Succumbing to the pressures of being Barca manager

When Luis Enrique announced that he would step down as Barcelona manager at the end of the season, it evoked no collective gasp. It was surprising, yes. But the decision never seemed in doubt. Only the timing of it was.

Feeling the heat... in the two-and-a-half seasons Enrique has been at the helm, Barcelona has won eight of the 10 trophies it has played for. FC Barcelona's coach Luis Enrique arrives for a press conference at the Sports Center FC Barcelona Joan Gamper in Sant Joan Despi, Spain, Friday, March 3, 2017. Enrique will leave the Spanish champions at the end of this season. The coach made the surprise announcement following the team's 6-1 win over Sporting Gijon in the Spanish league on Wednesday March 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)   -  AP

When Luis Enrique took over as manager at Barcelona from Gerardo Martino in May 2014, the club was said to be in a “mini crisis.” It had failed to win any major honour in the season gone by for the first time in six years. It was a far cry from the club’s heyday under Pep Guardiola when it won 14 of the possible 19 in a four-year period from 2008 to 2012.

In the two-and-half seasons Enrique has been at the helm, Barcelona has won eight of the 10 trophies it has played for. He delivered the treble — La Liga, Champions League and the Copa del Rey titles — in his opening season. It was followed by a double (La Liga and Copa del Rey titles) in the second. The same might well happen in the third year as well.

“In England, I’d be a bloody hero,” the late Sir Bobby Robson had said of his Barcelona days. Enrique, by virtue of his record, should be a hero everywhere in the world. But on the night of March 1, when he announced that he would step down as Barcelona manager at the end of the season, it evoked no collective gasp. It was surprising, yes. But the decision never seemed in doubt. Only the timing of it was. Numbers don’t lie it is said. For the emotionally attached Barcelona fan, it does. The club has lost its identity, he or she will argue.

“Barcelona is a feeling,” Carles Rexach, the man who is said to have famously signed Lionel Messi “on a napkin,” told Blizzard, a football quarterly. “Years ago, the political element was central and it’s still there: Catalanism, separatism, nationalism. Even people who didn’t like football took an interest in football through Barcelona, because it meant something, hence more than a club. Its politics and football wrapped up together.”

Dani Alves (second from left) celebrates a goal with his Barcelona team-mates, Sergio Busquets, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi in a La Liga match against Espanyol. Alves later joined Juventus.   -  Getty Images

 

Principal to this separatist identity was Barcelona’s footballing philosophy. Built on the ideals of the Dutch footballing legend Johan Cruyff, its style was based on supreme ball control. From its famed academy La Masia to the first team, “respect for the ball” was a prerequisite. The heights to which Guardiola took it, meant that it became “the style” to be emulated. And the fact that the ringmasters were Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol and Sergio Busquets, graduates at La Masia, provided it an authenticity which was unparalleled.

The feeling, all along, was that, under Enrique it had started drifting away from this. The rumblings have been there all season. Barcelona has increasingly become susceptible to pressing. Once they had that great ability to play through pressure. But not any more. The 4-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League Round-of-16 first leg clash brought this into focus like never before. It was the heaviest Enrique had suffered. Then weekend after the defeat in Paris, Barcelona hosted Leganes. It won 2-1, but, Barcelona for only the first time ever, fielded only one Catalan player.

In a sense, it would be unfair to place all of the blame on Enrique. He described his job as one of “constantly seeking solutions”, “an incessant search to improve the team”. In that vein, it could be argued that his tactical tweak, which made Barcelona more direct, was essential. Until 2012, the apex of world football was in Spain; it was built on absolute control of the ball. In the seasons since then, clubs in Germany took the style to a new level by adding ruthless efficiency and rapid transition from defence to offence. It was no surprise that Barcelona was thrashed 7-0 by Bayern Munich in the 2012-13 Champions League semifinal.

But the regret now is that what started as slight modification has morphed into the club’s primary tactic. The addition of Neymar and Luis Suarez has no doubt made the club’s frontline the most devastating in the world. But a disjointed midfield and a defence which is unable to play out from the back has badly exposed the side. If Ivan Rakitic was instrumental to Enrique’s tweak, the signing of Arda Turan and Andres Gomes, both rugged and battling midfielders, sort of mainstreamed it.

At the most recent match, the Barcelona faithful chanted Enrique’s name, which indicated that there were problems beyond the coach as well. Back in 2013, when Neymar was signed, Cruyff had criticised the club’s board for undermining the coach. Then Luis Suarez was brought in and it was not long before the club was slapped with a transfer ban for irregularities. Dani Alves, one of club’s most successful players, left for Juventus on bitter terms. “They were very false and ungrateful,” he said of the board. “They did not respect me. Those who run Barcelona today have no idea how to treat their players.”

In the period prior to Frank Rijkaard’s appointment, Barcelona hadn’t won the La Liga title for four years. But at no point was the club’s philosophy ever doubted. Under Enrique it has won everything that was there to be won. Yet, the modified approach isn’t viewed as par for the course but as an unforgivable transgression. In a modern-day football world which is cut-throat, result-oriented and impatient Barcelona’s fight seems to be for its ethos.