How effectively is Luis Enrique implementing the Barcelona methods at Roma?
One of the more eye-catching managerial appointments this summer was former Barcelona B coach Luis Enrique taking over at Roma.
It was a surprise appointment. Though Enrique had enjoyed success with Barcelona’s second string, he had no top-level coaching experience. He wasn’t really that much more qualified than Vincenzo Montella, who took over at Roma last season having previously worked in the youth system at the club.
But, as explained in this excellent piece by James Horncastle, Roma wanted him because of his background, because of the footballing culture he comes from. “The reason we chose Enrique is symbolic,” said Walter Sabatini, Roma’s Sporting Director. “Enrique represents an idea of football that we would like to follow, which imposes itself today through Spain and Barcelona…I was looking for someone outside of Italian football. Uncontaminated.”
It is yet another of Pep Guardiola’s impacts upon football that clubs are increasingly looking to appoint coaches for philosophical reasons rather than pragmatic reasons. Even in Italy. As Franco Ferrari (the former head of Italian football’s technical HQ Coverciano) says in Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti’s brilliant The Italian Job, “In Italy we just look to the result, we don’t care how we obtained it, it’s all about the result…it’s not a question of playing well or building a base for the future, you have to win.”
Yet, to return to Horncastle’s piece, Enrique says, “When Roma got to know me, they got to know me as an offensive coach who likes to attack, who likes good football. The important thing is that the fans come to watch us, that they enjoy themselves. It’s a very attractive way of playing. We will play on the attack. I don’t consider football any other way. We are moving towards a complete change of ideas and identity…I haven’t come here to bring the Barcelona model, but something that is similar to it.”
This is quite a transformation. Immediately there were inevitable comparisons drawn with Barcelona. So, 14 games in and 10th out of 20 in the Serie A table, how effectively is he imposing the Barcelona methods? Here is a consideration of ten key Barcelona-esque factors.
Possession and ball-playing midfielders
The signings of Fernando Gago and Miralem Pjanic showed that Enrique wanted technical quality and calm, reliable distribution from the centre of the pitch. He’s struggled to consistently select a particular midfield trio so far because of injury (and his own rotation), and therefore there is not yet the cohesion and understanding you need in that position. He has used David Pizarro sparingly (when fit), which is surprising considering the Chilean is the ideal Xavi figure for the side.
Still, Roma average 58% of possession, the third-highest in Serie A after Milan and Juventus – although only two other clubs average over 50% in a league not particularly concerned with possession of the ball. Still, this is a good figure at this early stage, and Enrique will be pleased at Roma’s ball retention and dominance of games. Rating: 8/10
Not so impressive here. From the third-highest possession figure, Roma somehow manage only the eighth-most shots on target per game in Serie A, 4.5. There often seems too much creative responsibility upon the the central creative player in the rough wide 4-3-1-2 system (although it could be termed a 4-3-3 with a very deep central attacker, similar to Barcelona with Messi, so in that respect it’s a little like the 4-3-1-2 / 4-3-3 hybrid Santos have often used).
That man is usually Pjanic, who has done well, getting six assists in the league – only Milan’s duo of Alberto Aquilani and Antonio Cassano have more. His assist below, for Bojan against Novara, was a good example of his creativity. But there aren’t enough through balls from elsewhere, aside from when Francesco Totti has played – which Enrique doesn’t seem to be particularly keen on. Rating: 3/10
This isn’t quite there. The game against Juventus at the weekend showed how congested Roma could get in certain parts of the pitch. Enrique started with Pjanic breaking forward from midfield, Erik Lamela coming in from the right and Totti dropping into his usual role – the result was too much concentration of attacking talent in one zone – no-one was making a run in behind, no-one was stretching the play.
A fundamental part of Barcelona’s play is the cohesion of movement – when one comes in, another goes out; when one drops deep, another makes a forward run. That’s lacking from Roma at the moment, and Enrique switching Osvaldo and Lamela against Juve seemed to be to bring more balance to the side – Osvaldo then offered forward runs from the right whilst Lamela came inside and let Jose Angel forward on the overlap. Rating: 3/10
The draw with Juve showed how far Roma have to come in this respect. The nature of Enrique’s system, generally with forwards deployed on the wings (Pablo Osvaldo, Bojan Krcic) means it’s essential to press high up to let those players work in their favoured zones.
Instead, Juve’s full-backs pushed the Roma wide players back into their own third of the pitch, and Roma were working too far from goal. It’s been better in other games – and it’s notable that Roma’s best performance so far against Lecce came when they pressed heavily. Enrique may believe the players don’t currently have the physical capability to press in every game, but we need to see it more often. Rating: 5/10
Defenders comfortable on the ball
In theory, a great success. Simon Kjaer is one of the most gifted ball playing defenders around but has been out for long periods – Nicolas Burdisso is also injured. The use of Gabriel Heinze at centre-back has been reasonably successful in this respect, and Enrique’s desire for ball-playing ability at the back meant he played Daniele De Rossi at centre-back at the weekend. Rating: 8/10
Jose Angel has been impressive at left-back – he doesn’t really look like a defender, but that’s from the Dani Alves school of defending. He provides great width on the left, and allows the left-sided forward inside.
On the right, Enrique has used attacking full-backs like Marco Cassetti, Aleandro Rosi and Cicinho, but also midfielders completely out of position there, like Simone Perrotta and Rodrigo Taddei. Neither of them have looked particularly comfortable defensively, but it provides the overlapping on the right Enrique wants. Rating: 7/10
The Busquets role
De Rossi has been used in this role, deep in midfield, dropping between the centre-backs and allowing them to spread wide. Usually the captain, he’s been probably Roma’s most impressive performer and seems to feel he’s the main man in the side.
A further positive came against Juve with the debut of Federico Viviani – he’s a highly promising prospect from the youth side who looked comfortable on the ball in deep positions and played calm, reliable passes to the flanks, a potential Busquets in the making. Rating 8/10
A mixed bag – Osvaldo has broadly done well but still doesn’t look suited to starting wide – he’s a natural central striker (although he has scored the best disallowed goal of the season, below). Bojan knows the system better than anyone but hasn’t yet adapted to Italian football. Lamela is clearly talented but might not be suited to playing that role – he comes inside rather than going direct towards goal, which results in the aforementioned problems with penetration. Fabio Borini would be perfect for the system, but might not be good enough.
Osvaldo has scored five, Bojan has scored three – but they’ve contributed 50% of Roma’s goals. Lots more work to be done here, though the forwards could do with better service from midfield. Rating: 6/10
The Messi role
By virtue of him being the world’s best player, no-one else can play the Messi role as effectively as Lionel Messi. In a sense, Enrique hasn’t tried to replicate the position directly – though Totti played as the central attacker on Monday, and as the pioneer of the false nine role, he maybe was playing the Messi role.
But usually it’s been Pjanic there, clearly a number ten rather than a false nine (although, in fairness, so was Messi in the Clasico). Pjanic has done well, but probably needs to be either more direct, or to get more midfield runnners to provide for. Rating: 6/10
A key part of Barcelona’s success has been their use of homegrown players. Clearly, this process has been the result of decades’ work rather than months, and as such it’s not fair to case such an early judgement.
That said, at the weekend Roma played Leandro Greco, Totti, De Rossi and Viviani. Four out of eleven players being trained in the Roma youth system is impressive, and there’s also Rosi. The use of Viviani is most promising – it shows Enrique giving young players a chance, and to use Sabatini’s phrase, they will be “uncontaminated” and malleable for Enrique to turn them into the players he wants, in the same way Marcelo Bielsa likes working with youngsters, who he regards as keener to learn new methods. Rating: 8/10
The obvious cliche – Rome wasn’t built in a day. Enrique’s project is widespread and long-term, and though tenth in the league cannot be regarded as a success at this stage, the project is shaping up nicely.
“We should stop trying to make comparisons with Barcelona,” says General Manager Franco Baldini. “We’re trying to create a team that works with possession, but other sides do that too. We’ll refer to Barcelona when we have quality.”
Even when dissuading Barcelona comparisons, he still sees Barcelona as the target. There’s a long way to go, but it’s worth Roma and the fans getting behind Enrique.