Why Luis Enrique’s Winning Record Might Not Be Enough To Cement His Legacy
The season is ongoing, but everyone is acutely aware of one coaching position that will be free at the end of the current campaign. It’s been almost a month since Barcelona manager, Luis Enrique, announced that he will not renew his contract that expires this season. At this moment, Barcelona sit three points behind Real Madrid (with Madrid still a game ahead after Barcelona's loss to Malaga), are in the Copa del Rey Final and in the Champions League quarter-finals after a remarkable comeback against PSG.
Despite Barcelona's status as a contender in all three competitions, however, the search for the club’s next manager is ongoing and uncertain. Before Luis Enrique announced his decision, rumors had linked Ernesto Valverde (Athletic Bilbao), Jorge Sampaoli (Sevilla), Eusebio Sacristán (Real Sociedad), Ronald Koeman (Everton) and Laurent Blanc (no team) to the job, with Ernesto Valverde as the frontrunner. In the weeks since Enrique's decision to leave, though, another name has surged and looks to have taken center stage: Luis Enrique’s assistant Juan Carlos Unzué. So much so, that even Pique and Iniesta have supported his hiring. Regardless, Barcelona’s coaching search continues and it looks as if we won’t see a decision for at least several weeks.
Of course, the question on everyone's mind is which of these managers would actually be the best fit for Barcelona?
Barcelona preferably want to hire a “Barcelona man” to coach their Barcelona team. That is, a manager who was either a former Barcelona player or served as an assistant manager. If they can’t find a Barcelona man, then they at least want somebody who embodies Barcelona’s footballing culture.
So far, the list of contenders for the Barcelona coaching job looks to be just that – a reflection of the belief that Barcelona sticks with its own:
Ernesto Valverde: Barcelona player (1988-1990)
Eusebio Sacristán: Barcelona player (1988-1995) & reserve team coach (2011-2015)
Laurent Blanc: Barcelona player (1996-1997)
Ronald Koeman: Barcelona player (1989-1995) & assistant (1998-2000)
Juan Carlos Unzué: Barcelona player (1988-1990) & assistant (2014-2017)
Jorge Sampaoli: Known for playing beautiful and attractive brand of football.
Curiously, Luis Enrique's own relationship with the club and players has been somewhat contentious since he arrived.
Despite winning eight titles in his first two seasons, his time in Barcelona as manager has been peculiar – especially given his status as a former legend for both Barcelona and Spain. It’s well known that he’s never been a popular figure amongst the players, especially with Leo Messi with whom his relationship has been rocky. This butting of heads with Barcelona's star player almost cost him his position in January 2015 after an away defeat to Real Sociedad, which saw the Argentine playmaker start that game on the bench. It was a decision to which Messi didn’t take too kindly and, reportedly, threatened to leave the club if Luis Enrique continued down this path. This rumor was later enhanced when Messi began following Chelsea on Instagram, setting off a proverbial shitstorm in the world of soccer that proved to be unwarranted like so many others.
According to the Barcelona press, the situation between Luis Enrique and Lionel Messi got so out of control that the club captains had to meet with Enrique to tell him that his management of Messi needed to be different. This meeting appeared to have some impact and a slight change in his coaching methods was able to stabilize the situation between he, Messi and the team. Five months after that famous night against Real Sociedad, Barcelona went on to win the treble and Luis Enrique renewed his contract until 2017.
It would be hard to argue that Luis Enrique is not a good manager – especially given all that he’s won. However, there are those who believe Barcelona’s triumphs over the past two seasons have come in spite of Luis Enrique on the bench versus because of it.
Has Barcelona won thanks to or in spite of Luis Enrique?
I posed a similar question earlier this season about Zidane and it would only be fair to ask it about about Luis Enrique as well: Is Luis Enrique really a great manager or just a figurehead?
Personally, like Zidane, I also think Luis Enrique is a figurehead manager. There’s just a small difference between Zidane and Luis Enrique as figureheads.
Zidane embraced the figurehead manager role from the first day he was introduced as Real Madrid’s new coach. Luis Enrique arrived in Barcelona as a no-nonsense manager, but then changed once he realized it was the only way he could keep his job.
I know people might think this ridiculous to suggest this with all he’s won at Barcelona, but let’s keep in mind three things:
1. He’s coaching a side that’s considered one of the best teams in the world
2. His game and squad management skills are poor
3. His previous coaching experiences haven’t exactly been the best
It’s no secret that FC Barcelona is one of the top three teams in the world, especially when you have an attacking front that includes Luis Suarez, Neymar and Leo Messi. Like Real Madrid, Barcelona can win 90% of their games on talent alone. However, when Barcelona go up against a well-organized side and can’t rely solely on talent is precisely when Luis Enrique shows his tactical flaws.
We just saw this three weeks ago in the first leg of the round of 16 Champions League match against PSG. Barcelona were tactically and physically outplayed by PSG, yet Luis Enrique made only two substitutions and they were like-for-like: Iniesta for Rakitic and Andre Gomes for Rafinha. The resulting 4-0 defeat later saw Luis Enrique lose his cool during the post match interview with Barcelona based television network TV3:
Luis Enrique has also shown inconsistency when it comes to managing the squad, especially this season. For example, Iniesta has only 4 assists and scored 1 goals in all competitions this season, while Neymar had gone on an 11-game goalless streak. Yet Luis Enrique has no problem putting all his faith in the two despite their poor run of form. Meanwhile, Rakitic (who is arguably Barcelona’s best midfielder at the present moment) gets benched after ironically saying he would like to play under Pep Guardiola one day. Similar comments by Sergio Busquets the season before were disciplined by Luis Enrique.
Let’s also not ignore the fact that Luis Enrique primarily got the Barcelona coaching job because he was a former Barcelona player and legend. If this were a meritocracy, his previous experience did not make him an obvious hire versus other options.
Enrique began his managerial career by taking over Barcelona’s reserve team from 2008 to 2011. During that time, he promoted the reserve side to second division and, incredibly, managed a third place finish in the 2010/2011 season. Unfortunately, Barcelona B weren’t eligible to take part in the playoff for promotion to La Liga’s First Division since the first team was already in the top flight.
The following season, Luis Enrique went to Serie A where he took over AS Roma. His signing was surrounded by much hype, but it started to go wrong right from the beginning when Roma were knocked out in the qualification stage of the Europa League. Roma failed to qualify for any European competitions that season and reports have it that Luis Enrique never got along with club captains Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi. After one season in the Italian capital, Luis Enrique resigned stating tiredness as his main reason for quitting.
After a year sabbatical, Luis Enrique returned to Spain to take over Celta Vigo. In one season and without any European competitions, the club finished 9th in the 2013/2014 season. It’s not bad and Luis Enrique probably met what Celta’s board had asked of him, but there was nothing spectacular about that season that warranted him to getting the Barcelona job.
The silver lining in all of this is that, despite the criticism Luis Enrique has received, he unarguably did one thing right that led to Barcelona winning the titles they won during his time as manager. Midway through his first season, Luis Enrique dropped Messi and Neymar’s positions back to midfield. This decision gave Barcelona more balance with five players in midfield and allowed them to play faster with Messi and Neymar starting their runs from the halfway line. However, what we don’t know is if this was Luis Enrique’s idea or Messi’s. Luis Suarez famously stated it was Messi who told him (Suarez) to play centrally when the Uruguayan started his career in Barcelona playing on the wing. Regardless, we’ll give Luis Enrique the benefit of the doubt.
No matter what you think of Luis Enrique's time as FC Barcelona manager, it's clear that his departure hasn’t left much sadness amongst the fans or even the ultra pro-Barcelona media. During the Leganes game, a portion of the fans booed him and the Catalan press has been looking for a new manager ever since he raised the possibility of leaving. He has seen little of the press imploring him to stay – something they've done on numerous occasions with Leo Messi and previously with Pep Guardiola.
Deserved or not, this seems to imply some portion of the fans and Barcelona press don’t think highly of Luis Enrique as a manager. The real question will be, can his replacement do any better? Perhaps the managerial position at Barcelona actually represents the world's worst dream job for a coach. Given the outsized expectations of fans and the press, it is likely that any manager will be blamed for the defeats, while the players will always be celebrated as the true heros.