My piece for the Boot Room on what Enrique’s departure means for Barcelona
It seemed inevitable. The constant pressure, criticism, and rumours would sap the energy of any manager.
As reported by the Guardian, Luis Enrique announced he will be leaving Barcelona at the end of this season after his side’s 6-1 victory over Sporting Gijon on Wednesday. The timing may seem a little strange, but given everything that’s occurred over the last three seasons, and especially in recent months, this decision seemed likely.
Enrique has won eight of the ten trophies available to him in his tenure and overseen the fabled MSN trio so it hasn’t been all bad. His departure isn’t all that dissimilar from his friend Pep Guardiola’s a few seasons ago. Guardiola announced his decision nearer the end of a campaign that saw Barcelona lose their title to Real Madrid and get knocked out of Champions League by familiar foes Chelsea. The Blaugrana won the Copa del Rey but Enrique will be hoping to go two better.
So what does this mean for Barcelona in their present state? In reality, very little changes. Especially on the field.
Enrique’s announcement does mean the manager and his squad can focus solely on football without the distractions about his future. This side is in a better position domestically than they were at the beginning of the year and can still hold out hope for a miracle in the Champions League.
The shock loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their Champions League tie in February still sticks in the mind but Barcelona bounced back by beat Atletico Madrid to reach the Copa del Rey. Barcelona’s chances to retain La Liga have improved considerably in the last few weeks. The Blaugrana are currently first in the league having played one more game than Real Madrid. Enrique’s team has gotten some help in reeling in their rivals, including from fellow title hopeful Sevilla, but have also gotten the results necessary to keep the pressure on.
One reason for that has been the increased focus on regaining the control in midfield that has been deemed missing for most of the campaign. One of the major criticisms of Enrique’s tenure has been the increasing loss of identity and the diminishing importance of the club’s style of play. This Barcelona side isn’t feared as much as previous versions due to their inability to really control a game and their weaknesses have been exposed on more than one occasion. The loss of form and absences of key players has contributed to this, along with a lack of adequate and consistent performances by their replacements.
Barcelona has trotted out in a 3-4-3 formation in the last two games against Atletico Madrid and Sporting. Enrique stated this change was to regain the control that has been missing, as seen here on ESPN FC, and it will be interesting to see how long it continues. Celta Vigo are up next in La Liga and the hardest remaining test is a trip to Madrid for El Clasico where the title could be decided if Barcelona doesn’t slip again. A fully focused, and healthy, Barcelona squad, led by a manager who has eased some of his worries, will feel they still have a shot at the treble.
The other effect of Enrique’s announcement is that it provides clarity and forces action off the field as well. The Barcelona board can now look for a replacement, and focus on renewing Lionel Messi’s contract. Messi is unlikely to leave Barcelona given he won’t find an S and N elsewhere and especially so if the new manager is one he’ll be happy to work with. That is the major task for Barcelona president, Josep Bartomeu. Finding a manager that can deal with the juggernaut that is Barcelona and all that encompasses, from the players to the press to the fans.
The list of names that have cropped up in the rumour mill throughout Enrique’s tenure is interesting.
Some names, like Arsene Wenger, can only be classified as peak rumour-mill, while others, like Mauricio Pochettino, will be cause for plenty of debate. Two such managers have already taken their hat out of the ring as ESPNFC reports that the aforementioned Wenger only has eyes for Arsenal, while Real Sociedad’s Eusebio is honoring his contract. Eusebio does have the history Barcelona prefer in their managers, having played for the club before spending time as an assistant for the senior side then briefly managing Barcelona B, but he doesn’t have the profile Enrique or Guardiola did and was sacked at Barcelona B.
Other names include the likely front-runner, Sevilla’s Jorge Sampaoli, Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde, Everton’s Ronald Koeman, Laurent Blanc and current assistant Juan Carlos Unzue.
The only one of those, aside from Pochettino, without any former Barcelona association, is Sampaoli but his fantastic first European season puts him at the head of the queue. Pochettino’s work with England will have eyes wondering his way as well but his Catalan past is tied to rival club Espanyol as both a player and manager. That kind of history won’t sit well with some fans nor, it seems, per ESPNFC, the man himself. Valverde had a short stint at Barcelona and his Athletic side are always a handful but his playing style may rule him out. Koeman wouldn’t be a surprising option given his tactical acumen and, of course, his history with the club. Blanc is the type of manager who could keep things ticking over without upsetting the apple cart but there will be doubts considering how is time at Paris Saint-Germain ended. Unzue is already well-established with this Barcelona squad as Enrique’s assistant and may have his own ideas to retool the squad for consistent dominance.
The possibilities are all there for Bartemeu and he has until season’s end to get a manager in place before the transfer window. No more words are needed for Enrique beyond support for him and his staff in the quest for silverware this season. That continues on Saturday against a Celta Vigo side that beat them 4-3 earlier in October. Keeping the pressure on Madrid until El Clasico is of the utmost importance and, at the very least, a noble Champions League exit a la Arsenal would save some face. Should Barcelona pull off the miracle of beating PSG and kick-start a long Champions run Enrique’s departure may be met with a bit more consternation?
For now, the Barcelona manager will want to focus on each task as it comes. With one of his last moves, Enrique has likely galvanized his squad and focused them on facing the tasks ahead, and possibly the boardroom as well. That bodes well for Barcelona’s present and future.