Luis Enrique’s Barcelona are the 2015 champions of Spain (the club’s 5th title in the last 7 seasons) and still could win the treble with a victory in the King’s cup and in the Champion’s League final. That is a statement no one thought would be typed just four months ago.
At that time, the team was playing substandard football, Messi was upset, the club was in turmoil, and a replacement for Enrique was actively being sought. The manager was being criticized by pundits, Barcelona lovers and insiders Graham Hunter and Guillem Balague, fantasy soccer tips pundits and lonely bloggers for his approach to the game, the way his team was playing, and his seemingly indifference to it all.
Now that Barcelona has turned it around and are two victories away from becoming the first team to have 2 treble seasons, does that mean everyone was wrong about Enrique? Has he gone from being the goat to being the G.O.A.T. ? Clearly a manager deserves credit for the success his team has—even Mr. Burns gets credit for pitch hitting with Homer to win the softball game— but how much credit goes to Enrique for what has happened since January?
Ever since Barcelona won the league title, there has been a lot of speculation on what caused the turn around in January. Sid Lowe believes the team was taken to the brink and realized the only option was to win as they could not accept another season like the previous one. Graham Hunter credits Xavi for playing the peace maker between Messi and the manager while also combining with other senior players to talk to Enrique about relaxing some of his stricter rules.
Some have given credit to Lucho’s assistants who have turned Barcelona’s biggest flaw—free kicks—into a strength and ensured that the club’s intensity remained high throughout the season and that the players fitness peaked at the most important time. Others (those who do not understand football) have said it was as simple as Messi being back in top form and that is all that mattered for Barcelona.
The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere in the middle of it all.
The only definite thing one can say is that all credit goes to Enrique for the work of his assistants (fitness and free kicks) and the much improved defense. But beyond that, how much was it Enrique and how much of it was the players, the conditions, and just luck?
Surely, the experienced players saw another season without a trophy and a club that had had their number for a while now and decided this was their last chance. And after the satisfaction of beating Atletico Madrid the players knew the team had the potential to do what it has done–become unbeatable– and accepted nothing but the best from each other for the rest of the season.
Also, the new additions who have not tasted the joy of a La Liga title or Champion’s League title no doubt helped keep the hunger alive in the locker room and pushed the experienced players to keep working towards that goal. So was that all it took? Players motivating each other and keeping each other in line or did Enrique play a large part in motivating the squad and getting the players to perform as well as they could?
The fact that Messi, Suarez, and Neymar get along as well as they do was a major factor in Barcelona becoming unstoppable in the second of the season. Is that due to their personalities and/or respect for each other? Or is it Enrique’s doing? Or was it simply because they started to win and everyone was scoring? It has been said that the switching of Messi and Suarez (which helped spark Barcelona’s revival) was instigated by Messi himself not Enrique.
But surely Enrique gets credit—at minimum—for being smart enough to not go against Messi’s tactics and let his stars do what they thought was best.
Then there’s Messi. It is wrong to say Messi returned to form this year because he was brilliant the last few years (people just did not understand his brilliance) but this season was the best we have seen from the magician since probably the 2011 season or the early 2012 one. Is that due to Enrique understanding Messi better after January or Messi finally having two top class forwards playing with him?
Finally, there is the switch of tactics after January, when the team went back to using the midfield to control the game while also using long balls to start (and finish) counters. Was that Enrique’s plan all along? Perfect the counter, knowing the midfield would be there later? Or something that came out of January and the players demanding more say in the tactics?
These are questions that will probably go unanswered (unless there is a book like Pep: Confidential being done for Enrique). Sports are a funny thing. Sometimes teams just come together for reasons that cannot be explained and become unstoppable. Other times, great teams fall apart for reasons no one can fathom. Sometimes it is just down to dumb luck as luck can be the instrument that brings a club glory while the sudden lack of it can destroy everything that was perfect just minutes ago.
What we do know is Luis Enrique is without a doubt a better manager than everyone gave him credit for back in January. Whatever caused the turnaround—be it his realization that he needed to change, or the players upping their game because they smelled failure and wanted glory, or just the right team at the right team—Lucho showed he was smart enough and capable enough of ensuring it lasted long enough to bring glory back to Nou Camp.
The real judgement on Enrique will be next year (if he is still around). How will he motivate the players if they fulfill the historic path they are on? How will he respond to teams that now have months to figure out how to stop the club? How will he cope without the ability to sign new players?
Luis Enrique has proven he is a good coach. Next year he may be able to prove he is a great coach. But right now no Barcelona fan really cares. Lucho has helped Barcelona return to glory and that is good enough for them.