“It’s like being in Disneyland.” That was Luis Enrique, back in 2014, when he was appointed as FC Barcelona’s coach. For a while there, it truly felt like the Catalan club was on a dream vacation, collecting trophies and “best team ever” thinkpieces galore. On Wednesday, however, the fairytale of Lucho and his beloved Blaugrana came to a close, as the man at the helm announced that his time was up at the end of this grueling season. Enrique is clairvoyant and lucid: he understands that Barcelona’s supreme level had deserted the Camp Nou. His own behavior, his state of mind, the team play – it all pointed to a simple conclusion, one Enrique wasn’t afraid to draw: ‘burnout.’
And so, Enrique leaves the big stage at the right time, citing physiological and physical fatigue. ‘I need a rest,” said the 46-year-old coach. Under Lucho, Barcelona won seven trophies, all the while winning three-quarters of their games. The Catalans remain in La Liga’s title hunt, but have foregone any sensible chance of progressing in the Champions League following a soul-crushing 4-0 defeat at Paris Saint-Germain. It appears that the failure in Paris, plus the pressure that comes from helming one of the most popular clubs in the world, got to Luis Enrique as it did to Pep Guardiola half a decade ago.
Success at the biggest clubs– a.k.a. the biggest brands – has to be relentless, and losing just two games all season in La Liga wasn’t enough to convince Lucho to stay. Unlike the menagerie of emotions caused by Claudio Ranieri’s sacking at Leicester City, Enrique’s departure was all but inevitable after the disaster in Paris. That the attention has already shifted to who will come in to manage Barcelona feels appropriate, given Enrique’s desire to fade away from the bright spotlight. While there is one overwhelming favorite on everyone’s lips, there are four others that could surprisingly take the reins and guide Barcelona into its next era.
The Favorite: Jorge Sampaoli
The favorite to take the wheel right now, Jorge Sampaoli belongs to the school of “El Loco” Marcelo Bielsa. Sampaoli’s purism and attacking soccer fetish are delights, but that unwavering commitment comes with drawbacks: his all-intensity teams may suffer from fatigue and tend to leave space in behind the wingers. The diminutive Argentinean became part of the global conscience after steering Chile past Spain in the group stages of the 2014 World Cup.
A year later, he won the Copa America with Chile in Santiago, a feat he repeated (over his home country once again) in 2016, this time in New Jersey. Today, at Sevilla, he has the Andalusian side in the hunt for the Spanish title, despite lacking the resources of Real Madrid and, yes, Barcelona. Although Sampaoli doesn’t have the Catalan connection that Guardiola, Tito Vilanova and Enrique all enjoyed, he has shown a flair that could arouse excitement within the club’s currently disillusioned fanbase.
The Dark Horse: Ernesto Valverde
Could Valverde be the favorite to succeed Enrique, more so than Sampaoli? The current Athletic Bilbao manager is considered to be a safe pair of hands, someone the club could turn to in order to stabilize their performances. Valverde also ticks the Barcelona past checkmark: he played at the Camp Nou between 1988 and 1990. His coaching credentials are also not lacking, as he managed the Basques to a Champions League qualification, on top of beating Barcelona and Enrique himself in the Spanish Super Cup by the score of 4-0. Bilbao, though, has a very different identity and philosophy to Barcelona, so can Valverde deliver in a divergent environment?
The Assistant: Juan Carlos Unzue
Unzue is Luis Enrique’s current assistant coach and, according to Spanish media reports, Enrique’s choice to take the top job after him. Unzue understands the nitty gritty of Enrique’s vision and has already worked on the finer details of the game, including team strategy and set pieces, with the first team. At times, Enrique even allowed Unzue to coach from the sidelines, so as to let his assistant get experience in the hot seat. Barcelona has a tendency to stick close to home in managerial appointments, but Unzue has never coached a top-flight team himself.
The Journeyman: Ronald Koeman
The infectious Dutchman is a journeyman, always conjuring up a fine, new incarnation of himself: first, as part of Barcelona’s dream team, then as an innovative coach in the Premier League. Koeman was one of the world’s best central defenders in the 90’s, and he wielded a defining influence on Guardiola. As a coach, Koeman’s approach of ball possession and attacking at Southampton gained much plaudits, although he has struggled to lift his current club Everton to the next level. Regardless, he played under the legendary Johan Cruyff at both Ajax and Barcelona, so he understands the possession-based offense preferred by cules around the world. If the Barcelona board wants to attempt a return to the tiki-taka days of Guardiola with a modern attacking twist, Koeman could be one call away from patrolling the Camp Nou sideline.
The Legend: Arsene Wenger
A total outsider? And not just an outsider, but one that is currently under fire at a club Barcelona eats for lunch in the Champions League? Following another shattering February, Arsenal and Wenger are, yet again, in crisis mode. The Frenchman has been assailed, vilified and crucified by a legion of detractors for being a perpetual choker, an inveterate dweeb, and a ne’er-do-well. Critics lambast Wenger for his failing grand plan, for blindness in the face of countervailing evidence, for impenetrable stubbornness and the false promise of a renaissance.
Wenger’s philosophy and style of play, however, are a perfect match for Barcelona. And the Catalan club’s willingness to spend in ways that Arsenal hasn’t in the past could allow Wenger to break free from his reputation as a thrifty shopper in the transfer market. For his part, Wenger has countered any speculation that places him away from North London, stating that “My preference [staying at Arsenal] is always the same, it will remain the same.” If the club decides otherwise, Barcelona could shake it up and bring in the highest-profile name possible.