique has been scarce.

Granted, they’ve missed key men in each match; Messi was absent for the Malaga game and Andres Iniesta has been sidelined since October. Barca spent big money in the summer with the clear aim to improve their squad depth, but there’s still a reliance on longstanding key figures.

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There’s been something of an identity crisis too. Enrique’s has shifted away from Barcelona’s core mantra of meticulous, smothering football; with Suarez, Neymar and Messi up top, the key to the team’s success has been getting the ball forward quickly to that trio to exploit defenses. Currently, the team looks trapped between the two philosophies.

It’s epitomized by the issues in midfield. Without Iniesta alongside him Sergio Busquets has been exposed by opponents in recent matches and with his influence stemmed, Barca struggle to put together their swift passing patterns.

The potential replacements for Iniesta haven’t gelled yet either. Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez have only shown flashes of talent, while neither Rafinha nor Arda Turan have completely convinced when handed chances. Up top, Paco Alcacer is still waiting for his first Barcelona goal too and his poaching talents have jarred with Barca’s possession football.

The midfield hub of the team has always been key for Barcelona and it’s an area Enrique must find balance in moving forward. Options are there for the manager and players that befit the ideologies of the football club, but the affinity Busquets, Rakitic and Iniesta share—Barca’s best midfielder three—has been tough to replicate.

It’s one of a few major challenges for Enrique on the brink of a critical point in the team’s season. And even for a manager that’s conquered so much in such a short space of time, he’s been subject to some criticism too.

Continuing to motivate these megastars into his third season must be a challenge, especially this is a group of players that have swept all before them in previous years. The drive and determination we’ve seen from Real Madrid to carve out wins when they’re far from their best hasn’t been so prevalent in Barca’s play.

Tactically, Enrique needs to be cuter too. During Barcelona’s recent draws eyebrows have been raised at some of the decisions made by the manager; against Sociedad he made a solitary substitution, while late on in the search for an opener against Malaga, it was Gerard Pique who ambled forward into a position at the point of the attack.

For now, the angst is simmering, not boiling among Barcelona fans. Enrique has done wonderful things for the football club and was a vital component in the coming together of the finest attacking trio the sport has seen. But lose on Saturday and their title chances would already be up in smoke.

That’d surely be the trigger for more significant scrutiny on the part of the manager, especially with his contract set to expire at the end of the current term.

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