Inside Spanish Football’s Barcelona correspondent Alexandra Jonson chronicles Luis Enrique’s roller coaster ride of a first season at FC Barcelona, where the Asturian went from criticized to revered in a matter of months, managing to keep his head down and forge ahead with what he thought was right.
“Being FC Barcelona’s coach is so wonderful it’s unimaginable,” Luis Enrique declared over a year ago when he was presented as the club’s new head coach. Back then he was on the top of the world. Today he is too, but it hasn’t been an easy ride.
While Sporting de Gijon will always be the club he hold dearest to his heart, FC Barcelona has quite a big part of that heart as well. Something that was impossible to miss when Luis Enrique was presented in May 2014. He was glowing as he met the press and it was obvious that it was one of the best days in his career. “Today I was thinking how fantastic it will be to coach FC Barcelona and even if it wasn’t sunny I managed to see the sun when I walked outside and it made me smile,” he told the media that day.
But to coach FC Barcelona has been a difficult task and it hasn’t always been that fantastic. Even though Lucho’s team got off to a great start and had yet to let in a single goal in the league after eight rounds, it wouldn’t take too long before the ship started to shake.
“When we let in our first goal or lose our first game, everything I do will be questioned, but I will stick to what I think is right,” he said a few days before they suffered their first loss of the season away to PSG in the Champions League, and he was right.
At that point, Barcelona had impressed by winning games but they had yet to really impress on the pitch. The critics started to come and the biggest question on everyone’s mind was simply: “Does Luis Enrique have a plan?”
To a start it looked like he did, his rotations seemed smart, the team was improving defensively and they played a more direct game. Less possession but more effective. They weren’t really there yet, but it seemed like Lucho had a plan, until it didn’t anymore.
By Christmas he told the media that coaching Barcelona was like being at Disneyland. It was incredible fun but very exhausting – and a bit chaotic.
Then he had yet to play the same XI twice. It would take until January and a total of 29 games before Luis Enrique for the first time featured the same starting side in two different games. It happened against Deportivo La Coruña and Atlético Madrid, two games Barcelona won convincingly.
But at Camp Nou, after the game against Atlético, the talk was about something entirely different than the game.
“It’s lies, all of it is lies,” Lionel Messi said to Barça TV. While Javier Mascherano told the media in the mixed zone that “I haven’t studied journalism, but I know what is the truth and this isn’t it,” even Iniesta was on the fence. ”There is stuff being said that isn’t true and it hurts us, we’ve got no problems in the team,” he said.
Earlier that same week, the club’s sport director Andoni Zubizarreta had been fired and after him Carles Puyol had decided to leave as well. But what everyone was talking about was something else. It was rumored that Luis Enrique and his star player Lionel Messi didn’t get along. One media reported that it gone so far that Messi had gone to the club’s president Josep Bartomeu and given him an ultimatum: “either it’s me or it’s him”.
It all started when Luis Enrique decided to bench Messi and Neymar as Barcelona surprisingly lost away to Real Sociedad just after the Christmas break. The day after the Argentinean star would not show up for training complaining about ”stomach pain”.
The game against Real Sociedad was the fourth game Barcelona lost. After PSG, they fell heavily away to Real Madrid and for the first time ever Celta de Vigo, Luis Enrique’s old team, had managed to get a win at the Camp Nou. More than that, they drew to both Málaga and Getafe, games that Barça are simply expected to win.
While some still showed their support for Luis Enrique by singing his name at Camp Nou, many fans would answer with whistles towards the Blaugrana coach. His job was said to be on the line; one more defeat and it could have been out the door for the Asturian.
But when the critics were at their loudest Luis Enrique changed the course of the ship. After the loss to Real Sociedad they wouldn’t lose again for eleven games. When they did, it was away to Málaga, the only team Luis Enrique’s Barcelona failed to score against during the season. They came to play a total of 35 games after the game in Anoeta, winning 31 of them.
The only times Luis Enrique’s team dropped meaningful points after the ”crisis”, except for the loss against Málaga, was when they drew at Sánchez Pizjuán against Sevilla, who by then yet had to lose a single game at home. In the end, only Real Madrid managed to go to Seville and take all three points this season.
Barça also lost away to Bayern Munich – though it was after already having more or less secured their place in the Champions League final – and on the last day they drew with Deportivo, already with the league title in their hands.
After being booed and whistled by the fans mid-season, Luis Enrique’s name is the one that, along with Xavi’s, have been sung more than any other in Barcelona during the final few weeks of the season.
Coming into the job he was an inexperienced coach with enormous expectations on him. In some people’s eyes Luis Enrique was there to be the new Josep Guardiola, just as he had in the B-team. But he wasn’t, and even if he ended his first season with the treble just like Pep did, his way there has been very different.
Guardiola was also criticized after his first two games and many wanted him gone. But Luis Enrique was criticized mid-season and he was a lot closer to actually getting the boot. More than that, the way Pep’s team played and the way Lucho’s team plays is very different. Guardiola’s was a team of midfielders where everything was created around Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets where possession was the key to everything. Luis Enrique’s team is about the forwards, the front three of Suárez, Messi and Neymar.
There might still be a few doubters around and Luis Enrique did seem to be a bit lost during one part of the season, but then he stopped, thought things through and everything changed. Few coaches can do what he has done, in a few months Barcelona went from somewhat of a crisis, not only in the team but the club as a whole, to winning everything. It has been far from a calm season and still Luis Enrique managed to bring home all three trophies.
And with a reconstructed team. This past summer 13 players left the club. After 15 years in the first team Carles Puyol, the captain, retired. Victor Valdés, who had protected the Camp Nou goal for over a decade, decided to say his goodbyes. While Xavi Hernández, who has been the architect of Barcelona’s success, stepped down from his midfield throne to take a spot on the bench.
Cesc Fàbregas, Alex Song and Alexis Sanchez all left for England, while an important dressing room personality in José Pinto decided to retire. While 13 left, the club signed eight new players and brought in a new coach. New players, new coach, new style of play and Barcelona still won everything.
And one of those new signings, Luis Suárez, wasn’t even allowed to play for the first few months of the season. When Suárez finally got to play he copped a lot of criticism, he didn’t score goals like he used to. Neither did Lionel Messi, who for the first time in four years failed to win the Ballon d’Or in January after a difficult 2014.
But that all changed when Luis Enrique decided to change it. Lionel Messi was playing in the centre, as a “false nine” like he had the last couple of years since Guardiola introduced the position to Leo during a game against Real Madrid. It was a position Messi loved and it was where he wanted to play. The problem, however, was that it didn’t work in the way that Luis Enrique’s team played. It also meant that Luis Suárez was forced to play on the wing, getting too far away from the goal.
When Luis Enrique decided to change that and put Suárez in the middle and Messi on the wing, things changed drastically. Messi started scoring and he couldn’t stop. Hat-trick after hat-trick, record after record. While Luis Suárez more and more got into his rhythm scoring vital goals in the Champions League as well as in the Clásico at Camp Nou.
With Messi and Suárez on fire together, with Neymar the entire game changed. Barcelona changed and suddenly they were unstoppable.
The earlier air of disharmony had evaporated, though Jérémy Mathieu did confirm that Messi and Luis Enrique had a fight in January, but that mattered little in June when the two hugged as they celebrated winning it all.
While the club had been close to giving up on Luis Enrique by Christmas, no one, now, wants to see him go.
There were still question marks about whether he’d stay, though, even after winning the treble. “I don’t want to talk about that yet,” Lucho said at his press conference in Berlin just after winning the Champions League. “If I have taken a decision? Well to be honest, No”.
Two days later and he had signed a new two-year deal. Enrique will stay on, but surely none of the ensuing years will be quite like the exhausting first year for the Asturian. A year in Disneyland.
This content was originally published here.