In high-level mathematics, there is the Proof. It isn’t enough to solve the equation. You have to explain why you solved it. A solution can be right but if the proof is wrong …
Luis Enrique is as much a symbol as Pep Guardiola. But where Guardiola was your first crush, Luis Enrique was that sideeye mathematicians get where the answer is right, but the Proof is wrong.
Luis Enrique is everything wrong, everything that people don’t like about FC Barcelona as a club. He is the second apocalyptic horseman to Neymar, the initial wrong.
Dummies like me sit around and ask ourselves why people don’t like Neymar even as the answer is as clear as the noses on our faces. We can start with him being the Sandro Rosell signing. There is nothing worse than the person you hate being right. So dammit, they’re wrong.
Neymar is also Not Barça. At a time when the model for the club is tight, controlled juego de posicion, here comes this Brazlian dude who doesn’t care about that stuff. “Wheeee!” But he isn’t charming like Ronaldinho, and he isn’t fun. He’s an assassin who will do anything to get an edge. “Fair play” awards? Eff that. Where’s my edge? He demanded the best possible deal for himself, and now the club is paying for it, even if Neymar wanted the money and didn’t suggest sneaky ways to get it. There are so many very clear reasons why people dislike Neymar, and always will.
Luis Enrique is more of the same.
At Barça, it isn’t enough to win. You have to win in the right way. The definition of that “right way” has changed over time. It used to be attacking, elegant, possession football. Culers rained cheers from the heavens for the Rijkaard teams because they were brilliant at this. It was swashbuckling. Ronaldinho even had his headband, a tangible simile to a pirate’s bandana. Prepare to be boarded!
After Guardiola, that standard changed. Even the first Guardiola year, which was closer to Rijkaard and even closer to Luis Enrique’s Barça, has been folded into the subsequent adaptations Guardiola implemented. A two-year sliver of time, when Barça played the best football anyone had ever seen, is now the standard. That success extended into the boardroom, which was ruled by Joan Laporta, who also became The Way. Everything about that period was perfect, right down to Iniesta’s Eddie Munster hair.
When Rosell came in, everything changed. Not only did he want to put his stamp on everything, doing everything possible to accomplish that as quickly as possible — he wanted to bend the incumbent magicians to his will. There was a fire sale on Ukranian giants, and finances were a disaster, calling for extreme austetiry. No color copies! Everything was wrong, and he was the answer, the worldview of any despot, even those slavishly devoted to marketing.
Guardiola left, and Tito Vilanova, his handpicked assistant, took over. It should have been perfect, but even aside from the health issues that turned that season into one of unspeakable sadness, even before life-destroying maladies reared their heads, people didn’t like the way Vilanova played. It was more vertical, more aggressive, not Guardiola. So it was wrong.
The thing in common with all of this, going on at the same time, was the institutional rot happening at FC Barcelona. Rosell resigned, but the rot continued. The celebratory cava fests of Laporta became board meetings, putting UNICEF on the back of the shirt and worshiping at the altar of the almighty Euro instead of football. Everything was wrong. Even the Boixos were finding their way back into the Camp Nou.
The most visible manifestation of this was a top-down sullying of everything associated with Rosell and Bartomeu. The Luis Enrique team’s treble, instead of something wonderful that should have had culers dancing in the streets, became something that saved the election for Bartomeu. People claimed to be able to separate the team from the board, but only rarely did that happen, something evinced by the vehemence with which Luis Enrique’s necessary changes to the way of play were viewed. It was even worse that those changes were successful.
Next steps were logical, in the installation of Messi as the real coach, there to save the day after the knucklehead wearing the whistle messed up the purity of The Way. But it all started with the top. Had Laporta won the election, and said that Luis Enrique had his full and total confidence, things would have been quite different for the Asturian. But this was not to be. Bartomeu won, in part, many assumed, because of the treble (never mind that Laporta was never going to win that election for very good reasons).
And something wonderful, a treble, became something bad for many segments of the culerverse. Everything that Luis Enrique subsequently did became tainted by the view of the club as an institution, conciously or unconsicously. And it was downhill from there until, as with the Bayern thrashing becoming the vindication for everyone saying that everything was wrong at Barça, the PSG beatdown was the proof for that vindication.
Too many tactical dissections of what Luis Enrique has been doing have come from the assumption that the way Guardiola played was right, and here’s how Luis Enrique has messed it up. When people stepped back to look at what was, instead of what wasn’t any longer, the tone was usually quite different. One of the best of these, in addition to the excellent work at EUMD, came in April of 2015, when a piece was written by Greg Johnson that laid out how Luis Enrique changed the way Barça played, and that said change was overdue. It’s worth your time. That piece is also a blueprint for why the time is right for Luis Enrique to leave, how things have failed to adapt from that tactical apogee.
There will be many reasons for why Luis Enrique decided that it was time to leave. Some will say that he was pushed. Others will say that he knew he didn’t have the confidence of the players, and left because of that. But Luis Enrique is an athlete. He knows when it’s time. And it was time. It was time because of the weight of it all — the doubt, the nastiness, the constant fights against an entorno who damned him for no reason other than simple biology, since he isn’t the right man and couldn’t be — became too much.
Nothing was going to change the circumstances into which Luis Enrique was thrust. Only some could separate the man from the people who brought him in, just as it’s hard for many to separate Neymar from Rosell, the endless trials and tax evasion allegations. And we can be lucky, those of us who appreciate his sacrifice for the club, that Luis Enrique wasn’t ready to leave Celta Vigo when the board wanted him, or he would have been the one riding herd over that mess that Tata Martino played caretaker for, and even a treble wouldn’t have been enough to save him. Lucho to the pyre.
But as a coach, Luis Enrique will always be defined as the right answer and the wrong solution. He won, did so much right, tried to keep the team changing and advancing, but it was always going to be wrong. Eight trophies in two seasons is a record of success that should make a coach a legend. Not at Barça.
We can imagine that Luis Enrique is also leaving for the same reasons as his predecessor, that his tactical wrinkles have been found out by a game that adapts quickly to new threats, that his departure was the ultimate act of love for a man who is culer to his core. If you love something, and you know that you are no longer what is best for that thing you love, you have to set it free. And you have to set it free even if you know that your sacrifice isn’t going to change very much at all.