Luis Enrique and His Bench
A year ago, more or less at this stage of the season, Luis Enrique Martínez started to make on his bench a series of movements that turned into a pattern. The group of footballers that were behind the theoretical starters had weight in the definitive moments that weren’t very extensive, and yet, based on a series of specific interventions made by the coach, they ended up forming a more or less stable part of the plan that lasted the 90 minutes of the match. Xavi’s entrance on the pitch, for example, was made in both quarterfinal matches of the Champions League, in the semis, and in the final battle against Juventus in Berlin. Almost always with the score in favor and with the intention of reducing the speed of the game starting with the possession of the ball. Also, another recurring substitution was the entry of Mathieu in order to reinforce the team in its stages without the ball, directly, with his presence in the back, as well as indirectly, letting Mascherano move up closer to the midfield. Or, Pedro Rodríguez, who would sacrifice when needed, to contain, or would permit a line-up with four forwards, if what was needed was to add force to the machine.
By realizing that none of the three mentioned names will be available to Luis Enrique in what is left of this season, and recognizing that in their place the Asturian manager has the availability of others that could result in equal value either if applied as specifically as last season, or in a more open form, this season the coach is presented with a new complication – blessed in this case – when it comes to intervening in the game by replacing parts. From the first day of his second year at the helm of the blaugrana ship, there is a football player who, on the basis of his very high performance, has acquired a role in the functionality of the team that is much higher than the one of the previous year. Andres Iniesta has emerged like the conductor of the orchestra in a midfield, which, as such, didn’t have one, and with the oscillating rhythm of his wand has advanced the game of the team. And so, if last season the man from La Mancha was constantly one of the substitutes coming in in the second half of the games, today he is, justifiably, practically untouchable.
And so, there is one position less to fill, one man less that has to be introduced from the bench. Even though Luis Enrique can find the pieces to put on the field, he has less candidates who he can allow to leave it. The “Xavi substitution” practically always had Iniesta in return. A home grown player entered for another, in a way where despite the substitution, the roles remained the same on the left – Iniesta/Xavi – and the space covered on the right – Rakitić. Because of this, when it came to the replacement of the Croat, it came based on these qualities, whether it was Pedro or Mathieu, in which case Mascherano moved forward to complete the defensive midfield with Busquets. Using the “Xavi substitution” with [Rakitić] implies making a midfield sacrifice in order to create a combination that has so far eluded Luis Enrique, except for in very particular situations. In the past clásico, for example, you could observe the negative consequences that it carried, because the decision of the manager and the entrance of Arda Turan failed to calm the pace and the Catalans missed the legs of an interio midfielder with a greater deployment against a competitor that pushed more.
Perhaps Rafinha, who reappeared on Tuesday against Atlético Madrid, could be the universal solution that Luis Enrique needs. A player who, when coming on from the bench is capable of taking on bigger responsibilities in managing the leather sphere with Iniesta, and who, at the same time, contributes defensively, which becomes needed on the right side of the culé field. Somebody who can be more Rakitić than Turan is and more Turan than Rakitić is. In his debut season as a member of the first team, with time passing its course, he became the first alternative and even enjoyed starting positions in relevant matches, but it was in the final stretch that his impact decreased. Will the story now be the exact opposite? Is Rafinha arriving just in time?
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