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Barcelona Open-Mouthed, Not Broken-Hearted, at Luis Enrique’s Imminent Exit - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English
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Barcelona Open-Mouthed, Not Broken-Hearted, at Luis Enrique’s Imminent Exit

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At the press conference before Barcelona’s match with Sporting Gijón on Wednesday Luis Enrique was asked if he felt tired, worn out by the demands of being manager at the Camp Nou. He had been a little edgy of late, after all – even for him. “No,” he said, a little pointedly, which is how he says a lot of things, “I’m pletórico.” Plethoric, full of energy.

At the press conference after Barcelona’s match with Sporting Gijón on Wednesday night, they had finished asking Luis Enrique questions when he announced that he was leaving at the end of the season. “I need to rest,” he said.

Barcelona won a treble in his first season in charge and a double in his second. In his third and final season, they are on the verge of Champions League elimination but they have reached the final of the Copa del Rey against Alavés and the night that Luis Enrique announced his departure they moved to the top of the table for the first time since week nine, the league back in their own hands.

The president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, described him as a “legend”. But success does not provide immunity, nor is it an elixir of eternal life. Not here, especially.

“In England, I’d be a bloody hero,” the then Barcelona manager Bobby Robson once said; instead, he stood alone and under pressure, victim of a battle, an environment, he did not truly understand. Pep Guardiola said four years was as long as a coach could be at Barcelona. When José Mourinho said he should stay for 50 years, Guardiola joked: “I thought José loved me more than that.”

Johan Cruyff had a heart attack. Víctor Valdés talks about the emotional exhaustion, defending a goal that is bigger than 8ft high. “A year at Barcelona is like two anywhere else,” he said.

Luis Enrique, now 46, has taken charge of 164 games. That is 328 times he has been before the press, for matches alone. And media relations, the public perception, is just a part of it – albeit at a club that is so eminently political, where the coach is so exposed, it is a larger part than it probably should be. If at first he seemed to almost enjoy challenging them and refusing to play the game, instead playing one of his own in which he occasionally pricked their pomposity and prejudice, that feeling was fleeting and is gone now.

He was “surprisingly” sensitive to what the press said, for a man who claimed not to even look at the press. In Barcelona, it is hard not to be; it invades everything and it can be insidious.

Then there is the work itself, the relentlessness of it. The relentless of Luis Enrique, too. This is a man who competed in the New York Marathon; the Quebrantahuesos, or “bone crusher” race, cycling 205km through the Pyrenees; the Frankfurt Ironman, a 10-hour triathlon; and the Sables marathon, 255km through the Moroccan desert with a 10kg rucksack on his back. That obsessiveness and competitive nature is taken to his work. “The reason I’m leaving is the way I live this profession,” he said. “I get very few hours to rest, to disconnect; at the end of this season I need to rest.”

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Guardiola once said that what he most enjoyed was that Eureka moment when, after hours of being locked in a dark, windowless room, he suddenly saw how his team would win. Luis Enrique described his job as one of “constantly seeking solutions”, “an incessant search to improve the team”. And while that is in his nature, it becomes tiresome for anyone. Especially when it is ignored or, worse still, thrown back at you. He sees himself seeking solutions, but the debate, every bit as relentless as he is, has become dominated by accusations that he is trampling on a tradition.

Although Guardiola described him as the “perfect manager for Barcelona” and while much of the criticism aimed at him for not being sufficiently “Barcelona” is exaggerated, there is something in that, some substance to the debate. That Barcelona have shifted, that there has been a sense of them losing their religion, is a reality. Luis Enrique sees himself as a man seeking solutions; for others he stands accused of being the problem.

Yet problems are more profound than the man on the bench and he knows that. Meanwhile, even those who enjoy the search for a perfection that is unattainable, Cruyff and Guardiola hanging over them, can be exhausted by the thanklessness of the task. They also know that however much they control they cannot control everything. Failures are yours more than successes will ever be.

The manager who has won eight trophies from 10 said he was leaving and no tears were shed. From New York to Frankfurt, from the mountains to the desert, those challenges say something about him: solitary, determined, single-minded.

He has never been close to his players, nor concerned about politics or public perception; it is just not his way. Six months into his first season, he was on the edge, the intervention of Xavi Hernández easing tensions and by the end of it they were celebrating in Berlin. That night, though, he still had not renewed his contract, nor confirmed that he would stay.

In Gerard Piqué’s words, Luis Enrique had taken over when the team were “completely in the shit” and won it all. And yet on Wednesday night, no one was sad. Some were surprised, it is true. Well sort of. They were not surprised by the fact that Luis Enrique is leaving but by the timing: when and how it was announced. This was a departure foretold but an announcement that was unforeseen.

He did it his way, as he always has. Whether it was the right way is open to debate, but an early announcement may help to ease the tension over the final months – maybe gratitude will appear now they know he is going – although it brings the succession to the surface. Or it would, if it was not already there, Ernesto Valverde, Mauricio Pochettino, Jorge Sampaoli, the most credible of the many names cited going back weeks now. This was coming, everyone knew. When a fortnight ago the club’s president said that there was no plan B for next season, that the only plan was Luis Enrique, few believed him.

Luis Enrique had told Barcelona’s sporting director in the summer that there was a chance that this would be his last season. Three years is a long time at the Camp Nou, he knew. They had agreed then that they would speak in April. Two or three days ago, still in February, he told them that his mind was made up: he was going.

A couple of days later, he told everyone else – in a routine press conference after a routine win. He did so once the questions had been asked and without fanfare. There was no official statement and no one there with him, not the president, the sporting director, his staff or the players.

They had found out a few minutes before, when he had walked into the dressing room and informed the squad. “We were left open-mouthed,” Ivan Rakitic said. Open-mouthed but not, in truth, broken-hearted.

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