How Barcelona’s Luis Enrique proved everyone wrong – and ended the hunting season

FC Barcelona v RC Deportivo La Coruna - La Liga

Luis Enrique declared hunting season open in the first week of November and it lasted well into the new year. Barcelona had just been beaten at home by Celta de Vigo, the first time the Galicians had ever won at the Camp Nou, and the Catalans’ coach, who had watched the criticism grow almost from the start, sarcastically foresaw a “nice week” ahead. As it turned out, that was optimistic: it was more than a week and it would get a whole lot “nicer”. A 0-0 draw with Getafe followed in December and when 2015 opened with a 1-0 defeat at Real Sociedad, a crisis opened.

That January night, Lionel Messi sat on the bench and the following morning he did not join his team-mates in the one annual training session open to supporters. Sitting on the bench had been the coach’s decision; sitting out the session had been the player’s and it felt like a protest, a glimpse of the cracks in their relationship. The same day the sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta, was sacked, his assistant Carles Puyol walking just hours later, and two days after that the president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, called elections “to reduce the tension”.

Two men had gone and a third had opened the door for his own departure. The surprise was that Luis Enrique was not one of them. Reports emerged of a clash with Messi – later confirmed by the full-back Jérémy Mathieu – and Luis Enrique admitted that his position had been “weakened” by the departure of Zubizarreta. Results had not impressed, nor had performances, and one poll had 68% of supporters saying he should be sacked. At the same time, although Bartomeu denied issuing an ultimatum, alternative coaches were contacted.

Six months on, Barcelona’s board continue to think about a future without Luis Enrique, drawing up a list of candidates to replace him. But this could not be more different. This time, the decision would be his, not theirs, and much as Bartomeu keeps insisting that he is certain Luis Enrique will continue, there are fears that he might not – and “fear” is the word now. His name is chanted, supporters embrace him and will him to stay. But some board members think he might just be crazy enough to leave.

At every press conference, Luis Enrique is asked about his future and at every press conference he avoids answering. If he was to depart, he may well do so having won every trophy he has ever competed for as Barcelona’s coach. Beat Juventus on Saturday night and Luis Enrique would match the man they spent much of the season telling him he could never match. Like Pep Guardiola, he would win a league, cup and European Cup treble in his first season at the Camp Nou.

Defeat at Real Sociedad was six months ago this week. Since then, Barcelona have played 34 times. Only four times have they failed to win and two of those did not matter, a 3-2 semi-final second-leg defeat in Munich that did not prevent them going through to Saturday’s final 5-3 on aggregate, and a last day 2-2 draw with Deportivo de La Coruña having already won the league. During the run, the front three alone have scored 120 goals and Barcelona have won 78.9% of their matches, a better record than under Guardiola.

Not that it was ever about results alone. “If you lose, they kill you; if you draw or win they still criticise you,” Luis Enrique said, speaking from experience. He claims to have stopped reading the press on advice from his doctor but his responses have underlined that he is aware of what has been said – not just about results, but about the play, the very essence of the team. If Guardiola’s side, like Johan Cruyff’s dream team before, was an idealised image of perfection to aspire to, it was also the Sword of Damocles hanging over those that followed.

Luis Enrique had played for Barcelona and coached Barcelona B, he had embraced Barça and his family home remained in Catalonia even after he retired. He very publicly identified with Barcelona, particularly when it came to the rivalry with Real Madrid, and he described getting the job at Barcelona as being like going to Disneyland. He has had the backing of Guardiola, who insisted Barça were in good hands, a friend’s hands. But for half of this season he stood accused of just not being Barcelona enough.

In truth, Luis Enrique had always been a different type of Barcelona player, not made from the Guardiola-Xavi-Iniesta mould. Born in Asturias not Catalonia, he had come through Mareo not La Masia, raised as a player at Sporting Gijón’s academy not Barcelona’s. He had even played at Madrid before heading to Catalonia, where he then lived through an era of almost constant crisis as well as a spell of success, never winning the European Cup, and his game was more about dynamism than touch or positioning: aggressive, hyper-competitive, abrasive, intense.

It said something about his personality that when he retired, he headed to Australia for six months then returned to compete again, his way. He ran the New York Marathon, preparing properly with a personal trainer and eventually, in Florence, registering a time under three hours. He competed in the Quebrantehuesos, or “bone crusher” race, running 205km through the Pyrenees; he completed the Frankfurt Ironman, a 10-hour triathlon; and he took on the Sables marathon in Morocco, 255km through the desert with a 10 kilo rucksack on his back.

He returned to coach Barcelona B, then Roma and then Celta, where the first thing he did was have scaffolding erected at the club’s A Madroa training ground from which he watched the sessions. A technical observation centre, they called it. There was no need for one at San Joan Despí, the training ground he often cycles to and one with stands sufficiently high to watch from above, but the attention to detail continues at Barcelona. So too the sense of distance from some of the players.

At his presentation he jokingly described himself as “handsome, tall and Asturian”. More importantly, he called himself a “leader”. He admitted that there would be moments of tension, the “typical” group problems, and that he would resolve those as they arose, but here was a manager stressing his authority. That was what the club had wanted after the laissez-faire regime of Tata Martino; whether it was what the players wanted was another issue. It was a significant statement of intent.

There were others. That day, Luis Enrique insisted that titles won with a “patadón” were worthless. A patadón is an aimless hoof. He talked about being faithful to Barcelona’s style. But he also insisted: “We have to evolve that idea, perfect it, improve it, so that we can surprise opponents and so that they don’t know what type of play we will use.”

He presented that shift as “nuances that enrich our approach”, making Barcelona less predictable, but some took it almost as a betrayal; Barcelona were losing their religion. This week he rightly noted: “I live amid extremism”. There was little room for shades of grey. And as the opening months went by, as the pieces still did not fit together, as the style, if there even was a style yet, did not convince, so the criticism grew. When he described Barcelona as Disneyland just before Christmas, he was accused of failing to face reality. “More like Mordor,” one columnist noted.

Barcelona had lost the clásico and trailed Real Madrid, who went on a 22-game winning run. In 29 weeks, Luis Enrique had not repeated a starting XI once and it was not clear where they were heading, except downwards. Luis Suárez symbolised the shift in style, but he had only made his debut in late October and his role remained ill-defined. The ball was played forward quicker; too quickly, many said. The midfield, arguably the defining feature of Barcelona, was being passed-by.

When defeat came, the coach said it: se abre la veda. Hunting season was open and for a while it was bloody. When the crisis occurred, it seemed impossible that he would survive. At best, he would hang on until the end of the season, once an uneasy truce was called. But then Barcelona took off. They beat Atlético Madrid, with Messi hyperactive and Barcelona superb having previously looked so plodding. Afterwards, Messi described it as false that he and Luis Enrique had fallen out, accusing people of “throwing shit”.

“Everything changed,” Messi later claimed; Luis Enrique insisted that little had changed. The approach, the ideas, the work, remained the same. Perhaps, but the way they played did not and nor did the results. Soon, they were flying. There was a consistency to the team: now they have a clear, recognisable starting XI. Suárez moved into the middle, Messi drifting right. They beat Real Madrid 2-1, Suárez getting the winner. He had scored just one before Christmas; 15 followed afterwards.

Suárez’s goal that night had been born of a long ball over the top and at times Barcelona had ridden their luck but they had been demonstrably fitter than their opponents in the second half and performances improved too. They went to Paris and Manchester and dominated. Messi was playing the best football of his career. Over the last three months, the midfielders have played superbly, no longer marginalised. In that context, the direct breaks came to look like nuances, not a whole new identity.

When Guardiola described Barcelona before the Champions League semi-final as the best counter-attacking team in the world it was taken the way it was meant: as a eulogy. Not the way it would have been taken in the autumn: an insult. Against Bayern, they had less than 50% of the ball for only the second time in 442 games but they scored three times and no one complained. Criticism slowed, even if some still questioned the agency of the manager.

Peace had been brokered, not least by senior players, led by Xavi, intervening with Messi. Others thought it was the extraordinary brilliance of the Argentinian that truly changed their season. But that would be simplistic. The crisis had been resolved and yet even if the relationship was, as some claim, still cold, and the truce theoretically a temporary one, some dialogue had been opened, bridges built. The solution came to appear lasting. If some thought Messi had won, not Luis Enrique, it no longer really mattered: Barcelona had won and were winning.

Other shifts pointed to the coach: the swifter transitions were what he had desired they began winning the ball higher, which had always been one of Luis Enrique’s goals. “He understands the club’s philosophy: he has really driven home the idea of pressing high,” Javier Mascherano said.

The pressure was led by Suárez, now back in the middle with Messi playing everywhere from a right-sided starting point. The Uruguayan admitted in a radio interview that Messi had suggested as much during a game and they had just carried on from there. When that was put to Luis Enrique, he offered up a telling reply: “So, when we lose, it is down to me. When we win, it’s the players.”

But with time, results and performances came belief. The manager’s name is chanted now and by increasing numbers; he is seeing as a winning ticket in the summer elections now; he is valued. Hunting season has ended. Some of those doubting had included players but they too came to see Luis Enrique’s hand in the good work they were doing and the results they were getting.

Some of it could be verified easily: the statistics show that this team is defensively stronger than ever, conceding just 21 and keeping 23 clean sheets in the league, while set plays, once an absurdly over-exposed Achilles heel, is now a strength. They saw too that the team was fitter, faster, more aggressive than it had been before, their varying style making them harder than ever to stop.

Perhaps it was all in the interpretation. Rotation was revisited. The doubt remained over whether Luis Enrique had always planned to segue into stability, a clear starting XI, or whether it had been effectively forced upon him – if, indeed, that even mattered – but now, with the team in better condition than opponents, closing in on a treble, playing superb, swift football, seemingly stuck on fast forward, the rotations that had been judged problematic before became a stroke of genius now.

“You have to give him credit: physically and mentally we are in very good shape,” Mascherano said. “At the start of the season there was a lot of criticism but you have to recognise that he has managed the group very well.”

Luis Enrique had previously noted: “When we lose games people will say that rotations are no good, a disaster, but I’m going to do the best that I can so that we reach the end of the season with a chance of winning every competition.”

This is the very end of the season, his first in charge of FC Barcelona, and that chance remains.

Read more:http://www.theguardian.com

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