BARCELONA, Spain, Mar 2 – Barcelona coach Luis Enrique’s decision to remove any suspense over his future by confirming he will step down as coach after three trophy-filled but turbulent seasons at the Camp Nou at the end of the campaign was met with surprise on Thursday.
“Goodbye leader,” said the front page of Barcelona sport daily Mundo Deportivo in reference to Enrique’s announcement coming on the same night Barca overtook Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.
Normally a combustible character, the 46-year-old calmly explained his reasoning for not seeking to renew his expiring contract after a 6-1 thrashing of Sporting Gijon on Wednesday.
Enrique cited the daily grind of the pressure as Barca boss and insisted he needs time to rest.
“Luis Enrique leaves as he has always been, faithful to who he is: unpredictable and indomitable,” said Barcelona-based newspaper Sport.
“His announcemwill begin a ent took almost everyone by surprise in a decision that was strictly his.”
However, it was the sudden nature of his announcement rather than the decision to leave that shocked the most.
“In the summer he already told us he was considering this could be his final year,” said Barca president Maria Josep Bartomeu.
The conclusion has merely been precipitated by a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain two weeks ago that leaves the Catalans needing a historic comeback in next week’s second leg to avoid elimination from the Champions League at the last 16 stage for the first time in 10 years.
Enrique told the players his decision just minutes before going public at the end of his post-match press conference on Wednesday. “We were all left a bit open-mouthed,” admitted midfielder Ivan Rakitic.
However, undercurrents of disagreement with major figures in the dressing room have been a feature of Enrique’s time in charge.
Captain Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets criticised his tactical set-up in the demolition by PSG a fortnight ago.
Moreover, a bust up with Lionel Messi in January 2015 nearly cost Enrique his job after just six months in charge.
Instead, he went onto win eight trophies in the last three seasons. Only the two greatest coaches in Barca’s history — Pep Guardiola and Johan Cruyff — have won more.
That figure could even rise to 10 as Barca face Alaves in the Copa del Rey final on May 27 in what is likely to be Enrique’s last match in charge, and hold a one-pont lead over Real Madrid in La Liga, albeit Madrid do still have a game in hand.
Yet, the criticism that followed Barca’s dismantling in Paris centred around a feeling they have begun to lose their identity in the Enrique years.
– Stylistic differences –
Far from the sides filled with home-grown players built around the midfield of the Guardiola years, Enrique’s team has been about feeding the star front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar the ball as quickly as possible.
In Barca’s first outing after Paris last weekend — a nervy 2-1 win over lowly Leganes only sealed by a late Messi penalty — there was only one Spanish player in Barca’s starting line-up for the first time in their history.
Therefore, maintaining a sense of Barca’s DNA in the next appointment is likely to be crucial to an under-fire board.
For that reason former Barca player and highly experienced Athletic Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde is a leading candidate.
However, polls suggest the supporters’ choice would be Sevilla’s Jorge Sampaoli.
Sampaoli, who has guided Sevilla to third in La Liga and the Champions League last 16 in a highly impressive first season in Europe, is also likely to be a popular choice with fellow Argentine Messi.
The five-time World Player of the Year has just over a year to run on his contract and keeping Messi happy and willing to extend his deal will have a huge influence on who is chosen to succeed Enrique.