Luis Enrique has always been a humble man. Approaching the twilight of his playing career as captain of FC Barcelona, he was approached by his first club, Sporting, in 2004. Struggling for fitness, Enrique declined the offer, explaining that ‘he wouldn’t be doing Sporting much of a favour by going there’. He retired in August of that year.
After three years at the helm of Barcelona, during which he has won everything within the club’s grasp, Enrique announced yesterday that he would be stepping down as manager. The Spaniard leaves the club fighting on all three fronts, with a realistic chance of success in two, so why leave now?
Football in Catalonia is fast, free-flowing and unforgiving. Enrique has won everything it is possible to win, shoehorned three of the world’s most talented footballers into a potent attacking formation and continued the club’s proud tradition of developing Europe’s finest young players.
Yet, the Spaniard never quite looked right in the job. And, sometimes, that’s all it takes. Pep Guardiola oozed class and panache. Frank Rijkaard was aggressive, tenacious, eminently unforgettable. Johan Cruyff reimagined the beautiful game. Enrique did his job, but little past that. He will be fondly remembered for delivering success to one of the world’s most successful clubs – but fondness is as far as it goes. To be a legend in the modern age, you must act the part. The world’s most successful managers are philosophers, actors, dramatists and figureheads. Enrique, even at his most turbulent, could hardly be associated with the great page-turners and wheel-spinners of football’s unrelenting circus.
The 46 year-old’s humble, quiet nature won him significant support during periods of success – he was the soft face to Barcelona’s verve. But when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Jurgen Klopp is infectious, even in defeat; Mourinho astounding and arrogant, even in turmoil. A winter of discontent has swept through Barcelona whilst Enrique has sat meekly. Real Madrid under Zidane have seized control of La Liga and that’s a crime that cannot be overlooked in Catalonia. Save the remarkable interventions of Lionel Messi, Barcelona have been some way short of their best this season. Neymar, supposedly the heir to Messi’s throne, has only scored 11 goals all season. Several of Enrique’s summer investments look some way short of worthy and, should an injury lay off one of the club’s stars for any extended period of time, Barcelona could be in trouble.
Then came the humiliating defeat in Paris. Not even a defeat but a mauling at the hands of a team they had so convincingly beaten two years ago. The end of an era, the end of a legacy and the final farewell to Guardiola’s high-energy, high-octane style. Barcelona had been out-Barcelona’d, without so much as a whimper.
Paris was a seminal moment for Enrique. He was found wanting; the short-term solution he had devised to draw the best out of Messi, Suarez and Neymar utterly dismantled by an energetic, chaotic, ruthless PSG. There was no Plan B and certainly no philosophy upon which to fall back on. Barcelona were left weaponless and clueless with their trousers at their knees on D-Day.
So now the question remains – what sort of memory does Enrique leave? Can we recall a press conference where he provided us with one of football’s enduring soundbites? Or, perhaps, a style, a tangible method of playing the game that was sourced from Enrique’s own scrapbook? Simply put,he fixed discordant parts of a largely operational machine without too much thought for the future. He favoured the short-term fix above the long-term project. Perhaps the long-term is an out-dated concept, but an alternative plan beyond the undoubtedly wonderful talents of his front three might have been worth looking into.
Above that though, football is played on the pitch but also in the stands, on the internet and in the chequebook. Enrique was a jack of all trades, but a master of none. Versatile and humble, much like his playing career, but largely unable to think outside the established parameters. For FC Barcelona, a club built on the imagination of football’s most perspicacious figures, this simply wasn’t enough.