Luis Enrique is one of those coaches who get blamed. By both fans and the media. That is for two reasons.
One, he sticks out his large, firm, Asturian chin and says, "Give me what you got: I can handle it."
Whenever Barcelona lose, he never blames the players and instead turns the focus on himself.
That's what he did after the thrilling 4-3 defeat by Celta Vigo in Balaidos, saying he was responsible.
Two, because he is tetchy and unkind with the media, meaning they offer him little slack when things don't go well.
And lately they haven’t been going particularly well.
One element that both supporters and journalists picked up on, which could be to blame for Sunday's horror show and some of the other shaky performances, was Enrique's rotation.
It was widely blamed when Barcelona stumbled against Alaves earlier in the season, losing 2-1 at the Camp Nou in Week 3.
Both Madrid and Catalan media agreed that the coach’s changes had caused problems for his side. AS' Juan Jimenez wrote:
The Barca coach clearly underestimated opponents Alaves as he sent out a makeshift eleven that included [Jasper] Cillessen, [Javier] Mascherano, Aleix [Vidal], [Jeremy] Mathieu, [Lucas] Digne and [Paco] Alcacer. Barcelona were more of a mock-up that barely shot at goal, lacked aggression and played the kind of football that was devoid of ideas and passion. Even the introduction of the trident couldn’t turn things around.
Barcelona had just picked three of their strongest first XI in this clash, if you count Samuel Umtiti above Javier Mascherano.
Sport's Lluis Mascaro agreed, saying the coach shouldn’t play too many of the new signings at the same time. He explained:
The manager must take advantage of his new 'wardrobe' which the board [bought] him. But in moderation. You can’t wear all your new clothes on the same day. Because they don’t match. The new players need a period of acclimatisation to be able to play in a team that doesn’t play like any other team. At Barca it’s different.
Enrique also experimented against Borussia Monchengladbach, and Barcelona nearly lost that one too, only coming good in the second half when the coach fixed things.
Mascaro claimed Luis Enrique "threw the game for 53 minutes" in that Champions League clash, before correcting his own error.
Certainly, in the game against Alaves, not playing enough of Barcelona’s core side led the team to play as a shadow of itself, and even when the attacking trident of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez was reunited up front in the second half, they were just as feeble—the malaise had set in.
The largest individual factor in this defeat were the coach’s rotations, but there were other big problems too. And without any individual factor, perhaps Barcelona could have won that game.
There was the fact that key players had returned from international duty, with the MSN trio flying back from South America—long-haul, tiring flights. No matter how comfortable their chartered planes, the effects of jet lag still take their toll.
Messi had come back after suffering a groin injury—and he is currently out injured for another problem in a similar area. Andres Iniesta was returning from an injury problem of his own.
Enrique’s culpability was also leaving Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto out, creating a reserve defence already playing behind a makeshift attack and midfield—adding to the stress that the forced changes caused.
The next game in which Barcelona dropped points was at home against Atletico Madrid. The rotations he made were with a view to keeping the team fit for this clash, but unfortunately for Enrique, his team not only failed to win, but Messi went off injured again.
Luis Enrique picked a full-strength team but it didn’t do Barcelona a great deal of good—they lacked spark throughout—showing that even with a full side, bad things do happen. It’s not just rotation to blame for dropping points.
Against Celta Vigo, he rested Iniesta, perhaps a mistake when he couldn’t play Ivan Rakitic either, because the midfielder had an Achilles problem. He also picked Jeremy Mathieu ahead of Mascherano, something he was criticised for because of the Frenchman’s own goal.
Beyond that, Barcelona played their strongest team and were let down by individual errors. The two players most culpable for the defeat were Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Sergio Busquets—and had the coach rotated either of those two out of the side, fans and media would have been up in arms.
In the Monchengladbach game, Luis Enrique changed his system, operating in a 4-4-2. This wasn’t so much rotation for rotation’s sake as the coach trying to find a good way to include new signing Paco Alcacer without using him in Messi’s spot on the right wing.
It didn’t work, with Alcacer and Suarez occupying the same space, and the coach took off the striker, with Barcelona going on to win the game and play better football.
Luis Enrique has also rotated in games Barcelona won by big scores. The 5-0 win over Sporting Gijon at El Molinon, for one. Mathieu started that game, so did Lucas Digne, so did Andre Gomes, so did Rafinha.
And the 5-1 crushing of Leganes, when the coach not only dropped Busquets but also changed the formation to 3-4-3. Barcelona weren’t at their best in either of these games, but then again it is difficult for a team to be at their best unless everyone in the first-choice side is fit and playing.
That isn’t an argument to never rotate, though, because that causes far bigger problems of its own. We saw that last season, when Barcelona reached the key stage of the season with an exhausted first team that could have used more rest through the season.
That leaves the side feeling trapped. If the best players can’t perform and the squad players aren’t match-fit, where do they go?
Out of Europe is the answer to that, with Barcelona eliminated from the Champions League by Atletico Madrid at the quarter-final stage, before nearly conspiring to throw away the league title they had a 12-point lead in at one stage.
Barcelona’s best performance of this season came against Celtic in the Champions League, with a 7-0 victory over Brendan Rodgers’ side. Iniesta didn’t start that game, so some of the criticism Luis Enrique is facing for leaving him on the bench until half-time on Sunday is a little unjustified.
Beyond the captain, it was a full-strength team. And if Barcelona can put that side out toward the end of the season in several consecutive games with the players hitting their top levels, they will be in a much better position than they were last year—when they won the double.
The key is not dropping too many points in the meantime. And by and large, they aren’t. Rotation cost them three against Alaves, but apart from that, the draw with Atletico and defeat by Celta weren’t caused by the coach fiddling with his team.
Barcelona have the Spanish Super Cup in the bag, six points from six in the Champions League and are just two behind Atletico and Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.
Luis Enrique’s rotations are similar to a racing car with a full tank of gas. They may be moving a bit slower now because of it, but toward the end of the race while other teams are running on empty, his plan is for Barcelona to be hitting their peak.