After a 6-1 win against Sporting, Luis Enrique announced the upcoming end of a three-year run that delivered but never won the fans’ hearts
The announcement caught everyone off-guard.
The night seemed quite placid, after an easy win with some extra abuse on poor Sporting de Gijón (6-1). That same Sporting where Asturian coach Luis Enrique began his football career, and was then launched into stardom at Real Madrid before achieving captain-like notoriety in FC Barcelona. After an awful lot of running and triathlon events (Luis Enrique is a sports geek), his journey led him to Barcelona’s youth team, AC Roma, Celta de Vigo and ultimately his adored FC Barcelona.
All in all, a pretty intense ride. One that found an appropriate bookend this Wednesday, when the manager himself stated that he wouldn’t continue next season on Barça’s bench, opting not to renew his current deal which expires in June. His run only lasted three seasons.
From a fairly objective point of view, keeping him on the bench would’ve been an absolute no-brainer. He’s conquered eight of the ten competitions he’s taken part in, after all. The former winger can boast one of the most impressive resumes in football nowadays: one Champions League, two Liga trophies, two Copa del Rey, a Spanish Supercup, one FIFA Club World Cup…
And yet… something was ‘off’. You only have to look at the physical transformation he’s suffered since day one in the Camp Nou’s bench, probably one of the top five most demanding clubs in the world. His hair turned grayish, his spirit bitter and his face always in a seemingly permanent moody expression. Seriously, compare his looks early in the 2014-2015 to the one he has nowadays.
The man was burnt out.
Yes, it’s true that Luis Enrique was never a candidate for the Mister Congeniality prize. Harsh on his assessments, cutting when answering in press conferences, he never felt comfortable in his relationship with the always demanding, tense and highly-flammable ‘entorno’ (that’s how legendary Johann Cruyff sneeringly referred to it) that surrounds FC Barcelona.
His Barça was always going to be compared to Pep Guardiola’s for obvious reasons. Poor Pep also knows how big of a toll can this job take on a manager, as his hairline may attest in the four seasons he spent in Camp Nou. Luis Enrique, though, would try to change the pace and oust any kind of comparison by simple doing what anyone in his position would do: trying to get the ball as quickly as possible to his attacking triplet’s feet.
Leo Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar Junior. Not only one of the best tridents in modern football, but also (arguably) a strong candidate to Best Attacking Three ever. With this in mind, it made sense that Luis Enrique would want to take advantage of the crushing power these three beasts would have on the offense: long balls, a very direct style of play, not many transitions in the midfield… A radical departure to the traditional ‘Barça style’ that Cruyff created and Guardiola perfected years before. This lack of flair is something that most purist fans never forgave.
Besides, the relationship with his players was never easy. Usually, earlier Barça managers knew that keeping Leo Messi in good spirits would make or break their run in the bench. Luis Enrique, however, has had his fair amount of friction with his world-class star, even though under his management the Argentinian has become something sort of a God-like player, able to excel at absolutely everything on the pitch (passing, defending, free kicks, set-ups) whereas before he ‘only’ wowed the fans with his goals and dribbles.
When everything is listed down (brisk personality, acid bond with his players, burnout syndrome, huge levels of pressure), it is easy to understand why he would want to leave, even if the timing seems a bit inappropriate. After all, Barça has earned a spot in a final already (Copa del Rey against Alavés, winning it would make three in a row), conquered the top place in La Liga standings after Real Madrid’s home fumble against Las Palmas, and still has a shot (albeit seemingly microscopic) at qualifying for Champions League’s next round.
However, that 4-0 stunner against Paris Saint-Germain has moved the announcement of the decision forward, which was taken (apparently) many months ago. Luis Enrique is a Barça fan, after all, and making his departure a public affair provides his club with plenty of time to find a suitable coach for next season.
The race has begun: Ernesto Valverde (Athletic Club) and Eusebio Sacristán (Real Sociedad) are the top names, although most Culés get their juices flowing when they dream about the possibility of seducing Jorge Sampaoli. Meanwhile, Luis Enrique will try to make the most of his final days on the Camp Nou bench, with a couple of trophies that cap off and impressively seal what will be considered, in a few years, one of the most successful periods in FC Barcelona’s history.