Monday, 1 August 2016

FC Barcelona, Lucho and the defining season to out-Pep

Face off!


Luis Flores, ex-Sporting player known as Lucho, was the Mexican legend Luis Enrique was nicknamed after. Inheriting the Mexican's nickname is a fitting destiny for a managerial career characterised, like a Mexican wave, by lots of ups and downs yet consistently exciting. 


His Journey at FC Barcelona started with the B team on the merits of being an ex-player of FC Barcelona. He knew the club, the culture, and the philosophy. That was the successful adventure that got him later to the first team's unstable throne. Exceeding all expectations, he controlled the shaking ship, finished the first season winning both the Champions league and La Liga titles - beside some snacks- and securing La Liga victory in his second year - but without repeating the champions league success.


That's a paragraph quoted from Pep's history at FC Barcelona, but you are not to be blamed if you thought it was all about Lucho. At FC Barcelona their managerial careers hold many similarities. Make no mistake, just like Pep, Lucho got Barca's first team job based on his career as a player and his success as a Barca B manager. His decent season at Celta barely cancelled out the chaotic season he had at AS Roma who were - interestingly - seeking their own Pep, in Lucho. 


Third time's a charm, they say. And in his third season with the first team, there is a good chance for Lucho to overlap Pep's third season's success by winning La liga and the champions league like Pep, then add more snacks, like the CDR.  


Last season served many big lessons. We, and the board, know now that Lucho will not consider using a sub he is not perfectly convinced of. He sent that message more than once last season and, being his stubborn self, he refused to compromise even when a match result was on a knife's edge. Another characteristic he shares with Pep who once refused even to let the new signing Henrique train with the squad until he moves on loan. The poor thing ended up getting in, signing, getting out!


We also witnessed the importance of squad depth and rotation while suffering the free fall of the team at the end of the season. With the club deciding last January that no B team player will feature in the first team's training sessions and games, Robert had the challenging job of engineering a squad of two teams of quality players Lucho can count on, and boy did The Robert exceptionally deliver! 


It is not easy to remember when was it the last time there were more excited than sceptical FC Barcelona fans ahead of a new season, and for a good reason. On paper, one can slice FC Barcelona's squad in two teams, both capable of at least competing for champions league spots in La Liga. 


Raise the bar


Without disrespecting the football gods, and while it is impossible to put expectations for the champions league, it is reasonable to consider not winning La Liga next season as a failure. A squad like this is too good to not win in any league format competition. Not only there is a perfectly tailored formula of quality talented youth and established worldclass stars, but the characteristics and ingredients of the squad are enough to answer any question. Techniques, physicality, height, Stamina, experience... 


Then you add MSN! Not the usual MSN, but a wild Messi going crazy to prove a point (that alone should be enough), a Suarez who is hungry to win after missing the summer football actions of Copa, and a Neymar who is not having the usual love in Brazil recently and if he fails to win the Olympics, Messi he goes. 


With high expectations, come immense pressure. Lucho and co will need a perfect season strategy to meet the usual wild expectations at FC Barcelona. So, why not pointing some of the key factors that will decide the season for the team: 


Rotation: 


If we end up using 15 players or so till February when the players momentum passes its best, we should not expect the rest to fulfil the coming test. One can assume that CDR games will feature none of the most common La Liga and CL starters, but even that will not be enough. Some players not only need to have playing time, but to also feel important and relevant in the playing time competition. 


Squad depth currently available will be the bless and the curse for Lucho and the way he deals with it can decide the season. 


Goalkeepers: 


Talking about rotation, this is where it can all start. Unlike outfield players there is no chance for positional manoeuvring with goalkeepers to ease up rotation tense. When one keeper plays, the other one doesn't. 


Struggling to balance this rotation up can spark the first complain, which is the only spark you need in the squad ashes. 


Sergi Roberto: 


If there is a player who can remind Luis Enrique of himself as a player, that's The Sergi. Both played in 101 positions. Yet, S.Roberto should be fully dedicated and focused on competing with Vidal for the right back spot Alves left. 


Replacing the legend is a mission tricky enough already. Distracting a young player like Roberto by touring him across different positions will limit his growth for the position where he is needed most. 


Andre Gomes: 


On Twitter I expressed my belief in the quality of this player throughout the summer. When the rumour drifted him toward that rival club I had a panic fever. The boy is exceptional. But this is FC Barcelona, a monster you can never take for granted. 


Of course, Denis Suarez is Quality! The way he synchronised his movement with Messi against Celtic, showing amazing awareness to movement and space, was exceptional. It was also interesting to watch him running behind the lines, especially on the right flank, something we will need more from a midfielder now that Alves left. 



He will need time, but he masters the rhyme. 


Still, looking at the midfield structure and functionality of Busquets-Rakitic-Iniesta, one can -initially- assume that Andre is the natural replacement of Rakitic - or more the player who will rotate with. Especially if Rafinha's injury records continued to concern. Knowing that in big games Iniesta is still the cornerstone whenever fit, Andre Gomes form and contribution at vital moments of the season can make Lucho's life easier, or more complicated. 


Besides, in the champions league when the opponent locks the box parking a bus, having both Rakitic and Andre launching long shots or running into the box seeking headers can save the day. 


MSN management: 


This one is tricky. In one hand, they are the three knights and they want to play all the time. In the other hand, we witnessed last season the risk of surrendering to their desire. 


That's one of the qualities some managers have, others don't. It will be Lucho's challenge to talk to the big guys, and sort out this ticking bomb with them. 


Strategic planning and Tactical platform: 


As mentioned earlier, Lucho and his technical staff will have lots of variables to tailor for a successful season. Physical preparations (and it seems like we are going more physical this season, judging by training sessions), Peaking schedule, rotation formula, tactical diversity, players' alternative roles, etc... 


My impression about Lucho's technical team is that they can master season's overall strategic planning (even though it went wrong last season), but usually come short in matches reading and management. That is a La Liga winning formula, but not so much for the champions league challenge. It's where Lucho and Pep differs for better and worse, with Pep over-tinkering sometimes to an extend that he risks a champions league survival, while Lucho lacks the tactical flair sometimes to save the day. 


For the next season, Lucho will have a squad capable of mastering different formations, approaches, and tactical complexities. That's a headache every manager craves for to showcase his quality. This is not only Lucho's third season, but it might be his last at FC Barcelona. He needs an exceptional season as a leverage for his next job in England, and we need that to celebrate. But most importantly, the exceptional generation of players at FC Barcelona deserves more and more titles to demonstrate their brilliance.


Lucho may never be seen as Pep's match in the eyes of most FC Barcelona fans, for many reasons. I doubt he has any obsession about that. But a successful third season will no doubt put his legacy beyond any doubt. Not that he didn't do enough already, but a failure in a season introduced by high expectations and the claws and horns will show the fierce character of this unforgiving club.



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