The coach must find a way to get his team to begin the final few games of the season with the same intensity in which they close them out
A little less than a year ago, Luis Enrique was the top manager in the world as the leader of the treble-winning Barcelona side that boasted what some have considered the greatest group of forwards ever assembled. Lead by Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, Barcelona finished the 2014-2015 season in majestic fashion and outclassed every team they faced.
Although the current season hasn’t gone completely as planned, Barcelona is still on track to finish La Liga as champions if they can hold off Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. They also have a shot at the double with a victory over Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final in a few weeks. To capture both trophies, Barcelona will need to win every remaining game not to give opponents any opportunity to fill the reigning champions with doubt.
However, against Real Betis, the squad took a 0-0 deadlock into halftime and the situation looked bleak. While Luis Enrique is normally beholden as an energetic and intense manager, his disposition heading into the locker room was a rare combination of dismayed and incensed that fans do not often see from the man who has done so much winning upon his arrival at the Camp Nou.
After questioning his team’s desire and urging them to play with the intensity needed to win La Liga, the players responded positively in the second half. Ivan Rakitic scored five minutes into the second half and Suarez added one late for good measure. While Enrique was happy with the final result and the way his players answered his call to arms, a necessary second-half surge hasn’t been uncommon for Barcelona this season.
Recently, it also took large second halves to silence the likes of Deportivo de La Coruna and Sporting de Gijon. Although second half improvements can be attributed to Barcelona’s ability to impose their style and will on their opponent by wearing them down for the first half of a game, it is concerning that key players can't therefore rest when needed.
Luis Enrique does not often make many changes, especially with results so crucial at this junction of the season, but a first half blowout win against teams in a relegation battle at the bottom of the table could have given Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta or Sergio Busquets the chance to rest for the games where they would need to play a full 90 minutes at a high intensity.
This season, Lionel Messi and Neymar are the first and eighth best players in the first 45 minutes of games across the top five leagues of Europe in offensive categories. Rounding out the top five were Zlatan Ibrahimovic, former Barcelona winger Alexis Sanchez and Real Madrid pair Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
If Luis Enrique were to look to improve his squad over the summer with players who started games playing at a high offense level that lead to goals and chances for their squads, Juventus’ Paulo Dybala and Lille’s Sofiane Boufal should be targeted.
Interestingly enough, Luis Enrique’s favourite target from the winter transfer window Celta de Vigo’s Nolito scored four goals and three assists in the first-half of games in La Liga this season, compared to seven goals and four assists in the second-half of games.
Barcelona’s current crop of players is capable of devouring an opponent from the onset of the match, but reinforcements who may be able to improve upon one of the club’s apparent weaknesses should always be assessed. Even though any attacking options will merely supplement the trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar off the bench and in spot starts, the possibility of starting another player who begins matches well, especially when faced with less quality opposition, would always be more of a help than a hindrance.
During Barcelona’s 39-match unbeaten streak, the team often dominated for the entire game and slow first half starts were rarely seen. As previously stated, Barcelona’s playing style can often pay dividends for goal-scoring opportunities later in matches, but Luis Enrique must find a way to get his team to begin the final few games of the season with the same intensity in which they close them out.
The Asturian manager must find a way to take off the pressure of winning La Liga without allowing his players to look ahead to the Euros, Olympics or Copa America. There are two trophies left to be won by Barcelona, and accomplishing both could help to erase some of the disappointment from being eliminated from the Champions League.
No need to despair, however: The manager who motivated his team to Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey success just last season is still in charge and knows exactly what must be done to close the current season with a remarkable double.