Pep Guardiola’s achievements as head coach at FC Barcelona were always bound to pile the pressure on any of his successors. How do you follow the man who assembled a squad which has been hailed, in some quarters, as the greatest club side that soccer has ever seen?
Luis Enrique is a former teammate of Guardiola’s at Barcelona and well versed in the history and traditions of the club. He took charge of the Barcelona “B” team from 2008 and also had stints as head coach in Italy with AS Roma and back in La Liga with Celta Vigo. Last summer, he became the latest man to try and follow in Pep’s footsteps.
By Christmas 2014, according to the Spanish media, Barcelona appeared to be in “crisis”.
That term is relative, of course. The Catalans are giants of the modern game. Playing to 100,000 at every home fixture—to take your seat among them, click here—the stakes are always bound to be high. Failure is not a word to be tolerated at Camp Nou.
Barca’s eternal battle with Real Madrid now extends beyond the boundaries of La Liga. Following their 2014 UEFA Champions League triumph, Madrid can now boast that they have been Champions of Europe ten times. That will bristle with the Barcelona elite. It may take some time to catch them, but you can be sure that the mission has been accepted.
It is therefore not beyond the realms of possibility that the 1-0 defeat to relegation-threatened Real Sociedad at the beginning of January pushed Luis Enrique right to the edge of the precipice. The sight of Lionel Messi warming the substitute’s bench while the team on the pitch stuttered cannot have been a welcome one.
Messi also missed a training session following the defeat—”gastroenteritis” was cited as the reason. Whispered rumours of unrest became a media frenzy.
The fact that it was mid-season, and that there were few alternatives available, probably saved him. Instead, one week into the new year and club legend Andoni Zubizarreta—the man who purportedly recommended Enrique for the job—was dismissed from his post as Sporting Director for “transfer mistakes”. His assistant, former club captain Carles Puyol, also left.
According to Spanish football expert Sid Lowe, writing in the Guardian, said that presidential elections were called, to “reduce the tension.” Luis Enrique, however, stated that it was more simple than that: “Victories are the only things that can calm this wave.”
Eventually, those victories came—and they kept on coming. Messi’s form blossomed again: the mutual understanding between the Argentine, Neymar and Luis Suarez improved and began to realize its potential.
By the end of the UCL final in Berlin—in which Barcelona defeated Juventus 3-1—they had managed to achieve what appeared to be unthinkable just six months earlier.
Barcelona’s recent “triplete” of UEFA Champions League, La Liga title, and Copa del Rey can be attributed to head coach Luis Enrique finding the right balance in his side, according to ex-blaugrana defender Lilian Thuram.
“Barça were fair winners because they outplayed their opponent. They are a more balanced team than they were before...They defend better and their attack is less predictable.”
If Barcelona can repeat their end of season performances from the beginning of next season, there will be no stopping them once again.
Guest post via Andre.