From nine points clear to level with five games to go, Barcelona’s awesome autumn and wonderful winter has become a stressful spring. And yet Luis Enrique effectively foretold the problems that have dogged his side in the past few weeks, but the Catalans’ board didn’t pay heed, or perhaps couldn’t.
Enrique wanted Celta Vigo forward Nolito in January, and he wanted him badly. Lucho and Nolito were together at Barca B and Balaidos and the Coach wanted a third spell in the Spain international’s company. Enrique plainly recognised that below Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar the forward ranks were thin, with only two promising but out-of-their-depth youngsters available beyond the MSN.
Sandro Ramirez and Munir El Haddadi may one day lead the Barcelona line, but they’re not on that level yet. Asking either cantera product to deputise for Messi, Suarez or Neymar is a step too far. Enrique’s insistence on signing Nolito shows he knew reinforcements were needed and Nolito, having helped Celta rout Barca in Vigo early in the season, was the chosen one.
Reports at the time said that Celta wouldn’t budge from the €18m release clause in Nolito’s contract, but Barca were in January financially unable to meet it. Doing so would have taken the club past the debt limit enshrined in their own statutes, and so it was either a deal delayed until the summer, when Barca’s cash flow was more manoeuvrable, or try to talk Celta into a loan. The former could still happen but the latter didn’t, and Barca are paying for it now.
Enrique deserves some criticism too, though. He was reportedly insistent that it be Nolito or no one, and no one it was. He also declined to use any substitutes as Barca lost to Valencia, saying after the match that his players were performing well, so why change it? But the value of fresh legs and fresh ideas can’t be ignored. And Enrique did change something, using Gerard Pique as an auxiliary striker, for the fourth game in a row. His comments and his actions aren’t compatible, even if his options on the bench were limited.
This was a Barca bench with four full-backs – Dani Alves, Douglas, Aleix Vidal and Adriano – and only Munir as a forward. The Barca first XI is spectacularly talented but the squad is woefully shallow. It mattered not when the team was sweeping aside the opposition, 39 times in a row between losing to Sevilla in October and Real Madrid in April. But now, when the momentum is the other way, it’s hard to reverse. Enrique can’t turn to an old head – such as Henrik Larsson or David Villa in the past – and won’t use the options he does have.
Stubbornness from the Coach, a lack of foresight from the sporting director and straightjacket winter finances could take the title away from Camp Nou.