When Barcelona appointed Luis Enrique as first team manager in the summer of 2014, the Catalans had gone through three managers in three years and were in disarray. Pep Guardiola, Titlo Vilanova and Tata Martino had left in three successive seasons and the club, with its greatest generation of players, were left looking for a steady hand to guide them.
Guardiola left at the end of the 2011-‘12 season and his then-assistant, Vilanova, was given the top job the following season. Vilanova’s tenure was cruelly cut short as his throat cancer relapsed and ultimately led to his demise. Martino was to take the hot seat at the beginning of the 2013-‘14 campaign but he appeared to lack grip on the stars in the Barcelona squad and was sacked after only one season in command without a single major trophy to show for his efforts.
At the time of relative turmoil, Enrique was handed the reins of the side. The Asturian had managed Barcelona B for three years before spending an unsuccessful year at Roma followed by another solitary season at the helm of Celta Vigo who he had guided to a respectable ninth place finish in the 2013-‘14 La Liga season.
Going by his managerial track record, Enrique wasn’t an inspired choice. But in a bid to repeat the success of the Guardiola years, the club deemed it fit to hand the reins of the club to one of his club as well as national teammates, who had followed a largely similar trajectory in football management.
Enrique had switched to Barcelona from Real Madrid as a player, and holds as much contempt for Los Blancos as an average Cule, and it made him a popular choice among the fans.
Starting his tenure at the Camp Nou in the summer of 2014, Enrique announced his decision to leave Barcelona at the end of the ongoing season last month. By then he will have completed three seasons at the hallowed European outfit. Even if his team do not end up with any trophies this season, there is no doubt that his spell at the club has been a success. However, he will leave a complicated legacy.
Perhaps no one would have been happier than Enrique to land the coveted job and he didn’t hide his elation as he declared, “It’s like the sun is shining a bit brighter outside my house this morning. It’s like being in Disneyland”, upon taking charge.
The Asturian enjoyed a good start to his opening season but Real Madrid appeared unstoppable as they went on an incredible 22-match winning run in all competitions and seemed destined to collect all the major honours. With Los Blancos firing in all cylinders, the unease among the Barcelona fans was palpable and when their team meekly lost 1-0 at Real Sociedad to go four points behind Real Madrid, all hell broke loose.
The defeat was painful but the voices from inside the club, suggesting unrest in the dressing room, and that too between club stalwart Lionel Messi – who sat visibly upset in the dugout at Anoeta, having started the game on the bench – and Enrique, appeared to plunge the club in deep turmoil. All sorts of speculation were made regarding the viability of Messi under Enrique’s management. And the rumours got a stamp of authenticity when Jeremy Mathieu confirmed a training session bust-up between the Argentine and the Asturian.
In the prevailing circumstances, the Barcelona board that was already suffering a crisis of confidence on the back of the FIFA-imposed transfer ban and had seen its presidency change hands from Sandro Rosell to Josep Maria Bartomeu due to dodgy transfer dealings, decided to hold their presidential election early to assuage the fan base.
However, instead of bringing the sails off the Barcelona ship, the speculation appeared to have galvanised the club as they lost just one league game of the remaining 21 to seal an unlikely title. They had already won the Copa del Rey in the week prior. And in the Champions League, Enrique masterminded a 3-0 demolition of Bayern Munich at the Camp Nou on the way to 3-1 win over Juventus in the final to secure an improbable treble.
Enrique’s dream which threatened to turn into a nightmare mid-season was an unforeseen success by the end of the campaign. And having emulated Guardiola’s first season success, the “Enrique era” had begun in earnest.
The 2015-‘16 season brought the domestic double. And as the team were riding on the goalscoring heroics of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez it appeared as if the Catalan outfit would finally become the first team in the Champions League era to successfully defend the European Cup. However, a brief slump at the business end of the campaign saw them lose in the quarter-finals and fall well short of a second successive treble.
This season too, the fight for the league title is still on and Barcelona are in the final of the Copa del Rey. However, the team went out in the quarter-final after losing 3-0 to Juventus 3-0. Nevertheless, their European campaign will be remembered by a stirring 6-5 aggregate win over Paris Saint-Germain that came after a 4-0 defeat from the first leg in Paris.
Overall, when it comes to trophy count, Enrique’s tenure has been a huge success even if the team fail to lift any silverware this season.
During the Guardiola years – the most successful in the club’s history – the ball was to be treated as a muse. Every move was to be processed from midfield, and possession was paramount. It was no wonder then that in a 4-0 thrashing of Rayo Vallecano under Martino, the most-talked about topic from the match was Barcelona’s inferior possession stats.
Since the days of club patriarch Johan Cruyff, possession-based play has become the leitmotif of Barcelona. And that essence has been firmly established with the unprecedented success during the 2008-‘12 period.
In the given circumstances, any shift in playing style is bound to be heavily scrutinised.
A first sign of possible change in the club ethos came early in Enrique’s tenure when he brought in Ivan Rakitic from Sevilla as one of his first signings. He was seen as a long-term replacement for the ageing Xavi Hernandez. But the Croat isn’t a player in the Xavi mould and Enrique wanted him to keep his natural instinct of looking for vertical, incisive passes rather than do a Xavi and dictate the tempo by cleverly circulating the ball in space.
It is telling that a near-Xavi, Toni Kroos, went to Real Madrid that same summer without Barcelona showing any interest in luring him away to the Camp Nou.
Every time Rakitic started over the veteran, the shift in style became obvious. And with Xavi leaving in the summer of 2015, the change in the team’s playing philosophy was complete. The Croat became a right sided midfielder whose secondary task was to provide defensive cover for Dani Alves’ foraging forward runs which left huge gaps in midfield for the opposition to attack.
The presence of the Mess-Suarez-Neymar trio also meant that the natural tendency of the team was to give the ball to one of them to conjure one piece of magic or another. Over the course of Enrique’s tenure the idea of getting the ball to the South American forwards has become so pervasive that the team seem to have forgotten their basic strength of depriving the opposition any time on the ball.
The way the team’s midfield has been overrun by not just a team of PSG’s resources, but also La Liga’s more humble names like Leganes and Celta Vigo has been an eyesore for the club faithful.
Despite the unquestionable quality and imperiousness of MSN, a more synergic evolution – one which wouldn’t sacrifice possession on the altar of directness – was needed. Whoever comes in place of Enrique will have his task cut out, deciding which playing style would be the way forward.
And the ugly
But perhaps the most damaging part of Enrique’s time at the club has been his apparent apathy for the graduates of Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy.
When not long in the past the club could proudly claim to have fielded all eleven players in a match from its very own academy, under Enrique, not one La Masia player has gone on to make his first team debut and subsequently establish himself in the squad. There is no denying that Xavi, Messi, Iniesta, Busquets et al have been exemplary talents, the likes of whom do not come often, but there is also no doubt that several potential stalwarts have been devoid of meaningful minutes under Enrique.
Alex Grimaldo, the highly-rated left-back, wasn’t given a look in even when Jordi Alba was injured and his back-up Adriano was clearly past his best, before being shipped out to Benfica without ceremony. Central defender Marc Bartra was never given a proper run before being sold to Borussia Dortmund where he has become a first team regular.
Enrique gave first team debut to Sergi Samper, a gifted midfielder with oodles of talent, but not enough minutes to solidify himself in the first team. It defied logic when Gerard Gumbau was preferred over Samper whenever the manager decided to look towards the academy for reinforcements. Samper is now on loan at Granada. In a campaign where Barcelona’s shortcomings in midfield have been laid bare Enrique’s decision to ship the 22-year-old out appears even more perplexing.
The policy of bringing average to mediocre talents like Douglas, Andre Gomes, Thomas Vermaelen, and Paco Alcacer among others, whilst depriving youth products of opportunities has been puzzling to say the least.
Only Sergi Roberto seems to have been revitalised under Enrique but even then the wisdom behind using a central midfielder as a full-time right-back is questionable.
As Enrique heads towards the exit door, Barcelona’s academy resources appear to be running thin. Hardly any name from La Masia is being touted as the next big thing, and what will rankle with Barcelona support even more is the relative good health of Real Madrid, with quality players like Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio looking good for the long run.
With eight trophies so far – and possibility for more by the end – Enrique’s tenure has brought great success on the pitch, but there are some very obvious question marks about his legacy.