At the press conference before Barcelona’s match with Sporting Gijón on Wednesday Luis Enrique was asked if he felt tired, worn out by the demands of being manager at the Camp Nou. He had been a little edgy of late, after all – even for him. “No,” he said, a little pointedly, which is how he says a lot of things, “I’m pletórico.” Plethoric, full of energy.
At the press conference after Barcelona’s match with Sporting Gijón on Wednesday night, they had finished asking Luis Enrique questions when he announced that he was leaving at the end of the season. “I need to rest,” he said.
Barcelona won a treble in his first season in charge and a double in his second. In his third and final season, they are on the verge of Champions League elimination but they have reached the final of the Copa del Rey against Alavés and the night that Luis Enrique announced his departure they moved to the top of the table for the first time since week nine, the league back in their own hands.
The president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, described him as a “legend”. But success does not provide immunity, nor is it an elixir of eternal life. Not here, especially.
“In England, I’d be a bloody hero,” the then Barcelona manager Bobby Robson once said; instead, he stood alone and under pressure, victim of a battle, an environment, he did not truly understand. Pep Guardiola said four years was as long as a coach could be at Barcelona. When José Mourinho said he should stay for 50 years, Guardiola joked: “I thought José loved me more than that.”
Johan Cruyff had a heart attack. Víctor Valdés talks about the emotional exhaustion, defending a goal that is bigger than 8ft high. “A year at Barcelona is like two anywhere else,” he said.
Luis Enrique, now 46, has taken charge of 164 games. That is 328 times he has been before the press, for matches alone. And media relations, the public perception, is just a part of it – albeit at a club that is so eminently political, where the coach is so exposed, it is a larger part than it probably should be. If at first he seemed to almost enjoy challenging them and refusing to play the game, instead playing one of his own in which he occasionally pricked their pomposity and prejudice, that feeling was fleeting and is gone now.
He was “surprisingly” sensitive to what the press said, for a man who claimed not to even look at the press. In Barcelona, it is hard not to be; it invades everything and it can be insidious.
Then there is the work itself, the relentlessness of it. The relentless of Luis Enrique, too. This is a man who competed in the New York Marathon; the Quebrantahuesos, or “bone crusher” race, cycling 205km through the Pyrenees; the Frankfurt Ironman, a 10-hour triathlon; and the Sables marathon, 255km through the Moroccan desert with a 10kg rucksack on his back. That obsessiveness and competitive nature is taken to his work. “The reason I’m leaving is the way I live this profession,” he said. “I get very few hours to rest, to disconnect; at the end of this season I need to rest.”
Guardiola once said that what he most enjoyed was that Eureka moment when, after hours of being locked in a dark, windowless room, he suddenly saw how his team would win. Luis Enrique described his job as one of “constantly seeking solutions”, “an incessant search to improve the team”. And while that is in his nature, it becomes tiresome for anyone. Especially when it is ignored or, worse still, thrown back at you. He sees himself seeking solutions, but the debate, every bit as relentless as he is, has become dominated by accusations that he is trampling on a tradition.
Although Guardiola described him as the “perfect manager for Barcelona” and while much of the criticism aimed at him for not being sufficiently “Barcelona” is exaggerated, there is something in that, some substance to the debate. That Barcelona have shifted, that there has been a sense of them losing their religion, is a reality. Luis Enrique sees himself as a man seeking solutions; for others he stands accused of being the problem.
Yet problems are more profound than the man on the bench and he knows that. Meanwhile, even those who enjoy the search for a perfection that is unattainable, Cruyff and Guardiola hanging over them, can be exhausted by the thanklessness of the task. They also know that however much they control they cannot control everything. Failures are yours more than successes will ever be.
The manager who has won eight trophies from 10 said he was leaving and no tears were shed. From New York to Frankfurt, from the mountains to the desert, those challenges say something about him: solitary, determined, single-minded.
He has never been close to his players, nor concerned about politics or public perception; it is just not his way. Six months into his first season, he was on the edge, the intervention of Xavi Hernández easing tensions and by the end of it they were celebrating in Berlin. That night, though, he still had not renewed his contract, nor confirmed that he would stay.
In Gerard Piqué’s words, Luis Enrique had taken over when the team were “completely in the shit” and won it all. And yet on Wednesday night, no one was sad. Some were surprised, it is true. Well sort of. They were not surprised by the fact that Luis Enrique is leaving but by the timing: when and how it was announced. This was a departure foretold but an announcement that was unforeseen.
He did it his way, as he always has. Whether it was the right way is open to debate, but an early announcement may help to ease the tension over the final months – maybe gratitude will appear now they know he is going – although it brings the succession to the surface. Or it would, if it was not already there, Ernesto Valverde, Mauricio Pochettino, Jorge Sampaoli, the most credible of the many names cited going back weeks now. This was coming, everyone knew. When a fortnight ago the club’s president said that there was no plan B for next season, that the only plan was Luis Enrique, few believed him.
Luis Enrique had told Barcelona’s sporting director in the summer that there was a chance that this would be his last season. Three years is a long time at the Camp Nou, he knew. They had agreed then that they would speak in April. Two or three days ago, still in February, he told them that his mind was made up: he was going.
A couple of days later, he told everyone else – in a routine press conference after a routine win. He did so once the questions had been asked and without fanfare. There was no official statement and no one there with him, not the president, the sporting director, his staff or the players.
They had found out a few minutes before, when he had walked into the dressing room and informed the squad. “We were left open-mouthed,” Ivan Rakitic said. Open-mouthed but not, in truth, broken-hearted.
• And so to the match itself, which wasn’t much of a match, played out in front of the worst attendance of the season – 56,605. A goal each for Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar, plus an own goal, another one from Ivan Rakitic, and Paco Alcácer too, made it six. Two had come inside 11 minutes, Messi opening the scoring from Javier Mascherano’s first ever assist. That said, there was a bit of an assist from a ropey offside trap too, and Iván Cuéllar unable to get off his line to close the gap quick enough. Suárez thumped in another volley. “Nobody’s fault but mine,” the head coach Rubi said, turning all Jimmy Page. Sporting remain in the relegation zone, while Barcelona went top … and stayed there.
• “We got back into it … I don’t know how,” Marcelo said after Real Madrid came from 3-1 down to draw 3-3 with Las Palmas at the Bernabéu. He wasn’t the only one. On the way out of the stadium, one Las Palmas player still couldn’t believe it. “How the hell did we lose that?” he said. “We should have won it 5-1.” Or 6-4, or 8-7, or lost it 5-4 or 7-6. It was that kind of game, with seemingly endless chances – good chances too. Loads of them. There were 37 shots by the end, eight each on target. And plenty of those that weren’t should have been.
• It also had Gareth Bale sent off. So, a nice quiet Wednesday night then. According to the referee, the red was shown for pushing over Jonathan Viera, which might have been a bit harsh if so, what with Viera pushing him first, but it could just as well have been for the two swipes at Viera’s ankles. Bale said he didn’t agree with the decision but apologised for the sending off. And neither Marcelo no Zinedine Zidane complained, preferring instead to focus on his contrition, underlining that they thought it was probably right.
That only increased Las Palmas’s domination, after a first half in which they had already had more of the ball, more shots, and more chances – even if too often they just didn’t seem to see the final pass. Jonathan Viera, Tana and Roque Mesa controlled the game. Madrid led but a wonderful equaliser from Tana put them back in the game and two more followed – first, a Viera penalty given for a diving save from Sergio Ramos and which was overhead kicked into his own net by Keylor Navas; then, a Prince breakaway, the goalkeeper a long way from his line.
3-1 up, Las Palmas lost control a little – and failed to finish it off, when they really should have done. They had the chance to win at the Bernabéu for the first time ever but it wasn’t to be. “A combination of the fear of losing the lead you have and the team you have in front of you means that can happen,” Quique Setién said. “But we didn’t manage the ball well. We lost the ball trying to score more when we should have simply kept it; we didn’t need to go forward all the time.” Madrid on the other hand did. Ronaldo scored a penalty in the 86th minute and a thumping header from a corner in the 89th.
Not that it helped much: they still lost top spot (albeit with a game in hand) for the first time since week nine. Mind you, it could have been worse: that’s two comebacks to rescue four points in their last two games. “We don’t do things we say we’re going to do,” Marcelo said. “There are no excuses: we need to do things differently,” Zidane said.
• So, Las Palmas did the right thing and didn’t change, despite losing four in a row. They didn’t deserve to lose those and they felt they didn’t deserve to lose two points here either. Setién said: “A victory would have been very important; the draw doesn’t feel like much.” There’s faith in their style. There’s pragmatism too, even if many don’t see it. “We have an idea and we compete very well with it,” Setién said. “We want to win as well: we’re not only interested in playing good football. We have a commitment to the game; that’s what I like and what I try to express. And to control the game, to dominate a team like Madrid at the Bernabéu is something to be proud of, even beyond the result. But we’re every bit as competitive with our style as teams who play other ways – let no one forget that.”
• Bobby Soldier is back. Roberto Soldado scored a retaken penalty but didn’t celebrate it as Villarreal hammered Osasuna 4-1. Osasuna are doomed, already, even if the manager did say: “I’m not thinking of throwing in the towel.”
• And so the handball thing goes on. “We’re going to end up playing with our arms bandaged up,” Celta manager Toto Berizzo said after his side drew 2-2 with Espanyol. “Players live with the uncertainty of knowing what’s a handball and what’s not.”
• Granada did it again. A little stability, and a lot of hope. That’s three wins and a draw in their last four games – and they’re now level on points with Deportivo, two behind Leganés, who they play on Saturday. They’ve been in the bottom three since week five but now, for the first time, there’s some hope that they could get out of there.
• Pepe Mel takes to the Riazor bench tonight for his debut against Atlético as the Deportivo head coach. “The players’ ears are standing up,” he said. “They look at you, judge you, try to work you out … that’s what players are like. What I have to do is convince them that I know what I’m talking about.”
• And Fuenlabrada are into the final of the Copa Federación against Atlético Saguntino.
Results: Real Sociedad 2-2 Eibar, Málaga 1-2 Betis, Valencia 1-0 Leganés, Osasuna 1-4 Villarreal, Barcelona 6-1 Sporting, Celta 2-2 Espanyol, Madrid 3-3 Las Palmas, Granada 2-1 Alavés. Thursday evening: Deportivo-Atlético, Sevilla-Athletic
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