Like Pep Guardiola and Xavi Hernández, Luis Enrique excelled in midfield for Barcelona before taking the many lessons learned during a successful playing career into coaching. Like Guardiola, he also excelled in inspiring a memorable team at Barça to the Champions League. For all that he is revered for his success, however, of that group of three managers and fine central midfielders, his brand of football is perhaps the least committed to the principles on which the modern Barça was built.
Enrique, 48 when appointed to lead Spain immediately after the extent to which they disappointed at the 2018 World Cup, has inherited a generation of Spanish players far less suited to the style of football with which Guardiola succeeded with Barça and Vicente del Bosque with Spain, and yet still built a promising team. "There are few managers in the world better than Luis Enrique," Guardiola once said. "(He was) the perfect trainer for Barcelona – his personality, his character. He had two or three years and played some unbelievable football with unbelievable players."
Enrique favours an attacking brand of football rich in variety that, because of his education at Barça and the influences he encountered there, often demonstrates his admirable understanding of a positional game – juego de posición – and leads to his teams also impressing with both vertical and transitional play. If his favoured shape is a 4-3-3, he has also regularly experimented with a 3-4-3 and 3-4-2-1, wherein so much of that variety can be found.
Spain, like Barça, are most consistently organised into a 4-3-3, but their approach is considerably more vertical than was Barça’s, and largely because the profile of players available to him are less capable of implementing his positional game than those who won the Champions League with Barça. Orthodox wide forwards – Ferran Torres is prominent among them – are therefore more often favoured than a midfielder likelier to drift infield; by comparison, Enrique also has fewer convincing options as an orthodox striker.
As is perhaps to be expected of someone who became so prominent at Barça, his teams regularly seek to control possession, often starting from their goalkeeper contributing to their attempts to build attacks. At Barça both Marc-André ter Stegen and Jasper Cillessen were aware of the need for the central defenders in front of them to adopt positions that would allow them to connect to those in midfield – most commonly their deepest positioned midfielder, Sergio Busquets – and, by extension, to tempt forward and then bypass the opponents' first line of pressure. The most common passing patterns around that pressure started from their goalkeeper and either went to their right-sided central defender and then defensive midfielder, or to their left-sided central defender and then left-back.
Those attempts to build required their central defenders to be in particularly deep positions, to both increase the ground opponents had to cover to press them and to increase the space in which Busquets could move into and receive, and not least because Enrique almost always favours the use of a single pivot at the base of his midfield. The width and height provided by their full-backs occupied their opposing wide players, giving the influential Busquets even greater freedom, and to the extent that he could drift wide to take possession if opponents had successfully minimised spaces in the centre of the pitch.
By comparison, when Spain are confronted with a high press, their central defenders are positioned close to or inside the penalty area to ensure that the distance between them remains minimal and that the ball can quickly be circulated, and Busquets and another – perhaps Thiago Alcántara – move to in front of them (above) to create passing lanes and a potential overload. The desire to draw opponents further forwards remains, but because of the reduced quality Spain offer in the final third, opponents commit increased numbers to a high press, making the depth created in their defensive third crucial in their attempts to progress the ball.
As at Barça, alternatives exist. Should the opposition press with a front three, Spain's right-back also contributes to create a five-on-three; if the opposition attempts to apply an individual marking approach, the relevant wide forward (below) makes a diagonal run to receive with the necessary time and space to link play to those in front of him. Once that first line of pressure has been overcome, they adjust their attack in response to the height of their opponent's defensive block, determining whether or not to attack with speed or to rely on a more positional approach. There also exists a more vertical approach from back to front – because of the strikers capable of retaining direct play – and therefore the option of initially building short to then play forwards.
When Barça were confronted with a medium block, their defensive midfielder withdrew to between their central defenders to create a three-on-two and encourage their full-backs to advance, sometimes to as far as ahead of Lionel Messi on the occasions he had moved into a deeper position. If attempting to progress through a low block, positional attacks – involving their outfielders adopting different heights to create more passing lanes – were instead prioritised.
Barça's opponents regularly adopted compact defensive structures, and as a consequence, their favoured front three of Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar moved into permanent, narrower positions (below) once they had reached the final third, where Suárez, as the most predatory-like attacker, was the most advanced and Messi and Neymar cut infield. Between them they constantly surrounded their two opposing central defenders – one attacked to between them and the other two supported on those defenders' outside shoulders and moved more centrally to potentially contribute to an attacking combination.
With their width provided by their adventurous full-backs, those in midfield advanced to behind that front three to offer connections between the two full-backs and, because of the narrowness of their front three, the inside channels were regularly vacant for Andrés Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic to advance into, potentially via a delayed run. If they proved effective when opponents attempted to crowd the areas around Messi, Suárez and Neymar, they were regardless more common against lower blocks and during moments of transition.
Spain's front three is instead organised so that their wide forwards regularly remain wide to attack around their opposing full-backs and to make penetrative, off-the-ball runs to collect through balls and, because of their increased width, the wider spaces in the centre are used by their central striker to move into and link with those making forward runs (below). Vertical passes towards him lead to him bringing others into play, and aerial crosses from their full-backs and wide forwards are aimed towards him against compact defences.
Their attacking midfielders similarly make an increased number of attacking runs from deeper territory, and therefore contribute both goals and assists, instead of prioritising supporting behind their front three, and the identity of Spain's attacking midfielders reflects that. Where once Iniesta and David Silva were prominent, they have increasingly been replaced by those likelier to make box-to-box runs, such as those offered by Koke and Fabián Ruiz, while also creating from between the lines. Their increased physicality also creates the option of an adapted higher press. When their full-backs then offer overlaps, they do so, in part, to force their wide forwards infield.
It is when a greater sense of risk is required that Enrique favours a 3-4-3 that blends his positional approach with the vertical one that then exists in the final third, where their wide forwards adopt particularly wide positions and remain braced to attack the open spaces that exist. Those wide players' positioning is fundamental in not only enhancing their attacking potential and ability to move into space and finish, but deterring their opposing full-backs from moving infield to contribute elsewhere.
Defending and pressing
Enrique's teams consistently apply an intense, vertical press from an advanced block, and aim to recover the ball as soon as possible and as close as possible to the opposition's goal (above). Should that opposition attack from a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3, Enrique's teams retain the same structure in an attempt to match them, and are led by his wide forwards pressuring the opposing central defenders and his striker prioritising the defensive midfielder and being supported by a midfield teammate (below). Short passing lanes are therefore obstructed, and an opponent's attempt to build possession undermined if those in the attacking third succeed in their individual battles and avoid a tactical imbalance.
On the occasions possession isn't recovered in that advanced territory, they reorganise to adopt a different structure – often a 4-1-4-1 – that focuses on protecting other areas of the pitch, and in which one midfielder, most commonly Thiago, forms a triangle with their two central defenders to win second balls and start their next attacks. In the final third, their striker represents the first line of pressure and focuses on attempting to encourage the opposition to play towards one side of the pitch. Should opponents succeed in progressing into the attacking half of the pitch, Spain again adapt to defend closer to goal, in a structure similar to their mid-block, to minimise space.
Their press has ultimately evolved. Doing so from a 4-3-3 in which their wide forwards move infield and their striker screens the opposing defensive midfielder has long been a feature during Enrique's reign as manager, but there are increasingly occasions when one wide forward advances to press as an individual and, by extension, changes their structure. The right-sided forward has regularly moved to alongside their striker so that between them they press the two central defenders, and the right-back behind him moves to take his opposing left-back, and therefore the right-sided central defender the left-sided midfielder or forward. Opponents are then presented with relying on third-man combinations, which Enrique's central midfielders work to screen and cover against, or to play long, direct passes over Spain's press and then win the first and second contacts.
Their coordination also contributes to negating the efforts of opponents to attack around Spain's midfield three, as can be tempting with their starting structure and when that three is instructed to remain close to their opposite number – similarly to Barça. Should the most advanced opposing midfielder drop into deeper territory – even to as far back as central defence – Enrique demands that one of his midfielders follows, so it is not uncommon to see his most defensive midfielder pressing the furthest forward of the three. Busquets, for club and country, and more recently Rodri, for Spain, have demonstrated the intelligence required to both do so and to succeed in making interceptions and regaining possession from that approach.