Thursday June 4th, 2015

The comparisons really started before the season began. Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique, former teammates at Barcelona, both started out as coaches of Barcelona B and when they took over the senior team, it had not won a trophy the previous season.

This week, the comparisons have gathered speed. The last time Barcelona was in this position–to win the league, cup and European cup treble–was in 2009, at the end of Guardiola’s debut season. It went on to win an unprecedented six titles that year; the Spanish league, Copa del Rey and Champions League trio followed by the Spanish Super Cup, the European SuperCup and the Club World Cup. No team has ever has won the treble more than once, and only five teams have ever managed to accomplish the feat.

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If Barcelona beats Juventus in Saturday’s Champions League final (2:45 p.m. ET, FOX), then the 2009-2015 comparisons will gain even more steam. Six years ago, that marked Guardiola’s place in history and allowed him license to stay as long as he wanted (he lasted until 2012, at which point he took a year-long sabbatical).

Luis Enrique, on the other hand, may yet walk away at the end of this season, halfway through his two-year deal.

This Barcelona side has played one game fewer than it did in 2009 (60-59) but has scored more goals (172-154), conceded fewer goals (37-54) and has a higher win percentage (83%-68%). So, you may ask, what’s the problem?

It starts in the boardroom: Guardiola was closely aligned to president Joan Laporta, both were Catalan and both encouraged the Catalanization of the club. They also nurtured Lionel Messi from super-talent to superstar. Luis Enrique is from Gijon in Asturias and spent five years playing at Real Madrid, before joining Barcelona, becoming captain and winning over its fans (that said, Luis Enrique always publicly identified with Barcelona and his family lived there after he retired as a player.)

Guardiola had carte blanche to turn an under-achieving squad into winners; Luis Enrique inherited a four-time Ballon D’Or winner (Messi) and had to find a way to make things work with Neymar and Luis Suárez.

While Laporta had Guardiola’s back, the same cannot be said of Bartomeu. Only in position after the resignation of Sandro Rosell over the Neymar scandal (Rosell declared false figures over his transfer to club members), Bartomeu has overseen what Catalan media called ‘institutional crisis’: FIFA gave Barcelona a two-window transfer ban for irregularities in signing young players, sports director Andoni Zubizaretta was fired, his assistant and former club captain Carles Puyol resigned, and Bartomeu called summer presidential elections.

The key moment of the season, though, came on January 5. This was after Messi and Luis Enrique had a reported row, apparently over a foul that wasn't given in training. Real Sociedad beat Barcelona in the first game after the winter break. Messi was benched for the first half. Cadena Ser’s Fred Hermel reported that Bartomeu met with Messi and offered to sack the coach, and that Messi said no. Other reports claimed that Bartomeu was sounding out other coaching alternatives (which Bartomeu denied). It was left to Xavi Hernandez to broker a truce between player and coach.

Luis Enrique even considered resigning, but was persuaded to stay on by his assistant coach Juan Carlos Unzue, whose own influence was apparent from Barcelona’s improved record at set pieces (even shorter players like Jordi Alba and Messi were scoring from them). Since then, though, Barcelona has won 30 out of 34 matches.

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In that time, Messi has scored 35 goals but not only that, controlled and won games like never before: Manchester City away, and Bayern Munich at home were breath-taking performances. His solo goal in Saturday’s Copa del Rey final was, most agreed, in his all-time top three. As one Spanish writer put it: “It doesn’t matter what tactics or systems coaches put in place when he can do that.” The last three months have probably been the best of his career.

“The coach gives us freedom to move where we want and personally I have the freedom to play on one side or the middle to lend a hand there and help us in possession,” Messi said in a rare press conference appearance this season.

The big difference between 2015 and 2009 is the speed of the attacks, and the unpredictability of the front three.

“This Barça side play in a different way, without over elaborating build-up play, without eliminating their opponent from the contest, but are capable of winning in style,” wrote Alfredo Relano in AS. “In general, everything they do is done in a more dynamic manner and with a degree of unpredictability.”

Added Gerard Pique at a press conference: “We are a more mature team, who know better how to take on adverse situations. We have evolved our style of play, we do not have so much possession, and it now does not seem as if it is a handball game. We are more direct, and take advantage of the forwards we have. We are also more solid in defense.”

Guardiola was faithful to Johan Cruyff’s vision of a possession-based 4-3-3. Luis Enrique has been more pragmatic.

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“There are other coaches who have respected the Barcelona model more, but Luis Enrique respects the essence of the model while adding his own variations,” Carles Romagosa, a Barcelona-based coach, told Club Perarnau. “The team is not so worried about long possession and strict control, it is more about the vertical attack as the Barcelona forwards can generate so much danger in those situations.”

To say it’s all about the front three simplifies the job that Luis Enrique has done this season. He has tightened up the defense, restored Pique to the best form of his career, kept the quality (without disputes) between two rotating goalkeepers, improved set-piece records at both ends of the pitch, worked out the solution for three of the best strikers in the world, and ensured the players peak fitness has come in the last few weeks. Above all, he has been versatile: calming in moments of crisis and decisive when needed.

It’s strange to think that if Barcelona does win the treble on Saturday, he may leave this summer. But maybe it’s in keeping with the style of his Barcelona. 2009 was all about control and aesthetic. 2015 is dynamic and unpredictable. It’s an individual choice as to which is better. But both represent the spirit of their coaches. 

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