Luis Enrique has made history 50 games in – but still he's far from loved at Barcelona
49 NOT OUT
- La Liga W25 D3 L4
- Champions League W8 D0 L1
- Copa del Rey W8 D0 L0
Luis Enrique is a manager who polarises opinions. Depending on which Catalan you ask, he is either the Barça coach for the future, or not a Barça coach full stop. Come summer the latter may well be true, something that must sound absurd to outsiders given the situation the club finds itself in.
Of particular relevance ahead of Tuesday's second leg against PSG is the significant improvement in European knockout performances since he took charge. The authority with which his Blaugrana outfought Manchester City and the French side was never recognisable during Gerardo Martino’s tenure.
Now, thanks to Enrique, Barça have their Champions League swagger back: taking three away goals from Paris means a semi-final place is theirs to lose. Compare that to this time last year, when a fragile-looking Barça headed to the Vicente Calderón having conceded an away goal in a 1-1 first leg draw with Atlético Madrid, and the difference in momentum is obvious.
Fifty and flying
Domestically the performances have perhaps been less convincing lately, but the results make a good case on their own if that’s where you choose to focus. It's late April and Barça are still alive in all three competitions they're competing in. They lead the league and are through to the Copa del Rey final.
Three incredibly tough games with Real Madrid, Valencia and Sevilla have passed with plenty of hairy moments, but ultimately only two points dropped. Barcelona’s next four league fixtures – away trips to Espanyol and Córdoba, plus Real Sociedad and Getafe at home – are imminently winnable.
The squad's form at the crunch stage of the season reflects well on Enrique too. Luis Suárez has now fully adapted to his new environment and scored 12 goals in as many games; Neymar has emerged from the other end of a dip in form, and Lionel Messi is at his frightening best once more.
Sergio Busquets and Gerard Piqué have recovered their own best football, while Xavi Hernández, though used sparingly, brings decisive quality whenever called upon. Marc-André ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo are winnings games and points. Andrés Iniesta is finding consistency at the perfect moment.
For club mouthpiece Mundo Deportivo, the results are all that matters. On Monday morning their front page pointed out that Enrique has made the best start of any Barcelona boss ever, winning 41 of his 49 games in charge. Regardless of what happens against PSG, his record will be better than Pep Guardiola’s after 50 games (37 wins) and Gerardo Martino’s (the Argentine also managing 37). He also has the beating of the great Helenio Herrera, whose 40 wins in 50 games was the previous club record.
Prickles on the roses
If Mundo Deportivo were the only voice of opinion in Catalonia then everything would be rosy for the Asturian, but as always where Barça are considered, things are a touch more complicated.
Tellingly, the coach has twice opted to sidestep questions about his future over the last week, first insisting that he was focusing on the Valencia game, then on Monday saying that he was concentrating on PSG – in effect, two responses which answered nothing. It doesn’t take a genius to note that if Enrique was really certain about next season then a simple affirmation of that would quickly dispel any rumours.
Managing the press with intelligence has been a persistent issue for the Barça boss. He was never particularly fond of the media during his playing days, and since taking charge at the Camp Nou his answers in media conferences have quite often been laced with sarcasm or even blatant disdain.
After the confused passiveness of Martino, the response to Enrique’s first press conference was overwhelmingly positive, but things quickly went downhill from there.
Journalists often speak of managers losing the dressing room – this manager has lost the press. With the right handling of the media, his life could have been much easier through the trickier moments this season.
Instead, he gave them reason for scepticism. While in recent months things have thawed somewhat, there is always the feeling that it could turn sour again at the drop of a pin. Or the dropping of three points.
Supporters, similarly, aren’t quite united in their appreciation of the manager. The lack of a clearly defined style under his tenure has played a significant part in that. Barcelona fans are accustomed to a particular way of playing which, while evolving over time, has a few key factors that can be traced back over 25 years.
The coach and the nuances may change, but the football being played has to be recognisable or discontent is inevitable. Louis van Gaal summed it up well in 2006 when speaking to El Pais: “The great thing about Barça is there is a philosophy that dates back 20 years. [Johan] Cruyff, me, [Frank] Rijkaard; we can move a few things here or there, but the big idea transcends it all.”
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What's the big idea then?
With Enrique, writers and fans have found that the ‘big idea’ is clouded. Defining the style of his Barça has proven tricky. It may well be as simple as relying on the front three to inspire victory, but for a club that achieved unrivalled success when the team as a unit dictated rather than just the forwards, that simplicity isn’t easy to absorb. Part of the problem was the assumption that Enrique would return Barca to their roots simply because he had played for them and managed in the academy. In truth, the last time he coached football resembling Barça’s traditional model was with the B team, and even then there was room for deviation.
In March, one journalist wrote a piece with the headline: “No midfield and no possession, Luis Enrique couldn’t care less about Barça’s style.” Barcelona had just defeated Real Madrid, but still the debate raged on. “The first goal came from a set-piece, the second from a counter-attack,” the writer pointed out. If ever proof was needed that style really is of the utmost importance to Barça, there it was.
The great absurdity of all of this is that Enrique could quite feasibly leave the Camp Nou this season having won the treble. Even so, his Barça are unlikely to be lauded for how they achieved that feat. That distinction sums up what makes Barcelona different from other clubs, and it also explains why Enrique will perhaps never be universally accepted as their manager: it’s not only the 'what' that’s important, but the 'how', too.