ANALYSIS: The Blaugrana are poised to assemble the most talented all-South American front three since Brazil lined up with Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho - but will it work?
Luis Enrique joked when he took charge of Barcelona that the psychologist he intended to make a part of his backroom staff was just for him. With Liverpool’s Luis Suarez now on his way to Camp Nou, that may no longer be the case. Still, the new Blaugrana boss will need all the emotional support he can get this season, because trying to keep the Uruguayan, Lionel Messi and Neymar happy could drive a lesser man insane.
On paper, of course, Luis Enrique will soon be in possession of arguably the greatest all-South American front three the game has seen since Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho inspired Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002. However, as we are so often told, games are not won on paper; Argentina’s goalscoring problems at this summer’s tournament prove as much.
The Albiceleste have reached the final but they have managed just eight goals in six games – despite being in a position to field a frontline containing Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero/Ezequiel Lavezzi. Messi has accounted for half of his country’s World Cup tally in Brazil but even he has not netted since the group stage.
Where best to position the four-time Ballon d’Or winner has been a topic of much debate for the Argentines, as has the most suitable system. Messi made his preference for a 4-3-3 perfectly clear after the group-stage win over Bosnia and Herzegovina and, from a tactical perspective, things should run quite smoothly in Catalunya.
Luis Enrique is a Barcelona man through and through. Ergo, he is a firm advocate of the 4-3-3 formation with which the club has become synonymous. A three-man front line is, therefore, precisely what Luis Enrique always intended to field – with or without Suarez.
Furthermore, all three superstar forwards seem ideally suited to the system. Neymar, like Ronaldinho, is most comfortable on the left-hand side of the attack, as it allows him to cut infield onto his right foot to devastating effect. Messi is no out-and-out centre forward but the 'false nine' position was effectively created for him by Pep Guardiola, a tactic which allows the Argentine to simultaneously roam free and be the focal point of the attack.
Suarez, meanwhile, is a versatile footballer, capable of leading the line, as he has done so effectively at Liverpool over the past two seasons, but also creating goals for others, often by drifting wide to exploit the space in the channels. It is that latter quality that should enable him to flourish at Camp Nou.
Suarez is also willing to work for the team, as evidenced by the way in which he readily agreed to occasionally play out wide to accommodate Daniel Sturridge through the middle at Liverpool last season. However, Brendan Rodgers' side was always based around getting the best out of Suarez. He was the star man. He will not be afforded that status at Camp Nou.
While the early indications are that Luis Enrique wants his front three to regularly change positions in a bid to keep opposition defences in a constant state of confusion, Suarez will need to accept that he is no longer the focus of the attack. That can be a difficult thing for some players to accept.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic never came to terms with being asked to "play for Messi" during his time in Catalunya. Now, the Swede, it could be argued, was always going to struggle with a request to play for anyone but himself but the striker’s solitary season is worth referencing. He, too, was a stellar summer signing expected to add a new dimension to Barcelona’s attacking play. Just like Suarez. And just like Neymar.
The Brazilian should not be forgotten in all of this. The Selecao star was signed from Santos 12 months ago and though his season was interrupted by injury, Barca never quite worked out how to use Neymar and Messi in tandem effectively.
Neymar has consistently said all of the right things about just wanting to “help” Messi but it is no coincidence that not only does he look far more effective playing for Brazil, for whom he is the undisputed main man, his best spell last season came while his Argentine accomplice was out injured.
Johan Cruyff predicted problems the moment Neymar signed for Barcelona, arguing that “you cannot have two captains on one boat.” The addition of Suarez only seems to complicate matters further, particularly when you consider that the Uruguay international will not even be available for selection until the end of October. How exactly is Luis Enrique expected to get this front three working in perfect harmony when the most recent recruit cannot even train with his team-mates?
Furthermore, what if by then Luis Enrique has worked out a way in which to get the very best out of Neymar? Will he risk tinkering with his front three? And what of Messi? Luis Enrique has praised the No.10's generosity in the past, while even Ibrahimovic conceded that the four-time Ballon d'Or winner was "a shy and polite guy" - but when it comes to tactics, Messi usually gets what he wants - as Zlatan discovered to his cost.
Luis Enrique, though, is made of stern stuff. The 'Iron Man' enthusiast is not a man afraid of upsetting high-profile players. During his time at Roma, he dropped Daniele De Rossi for allegedly turning up late for a team meeting before a trip to Atalanta. He also reportedly fell out with Francesco Totti over a Europa League tie against Slovan Bratislava. “He's the most important player in Roma's history but it's up to me to decide who plays,” the Asturian stated at the time.
Luis Enrique sees the bigger picture, as underlined by his preference for erecting scaffolding at the club training ground so he can enjoy a higher vantage point during practice matches. He realises that it is the team that comes first. His job will be to persuade Messi, Neymar and Suarez that they are playing for the club – not themselves. He will need every bit of his man-management skills to appease a front three accustomed to having things all their own way; to exhibiting an element of control over a front three used to enjoying complete freedom on the field of play.
Over the past two seasons Barcelona have undeniably become predictable. Luis Suarez is anything but. However, whether he is the solution to this particular Catalan conundrum remains to be seen. At this stage, it is utterly impossible to know. His imminent arrival poses more questions than answers ...
Luis Enrique's psychologist is going to be a busy man.