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.
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