Claudio Rainieri was sacked.
The decision was odd, and oddly timed as his team had turned its Champions League tie on its ear with a precious away goal. Yet he was sacked.
Everyone is familiar with the Cinderella story of Leicester City and the alchemist who built a championship from a pizza party. A kind, tacticurn man, Rainieri’s magical story was such that a great many people felt he should have hung it up at the end of last season — after taking a team that everyone said would be relegated to the Premiership title and Champions League, there was nowhere to go but down.
And down he went, because football doesn’t care. That championship, that amazing story was last year. This year, the Foxes are where they were predicted to be last year, but expectations have changed. Titles are the new standard, even for a team who had a fantasy season, that is pretty much where it belongs in the league table. Win or get out.
What’s fascinating about the Rainieri story is its parallels to that of Luis Enrique, who has gone from genius to pariah in less than a season. What happened?
With Rainieri, there are tales of his having lost the locker room, of players not being able to make sense of his decisions and roster moves, of the way of playing being different. He couldn’t figure out a way to replace the key figure of N’Golo Kante, as well as people finally figuring out that Leicester had one game. Stop that and you stop them. Rainieri didn’t have any ideas to stave off that tactical riddle and the next coach will have same dilemma.
Now look at Luis Enrique, and the talk that he has lost the locker room, of player decisions gone awry and key players suggestimg that the team has gotten away from playing as it knows how. Opponents have figured out how to deal with MSN tactically, and Luis Enrique seems to be fresh out of ideas to stave off the tactical riddle.
Rainieri won a championship last season. Luis Enrique, fresh off a treble in his debut season, grabbed a double last season, coming within a single away goal of making the Champions League final. Again.
This year, supporters and various media types can’t wait to see the back of him.
When a new coach takes over at Leicester City, what will be different except for the man with the whistle? Transfer season is over, so no changes there. The team has the exact same problems now as it had before Rainieri got the sack. What can a new coach do?
Formation changes? Sure. To what effect. Can changing a formation change the performance of the players who occupy that formation? Antonio Conte gets a lot of credit for making a simple change at Chelsea, going to three at the back. Forgotten are the transfers, astute decisions made by the club. Kante is doing exactly for Chelsea what he did for Leicester City, who lost a key player and couldn’t replace him. Leicester City’s defenders are journeymen and rejects, his striker a one-trick pony. Can a new coach alter that equation?
Yes, there will be the new boss spike, but Leicester City is what it is. So is Barça, which is a lot of the reason that people want its coach tossed on the waste heap.
Luis Enrique won’t be sacked, but it is difficult to see him wanting to stay at Barça, even if he isn’t pushed by a skittish board. When a new coach takes over at Barça, what will be different except for the man with the whistle?
There is an odd belief that a new face will bring about new ideas and a new way of playing. Okay. What happens next?
On the weekend was the Andalucian derby, an always-hot contest between Betis and Sevilla, coached by everyone’s favorite of the moment, Jorge Sampaoli. In the first half, Betis did exactly what they did against Barça, reducing Sevilla to long balls from the keeper that were intercepted in midfield and returned right to attack. Betis was up 1-0 but with the chances created, really could have put the match out of reach with better finishing.
One thought that came to mind was if Barça had played like that, a hit squad would have been dispatched to eliminate Luis Enrique. The commentator said that Betis was playing a lot like it did against Barça. This was true.
In the second half, Sampaoli made adjustments. Unfortunately, so did Betis, who went from playing like men possessed to a team with a lead in a derby, thinking about holding on. The two things conspired to bring Sevilla a tight win off of an offside goal. Barça had the reverse luck at the Villamarin.
Results aren’t the point, is what many suggest. It’s the football. The oddity of that notion is that the Bayern thrashing is still perceived as traumatic, yet the team played what so many consider Barça football, possession-based and midfield dominant. It outpossessed Bayern over the two legs. Yet the aggregate final was 7-0. So maybe it isn’t just the football. Maybe results have just a little bit to do with things as well, and “results don’t matter” is one of those theoretical luxuries afforded the supporters of a successful team.
But let’s look at the football. Both coaches, Luis Enrique and Sampaoli, made changes that allowed their teams more control of the match in the second half — even as Barça looked much more comfortable in the first half than Sevilla did against the Betis attackers. Prima facie, the only significant difference in the two matches was the outcome, decided in part by officiating decisions. But one coach has to go, the other coach has to come. It’s an odd thing, as is the detestation of Luis Enrique, a coach who players and club legends have come out in support of. It’s hard to pinpoint what he has done wrong to generate the almost savage dislike that so many club supporters have for him.
This isn’t like Rainieri (who shouldn’t have been fired), where the club is mired at the bottom of the table, battling relegation, out of the domestic cup competitions and looking at Champions League as its only hope. If Barça wins against Atleti it will be in the thick of the title battle. The team is also in the domestic cup final, the massive task awaiting it in Champions League — as in needing a miracle — notwithstanding. But what if that miracle happens. Then what? Will people put aside their dislike, or continue with, “I don’t care that the team came back. Lucho out.”
Genius is also in part circumstance. What if Barça had found that away goal last year and grabbed a double treble? Would Luis Enrique be a genius or a pariah? What if a new coach comes in at the exact time Vidal returns to himself, Gomes is fully assimilated, Denis Suarez blossoms and Alcacer figures out how to play at Barça? Almost every problem facing the current team will have been solved by the new person, in effect, doing nothing except showing up at the right time.
That’s the difficulty with seeing a single solution as the result to a complex problem. Recently, Pep Guardiola said that there is no way he would ever return to coach Barça, something that anyone would have already known had they been paying even an iota’s worth of attention to his career. But what if Guardiola returned to the team that made him a coaching deity? Again, it’s the single solution dilemma. He would have the same problems that Sampaoli might have, and the same problems that Luis Enrique has right now, outlined in previous posts. Without a vial of vampire blood to restore players to their youthful, magical selves, what is he to do?
The spine of Barça is not young. One of its most vital players should, by all rights, be sliding into an emeritus role instead of still being relied upon to make magic happen. The club’s superstar is a magnificent player still, but isn’t the player that he once was. The club’s superstar in waiting can’t be the player that he has the potential to become because he is limited by the resident superstar. Without a quality right back, the issues of that and a molasses-like RCB mean that opponents will, with regularity, be able to find happiness on that side of the Barça defense.
Its DM, really a hybrid midfielder has been found out by opponents, who attack him directly, limit his space and cut off his passing angles. And he can’t get any help because one of the people who should, has to help with defensive cover on the right side. Meanwhile his legendary AM teammate never had the range or pace to do what is demanded of him when opponents in effect, take Busquets out of a match.
It’s easy to demand “football,” but more difficult to come up with viable ways to implement it. Any coach will have that problem at Barça, which isn’t to say that the team shouldn’t make a coaching change in the summer. The game is forcing shorter and shorter cycles. Three years is about the maximum effective term for a coach, particularly at a club such as Barça, where all of football is trying to come up with ways to stop you from winning all the time.
Today’s tactical innovation is tomorrow’s limitation. This was as true of Guardiola as it is of Luis Enrique. So it’s time for the next person to come in. Whoever that person is, watching them attempt to solve the problems — and make no mistake, there are many, many problems — present at the moment will be fascinating.
Potentially, the solution could be as simple as, buy an RB. Then he does what he does, Raktic returns to Treble Rakitic and the team is off to the races. But an RB is only one solution to a series of difficulties. Pick your coach, any coach, and that reality isn’t going to change. How long will that new person have before a fanbase begins chanting for his head? A season? Half a season?
Rainieri got just over a half season after his year of fairytale triumph. Because the game doesn’t care. Luis Enrique got one season, as people were calling for his ouster last season, when his team won a double. The game can’t be patient because it is constantly changing, with players and tactics. But there will always be times when you wish that it wasn’t so heartless and facile.