Guardiola’s absence casts a shadow over Barcelona
While Enrique wasn’t the kind of coach Barcelona wanted, he certainly was the one they needed
Pep Guardiola still has a seat at the Camp Nou. As a card-holding ‘socio’ - the name given to share-owning fans of the team - the former player and manager of the Catalan club retains the right to show up for whichever Barcelona match he pleases, but for the most part his seat - not far from the director’s box - remains empty. And yet, even in his absence Guardiola casts a shadow over Barcelona.
Of course, that is perhaps natural given the astonishing impact Guardiola had in Catalonia. As manager he oversaw an unprecedented period of success - winning three La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues, two Copa Del Rey and two Club World Cups in just four years in the Camp Nou dug-out. But Guardiola’s true impression cannot be quantified by mere trophies and silverware.
‘Tiki-Taka’ was Guardiola’s lasting legacy, not just on Barcelona but on Spanish football and the European game as a whole. Such a style of play - founded on the concept that the opposition can’t score if they don’t have the ball - is now intertwined throughout the Camp Nou club, with every one of Guardiola’s successors measured by their footballing philosophy as much as their results.
But three years after Guardiola’s exit, Barca might have found someone who can at least hold their own against such reverence. Luis Enrique - just like Guardiola - can complete a treble-winning season in his first year as manager at the club this Saturday, with the Champions League final against Juventus coming with the Liga title and Copa Del Rey already secured.
However, Enrique isn’t exactly a Guardiola-lite, despite initial appearances. Both men enjoyed storied careers as players at Barcelona, with the Catalan club appointing them as managers in spite of their scant dug-out experience. That is where the parallels end, though.
Enrique is far from a ‘Tiki-Taka’ purist, instead basing his strategy on bouts of long-balls, rapid fast counter attacks and a solid defensive foundation. Had Barcelona known Enrique would edge the club closer to a Jose Mourinho style of play than Guardiola’s then they might not have appointed him in the first place.
Yet while Enrique wasn’t the kind of coach Barcelona wanted, he certainly was the one they needed. With every successor -Tito Vilanova and Tata Martino - Barca’s ‘Tiki-Taka’ identity become a paler and paler imitation of the one that had delivered so much success under Guardiola. They needed evolution and that is what Enrique has brought.
So with Enrique on the brink of matching Guardiola’s achievements in his first season as boss at the Camp Nou an obvious question lingers: whose Barcelona team was better? If the two outfits were to come up against each other in a hypothetical clash, who would win?
The current Barcelona team have scored 19 more goals than the side that won the treble under Guardiola in 2009, with Enrique’s outfit also conceding 17 fewer and boasting a higher win percentage - 83 percent compared to just 68 percent. On the basis of numbers and figures, Enrique comes out on top - and by some distance too.
“We are a mature team, we discuss sensitive situations together more,” explained Gerard Pique, whose own individual renaissance embodies that of Barcelona’s in general. “We have developed our game, we do not have as much possession. We are more direct when it comes to using our forwards. We are also more solid defensively.”
But Guardiola’s Barca team - which might have actually reached its peak in 2011 rather than 2009 - was never judged on how many trophies they won, although that obviously distinguished their quality. His Barcelona side were trend-setters, sparking one of the greatest dynasties ever seen in football. No matter how many goals Enrique’s team put past Juventus on Saturday, he cannot claim to match Guardiola in that sense.
There is still something of an uneasiness among the Barca support over the manner of Enrique’s stewardship. By opting for a more direct style he has unleashed the club’s formidable frontline, getting the ball to Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar as quickly and as often as possible. It’s a simple equation: more chances surely means more goals. But the ‘socios’ still yearn for the days of Guardiola, when their team would pass opposition teams to death with utter dominance.
In fact, tentative suggestions persist that Enrique could leave Barcelona this summer - even on the back of a treble-winning campaign. Such speculation is largely down to off-the-field unrest that continues to blight the club, but it illustrates the demands now placed on Barca managers. A clean sweep of every trophy and accolade possible still might not be enough.
All the while Guardiola watches on from Germany, where he has struggled to replicate his philosophy at Bayern Munich. This Barcelona team might actually be better than the 2009 or 20011 side ever was, but the Catalan club is very much still his.
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