There is no such thing as a perfect coach.
But in this, the day and age of coach as icon, in which some of the minds on the bench are as revered as players, an odd sort of iconography has come up, born as much of the armchair tactician era, where social media talks about formations and tosses about numbers in a cyber coaching confab.
Coaches are people paid to get results. Just like players. Coaches are also, for the most part, as good as their players. Diego Simeone is a magnificent coach. But at the end of it all, his players came up short. And we need look no farther than the Premiership for another way of illustrating grim reality as a trio of new coaches, Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho took over at clubs. Two of them won silver. All three worked to instill their philosophies with a new group of players. But Conte had the season, with his Prem-title-winning Chelsea, that many expected Guardiola to have.
Conte came in, identified problems, identified players who could help fix those problems, made some tactical changes and won a championship. So the cult of coaching works, right? Not so fast. It all depends on the coach.
There was a comment in the last post, made by Omoh, that is worth unpacking and digging into as Barça waits to announce its new coach.
Lucho has had them for 3 consecutive seasons and managed a treble only once which coincidentally was when the greatest midfielder in the history of the club was still present. Xavi.
This comment quite clearly speaks to the expectation present when you have the three best attackers in the game at your beck and call, while also answering a host of other questions, including why top attackers such as Gabriel Jesus opted not to come to Barça. Expectation is a a brutal thing. Also embedded in this all is the idea that players win matches and coaches lose them.
History will be kinder to Luis Enrique in the future than his detractors are in the present. Pep Guardiola won 14 trophies in four seasons at Barça, an astounding record. He also did the treble once, and the double once.
Luis Enrique will have — should his team win the Copa final — nine trophies in three seasons, which doesn’t exactly suck. He, too, did a treble and a double.
The difference between the two coaches is, in supporter lore, a chasm. But here’s something worth considering: If Luis Enrique is poor for having only won a single treble with Messi/Suarez/Neymar, what might the same person say of Guardiola, who won “only” one treble even while having prime Xavi, Iniesta, Alves, Valdes, Puyol, Abidal, Messi, Eto’o (who was discarded for the Ibrahimovic experiment), in addition to a supporting cast that included the likes of Pedro, Alexis Sanchez and David Villa.
If you believe in the concept of a team, Luis Enrique has done quite well given the players he has had at his disposal, particularly if you consider the prevailing notion that his transfers have sucked almost as badly as he does.
If a team is a unit, Barça went from a back line of Alves/Pique/Puyol/Abidal under Guardiola, to Alves-Sergi Roberto/Pique/Mascherano-Mathieu-Umtiti/Alba. I know which back line I want. The midfield under Guardiola was Xavi/Iniesta/Busquets. Now it’s Iniesta/Raktic/Busquets. Again, that choice is an easy one.
This isn’t to defend Luis Enrique because he doesn’t need defending. A treble and a double and a possible 9 trophies in 3 years speaks for itself, even if you worship the white-robed purity of a Method of Play. If you want to believe that it was only Messi propping up Luis Enrique, then what happened over the past two seasons? Barça is a team that can call upon, is driven by and defined by the best player to ever play the game. Messi has propelled his team to results that the group didn’t deserve, to be sure. But the team also pulled out some matches that the group didn’t deserve. Messi can’t do everything, which is why the rest of the team also matters. It isn’t enough to have the three best attackers in the game, send them out there and wait for trophies to rain down.
Anyone asking seriously what happened, bereft of narrative, from treble to double to Copa would have to look at what for me are the two most significant things: too many transfers and poorly timed injuries. In the treble season, Xavi was coming off the bench. In the double season, Iniesta stayed fit and Alves was a key player who functioned as much as a midfielder as a fullback. This season, right as the team devised a system of play, one of the crucial cogs, Rafinha, went down. Again. And again. Iniesta was in and out of the team due to injuries. And right when the team looked to have figured out how to get some life from the right side, an ill-timed tackle removed that option. Mathieu could never find form because he was injured all the time. Turan was injured a lot as well.
Transfers enter the frame in the form of too many players needing to learn too much too soon, the effect being that you always someone trying to pick up a difficult system mentally. Gomes wasn’t as good as he was going to be. Complicating things is that he needed to be better than he was at those crucial times. The same could be said for Alcacer. Would the team have been better off keeping Munir or Sandro, who were already versed in the system? Would they have been better off replacing Alves with an RB and using Sergi Roberto in midfield? Valid questions all. As it was, this season felt like one where nobody was where they needed to be, on the pitch or on the lineup card. The consequence was instability.
This doesn’t even take into account the rather different ways that opponents began playing Barça, which really began in earnest under Guardiola as Inter and then Chelsea decided they were happier giving Barça the ball, then sit in the low block and hit off the counter. Any time a team didn’t play Barça like that, they got smoked. And this was true under Guardiola or Luis Enrique. Don’t forget the calls for a Plan B that began under Guardiola, as Barça was thwarted by low blocks.
A coach’s job is to win matches and trophies. The other things that supporters crave are tertiary to those big two. If a coach manages to gild Masia players and turn them into solid first teamers while playing exquisite football of the type that resembles a positional play diagram but Barça finishes fourth in the league and exits early in the Champions League group stages, what do we think will happen to that coach?
Luis Enrique has been the most successful abject failure in coaching history. As he leaves, the general consensus is that he sucked, underperformed and good riddance. Just where that idea gained traction is difficult to understand, particularly in light of the view of his transfers and the players on his roster. Barça is about to announce a new coach and the first #valverdeout hashtags are already popping up on Twitter amid the general view that he isn’t good enough, is a conservative choice, will lead to stagnation and doom.
And he hasn’t even been announced yet. Ernesto Valverde is still but a rumor.
Of course, there are perfect coaches. Tuchel, Oscar Garcia to name just a couple. Setien suddenly became trendy via late rush — anybody except Valverde, a coach who has done quite a good job during his Athletic Bilbao tenure, including schooling Barça in the SuperCopa. Athletic’s worst finish has been seventh (twice), which is impressive given a limited recruiting pool becasue of the Athletic restrictions on player background, and a usually much smaller transfer kitty compared to the other top Liga clubs.
But assumptions have already been made of Valverde, based on what? A coach will always adapt his approach to the players that he has at his disposal. Tuchel would be fun, but would he be the best choice for a team entering its athletic dotage, so to speak? Oscar Garcia has done really lovely work at Red Bull Salzburg, but what has he done to be rated more highly than a coach who has had success in La Liga? Part of it is where the cult of coaching comes in, and the theory that theory is superior to almost anything else. The coach you don’t have is better than the coach you have. So Oscar Garcia or Tuchel will press, bring back positional play, turn Masia talents into superstar first-team players, things Luis Enrique wasn’t interested in, and Valverde is incapable of.
It’s worth repeating at this juncture that we don’t know. Anything. Zidane took over Real Madrid, led them to a Champions League victory and has them poised to not only do the double this season, but be the first repeat Champions League winner in a very long time. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t rated as a coach when he was handed the whistle by Florentino Perez. But the biggest reason to question the cult of coaching is the sideeye thrown about when a certain Pep Guardiola was named Mister at FC Barcelona. Look what happened to him.