- Jorge Sampaoli, Ernesto Valverde and Ronald Koeman are the intriguing candidates who could replace Luis Enrique on the Barcelona bench.
Luis Enrique may end this season with a third straight league and cup double, and yet his decision doesn’t come as a great surprise. He spoke of needing “a rest” and managing Barcelona is a wearying position. The scrutiny is constant, the margin for error minute. The slightest slip can become a crisis. And what has happened to Barcelona over the past few weeks has been more than a slip.
It may seem ridiculous to be critical of a side that has lost just two games all season in La Liga, one that averages 2.28 points and 2.84 goals per game, but that’s the nature of modern football in Spain as in so many leagues: the big sides are so big that success must be relentless.
There have been rumblings all season, but they were brought into sharp focus by the 4-0 Champions League defeat to Paris Saint-Germain. The same intensity wasn’t there. Sergio Busquets, in particular, had looked out of sorts, while both he and Andres Iniesta had struggled with injuries. The benefits of that stellar front three, the individual brilliance that could unpick packed defenses, began to be outweighed by their lack of defensive work, the disconnection to the midfield.
Barcelona’s league season has featured the usual thrashings of sides still petrified by the club's aura, but there were plenty of warning signs, not only in the autumn defeats to Alaves and Celta Vigo but in strangely lifeless draws against Malaga, Villarreal and Real Betis and in the 3-1 defeat to Manchester City in the Champions League.
The message was clear: Barça had once terrified teams with its pressing, but this iteration was susceptible to just such a tactic. It could be out-pressed–a lesson PSG took decisively to heart. The weekend after the defeat in Paris, Barcelona hosted lowly Leganes. It won 2-1, but only thanks to a last-minute penalty from Messi. In that game, Barcelona for the first time fielded only one Catalan player.
In modern football the initial reaction, perhaps, is surprise that it has taken so long for the figure to fall that low, but it is not a detail to be glibly dismissed. Barcelona’s strength, at its best, was the congruence of its political and tactical identities, and the absence of La Masia graduates brought up in the Cruyffian ideal has diluted its identity.
Neymar and Luis Suarez, of course, changed the dynamic, as did Ivan Rakitic. They made Barcelona more direct, brought the club perhaps more in line with the way of the general tactical evolution of the game, certainly made its play more varied. But it was within recognizable parameters.
The signings of Arda Turan and Andre Gomes in midfield seem utterly contrary to the Barça philosophy. They are shuttlers, hard workers, gifted in their own ways, but not players to spin those beguiling long skeins of passes. And that, in turn, has caused problems elsewhere, most notably on the right but also in terms of the role of Busquets. As Sid Lowe pointed out in The Guardian after the Leganes game, it was indicative of how far Barcelona had shifted from its roots that there wasn’t a Barcelona player in the top 10 passers in the league this season and not a Barcelona midfielder in the top 25.
Luis Enrique, inevitably, has borne the brunt of much of the criticism, but it was notable that the hardcore of Barcelona fans chanted his name during the Leganes match. It is recognized he is a scapegoat for failures elsewhere, in terms of recruitment, in terms of a board whom Dani Alves, now at Juventus, slammed after the PSG defeat.
“They were very false and ungrateful,” he said. “They did not respect me… Those who run Barcelona today have no idea how to treat their players.”
The implication is that the problem probably runs deeper than the manager and whoever comes in will need a reassessment of recruitment. It seems likely there will, at least at first, be a conscious effort to return to a more characteristically Barcelona philosophy–and that means somebody who understands the club.
The favorite at the moment appears to be Athletic Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde, who spent two years with Barcelona as a player and won three Greek league titles as manager of Olympiakos.
Everton manager Ronald Koeman has been mentioned and has the advantage of having been a legend at the club as a player, scoring the goal that won it its first European Cup, in 1992. He was also an assistant coach to Louis van Gaal in the late 1990s. In that sense his résumé is impeccable, but there is a sense he has moved away from the Cruyff template and his previous managerial stint in Spain, with Valencia, was disappointing.
Juan Carlos Unzue, Luis Enrique’s assistant, had two seasons with the club as a reserve goalkeeper and would be the continuity candidate. Laurent Banc had a season as a player with Barcelona, is out of work and is a calming presence. Mauricio Pochettino, who knows the city having played for Espanyol, has done impressive work with Tottenham, instilling a pressing style that would match the Barcelona way while promoting young players.
But perhaps the most intriguing candidate is Jorge Sampaoli, a self-confessed disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, who was a major influence on Pep Guardiola. The greatest influence on Guardiola, a manager he sees as his mentor, is Juanma Lillo, who now is Sampaoli’s assistant at Sevilla.
Playing a relentless pressing game, Sampaoli has led Sevilla to third in the table and it is one game from a Champions League quarterfinal. That he is not merely Argentinian but from Rosario may endear him to Lionel Messi. Whoever takes over, this is a major challenge. The links to the great Barcelona clubs of Guardiola are dwindling and there is the sense that the whole ethos of the club needs reasserting.