There were moments towards the end of last year when things at Barcelona FC were pretty fluid. There was a defeat at the hands of minnows Celta de Vigo at home in November and a 0-0 draw with lowly Getafe in the following month. The new year of 2015 began with a defeat to Real Sociedad 0-1. The Catalans were on the verge of being overwhelmed by their Spanish rivals Real Madrid on every front. Club talisman Lionel Messi was on the bench that January and shied away from team practice fuelling rumors about a serious rift with new manager Luis Enrique. Andoni Zubizarreta, the sporting director was shown the door by an angry Barcelona management and his assistant Carlos Puyol left within hours of his boss’s sacking. Luis Enrique at whom many fingers were pointed somehow survived…and he made the most of it.
Come June, six months later, the Catalan club has its hands on every Spanish trophy of the season plus the coveted European title to boot. Enrique was quick to find out his own faults and rectify them. When Luis Suarez was introduced to the attack in October his role was not clear. Balls were played excessively quicker to the forward line negating the role of a highly gifted midfield. There was a palpable anxiety to get the ball to strikers Suarez and Neymar and get the job done quickly.
The backline never looked more vulnerable. But as months progressed things began mending for the Catalans. The defense consisting of Pique, Mascherano, Jordi Alba and new French introduction, Mathieu, was strengthened and the team was conceding much less goals than before. Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets and Rakitic in the midfield were beginning to play their roles beautifully. Enrique made Messi drift to a more right-of-the-center role, positioned Suarez in the middle and Neymar to exploit the wing. The result was the creation of arguably the most lethal attacking trio in contemporary football. An example of Enrique’s strategic success was witnessed in the 1st leg of the UEFA Champions semi-final clash at Camp Nou in May.
That Bayern Munich had almost 60% of the ball-possession did not seem to matter. The Catalans did not concede a single goal but were able to bang in three. Under Enrique, the same Messi who was under a cloud six months ago is currently playing the best football of his life. All this has translated to a win ratio of 78% for Enrique, which is higher than Pep Guardiola with whom frequent comparisons are drawn. The avalanche of a record-breaking 122 goals scored by the Blaugrana this season is the icing on the cake and a fitting testimony to Enrique’s hyper-active, abrasive, imaginative and intense style. No Barca side has looked better than this.
Not many are aware that Luis Enrique himself was a player of some repute and featured for Barcelona FC as an attacking midfielder. His eight-year stint with the club saw him appear in 207 games and score as many as 73 goals. After his retirement in 2004, the 1970 Gijon-born Enrique made Barcelona his home. He is a fitness freak and took part in marathons in New York and Australia. He undertook the grueling Sables marathon in Morocco which involves traversing a 255-km desert stretch with a 10-kilo rucksack on the back, telling us a lot of the kind of stuff this man is made of.
Luis Enrique Martínez García is the Man of the Moment for Barcelona, the club and city he is identified with. A couple of days after Barcelona beat Juventus in Berlin to lift the UEFA Champions Cup, Enrique signed a three-year contract to coach the Spanish and European champions till 2017. 2015 will indeed be a year to remember for Catalonia’s new icon.