When Luis Enrique announced on Wednesday night that he will be leaving Barcelona at the end of the season, few of the club’s fans were too surprised, and fewer still will be sad to see him go.
Judging by the online reaction, many Barça supporters had already been advocating a change of manager at the end of the current campaign, feeling that Enrique is no longer getting the best out of his players.
For most, the 4-0 Champions League last-16 first-leg defeat to Paris Saint-Germain two weeks ago was the final straw; frustration over the 46-year-old coach’s apparent inability to make the requisite in-game adjustments to turn around his side’s fortunes lay at the heart of many complaints.
Whether it’s Jorge Sampaoli, Ernesto Valverde, Eusebio Sacristán or any of the myriad tacticians linked with the post in recent weeks, there was a general consensus that a change was needed and Enrique should be shipped out.
Yet, after winning the Treble in his first season in charge at the Camp Nou and a domestic double the following term, Enrique’s Barcelona reign deserves to be remembered fondly and with reverence once the dust has settled on his departure.
Things may not have gone quite to plan this season, with the team growing increasingly dependent on the brilliance of Lionel Messi despite well over €100million of investment in the squad last summer, but the Catalan giants’ recent fortunes do not amount to a crisis.
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Progression in the Champions League is extremely unlikely but, after Wednesday’s 6-1 win over Sporting Gijón and Real Madrid’s draw at home with Las Palmas, Barça sit top of the league and will contest the Copa del Rey final in May; they could quite conceivably retain their league and cup trophies for the third consecutive year.
In speaking to the press after the trouncing of Sporting, Enrique confirmed his decision to step away from the Camp Nou dugout.
“I will not be manager of Barcelona next season,” he said in his post-match press conference.
“In preseason I had a meeting with [Albert] Soler and Robert [Fernández] during which I spoke about the possibility of not renewing.
“They told me that there was no rush to decide. But the moment has arrived.
“The reason is the way I live this job, constantly looking to improve. It means I have very little time to rest.
“It’s been a difficult, but well thought through decision, I need to rest. I would like to thank the club for the confidence they have shown in me and for three unforgettable years.”
The fact that he had been thinking about stepping down for some time has given rise to the theory that the timing of Enrique's announcement was strategic. It could be that he was waiting for a result such as the one his team mustered on Wednesday so he could break the news with Barça riding high, rather than, say, fresh off the back of the PSG defeat when his decision would have been greeted with a unanimous “good riddance” in the heat of the moment.
Instead, by doing it now, Enrique has given his doubters a taste of what they might miss, an appreciation of what they have come to take for granted and a suggestion that the Camp Nou turf may not be greener without him; it was a defiant yet subtly disguised two fingers to those who had already drafted his resignation letter for him.
Luis Enrique is just the second manager in European history (after Guus Hiddink) to win a Treble and follow it with a Double. pic.twitter.com/sRWqyL66K3
— Muhammad Butt (@muhammadbutt) March 1, 2017
It is true and absolutely fair to point out that Barça have not been at their brilliant best often enough this season, and that if they are to secure a third straight title it will be as much down to Real Madrid’s new-found inconsistency as their own good work.
However, the struggles of this season – one that might yet end with two major honours – should not discount the remarkable work Enrique has done since taking charge of the club in 2014.
It would be easy to write off Enrique’s achievements at Barça – as many have and will continue to – due to the sheer amount of talent at his disposal, just as Pep Guardiola’s trophy-haul is often undermined; anyone could win with Messi, Neymar, Luis Suárez and Andrés Iniesta in their team, right?
Well, no. Enrique took over when Argentinian manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s stint at the helm was curtailed after one (aside from the Supercopa) trophy-less season. Runners-up to Atlético Madrid in La Liga and knocked out of the Champions League by Diego Simeone’s men too, Barça also suffered a Copa del Rey final defeat to Real Madrid.
More than an inability to add to the club’s trophy cabinet, though, Martino’s reign left the team disharmonious.
Enrique came in and, after a difficult first five months, made a small yet vital tactical shift which rejuvenated Barça and their best player.
Having operated as a false nine since Guardiola’s time in charge, Messi’s performances in the role had stagnated, with his lack of movement when leading the line often causing Barça to struggle when attempting to unlock stubborn defences.
The new boss decided that, with summer signing Suárez returning from suspension, Messi should be moved back to his previous right wing berth, where he could effectively enjoy a free role, with the Uruguayan spearheading the attack and opening up space with his ability to run in behind defences.
It proved to be an inspired move, and, almost overnight, Barça became a much more dynamic proposition, benefitting from being able to take a more direct approach when necessary by going long to Suarez, or counter-attacking swiftly through Neymar and Messi.
The Blaugrana went on to secure the Treble, while Messi, in his new-old role, later reclaimed the Ballon d’Or award which he’d lost to Cristiano Ronaldo in 2014.
As it stands, with eight major honours from his two-and-a-half seasons in charge, and with that figure likely to rise further by the time he walks away, Enrique is one of the most successful coaches in Barça’s history.
Indeed, his record of having won a staggering 76.2 per cent of his matches with the Catalan side is almost identical to Guardiola’s win rate of 76.32 per cent while at the Camp Nou, and the current Manchester City boss is widely regarded as the club’s greatest ever coach.
Barcelona’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, is confident that Enrique will be able to end his reign on a high.
“We accept Luis Enrique's decision. He has been a great coach,” he said after the manager publicly announced his intention to leave at the end of the season.
“Now it is time to end his spell in the best possible way.
“Enrique has brought us great success and he can still bring us more. The players are motivated to do it.”
Another Treble is nearly impossible, and a league and cup double will be difficult. But regardless of whether Enrique guides Barça to more silverware this term, his time in charge should — and, with time, will — be looked back upon as a remarkably successful period for the club.