Barcelona, Real Madrid and Sevilla's 'player-whisperer' managers are vital
For Barcelona, Sergi Roberto made Luis Enrique look like a visionary genius against Paris Saint-Germain. Andre Gomes at Deportivo La Coruna? Not so much.
At Sevilla, meanwhile, Vicente Iborra continues to make it seem as if Jorge Sampaoli may occasionally be able to see the future. But might the manager's blind refusal to let Ganso's left-footed skills anywhere near the regular starting line-up end up costing them a trophy?
And as for Real Madrid's Zinedine Zidane, well, he's the "player-whisperer" supreme! But what on earth is it that Danilo says back to his manager in order to start every so often?
The "player whisperer" is the manager, who can keep his squad's second string sufficiently tuned-in and switched-on to make a big difference when others are falling or the battle is going in the opposition's direction.
But it is also the leader willing to take risks on back-up players and then accept the criticism and pressure when they fail to produce.
The likes of Luis Enrique, Sampaoli and Zidane are now usually called a coach instead of a manager. They are supposed to work out their team's problems on the training pitch, formulating formation, strategy, sharpness, team spirit, fitness, stamina and set plays. In other words, group work.
But hugely undervalued is the old fashioned trait where a "man manager" constructs one-on-one relationships with his players and gets inside their competitive psyches.
The "player whisperer" can take a fringe footballer, be that a first-choice substitute -- i.e. 12th on the squad list -- or someone like Ganso, who can barely remember what the Sevilla first-team shirt looks like, and turn him into an off-the-bench asset.
The concept is vital at present, ahead of the killing fields of early spring, when legs are weary, lungs hurt, niggling injuries start to nag a little louder and the international break disrupts team rhythm, but the prospect of silverware is still sufficiently distant to prevent players reaching for fifth gear and staying there until the end of May.
The player-whisperer manager can get through to an Arda Turan, an Isco, a Luciano Vietto with the urgent message: "I need you!"
"I might not be able to fit you in my starting XI every week but, without you, we won't win the Liga / Copa del Rey / Champions League," he'll continue. "If you stay sharp, if you can motivate yourself anyway you know how -- even if that is by trying to show what a dummy I am for not starting you -- then you can be the most important player of the next three months. Our hero"
Speaking to Luis Enrique just ahead of the 2015 Champions League final, he said that the least understood reason for Barcelona standing on the verge of a treble was that the players he ranked from 12 to 18 had competed like tigers, every single day, to try and impress him, to try and win a first-team place. In doing so, they'd kept the so-called "Gala XI" on their toes.
What was more, those "substitute" players had been brimming with vigour, intention, hunger and impact when they got their chance. Xavi and Marc-Andre ter Stegen are good examples.
Xavi, a club legend, won his third Champions League final and played in 10 matches en route to Berlin, but only twice as a starter; eight times he came on as a sub.
Ter Stegen hated not being Barcelona's goalkeeper in La Liga -- Claudio Bravo was the starter instead -- but did so well when asked to step in for the Copa del Rey and Champions League that both tournaments were won.
So, back to "Lucho" in 2017 and those contrasting examples of Sergi Roberto and Andre Gomes.
Leading 3-1 on the night but trailing 5-3 overall against PSG, Barcelona's boss had choices.
Jordi Alba not only has far more experience but more senior goals -- 15 compared to six -- while Paco Alcacer is a striker by trade. But Luis Enrique chose well and Roberto rewarded him with the added-time winner.
Just a few days later, the squad was rotated, with Gomes, as well as Denis Suarez and Roberto all starting. The 2-1 defeat was a horrible result for the Spanish champions, who looked pedestrian.
In Madrid, the trait of keeping fringe players not only bubbling away but just ready to come to the boil has been one of the most notable successes of Zidane's time in charge.
Take Lucas Vazquez as an example. Nobody in the Bernabeu squad has more Liga appearances this season but he's had to put up with 15 of the 23 being as an impact sub.
But what an impact.
The hint perhaps came in last season's Champions League final when he was came on and was perfectly happy with the responsibility of taking -- and converting -- the first shootout penalty. This season, the winger has come on and made or scored seven goals.
Similar praise can also be given to James Rodriguez, Marco Asensio and, particularly, Isco. Not one of them is in Madrid's "Gala XI" -- though each would have a case to gripe about that -- but all of them have maintained hunger, attitude, commitment to the team and an ability to make an impact.
For a manager to be able to count on that extra turbo-boost off the bench is a fabulous, trophy-winning weapon.
And while the fundamental drive must come from within the player, a coach can very easily stunt a reserve's will to do well and cause resentment, sulking or even an outright will to underperform in the hope that the man in charge is sacked.
Zidane still has an enormous personal impact on his players, partly for his training manner and partly for his previous achievements but, most particularly, for the way he treats them and the degree to which they all understand that the Madrid squad, flying in the face of how club president Florentino Perez sees things, is a meritocracy.
If you follow the coach's teachings, if you work hard enough, if you "show" in training then, in due course, you'll definitely play and probably start.
The club-to-club comparison is uneven because there are more new players in the Barcelona squad, particularly Gomes and Alcacer, but Madrid have a distinct advantage in that their fringe players add notably more when they play.
(That said, Los Blancos still seem to have a weak underbelly whenever Casemiro doesn't start. But that's a job for the summer transfer market.)
As for Sevilla, it's still more important for Sampaoli to not put even a half-step wrong when he tries to be a player-whisperer.
With an outside chance of winning the Spanish title, the Champions League -- or both -- he can't afford to stick with a standard starting XI from now until June and hope his players are all superhuman. Nor is his squad as talented, experienced or battle-forged as Madrid or Barcelona.
For example, in Sevilla's last two matches, with a view to Tuesday's Champions League round-of-16 second leg at Leicester, Sampaoli rested Mariano, Stevan Jovetic, Franco Vazquez, Steven N'Zonzi, Sergio Escudero and was without Vitolo through suspension.
He really needed his back-up players to shine but, instead, four points were dropped in draws at Alaves and at home to Leganes. As a result, Sevilla are now five points behind leaders Madrid and have played a game more.
Rotation will look great if Sevilla reach the last eight of the Champions League for the first time, but not so special if it proves to cost them the Spanish title and has no positive effect in Europe.
Despite that, Sampaoli has been producing something that his counterparts Luis Enrique and Zidane must envy a little.
Club captain Iborra has had to settle for a bit-part role, playing 14 times as a sub in La Liga, with just eight starts. And yet, with seven goals, he's already equaled his season high and is genuinely eyeing up that most unwanted tag of "super sub."
My favourite example of that in Spanish terms, because the mighty Ole Gunnar Solskjaer probably trumps everyone in this field of vital performances from back-up players, is Ruben Baraja.
In Valencia's thrilling 2001-02 title win, the attacking midfielder only started 15 times, but his six goals in the last eight matches won Los Che, steered by Rafa Benitez, their first championship since 1971.
To turn a good season into a great one, these three player-whisperers really need to find their own Baraja between now and late May; that turbo-booster off the bench, who doesn't like being second choice but who has the temperament to become the type of hero that Sergi Roberto most certainly became last week.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.