It’s seemed pretty likely for a while now, and became all but inevitable after the humiliation in Paris last month, but it is now official: Barcelona manager Luis Enrique will not coach the team next season.
Luis Enrique has, in most respects, had a very successful tenure managing the team he once captained as a player. He fought back from the brink of disaster not long after getting the job, coming about a whisker away from getting the axe midway through the 2014-15 season and going on to lead the team to an amazing treble-winning campaign. He followed that up with repeat wins in the league and the domestic cup last season. This year, Barcelona are in the Copa del Rey final, have a very solid chance to win the league again, though are all but knocked out of the Champions League in the Round of 16 after PSG crushed them by a score of 4-0. No one—not the players, nor the manager, nor fans—is enjoying this.
In reality, Luis Enrique’s main failing has been an aesthetic one. He is not Pep Guardiola, and it’s because of that that Luis Enrique has endured so much pressure and scorn from significant sections of the media and the fan base, which has certainly played a big part in why he does not wish to continue on as manager.
Barcelona dominated soccer’s pitches and the sport’s imagination with the intricate, beautiful, midfield-centric play at the height of the Guardiola-masterminded, Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta-Messi-led era of glory. Luis Enrique took the team in a slightly different direction. Barça under his leadership have been a much more direct team, one defined by its forwards much more so than its midfield, a team that adheres to the principles of ball possession but is most dangerous during the quick offensive transitions they’ve prioritized over the patient, coordinated, positional attacks of Guardiola’s time.
When this was working, everything was peachy—mostly. Barça fans had become infatuated with the playing style Guardiola implemented, one that truly does have a historical through line at the club that goes all the way back to Johan Cruyff’s time both as a player and a manager, and began to believe that any straying from this Guardiola/Cruyff philosophy was tantamount to a betrayal of the club’s very ethos. But they’d also become addicted to trophies. Thus, that Luis Enrique pivoted away from the way of playing that got Barcelona to the mountaintop while simultaneously returning the team to its winning ways meant that at least early on, Luis Enrique was a somewhat controversial though mostly popular figure.
Things changed quickly. It started towards the end of last season, when, after a then-record 39-match unbeaten streak ended, a visibly gassed Barça squad nearly fell apart. They got knocked out of the Champions League at the hands of Atlético Madrid and gagged up what had been enormous lead atop the league table, going from nearly mathematically assured champions in March to needing a good result in their final match of the season in May to ensure the title. With the wins and goals that were so plentiful in 2015 drying up, Luis Enrique lost the goodwill he’d earned with the trophies the team collected in his first season, and front in center in the Barça faithful’s mind was how Luis Enrique didn’t have the team playing The Barça Way.
All of that heat on the manager has ratcheted up this season—and for justifiable reason. Barcelona have not looked as great as a team with Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez should. Seriously, Barcelona have Messi and Neymar and Suárez, probably the greatest collection of forwards the game has ever seen, and all kinds of money with which to bolster the team around those megastars. There’s no excuse for the club to have failed to either set up the team in a way that better suits those forwards, or, if it’s not the tactics that have let the team down, then to have bought some new guys who can step in and give the team what it lacks (namely: actual, real-deal central midfielders, and a real right back). That the team has played poorly in the exact way that The Barça Way is expressly set out to prevent (meaning the complete erasure of the midfield) has meant Luis Enrique has been under incredible pressure all year long.
Things came to a head during the Champions League beatdown against PSG. There again the team looked completely out of its depth, its midfield overrun and the forwards starved of the ball, unable to produce the individual moments of ingenuity that had saved the team so many times before. That game yet again exposed the team’s core problem during the latter stages of Luis Enrique’s rule: The team simply wasn’t set up in a way that made it easier for the best players to do what they do best, which is precisely the job of a manager.
Because of how and why Luis Enrique won the titles he won as coach, and because he’s had to leave amidst such calumny, it’s difficult to peg which direction his legacy will point. Will he be remembered as something of a pariah, one who had been handed an idyllic team and botched it all by distancing the club from the very ideals that created it? Will he be remembered, as a segment of local fans have long held, as a proud, no-compromise leader who was dragged down by entitled players and an adversarial media who never liked him because he wouldn’t prostrate himself before them? Or will it be that Luis Enrique was a dedicated servant to the club, that his brand of play and his fiery, demanding personality were exactly what the team needed when he came, but nevertheless had become insufficient by the end of his time in charge?
To my mind, it’s the last interpretation that comes closest to encapsulating Luis Enrique’s stewardship of Barça. He wasn’t an amazing manager, but he was a damn good one, who won lots of big games and trophies and created more than a handful of beautiful moments along the way. There ought not be any shame in that.