FC Barcelona have clinched their 23rd Liga title at Club Atlético de Madrid a year after losing out to the Colchoneros. UEFA.com examines the impact of coach Luis Enrique.
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Like Josep Guardiola before him, Luis Enrique has turned FC Barcelona into title winners during his first season in charge, galvanising the team after a trophy-less 2013/14 and also stamping his own mark on the side. And also like his former team-mate in his maiden season, the coach could yet go on to win the treble.
"We have done everything well, we have recovered from setbacks quickly and risen to the challenge at difficult grounds," said Gerard Piqué of Barça's excellent season. "The fans are hooked and excited about us winning trophies."
Although the Catalan giants came so close to winning the title last term, Luis Enrique still faced a huge task in regenerating a team that had become stagnant and lost its identity. Under his predecessor, Gerardo Martino, they finished with 87 points, scoring 100 goals and conceding 33, but this season – with one game still to play – Luis Enrique has inspired them to pick up 93 points, scoring 108 goals and conceding just 19, a remarkable improvement on all fronts.
Perhaps the biggest achievement of the coach's short but successful tenure is that he has managed to get the team playing so well with a different style. Martino recognised opponents were finding it easier to play against Barcelona's short-passing game and spoke about the need for a Plan B, but struggled to create one.
Enrique, however, has found a winning formula. Barcelona still dominate possession but now they have clearer purpose, playing a more direct game based on the interaction of their star-studded forward trident of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez, who have scored a jaw-dropping 115 goals between them.
With this new, forward thinking approach, Barcelona have flattened opponents, winning 5-2 at Athletic Club, 8-0 at Córdoba CF, 6-0 at Levante UD and 6-0 at Elche CF, while destroying teams at the Camp Nou as well. Just as impressive, though, has been their ability to grind out results at difficult away grounds, as Piqué alluded to, snatching late wins at RC Celta de Vigo and Valencia CF.
Barcelona's success this season owes a lot to their excellent injury record. While Real Madrid CF and FC Bayern München saw their plans derailed due to the loss of key personnel, Luis Enrique's side have remained fit and fresh for most of the season, and the coach was able to take his entire squad to the Estadio Vicente Calderón. The freshness with which Barça have been able to prepare for the final stretch of the season is in great contrast to the bedraggled state in which they finished the last campaign, and that also owes a lot to his rotation policy earlier in the campaign, as well as the fitness regime he has implemented.
A regular competitor in gruelling Iron Man contests, the Asturian has worked the team harder than ever before, as defender Adriano has attested: "He is always on at us, demanding more, and that gives us confidence. He has plenty of character and that's been good for us."
Yet another aspect the 45-year-old has improved has been their approach to set plays. Barcelona lost the league title to Diego Godín's header from a corner last season, but they have only conceded four goals from dead-ball situations this year in all competitions. Assistant Juan Carlos Unzué has been credited with the team's new-found awareness at set pieces in both boxes, with Barça scoring 14 goals from these situations, more than in any of the last six seasons. These goals have come in vital matches too, such as Jérémy Mathieu's header in the 2-1 win against Madrid in March, and the Frenchman's late winer at Celta.
"We are a more mature team, and we know how to deal with bad situations better now," added Piqué. "We have evolved our play, we don't have as much possession as before and we aren't like a handball team anymore. We are more direct and we take advantage of our strikers. We are also more solid in defence."