In the post-match press conference held after he had steered Barcelona to a 6-1 thrashing of Sporting Gijón in March, Luis Enrique announced that he would be stepping down as manager at the end of this season. Instantly, the focus turned to who would succeed him in one of the most pressure-filled dugouts in world football.
Enrique’s time with Barcelona has been a success purely in terms of silverware won. In his debut season, the club picked up a treble of league, cup and Champions League, and in his second campaign a domestic double of league and cup was secured along with a UEFA Super Cup and a FIFA Club World Cup. This, his third term at the helm, looks increasingly likely to end without a third consecutive La Liga win, but the Copa del Rey could well be Barcelona’s again as they face Alavés in the final.
Yet, despite the trophies won, Barcelona have lost part of their identity in the past three years. Enrique brought in a more direct brand of football based on the simple tenet of getting the ball to the electric front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar as quickly as possible. The results were sensational, but the methods were unconventional by the Catalan club’s standards.
Here, Football Whispers looks at four managers who could restore the traditional Barcelona way.
Behind reigning champions Bayern Munich and Thomas Tuchel’s Dortmund, Hoffenheim have had the most possession in the German Bundesliga this term. While that statistic alone doesn’t prove much, it does reflect the ideals of manager Nagelsmann, a 29-year-old who is already attracting interest not simply for the results he is achieving, but the manner by which he is achieving them.
Under Nagelsmann, Hoffenheim have been transformed into one of the most entertaining and effective sides in Germany. At 28 he became the youngest football manager in his country’s history when taking charge in October 2015, though soon talk of his age was mere background noise. He won seven out of 14 matches to ensure Hoffenheim stayed up, before taking them into the Champions League qualification berths in 2015-16.
Nagelsmann’s focus is on attacking centrally, with an intriguing rough 3-4-2-1 shape not dissimilar to that used successfully by Antonio Conte at Chelsea. His team are fluid, interchanging positions frequently in order to open up passing lanes, though they are also extremely cohesive both in all phases of the game. One can only imagine what he could do with Barcelona’s players at his disposal.
Like former Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola, Sampaoli considers himself to be a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa. The Argentine proselytises a similarly intense game, with particular emphasis on aggressive pressing and high-tempo possession. These tenets were seen during his time as Chile manager, where he led the country to their first ever Copa America victory, and in his first year in European football with Sevilla.
Under Sampaoli’s watch, the Andalusian outfit briefly threatened the hegemony of Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga before falling away from the title race with a five-game winless streak. During that run of poor domestic results, Sevilla were also knocked out of the Champions League by a Leicester rejuvenated following Claudio Ranieri’s dismissal.
While his first season in Spain is set to end without trophies, Sampaoli has successfully implemented the sort of dynamic attacking football that attracts teams like Barcelona. But, perhaps most importantly, he has also brought with him high pressing and willingness to innovate tactically from game to game.
Given his propensity for controversy, Sarri may not be the safest choice of manager. But, with the style of play he tends to foster and the results achieved in the process, he should nonetheless be considered for the Barcelona job.
Sarri made his breakthrough while head coach of Empoli, who he led into Serie A in 2014. Refusing to throw away his philosophy to ensure points, he instead kept the small town Tuscan club in the top tier while retaining their refreshing style based on a high defensive line, building possession from the back through triangle shapes and attacking in the final third with plenty of movement off the ball.
The 58-year-old, who worked in finance prior to becoming a professional coach, has stuck by his principles since taking charge at Napoli, with whom he challenged Juventus for the title last season. Sarri was awarded the Panchina d’Oro, or Golden Bench, for his work in 2015-16, and this term his team thrilled the continent with their buccaneering attacking play against Real Madrid in the Champions League.
With his preference for a 4-3-3 system, canny use of a false nine in Dries Mertens, ability to orchestrate attacks built on positional rotations, intricate passing patterns and fast, vertical possession, and high pressing game, Sarri is, tactically speaking, almost perfect for Barcelona.
In his book, ‘Pep Guardiola: The Evolution’, Martí Perarnau depicted a meeting between the current Manchester City boss and Tuchel.
“Other diners looked on in amusement as they turned their table into a mini football pitch,” Perarnau wrote, continuing: “using salt cellars and glasses to represent the players and moving them around to imitate the tactics they were discussing.”
Guardiola and Tuchel’s connection is one built on mutual respect. The two are meticulous tacticians with similar ideals regarding how football should be played, and this must make the latter a serious candidate for the role of Barcelona manager.
Under his influence, Dortmund have maintained their status as one of Europe’s most appealing sides to watch, but the style has shifted from the steadfast focus on counter-pressing under Jürgen Klopp to one based more on effective possession and breaking the opposition’s lines. This, along with his appreciation for Guardiola’s coaching, makes Tuchel a tactical fit for Barcelona should they wish to reinstitute something akin to the football seen between 2008 and 2012.