You’re at work, and hear that your boss is about to be promoted. As the assistant, you’ve worked well with your superior, given some good ideas and faithfully helped to execute the overall goals of the company.
But on a thumb drive, you have a couple gigabytes of ways that you flat-out know your boss has screwed up, things that could have been done better, bright ideas you have for propelling your department into the future. What an opportunity! Even luckier is that your company has a history of being conservative with promotions, of believing that the person next in line is the individual best-suited to continue the mission.
And then the gossip begins. Your boss sucked, you hear, as people hope the company isn’t stupid enough to promote the person next in line. That would just continue with the same crap that nobody likes anyway. That bold, cool exec at a competiting company? Awesome! What a choice that would be! Here’s hoping the bosses aren’t stupid.
How would you feel, as that assistant?
That is the Unzue complexity. Even as people in various places snark and howl about Sampaolis, and Tuchels and the like, we have precisely zero idea of what a person who might be ideally suited for the job can do. He might have better or different ideas, might be more bold than any of the cool folks. When the club promoted Tito Vilanova to take the reins after Pep Guardiola left, nobody considered for a second that it wasn’t a good choice, because Vilanova was burnished in the warm glow of memories, rather than the assistant who assumed the reins of a team that managed to win only a Copa the previous season. That was the reality, no matter the previous magnificence of the Guardiola team’s accomplishments.
Vilanova came in, and went vertical. He understood, as did his predecessor, that people were figuring out how to get at the tightly controlled positional play of Barça and wanted to try something new. The messy season and sad ending aside, there was some fantastic football played that year even as it raised the curtain on a succession of “success the wrong way” allegations, and supporter bleating about tainted victory.
Being the coach of Barça is much like standing in a valley ringed by tall hills. At the top of each hill is a mountain of shit, and a bulldozer. Every day, people shovel crap into that valley you’re standing in, and it begins to pile up, to rain down upon your head. Yes, you get to coach some magnificent athletes. But that small part of your day is made less joyful by the reality of standing in Crap Valley as it piles higher. It’s a job that eats people up. Guardiola seemed to age twice as many years in the time he was Barça coach. Luis Enrique’s visage, in the wake of his departure announcement, is a lot lighter and brighter. He seems to look younger almost overnight now that the burden has been lifted from his narrow shoulders.
So who next, and why not Unzue? As noted before in this space, Luis Enrique’s successor will be Iniesta’s last coach. That person will also ease Messi, Busquets and Pique into their football dotage. Does the club want someone who is going to, potentially, waste some of that time by implementing bold new ideas? What if in the clunky time required to implement those ideas, damage is done in Liga, key matches lost in Champions League? That’s time that the legendary spine of the Barça team doesn’t have as “next season” gradually becomes “last season” for proud athletes.
Further, what if Unzue has bolder ideas than Sampaoli, but can’t implement them because he is an assistant. Ah, he should be able to by working with Luis Enrique? Not if the boss has his own ideas. What if those ideas are still taking shape? What if, what if, what if? It’s absurd to dismiss a possibility out of hand for the simple reason that people have someone “cooler” in mind. As supporters, we are supposed to want what is best for the team, not what suits our individual agendas, right? But who among us is stopping to consider that maybe, just maybe, Unzue is the ideal choice for the job?
Crickets … crickets …
Time for a real change
Luis Enrique has done a great many things wrong, even as he has steered Barça to a span that continues the remarkable success of an extraordinary team. He has made tactical and personnel decision that have cost his team. If he indeed works as closely with his assistants as any top coach does, any ideas that Unzue had, any strokes of genius, would already have been implemented as the coaching staff struggled to shake off the tactical malaise that seemed to grip this club earlier in the season.
Further, Unzue has been a perpetual assistant until now, even as he has been, as an assistant, a lot like professional cyclist Joop Zoetemelk, who finished second in the Tour de France six times, as he kept running into legendary riders. Rijkaard, Guardiola, Luis Enrique aren’t bad folks to be lending a hand to. But the ambition that makes an assistant to storied coaches throw his hat into the ring for higher office seems to be absent in Unzue. Why hasn’t he done it before now? Why didn’t Vilanova? There is strong reason not to trust an eternal assistant. Unzue could be another Roura as easily as another Vilanova.
Just as the club worries about wasting time as a new coach implements bold new ideas, what if the assistant has nothing new, only the same stuff that the team has been struggling with previously? Then you waste a season, with some of the best players in the history of the game, and who the hell has time for that.
Another argument against Unzue is that the players need something new, really new, in the aftermath of Luis Enrique, something to activate their senses, both mental and physical, in a way that only a completely new face with new ideas can do. Guardiola inherited a group of players that had, in the previous two season, invented ways to screw up. They were a mess, even as the talent was there. But a spark was needed, someone to scream, “Run, you bastards, run!”
Promoting an assistant is conservative, a submission to a staid approach that would allow the players to relax and believe that things are the same. Incumbents ease off rather than looking over their shoulders. New folks are saddled with the same psychic baggage. Paco Alcacer, rather than perking up because this new coach would be seeing him anew, would think, “Same folks, same ideas about me.” When trying to shake something up, there is always a strong argument for new and different.
Whoever gets the Barça job is probably going to do pretty well. A team that stacked with talent is like a chocolate cake recipe. Follow the instructions, and the result is going to be pretty tasty. Yes, a fancier chef might add a sprinkle of say, chili pepper to the batter to give the pastry a little sumthin’ sumthin’, but chocolate cake is damn good no matter how you come at it. Potentially, Barça will have an XI next season that is pretty much the same as this one: Ter Stegen, Vidal, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Iniesta, Rakitic, Neymar, Suarez, Messi. It’s pretty hard to mess that up. And even as so many from amateur coaching chairs allege that Luis Enrique has indeed messed that up, they’re wrong. He hasn’t.
This is true even if you allow for the nonsense that says a favored coach has the wrong players and that’s why he isn’t wonderful, while an unfavored coach is an idiot who can screw up chocolate cake, no matter how good the ingredients or precise the instructions. Tata Martino was five goals away from being in with a shout for a treble. And he is, no matter what knowledgeable critter you consult, the crappiest coach in the history of crappy coaches, Captain BBQ clad in a mint polo.
Wny wouldn’t a nervous board, realizing this, make the decision that the assitant should just move over a chair? Recent quotes have made it clear that the players would be fine with that call. Pique publicly likes it. So does the captain. So does a key midfield component in Rakitic. Don’t mess up the money machine.
Between social media and an Internet that has brought access to many levels of informed football writing, supporters are more informed than ever, able to converse about the merits of various formations. Twitter exchanges sound like math conventions, as numbers fly around. 3-3-1-2s vs 1-1-1-2-2-1, blablabla. We know more, even as we know less. The most vaunted Twitter genius, the most voceferous, vehement Luis Enrique detractor or proponent would, given the whistle, probably sit there, mouth agape at the job confronting them. And the quality of that job would, like it or not, come down on most days to precious little more than the quality of the execution from the players you are tasked with managing. What if Neymar hadn’t been seized by genius those last seven minutes? What if Messi hadn’t been Messi, any of the zilion times he decided to be Messi? All the tactical nous on the planet doesn’t have a solution, whether for or against, in the face of brilliance.
Guardiola wasn’t a fantastic choice to manage Barça, until he was. Rijkaard? Dunno, man … not that sure about his … whoa! Okay! This rocks! There are people who know more than any of us (yes, even you) tasked with making a critical decision. What say we all sit back and give that process a shot.