Luis Enrique confirmed last night that he will not be Barcelona manager beyond the end of the current season.
His sinde had just thumped Sporting Gijon 6-1 at the Camp Nou to leapfrog Real Madrid at the top of the table and the 46-year-old decided to make his decision to leave the club public.
“I will not be manager of Barcelona next season,” he told reporters after the game.
“In preseason I had a meeting with [Albert] Soler and Robert [Fernandez] during which I spoke about the possibility of not renewing.
“They told me that there was no rush to decide. But the moment has arrived.
“The reason is the way I live this job, constantly looking to improve. It means I have very little time to rest.
“It’s been a difficult, but well thought through decision, I need to rest. I would like to thank the club for the confidence they have shown in me and for three unforgettable years.”
The former Roma boss won the Treble and then a domestic double in an incredible first two seasons in charge of the Blaugrana, but the wheels have come off to some extent this term and the goodwill Enrique had earned is now wearing thin.
When Enrique walks away at the end of the season, there is one potential candidate to take his place who stands head and shoulders above the rest – despite being only 5’7” tall.
Jorge Sampaoli has so impressed during his first campaign in European management with Sevilla that many Barça fans want to see him appointed as their current manager’s successor, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that he’d be a perfect fit.
Though a change may be necessary to spark Barcelona back to their best in the coming months, nobody involved with the club – players, board or fans – would want to see too much of a drastic shift away from the principles they have long-since held dear.
The football played at the Camp Nou should be expressive, entertaining and, most of all, attacking.
Whether it was the sheer firepower of Johan Cruyff’s “Dream Team”, Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka, or the more dynamic approach of Enrique, playing on the front foot is essential inside the Catalan football cathedral.
With Sevilla this term, Sampaoli has shown that he is an offense-first coach. Indeed, if any proof of the Argentinian tactician’s commitment to forward play were required, the 6-4 victory over Espanyol in Sevilla’s first La Liga game of the season stands as testament.
Only Barcelona and Real Madrid, whose respective budgets dwarf that of Sevilla, are able to better Los Nervionenses’ average of two goals per game in La Liga this term.
Looking back through Sampaoli’s coaching history serves to further emphasise his ability to construct thrilling attacking teams. Many will have initially heard of the 56-year-old when he guided Chile to their first ever Copa America success in 2015, utilising a high-tempo, high-pressing approach to get the best out of the likes of Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sánchez, Charles Aránguiz and Eduardo Vargas.
Sampaoli’s historic achievement led to him being named as one of FIFA’s top three coaches that year, alongside former Barça boss Guardiola and the man he could yet replace at the Camp Nou, Enrique.
Before taking the Chile post from Marcelo Bielsa, Sampaoli employed many of the enigmatic and influential former Newell’s Old Boys and Marseille manager’s tactical principles while in charge of Universidad de Chile, where he won three national titles as well as the 2011 Copa Sudamericana.
Known as a disciple of Bielsa – a Bielsista – Sampaoli stays true to many of the ideas espoused by “El Loco”, such as predominantly utilising some form of 3-4-3, pressing the opposition relentlessly, encouraging positional fluidity and a commitment to attack.
However, the Sevilla manager has sprinkled Bielsa’s idealist approach with a healthy dose of pragmatism, helping him to surpass his mentor in terms of trophies collected throughout their respective careers.
One of the main criticisms of Enrique is that he is unable to solve tactical problems within a game. The recent 4-0 Champions League last-16 defeat at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain, in which Barça’s midfield was completely outworked and outplayed by the French champions’ trident of Adrien Rabiot, Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi, stands as evidence to this.
Enrique showed himself incapable of making the requisite adjustments to help his side wrestle back their customary control, and at no point could they claw themselves back into the game.
Sampaoli, on the other hand, is a much more malleable tactician. He will often send his side out in a shape resembling 3-4-3, but so regular are the micro-adjustments that he makes within any one fixture that it becomes nearly impossible to discern an exact formation.
Like a chess master, the Argentinian constantly rearranges his pieces on the board to mitigate against any threat that he sees formulating within the opposition.
For example, at times this season midfield pivot Steven N’Zonzi has tucked into the backline to add additional cover and aerial protection; Samir Nasri, arguably the team’s most gifted player, has been instructed to drop deep to pick up the ball in space; Vitolo has occasionally been switched between wing-back and his more conventional winger’s role.
With the vast array of talent at his disposal at Barcelona, Sampaoli would see numerous tactical possibilities.
Forced to retire from football thanks to a double leg break at the age of 19, Sampaoli had to work his way up from the very bottom rung of the managerial ladder, unable to benefit from the name recognition and increased opportunity that is afforded to successful ex-professionals.
To do this, the Santa Fe native has had to be strong-willed and staunch in his self-belief. He also had to have the drive to succeed in his profession, which saw him leave Argentina to take low-ranking jobs in Chile before rising to prominence.
Sampaoli is also incredibly passionate about the game, and wants his player to feel the same way “I believe that the only way to succeed is by uniting players with a love of playing,” he said during his time in charge of the Chilean national team.
“You try to inspire in them a love of the shirt derived of enjoyment, not obligation. When you succeed in this individualistic society, it is by committing to something intangible, with humility. That allows everybody to come together; the social or cultural background of the people involved doesn’t matter.”
Champions League progression is unlikely at this point, but Barcelona are in the Copa del Rey final and currently second in La Liga – one place and two points ahead of Sevilla – so their current predicament is far from a crisis.
However, to anyone who has watched their performances on the field over the last few months, it is obvious that the team has stagnated. Were it not for the other-worldly heroics of Lionel Messi – who has scored 36 goals in 36 games this season and again bagged a late winner against Atlético Madrid last weekend – they could have been much worse off.
It is becoming abundantly clear that a change is required — whether that be a shift in approach from Enrique before the end of the season, or a completely new man in the dugout.
If Sampaoli were to come in, he would bring a new set of ideas which, although different to the current coach’s philosophy, are in keeping with the club’s ethos, and a strength of personality that will lift the squad.
New solutions to the old problems: that’s what the Sevilla coach will offer. If Sampaoli has made anything apparent at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán this season, it’s that he knows how to squeeze every last drop of potential out of the players at his disposal.
With the likes of Messi, Neymar, Luis Suárez and Andrés Iniesta under his wing, Sampaoli could make Barça almost unstoppable once again.