January was a watershed month for Luis Enrique’s Barcelona. The Asturian coach resolved never to leave Lionel Messi on the bench again after his side lost at Real Sociedad, while his team began to produce their most promising performances of the season.
But January was also significant for the Barca boss because he finally picked the same side twice. For the first 29 games of the season, Luis Enrique fielded 29 different line-ups, before choosing the same XI in back-to-back victories over Atletico Madrid and Deportivo La Coruna.
Many of the coach’s calls before that had angered fans and bemused his own players as well. Messi had been unhappy to start on the bench against Real Sociedad, while the decision to leave out Luis Suarez and Neymar nearly cost the team dearly at Almeria in November, before both came on to turn it around in the second half in a 2-1 win.
“The players are not machines,” Luis Enrique said after a disappointing 1-0 win at home to APOEL in the Champions League in September. “They need to be fit. But we have to improve.”
By January, the pressure was mounting. Barca were winning most of the time, but had fallen behind in-form Real Madrid in La Liga, while the coach’s constant tactical tweaks and rotation saw press, players and supporters all losing faith in the 44-year-old coach.
But four months down the line, Luis Enrique’s Barca side sit in an enviable position: on top of La Liga with three rounds remaining, in action against Athletic Club in the final of the Copa del Rey later in May, and preparing to meet Bayern Munich in the last four of the Champions League this week. It is a dream scenario for the former Spain midfielder.
Previously perceived as part of the problem as Barca struggled to gel in the autumn and winter months, Luis Enrique’s rotation has helped Barca to avoid injuries and keep players fresh for the most important matches of the season.
“He has received criticism for his handling of the rotations,” Javier Mascherano said after Barca thrashed Cordoba 8-0 on Saturday. “But to arrive at the end of the season with the group intact and all 23 players available (note: Jeremy Mathieu has since picked up an Achilles tendon injury) is down to the coach. People should recognise that.”
He is right: Barca are indeed in excellent shape compared to their rivals. Madrid have seen a number of their finest footballers – among them Luka Modric, James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema – sidelined in recent months.
Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final opponents Bayern have been hit by an injury crisis described by boss Pep Guardiola as the worst he has ever seen, with the likes of Arjen Robben, David Alaba and Franck Ribery among a host of players sidelined. Barca, meanwhile, have kept players away from the treatment table thanks to the coach’s clever policy of giving rest and recuperation to his squad.
Messi is the exception, of course. Like Cristiano Ronaldo at Real, the Argentine attacker wants to be involved in every single game and his formidable fitness allows him to do so. Luis Enrique also knows that resting the 27-year-old will only lead to negative press coverage and unwanted scrutiny of their relationship.
But apart from Leo, every other player accepts he will have to spend some time on the bench in 2014-15 – and they have all been told it is for their own good.
Neymar reacted angrily as he was substituted by Luis Enrique in the recent 2-2 draw at Sevilla, but the Brazilian was right to be frustrated: he was Barca’s best player that afternoon and in his absence, the home side drew level late in the game.
That proves Luis Enrique is not perfect, but nor is any coach, and Barca can thank their brave boss for sticking to his guns with his rotation policy this term because it has left the players fresh and free from injury at the business end of 2014-15 – and that could just be the difference between success and failure when the titles are handed out.