Ever since Barcelona’s humiliating 4-0 thrashing at Paris St-Germain a fortnight ago, the writing has been on the wall for Nou Camp manager Luis Enrique.
In fact, it had been there for quite a while, with the former Barca and Real Madrid forward spending the last few months turning down every opportunity to commit his future to the club, many of whose supporters will be perfectly happy to see him go.
And now, following his team’s 6-1 thrashing of his hometown team Sporting Gijon on Wednesday night, Enrique has confirmed that he will not renew his contract when it expires at the end of the season. Barcelona will have a new manager in the summer.
Why is he leaving? What does it mean for the club and their star players? Who will replace him? Does this mean Barca’s season is effectively over?
Let’s answer those questions.
Why is Enrique leaving?
Winning seven trophies in your first two seasons in charge, you might think, should be enough to earn any manager the undying respect and admiration of his team’s fans – especially when that manager also happens to be a popular former player.
Strangely, however, even capturing a treble at the end of his first season and a double 12 months later was not enough to truly convince the demanding Barcelona public that Luis Enrique is actually a good coach.
Part of that is undoubtedly down to bad PR. Enrique has no interest in cultivating relationships with the media or fans, instead projecting an image of a cold and aloof, hardened professional who has no time for the niceties of his role.
But it’s also a question of playing style, with many Barca followers dismayed to see the long-honoured possession-based passing approach sacrificed in favour of a more direct approach which largely bypasses the midfield.
The recent home game against Leganes, for example, saw central defender Samuel Umtiti make more passes than midfielders Rafinha and Ivan Rakitic put together. And for a group of fans who spent 15 years watching Xavi run the show with his metronomic passing, that’s hard to swallow.
It’s also the case, as Enrique explained on Wednesday night, that he is exhausted. Managing Barcelona is a job unlike any other, with the demands and expectations ensuring there is never any respite from the pressure.
The club regards itself as representing a would-be nation (Catalonia) rather than just a football team, and that status inevitably exerts enormous pressure on the man in the figurehead role of coach. Pep Guardiola, whose shadow Enrique could never fully escape, couldn’t tolerate more than four years, and it’s no surprise that the more prickly Enrique is going after three.
|Enrique at Barcelona|
Title challenge still on track
Ironically, Luis Enrique’s confirmation of his impending departure came on the evening that his team leapfrogged Real Madrid into first place in La Liga, thanks to their victory over Sporting Gijon combined with Real’s 3-3 home draw against Las Palmas – a game which saw Gareth Bale receive his first red card in Spain.
Real still have a game in hand, away to Celta Vigo, but Zinedine Zidane’s men are clearly wobbling, having also lost to Valencia, been knocked out of the Copa del Rey (by Celta) and scraped fortunate wins against Villarreal and Osasuna in recent weeks.
So there is plenty at stake for Barca’s outgoing boss and his players, and the idea that the announcement has signalled them giving up on the season couldn’t be further from the truth – in fact, it is quite the opposite, with Enrique hoping that the timing will allow the speculation over his future to stop and football to become the major focus.
Wednesday’s results mean that the title is now in Barca’s hands – even if Real win their extra game in Vigo, victory at the Bernabeu in the Clasico on the weekend of 22/23 April would be enough to give Barca the edge.
And don’t rule out Sevilla, who have been quietly compiling a very good season and can move to within two points of first place by winning their home meeting with Athletic Bilbao on Thursday night. The Andalusians are still major outsiders for the title, but if Barca and Real both continue to struggle they could spring a big surprise.
Who will replace him?
Talking of Sevilla… the manager of Leicester’s Champions League opponents, Jorge Sampaoli, is the early favourite to take over.
The Argentine’s success with Sevilla has been notable for the tactical variety he has employed, with his team demonstrating a seemingly seamless ability to switch between a flat back four and a three-man defence with wingbacks, between possession-heavy passing play and deep-lying counter-attacks.
That might actually count against him at Barcelona considering the expectations for the Nou Camp team to play in a certain way, but Sampaoli is certainly the managerial flavour of the day and he would be the first choice of many fans.
Some names can be swiftly discounted. For starters, forget any suggestions that Pep Guardiola is poised for an emotional reunion at the Nou Camp. The Manchester City boss has a strained relationship, to put it mildly, with the club’s current board and will not return to his former employers while they are in charge, if ever.
Ronald Koeman is another unlikely candidate, even though the Everton boss is very fondly remembered at the Nou Camp after scoring the winning goal – against Sampdoria at Wembley in 1992 – which gave Barca their very first European Cup trophy.
Despite those heroics, and his natural Dutch connection with former bosses Johan Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard, Koeman is also remembered for a pretty grim spell in charge of Valencia a decade ago, and taking Everton and Southampton to mid/upper-table in the Premier League is unlikely to be enough to land the hottest managerial job in the planet.
Diego Simeone can also be ruled out. The highly-rated Atletico Madrid boss would be an odd stylistic fit at the Nou Camp, and has signalled his intentions to stay with his current club for another season before heading for pastures new, probably in Italy.
So Sampaoli is the front-runner, but fellow La Liga bosses Ernesto Valverde (Athletic Bilbao) and Eusebio Sacristan (Real Sociedad), who both formerly played for Barca, will also be under consideration, as well as more left-field links such as former PSG chief Laurent Blanc.
Messi to Manchester?
A natural question whenever anything significant happens at Barcelona is what it might mean for the man who has become, in many respects, ever bigger than the club: Lionel Messi.
But Manchester City fans shouldn’t get too excited. If anything, the confirmation of Enrique’s departure will make it more likely, not less, that the Argentine star will finally sign a long-negotiated new contract to stay with his current club.
Although neither of them have ever admitted any animosity, it has always been widely believed that Enrique and Messi share a strained relationship, which almost reached breaking point in January 2014 when Messi was left on the bench for a defeat at Real Sociedad and the following day skipped an open training session for fans with a mystery ‘illness’.
Even when that season ended with a league, cup and European treble, the post-match embrace between Messi and Enrique after the Champions League final was big enough news to warrant front page headlines in the local media, with the fact that it was surprising to see manager and star player embrace telling you everything about their relationship.
So Messi is unlikely to be too disappointed by his manager’s departure, and the more realistic question for the replacement coach is not whether he will be able to call upon Messi, but how he should employ him.
A major complaint against Enrique, especially this season, is that he has lacked tactical clarity or direction, and even when he has attempted to implement new tactical variants they have looked unconvincing.
Wednesday’s win over Sporting was a prime example, with Barca switching between 3-4-3 in possession and 4-4-2 out of possession, leaving Javier Mascherano looking extremely uncomfortable as he was asked to play at centre-back and right-back at the same time.
Barca’s greatest successes in the past three years have come with Messi lining up in a very wide position, more or less as a traditional winger, but this season he has rarely played in that position, instead drifting more centrally in an attempt to get more on the ball.
That has ended up leaving the team shapeless and imbalanced, with the midfield particularly neglected as players like Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic have become surprisingly marginal figures.
Barca’s lack of direction was most brutally exposed by PSG in the Champions League but has been evident all season, and whoever takes over will be expected to deliver a tactical approach which makes Barca once more look like a team rather than a collection of individuals – with Messi still at the fore, but perhaps more positionally disciplined.
What is the reaction in Spain?
Considering the divisive opinions he inspires, it’s fitting that Luis Enrique’s announcement has initially been met with mixed responses from the local media.
Writing in Mundo Deportivo, Santi Nolla wrote that his departure is bad news for Barca and that he should be regarded as “one of the greats”, while acknowledging that he did things his own way with a “strong personality and a direct style.”
In Sport, another Barcelona-based newspaper, Xavier Ortuno reflects the general tone by asking for the outgoing manager to “give us the happiest possible ending”, making an unspoken recognition that his tenure hasn’t always been happy.
On the whole, though, the news that Enrique will be leaving was overshadowed by the fact that Real Madrid were simultaneously dropping points at home against Las Palmas.
And that, in every respect, is just how he would like it.