Posted on January 2015.
“Luis Enrique will do a better job than I did.”
— Pep Guardiola
History is most interesting when we forget it. In using the “where there’s smoke …” adage, it’s doubtful that anyone continues to use “alleged” when discussing the alleged rift between Messi and Enrique. Is there something in fact going on? Again, we don’t know.
People say Enrique is “arrogant,” “difficult,” “in over his head,” “can’t manage at a big club,” etc. These things are said without knowing, because we don’t see what goes on. Most of what we know is his Vito Corleone-like badass face at pressers, where he rasps answers from behind a jutted chin. From that, people get arrogance, etc.
But it’s worth going back to happier times, when Pep Guardiola rolled into the club after the days of Frank Rijkaard.
Speaking of Rijkaard and history, what’s interesting is that many suggest that his tenure went off the rails when he lost Henk Ten Cate, who was his pit bull. So that authority, that person who would say “Shut up and deal with what we are telling you,” was lost. From there, the locker room descended into anarchy. Once a coach loses the locker room, there’s no way to get it back, and that coach is on a very, very short leash.
Guardiola came in and laid waste. Unlike his successors, he had full and complete authority, and knew what he wanted. People also forget that he wasn’t interested in dissent. It was his way or the highway. He leavened that stern nature with hugs and was clearly a very human coach, but Guardiola was going to get his way.
When he took office, the first thing he did was clean house. The wholesale clearout that transpired included Ronaldinho and Deco. It was easy for many to accept those moves, because R10 wasn’t what he once was unless at a party, nor was Deco. More interesting was Samuel Eto’o, a fearsome striker at the peak of his powers. Guardiola wanted him out, and said you can do this my way, or leave. Eto’o stayed, and was an integral part of that legendary Treble side. When he lapsed he was gone, in favor of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The warnings about Ibrahimovic were many, and pretty much all of them came to pass. He eventually left the club. Toure Yaya wanted more playing time, wanted things from his role in the team that he wasn’t going to get, mostly because Sergio Busquets fit what Guardiola wanted better but also because Guardiola didn’t want anyone who wasn’t fully on board with his program to be around, getting in the way.
This is exactly as it should be. A coach should have full and complete authority to run him team exactly as he likes, and it shouldn’t matter who that coach is. The role should come with that presumption. Management styles differ and can be debated about, but what should be etched in concrete is that Coach is Mister. That the traditional Mister role has disappeared in the face of modern players and superstars is another matter for another day.
I’m not speaking to him
Guardiola ran his team.
Allegedly, Messi and Enrique aren’t speaking. My mind immediately returned to the allegations that Guardiola didn’t speak to Eto’o, Ibrahimovic or Yaya, and I got to thinking about what the differences were. I got to thinking about how back then, people said it was stupid to even consider that a coach wouldn’t be on speaking terms with a player on his team. It’s more than results because when Guardiola cleared house the season hadn’t started yet. When he wanted Eto’o gone, the team had not yet become That Team. And Guardiola’s only coaching credentials were that he had great ideas, and kicked ass at Barça B.
But Guardiola had the authority to run his team. That team also didn’t have a superstar of the likes of Messi. Ronaldinho was brilliant, affable and a great player. Would people include him in a list of 5 greatest players ever? Maybe his Mom, but that’s pretty much it. But even if he had been he would have been gone, because Guardiola wanted him gone. He relented on Eto’o because the player convinced him, but as soon as that full confidence was lost Eto’o was gone, as was Ibrahimovic.
Back then, a few brave souls said that Guardiola seemed to have difficulty managing superstars and their egos. In that context, draw what you will from his assuming the helm at a Bayern team that lacks that real superstar, iconic player who is also near the top of his game. He could sell Robben or Ribery in a heartbeat and few would bat an eyelash.
When Guardiola sold Ronaldinho, people said “Okay, but your crap had better come out smelling like roses.” It didn’t, and the muttering began. Then the team started winning, and Guardiola’s authority grew even stronger, to the point where the only real issue that most had with the sale of Ibrahimovic was price, rather than that the most talented striker in the game was being sold because he and his coach couldn’t get along. “Zlatan’s just an arrogant prick.”
“He got benched for Krkic!” Yes, because he checked out. The player that was benched by Guardiola wasn’t the same player who started the season, it was clear. Why? All we have is what Ibrahimovic has been saying in his book, pressers and pretty much whenever anyone asks, painting himself as the free will among the passel of choirboys.
Obviously, Guardiola and Enrique are very different managers. One has a role in Barça iconography, the other might not even finish his first season. But just because the two can’t be compared doesn’t mean that there aren’t commonalities, and one of the most noteworthy is their authoritarian styles.
But to do this you have to step back and look at the situation. How possible is that when it involves Messi? Enrique is automatically wrong. For those who say that he isn’t getting results, he is. So the issues become his rotation, seeming lack of a system (compared to what, it should be asked, and what role does poor execution play in that alleged lack of identity) and his “arrogance.”
Who’s the boss?
I can’t say that I agree with those notions. If a coach in American football plays a beautiful, offensive game and all of his players love him but his team finishes 2-14, that coach is gone. If a coach plays an ugly, defensive style, butts heads with his players and wins the championship, that coach is secure as can be. In many sports, it is all about results. The rest is window dressing.
Many have a difficult time understanding the idea that many culers would rather lose a match playing pretty, than win it playing ugly. But it’s at the core of the Enrique complexity. He’s getting results, doing so with a squad that unlike the squad that Guardiola was given for his first season, isn’t anything approaching ideal. It’s aging icons, a superstar who’s lost a step, role players and promotions still taking shape. Enrique has taken that group and has them second in the Liga and to the knockouts in Champions League after winning the group. That team also cruised (yes, it was Huesca) in the Copa. It really has been an impressive start from a results worldview, even as it has been at times a failure from the other worldviews.
And that’s the difficulty. The past is impossible to escape. Note that Tata Martino (who used 17 different lineups in his first 17 matches, by the by) is never used in Enrique comparisons. Why? He didn’t win anything. But that comparison would probably bring about a bit more patience, a bit more willingness to have patience with Enrique. Yes, the team has 3 losses in Liga. The Treble team had 7 losses, even though some came when the league title was all but done.
I don’t know what Enrique does or how he manages. The only thing I have to go on is what I see on the pitch. I haven’t watched training sessions, haven’t watched him interact with the players or staff. Because I have seen none of that, I am ill-equipped to make the same judgments that many are making about his fitness to continue coaching FC Barcelona.
But I can look at history, find similarities and speculate about why past is present but that present is perceived differently. Guardiola won everything under the sun for one great season, kept winning for a while, won a Copa and then left. The results weren’t there for the same reasons that the team isn’t doing all that it can right now: a neglectful board.
His successor, Tito Vilanova, won the Liga but nobody really cared because he screwed up and didn’t use Thiago Alcantara enough so he left for Bayern, legend has it. “He didn’t need those 100 points, and only wanted them because RM got them the year before. Hollow victory.” This was really the marking of the first return of how Barça used to be, the Barça that we’re seeing now, of the infighting and nothing ever being good enough. That season was defined by the Bayern beating, and always will be.
Martino came in, got an absolute mess of a team within 5 goals of being in with a shout for the Treble, and it’s immaterial. And in this situation results matter, in a deft malleability of grading standards.
And now we have Enrique, whose sins are:
— Too much rotation
— “Ugly” football
— Poor man management
— Has lost the locker room
— At war with Messi
He was getting stick for his previous sins, even beFORE the alleged row with Messi. And from my perspective, all of the other sins are nonsense inventions by people looking for a reason to dislike a coach. But if he has lost the dressing room, that’s fatal. A coach can be forgiven a lot, but not that. Because if the players won’t play for you, results are impossible.
It’s why I struggle to understand why the Messi thing has suddenly blown everything up. Prima facie, the alleged situation involves a coach’s authority over a player. And if we believe part of the allegations then we have to believe all of them right, which includes Messi getting a case of the “blue flu” and stiffing sick kids because he was having a pout.
“Oh, but Messi wouldn’t do that.” Yet Enrique is the monster because Messi is angry. It isn’t assumed for an instant that Enrique might have just as much reason and right to take on Messi as Guardiola did Eto’o, Ibrahimovic or Yaya. That thought doesn’t enter anyone’s mind. It can’t, because Messi is involved, and so Enrique is automatically at fault. He has to be, because all Messi wants to do is play with Thiago, his PlayStation and a football.
It shouldn’t take a cranky old journalist to point out the complexities in that approach to the situation.
If you stomp your feet and scream “WHY ARE YOU DEFENDING ENRIQUE,” then you haven’t been paying attention. The point isn’t Enrique’s suitability for the job that he has. The point is allegations, what they mean and a coach’s right to run his team the way that he sees fit, to do the job that he was hired to do. If he’s bad at that job, judge him on that, rather than a bushel basket of “allegeds.”
It’s a complex matter that I have struggled to get my mind around, but it seems to me that a lot of it is perception of two men, both wanting results and success and going about it in their own ways. And now they are allegedly butting heads. If that player is say, Jordi Alba, does it matter as much? When Enrique sat Pique for whatever reason he sat Pique, people defended Pique but really it wasn’t that huge a deal because Pique wasn’t getting the results on the pitch in that he wasn’t as consistently excellent as he has been in the past. News flash: Neither is Messi.
But none of that matters, because Messi is the Best Player Alive and Enrique is just some coach with no credentials, riding herd over a directionless team that is playing ugly football. And now he’s fighting with Messi. Lucho OUT!
What if he is fighting for the way to run his team as he likes? What if at the other side of all this alleged allegedly stuff is a fist of a team that takes shape and kicks the crap out of everyone. What if, what if? What if nobody can see any of the other “what ifs” because heels are embedded into the ground because we aren’t seeing exactly what we want to see from Barça, which makes everything suspect.
You can ask all the questions you like, but without asking the right ones, it’s difficult to solve a dilemma or get past a crossroads.