It was only two weeks ago that Luis Enrique publicly announced he’d be stepping down from his Barcelona managerial post at the end of the season. From that day forward, the already frantic stirring amongst fans and media as to who’d be the next Blaugrana boss grew exponentially. And while a rather topsy-turvy last week has clarified certain waters, it’s muddied others.
One of the more prominent names to dominate these discussions has been Sevilla manager Jorge Sampaoli. The Directeur du Jour following both his Copa America-winning stint with Chile and his recent title-surge with Sevilla, Sampaoli is the kind of name that currently that excites the masses. The 57-year-old is a manager who, in the vein of his mentor Marcelo Bielsa, overhauls the teams he takes charge of, requiring full commitment from his players. It can be an exhausting task for both a gaffer and a squad, but the visceral image of Sampaoli’s high-pressing, all-out attacking teams is something fans and pundits alike adore. In the early days of Barca’s manager search, Sampaoli undoubtedly stands out as a fan-favorite.
But as was said before, specific happenings of this last few days have changed things. With Sevilla’s elimination from the Champions League round of 16 at the hands of Leicester City, the chances of a Sampaoli appointment took a massive hit. After the match, Catalunya Radio swiftly reported that the Argentine is no longer in the running to be Barca manager.
So if not Sampaoli, then who?
There’s been a list of fringe candidates floating about that includes the likes of Ronald Koeman, Eusebio Sacristan, Mauricio Pochettino, and even Arsene Wenger. Of course, each of these options come with their own unique issues, some more damning than others.
Ronald Koeman’s memorable days as a part of Johan Cruyff’s “Dream Team” of the early Nineties (THAT goal, in particular) make him an obvious link to the job opening. And while his coaching record is exemplary, with multiple Eredivisie titles in-tow and a splendid realignment being done at his current Everton gig, it doesn’t feel like the right time for Koeman to make the Camp Nou jump. Though it might be in his future, Bartomeu and company seem to be prioritizing other names at this moment.
In the case of Eusebio, past failures cut perhaps a little too deeply. Although he was also a part of Cruyff’s team, his time managing Barcelona B, from 2011 to 2015, ended with the reserve team undergoing relegation from the Segunda, a curse they’re only now remedying. This reveals a strained relationship between Eusebio and the Barca board that is perhaps irreconcilable.
As far as Wenger goes, one would have to buy that the Frenchman won’t still be at Arsenal come next August, a supposition even the most optimistic Gunner isn’t making. On the other side of North London, Pochettino appears all-in on his Tottenham project and relatively uninterested.
So if not Sampaoli or Eusebio or Koeman, then who? We’ll, it’s actually an “outside” candidate who’s been getting lots of attention over the last week; and I use quotation marks on “outside” because although Juan Carlos Unzue is actually a Barca insider, he’s also a fairly unfamiliar commodity.
Unzue, Enrique’s longtime number two, has only recently, amid Barca’s miraculous past fortnight, become a genuine candidate to take over at Camp Nou. The pros and cons here are quite clear. Unzue knows the players and the atmosphere better than any of his competitors for the job. (He’s even been given something resembling an endorsement from the likes of Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, and Ivan Rakitic, in addition to being Enrique’s preferred successor.) However, the 49-year-old’s links to Lucho could also hinder the seemingly dire need for the first-team to evolve into something new. If it’s indeed true that Barca are a fractured entity right now, then perhaps a fresh vision without prejudice is what’s necessary.
A Lucho-to-Unzue story also draws deep comparisons to when the late Tito Vilanova took over from Pep Guardiola in 2012. Albeit a success, the Vilanova era ultimately failed to establish itself as a true time of distinction, partially because of Vilanova’s tragic passing, but also because it always existed behind the shadow of Guardiola’s inimitable reign. Lucho’s shadow doesn’t hang quite as hauntingly as Pep’s, but eight trophies in three years is plenty intimidating.
Which brings us to Ernesto Valverde, the clear frontrunner to take over Enrique’s post. Valverde, another member of Cruyff’s long-net-casting lineage, has managed Athletic Bilbao for the last four seasons (his second-stint with the club). Part of the reason the 53-year-old is the odds-on favorite is that he was already nearly offered the job as on two occasions before in 2014 and 2015. Both times the deals fell through mostly due to poor timing. However, with those previous roadblocks no longer relevant, and his contract with Athletic winding down, it would appear the job is now his to lose.
But if he’s not careful, he just might.
It’s true that Valverde’s time at San Mames has been plenty fruitful, however, Athletic’s recent stumbles in both league and European play are cause for concern. The Leones have won away just thrice this season in La Liga (while only scoring nine goals) and were just ousted from the Europa League by APOEL in the Round of 32.
There’s a case to be made that Athletic’s rigid personnel policy of only fielding Basque-born players has reduced Valverde’s ability to truly build a squad in his own image. It’s a valid claim, to be sure. But Barcelona is a place where paying Cules expect not only winning football but also tactically proficient football. It’s a place where problems are solved and underachieving strategists are given their papers. Valverde’s prosperous days with Olympiacos have proven that he’s capable of both navigating and dominating a domestic league, but the battlefield of Spain’s Primera is admittedly a different monster altogether.
So while the shortlist of potential Barca bosses has been shaved down to a couple, time can always change things. Just weeks ago, we all believed Enrique’s team had been compromised beyond repair. I even wrote as much here. But time — even if just miniscule amount of it — passes and things change.
Things changed when Barcelona thumped Celta Vigo, then days later produced the comeback of a lifetime against PSG; both of which found the club back in both the Primera and Champions League title-races. At that point, Barca were redeemed. But, again, time changed things. Barca immediately turned around and lost to Deportivo last weekend. Then Sampaoli lost his mojo at Leicester, changing his trajectory as well as Barca’s. Every passing day brings new information that alters expectations.
Come the end of May, FC Barcelona will be ready to hand the keys over to a brave new leader. Unfortunately, there are just too many dips and turns ahead for us to know who that person will be. How about this? He’ll be happy and rich. That’s all I got for now.