There are many factors to consider when contemplating who should replace Luis Enrique as Barcelona manager. And frustratingly, the question of who would be the best fit isn’t necessarily the most important.
The Catalan club are such a political beast it is inevitable non-footballing matters come strongly under consideration, perhaps even more so than on-pitch issues.
The ‘mes que un club’ motto doesn’t exist without good reason, and their position as the status symbol for the Catalan region, which is seeking full independence from Spain, is a central part of their identity.
The manager naturally becomes the most public spokesperson for the whole club, conducting press conferences before and after every game – meaning he will often
appear at least four times a week – to face questioning on the hot topics of the day, which often have nothing to do with football.
This aspect of the job is something which never sat easily with Enrique, who has always made it abundantly clear that he regards his job as looking after a football team and nothing more. It also counted against his predecessor, the Argentine Tata Martino, whose lack of natural empathy with the club’s Catalan status made him look like an eager but uniformed stranger who had stumbled into a place where he never really belonged.
In that context, it’s easy to see why there are serious misgivings over the suitability of the current favourite, Jorge Sampaoli.
Like Martino, the Sevilla boss is an outsider who has only spent one season in Spain and would be in uncomfortably unfamiliar territory if he was thrown into the cauldron of Calatan politics.
That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have an opinion, however. Sampa-oli holds strong left-wing political views and would often have to hold his tongue – which rarely lacks the ability to wag – if he was asked about the latest demonstrations, legal cases, accusations and so on.
This may all seem rather excessive when considering the appointment of a sports coach, but it is the reality of life at Barcelona and it means the club’s board – which has spent the last few years putting out fires – may be extremely reluctant to appoint a man who could become a loose cannon.
That’s a shame, because purely from a footballing perspective Sampaoli is exactly the man Barca need to rejuvenate a team which oozes talent but has lacked tactical direction for the last year.
Like Pep Guardiola, Sampaoli is heavily influenced by the eccentric Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa, and his commitment to high-energy and intense pressing allied with fast-paced passing perfectly fits the Barca blueprint, even though he has not been formally schooled by the club.
Sampaoli is also a more inspirational leader than Enrique, whose aloofness and distance from his players has resulted in strained internal relationships, something which Sampaoli would be well placed to repair – and the fact that he is Argentine would only be helpful in his relationship with the most important person at the club, Lionel Messi.
If Barca’s board can live with his potential for non-football fireworks, Sampaoli should be appointed this summer. But that’s highly doubtful, so there is every chance they will instead opt for a safe pair of hands in the form of Athletic Bilbao boss Ernesto Valverde, who knows the club well after spending part of his playing career at the Camp Nou.
Valverde is experienced, both in La Liga and in European competitions, has a well-defined style of play which fits closely with Barca’s, and has enjoyed just about enough success (although he could have arguably achieved more with a talented Athletic squad) to present a convincing case.
Furthermore, Valverde is also a solid and dependable character, far more likely to negotiate the political minefield without causing undue damage than the explosive Sampaoli, and that could well prove be the biggest factor in his advantage.
But let’s face it, Valverde would be a pretty uninspiring choice, and Sampaoli would be a far more exciting appointment. It’s just a question of whether the club can dare to take a gamble.
While many expected that Luis Enrique would not be Barcelona manager beyond the end of this season, his announcement on Wednesday came as a surprise.
Following Barcelona’s 6-1 win over Sporting Gijon, Enrique announced that he will be stepping down once the season is over.
The former Barcelona player, who took over the reins at the Camp Nou in 2014, won the Treble in his first season and a league-and-cup double in his second season, but Barcelona have dipped during his third season, culminating in the shocking 4-0 defeat to Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League last month.
That loss was considered to be the final straw, but in reality Enrique had been contemplating an exit since before the season began.
Where does Luis Enrique rank among Barcelona managers?
Luis Enrique announced Wednesday that he will leave his role as Barcelona manager at the end of the season.
A lot has changed since Enrique won the treble in his first season and now he and the club cut exhausted figures in need of change.
With Enrique headed for he exit door, here are five candidates who could be suitable for one of football’s biggest jobs.
How do you think Enrique did in the job and who do you think should replace him?
MARCELO BIELSA (Unattached)
Former Athletic Bilbao and Marseille manager Bielsa, who is known to be adaptable to different systems and formations, and renowned for a dynamic style of play, has regularly been linked with the Barcelona job in recent years and is seen as the dream coach by many Blaugrana fans.
In his two seasons at Bilbao, the enigmatic coach utilised the 3-3-3-1 formation that he first introduced while coaching the Argentina and Chile national teams. The system helped his sides shift from defence to attack in seconds, with his players able to put in a shift on both sides of the pitch. His style of football has had a major influence on some of the biggest coaches in Europe, including the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jorge Sampaoli and Mauricio Pochettino.
Despite not winning a major honour with the Basque club, Bielsa was one of the few managers to completely dominate a Sir Alex Ferguson side – Athletic beating Manchester United 3-2 at Old Trafford and 2-1 at San Mames to knock them out of the 2011-12 Europa League.
Bielsa’s time at Athletic Bilbao wasn’t a one-off success; his brilliance also helped the Chile at the 2010 World Cup, with his intensive and demanding training methods giving rise to talents such as Matias Hernandez, Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal. While being regarded as a tactical genius, his ability to grind out results in the difficult matches against the big sides is also widely admired.
The 61-year-old Argentine is obsessed with dominating possession and aggressively pressing to recover the ball – an approach that is certainly compatible with the tika-taka traditions Barcelona inherited from Guardiola.
Marcelo Bielsa: "There are players that are more important than the rest. But if you emphasize that, the collective falls apart." pic.twitter.com/56A70zodSQ— Juan G. Arango (@JuanG_Arango) February 3, 2017
MAURIZIO SARRI (Napoli)
Since taking the reins at Napoli, Sarri’s influence has been clear to see with his side becoming one of the most exciting teams to watch in Europe.
A native Neapolitan, Sarri has only lost three league games so far this season and the 58-year-old’s impressive work hasn’t gone unnoticed as he recently penned a new three-year-deal. After initially struggling to make a 4-3-1-2 system work he switched to 4-3-3 and Napoli haven’t looked back – the Partenopei are now an entertaining, attack-minded side.
Until 1999, Sarri’s day job was in an Italian bank but after growing tired of only coaching Tegoleto part-time he decided to quit and focus solely on his coaching career. It was a good decision. The three seasons Sarri spent at Empoli were a defining time in his career as he helped the club back to the top-flight after a six-year absence. During his final year with Empoli, he guided the club to a fantastic 15th-place finish in Serie A.
Sarri has no experience coaching abroad having been managing in Italy since his very first job at Stia, but is one of the continent’s best regarded coaches right now. It appears he will remain faithful to the revolution he is producing with Napoli, though the opportunity to work with the likes of Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Neymar may be a difficult one to turn down.
JORGE SAMPAOLI (Sevilla)
Sampaoli is enjoying a sensational time with Sevilla in La Liga and in the Champions League.
After Unai Emery’s departure, a busy transfer window saw 16 players arrive and 13 players leave the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. Many questioned whether Sampaoli would be able to continue Emery’s work but he has done a stunning job, with Sevilla currently third in La Liga and into the knockout stages of the Champions League.
His side have conceded more goals than any other team in the top four, but all that Sampaoli cares about it is playing exciting football and getting the results that are needed. Nullifying the opposition never seems high on the priority list of the attack-minded Argentinian.
Sampaoli has given two former Premier League players, Steven N’Zonzi and Samir Nasri, a major role to play at the heart of his midfield and the pair have returned the favour with superb performances in important matches. The French duo have been regarded as the key players to have helped the manager quickly implement his system.
Although Sampaoli is a disciple of Bielsa, he is regarded as a better professional than his hot-headed teacher, who has caused problems at a few clubs in the past. Sampaoli’s exciting style of play and determination for perfection would work well with Barcelona’s core identity and his name has been the one used most regularly in conjunction with replacing Enrique in recent weeks.
ERNESTO VALVERDE (Athletic Bilbao)
The 53-year-old has reportedly long been admired by the Catalans for his stylish brand of football.
He has a wealth of experience having taken charge of Athletic, Espanyol, Villarreal and Valencia in Spain and won three league titles in Greece with Olympiakos.
It would appear both he and Sampaoli are the front-runners given their pressing, possession ideals.
MAURICIO POCHETTINO (Tottenham)
His ties to Barca neighbours Espanyol may make tempting him from England difficult after he enjoyed successful stints as both a player and a manager there.
However, the lure of taking on one of the biggest club jobs in football may change his thoughts on that allegiance.
He’s turned Spurs from top-four hopefuls to title contenders in just two and a half seasons.
RONALD KOEMAN (Everton)
Koeman is enjoying a decent season with the Toffees in the Premier League and was successful in his previous job with Southampton.
But reports in Spain have suggested he is some way behind some of the other candidates.
After a distinguished playing career at the Camp Nou it wouldn’t be impossible but the Dutchman doesn’t appear an obvious fit.