Barcelona have announced Luis Enrique as Tata Martino’s successor, and Alan Keane believes the Camp Nou faithful will warm to the Blaugrana legend immediately.
Pep Guardiola took over Barcelona’s senior side from Frank Rijkaard in 2008. Many considered this a risk on the board’s part, considering Guardiola had until then only managed the Catalan club’s B team.
The gamble paid off.
In his first season in charge Guardiola oversaw a glorious domestic and European treble. It was the start of a period of dominance for Guardiola and his charges. By the time he stepped down to take a sabbatical in June 2012, he had won an incredible 14 trophies.
His right-hand man Tito Vilanova took the reins that summer, but unfortunately had to resign due to illness after just one La Liga winning season in charge. His successor, Gerardo Martino, has lasted just one season too. The Argentinian left the club last week following a disappointing campaign which yielded only the Spanish Supercopa.
For Barcelona, that is never good enough.
Now, Luis Enrique has been appointed as manager on a two-year deal. The former Spanish international didn’t come through the famed La Masia academy like Guardiola did, but there are striking similarities between the two men.
The strongest link is obviously the fact that Enrique becomes only the second man to play for, captain and manage the Barcelona senior side as well as managing the B team. The first man? Guardiola.
After enduring criticism during his sole season in charge for not always playing the traditional Barcelona way, Gerard Martino complained that unless you were Dutch or “in-house” (someone promoted from within the Barcelona ranks) there was more scrutiny.
Perhaps he was right, but the problem for him wasn’t that he failed to conform to the traditional profile of a Barcelona coach, but rather that he failed to stick to the Blaugrana’s beloved football philosophy. There were too many long-balls, not enough intense pressing. The aesthetics were wrong.
Mes Que Un Club is the Barcelona motto. It translates as “More than a club.” Martino, for all his extensive experience as a coach, simply didn’t seem to comprehend fully the significance of the job he took on last summer.
Luis Enrique is not chiselled from the finest La Masia marble, having started his career at Sporting Gijon. He even played for Real Madrid before moving on a free transfer to Barcelona. He spent eight years at the Camp Nou however, obtaining the captain’s armband for a few seasons, and racking up over 70 goals for the club. He retired in 2004 at the age of 34.
His time at Barcelona means he should understand fully the nature of the job. When Guardiola took the senior coaching position at the club in 2008, Enrique filled the vacancy with the B team and thus began his managerial career.
Barcelona’s second team flourished under his leadership, with players such as Marc Bartra, Oriel Romeu and Thiago Alcantara all playing key roles. In his second season in charge, Enrique oversaw promotion to the Segunda Division. The next campaign saw his side reach the play-off spots for La Liga. Spanish FA rules dictate that a B team cannot play in the same league as a senior side so Enrique could take the side no further. He announced his resignation at the end of the 2011 campaign and during that summer signed a two-year deal to take over at Italian giants AS Roma.
After such unprecedented success with Barcelona B, there was huge pressure on Enrique to succeed in Rome. Trophies had been scarce for Roma around that time, with the side finishing sixth in Serie A the season before Enrique took charge.
His attempts to instil an ultra-attacking philosophy did not quite work out during his first and ultimately only season in charge. Fan feathers were ruffled when Enrique left club legend Francesco Totti out of a key game against Juventus. The season ended in disappointment, with Roma finishing in seventh place and failing to qualify for Europe, and Enrique left the club after just one year.
After a year out of management, Enrique was given another opportunity at Celta Vigo in the summer of 2013. However, within six weeks of signing his contract with the club, Enrique was being mooted as a possible successor to Tito Vilanova who had announced his intention to stand down as Barcelona manager. It was not to be however as Gerardo Martino left Newells Old Boys to take over at the Camp Nou.
After initial teething problems, most notably not managing a home victory in the first 15 games of the season, Celta Vigo enjoyed a positive campaign under Enrique. They played positive attacking football, finishing a respectable ninth in La Liga and claiming the scalp of Real Madrid along the way.
Enrique announced last week that he would be leaving Celta when the season ended, intimating that it would be he who took over from Martino at Barcelona. His former team-mate Andoni Zubizaretta is Barcelona’s sporting director and met with Enrique a few weeks back to discuss the post. The world’s worst kept secret was made official yesterday, and Lucho -as he was affectionately known during his playing days- has been handed a two-year deal at the club.
Much has been made of Enrique’s inability to succeed at a high level when he was at Roma. However, in that job he was attempting to change the footballing philosophy at a club in a short period of time. At Barcelona, he does not need to change either the club’s or his own outlook on football. They are one and the same.
While Martino was perhaps never fully welcomed by the Blaugrana faithful, it’s easy to imagine Enrique being afforded more leeway. The loss of club stalwarts Carlos Puyol and Victor Valdes, -while undoubtedly a blow- should act as a buffer between Enrique and criticism, at least early on.
Furthermore if Enrique disposes of the ‘Plan B’ Martino tried to adopt last season, he should mollify Barcelona’s demanding fans. With slight but incredibly skilful players like Lionel Messi and Neymar up front, playing long balls forward simply wasn’t the most potent form of attack and failed to yield dividends during the Argentinian’s tenure.
Guardiola’s side rarely had to deviate from their Plan A of death by a thousand passes. Emulating Pep’s first season treble may be a bridge too far for Enrique, but a return to the Barcelona blueprint coupled with his long association with the club should be enough to get the fans and the players onside.
Alan Keane, Pundit Arena.