It seemed inevitable. The constant pressure, criticism, and rumours would sap the energy of any manager.
As reported by the Guardian, Luis Enrique announced he will be leaving Barcelona at the end of this season after his side’s 6-1 victory over Sporting Gijon on Wednesday. The timing may seem a little strange, but given everything that’s occurred over the last three seasons, and especially in recent months, this decision seemed likely.
Enrique has won eight of the ten trophies available to him in his tenure and overseen the fabled MSN trio so it hasn’t been all bad. His departure isn’t all that dissimilar from his friend Pep Guardiola’s a few seasons ago. Guardiola announced his decision nearer the end of a campaign that saw Barcelona lose their title to Real Madrid and get knocked out of Champions League by familiar foes Chelsea. The Blaugrana won the Copa del Rey but Enrique will be hoping to go two better.
So what does this mean for Barcelona in their present state? In reality, very little changes. Especially on the field.
Enrique’s announcement does mean the manager and his squad can focus solely on football without the distractions about his future. This side is in a better position domestically than they were at the beginning of the year and can still hold out hope for a miracle in the Champions League.
The shock loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their Champions League tie in February still sticks in the mind but Barcelona bounced back by beat Atletico Madrid to reach the Copa del Rey. Barcelona’s chances to retain La Liga have improved considerably in the last few weeks. The Blaugrana are currently first in the league having played one more game than Real Madrid. Enrique’s team has gotten some help in reeling in their rivals, including from fellow title hopeful Sevilla, but have also gotten the results necessary to keep the pressure on.
One reason for that has been the increased focus on regaining the control in midfield that has been deemed missing for most of the campaign. One of the major criticisms of Enrique’s tenure has been the increasing loss of identity and the diminishing importance of the club’s style of play. This Barcelona side isn’t feared as much as previous versions due to their inability to really control a game and their weaknesses have been exposed on more than one occasion. The loss of form and absences of key players has contributed to this, along with a lack of adequate and consistent performances by their replacements.
Barcelona has trotted out in a 3-4-3 formation in the last two games against Atletico Madrid and Sporting. Enrique stated this change was to regain the control that has been missing, as seen here on ESPN FC, and it will be interesting to see how long it continues. Celta Vigo are up next in La Liga and the hardest remaining test is a trip to Madrid for El Clasico where the title could be decided if Barcelona doesn’t slip again. A fully focused, and healthy, Barcelona squad, led by a manager who has eased some of his worries, will feel they still have a shot at the treble.
The other effect of Enrique’s announcement is that it provides clarity and forces action off the field as well. The Barcelona board can now look for a replacement, and focus on renewing Lionel Messi’s contract. Messi is unlikely to leave Barcelona given he won’t find an S and N elsewhere and especially so if the new manager is one he’ll be happy to work with. That is the major task for Barcelona president, Josep Bartomeu. Finding a manager that can deal with the juggernaut that is Barcelona and all that encompasses, from the players to the press to the fans.
The list of names that have cropped up in the rumour mill throughout Enrique’s tenure is interesting.
Some names, like Arsene Wenger, can only be classified as peak rumour-mill, while others, like Mauricio Pochettino, will be cause for plenty of debate. Two such managers have already taken their hat out of the ring as ESPNFC reports that the aforementioned Wenger only has eyes for Arsenal, while Real Sociedad’s Eusebio is honoring his contract. Eusebio does have the history Barcelona prefer in their managers, having played for the club before spending time as an assistant for the senior side then briefly managing Barcelona B, but he doesn’t have the profile Enrique or Guardiola did and was sacked at Barcelona B.
Other names include the likely front-runner, Sevilla’s Jorge Sampaoli, Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde, Everton’s Ronald Koeman, Laurent Blanc and current assistant Juan Carlos Unzue.
The only one of those, aside from Pochettino, without any former Barcelona association, is Sampaoli but his fantastic first European season puts him at the head of the queue. Pochettino’s work with England will have eyes wondering his way as well but his Catalan past is tied to rival club Espanyol as both a player and manager. That kind of history won’t sit well with some fans nor, it seems, per ESPNFC, the man himself. Valverde had a short stint at Barcelona and his Athletic side are always a handful but his playing style may rule him out. Koeman wouldn’t be a surprising option given his tactical acumen and, of course, his history with the club. Blanc is the type of manager who could keep things ticking over without upsetting the apple cart but there will be doubts considering how is time at Paris Saint-Germain ended. Unzue is already well-established with this Barcelona squad as Enrique’s assistant and may have his own ideas to retool the squad for consistent dominance.
The possibilities are all there for Bartemeu and he has until season’s end to get a manager in place before the transfer window. No more words are needed for Enrique beyond support for him and his staff in the quest for silverware this season. That continues on Saturday against a Celta Vigo side that beat them 4-3 earlier in October. Keeping the pressure on Madrid until El Clasico is of the utmost importance and, at the very least, a noble Champions League exit a la Arsenal would save some face. Should Barcelona pull off the miracle of beating PSG and kick-start a long Champions run Enrique’s departure may be met with a bit more consternation?
For now, the Barcelona manager will want to focus on each task as it comes. With one of his last moves, Enrique has likely galvanized his squad and focused them on facing the tasks ahead, and possibly the boardroom as well. That bodes well for Barcelona’s present and future.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by rodrigojimenezt
Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge
Rob Meech brings us three talking points as Chelsea held La Liga leaders Barcelona to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.
Lionel Messi finally broke his goalscoring duck against Chelsea to give Barcelona the edge after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.
Messi had failed to score in eight previous attempts against the Blues, but he was not to be denied on this occasion as he cancelled out Willian’s 62nd-minute opener.
A Chelsea clean sheet would have been a massive boost ahead of a daunting trip to the Camp Nou next month.
However, Messi’s equaliser 15 minutes from time means Antonio Conte’s men face an uphill battle to qualify for the quarter-finals of Europe’s showpiece competition.
Here are three talking points from Stamford Bridge…
Conte’s tactical approach so nearly pays dividends
But for the fatal error that led to Messi’s leveller, Chelsea would be heading to Catalonia in three weeks’ time with a one-goal lead to protect.
That they came so close to victory is testament to Conte’s tactical nous, which stifled Barcelona while also allowing the home side to flourish.
As expected, the visitors dominated the ball throughout the encounter. However, they created precious few opportunities as Chelsea’s back line held firm.
Conte had resisted the temptation to start with an out-and-out striker, with Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud both named on the bench.
The fluid movement of Pedro, Eden Hazard and Willian caused more problems than Barcelona have been used to this season and the Blues’ second-half goal was a deserved one.
Heading into the second leg, Conte will need to devise another masterplan if Chelsea are to proceed to the last eight.
Third time lucky for impressive Willian
The tricky Brazilian has by no means been a regular for Chelsea this season.
But he was given the nod against Barcelona in a three-man attack that featured Hazard as a false number nine.
It’s a system Conte has favoured recently, but although it failed to get the best out of Hazard, the same could not be said about Willian.
He was Chelsea’s chief threat and, on another night, could have walked off with the match ball.
Willian twice hit the post in the first-half, showing great skill on each occasion to create space and leave Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen with no chance.
Despite his misfortune, Willian was unbowed and he broke the deadlock with a pinpoint finish that raised the roof at Stamford Bridge.
It was a fitting reward for a top-class performance that highlighted his natural ability.
Surely he can’t be far away from cementing a regular spot in Conte’s starting XI?
Messi ends Chelsea goal drought to have decisive say
It is not often that British football fans get to see the little magician at such close quarters, so each time he arrives on these shores it is to be cherished.
Chelsea had a game-plan to nullify his influence and in the first half this worked superbly.
Although there were the usual sublime touches that we have come to expect, Messi was largely shackled by a solid rearguard display from Chelsea’s three-man central defence.
However, it only takes a side to switch off for a moment for the Argentinian to flex his muscles.
A misplaced pass from Andreas Christensen was intercepted by Andres Iniesta, whose pull back enabled Messi to slide the ball past Thibaut Courtois.
Once the ball had arrived to him in the box, there was no doubting where it would nestle.
Messi’s exuberant celebrations underlined the importance of his equaliser in the context of the tie.
It could be the decisive moment.
Who are the five most valuable players under the age of 21?
The CIES Football Observatory have produced a list of the 100 most valuable players under the age of 21 and it makes for interesting reading, with three Premier League players in the top five.
CIES are a research group based within the International Centre for Sports Studies. It was created in 2005 and has looks to specialise in the statistical analysis of football, which is a growing field within the sport.
A lot of their studies are based in the financial side of the game and given the continued increase of transfer fees, they produce a lot of information that is of interest to clubs.
This particular study focuses on the top five leagues and it won’t come as a surprise that the Premier League features heavily.
Here are the five most valuable under-21 players according to the CIES study:
5 – Marcus Rashford (€116.7 million)
Amid all the spending that Manchester United have done in recent seasons, the value of producing your own players through your academy continues to be shown in the Manchester United squad. It is important to their supporters to have homegrown players and Marcus Rashford is one of the best that they have produced in recent seasons. According to CIES, he is already worth more than £100 million and it is remarkable to think that he may not have been given a chance if it wasn’t for injuries to Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial.
It has been a good start to the season for Marcus Rashford as he continues to get significant minutes, despite the arrival of Romelu Lukaku. Across the Premier League and Champions League, he has contributed six goals and four assists. His goal involvement is one every 113.8 minutes. Considering he has been used in various positions and not played every week, this is impressive. United need to continue showing faith in him. If they do, the sky is the limit.
4 – Ousmane Dembele (€120.4 million)
The French winger made headlines during the summer, as he was selected to be the replacement for Neymar at Barcelona. There is a lot of pressure on the 20-year-old to live up to his price tag, which was £135.5 million. There were clauses included in the deal, but the overall value is more than the £120.4 million that he has been estimated at by CIES. However, there were circumstances driving that. Namely, the desperate position of Barcelona.
Last season, he was one of the best players in the Bundesliga as he contributed eight goals and 18 assists across the two major competitions. His goal involvement was one every 108.2 minutes, which underlines why Barcelona were keen to buy him this season. An injury has hindered him at the beginning of his La Liga career, but he remains one of the most exciting young players in the game.
3 – Leroy Sane (€124.5 million)
The £37 million that Manchester City paid for the German international is looking more and more like a bargain with every passing day. CIES value the winger at €124.5 million and that underlines the improvement he has made under Pep Guardiola. He is now one of the most devastating attackers in the Premier Leaguer and it will be fascinating to see how much further he can go, as he is only 21.
His record in the Premier League this season has been remarkable and he is well on his way to contributing at least ten goals and ten assists. Sane is already on six goals and six assists, with a goal involvement every 78.75 minutes. The quality of the team helps him, but his own performances have contributed significantly to the success of City.
2 – Dele Alli (€180.2 million)
It has been a difficult start to the new season for Dele Alli, but he remains one of the most exciting players in the world. In the list of these five players, the England international is the most attainable for the biggest clubs in Europe, as Tottenham have the lowest chance of winning major trophies. It will take a huge fee to secure the midfielder and the valuation of €180.2 million from CIES is around the fee that Spurs would expect.
Since joining Tottenham as a teenager, he has been a revelation and scored 28 goals during his first two Premier League seasons. This season has been harder as he has only three goals in 15 matches, but he was always going to go through a drop-off in form at some point. The test will be how he recovers. The next few months will show us how far Alli can go in the game.
1- Kylian Mbappe (€182.8 million)
The valuation from CIES is fractionally higher than the reported fee that PSG will pay for the teenager next summer when his transfer is made permanent. He was a revelation last season and played a major role in Monaco winning Ligue 1 and reaching the Champions League semi-finals. PSG have made the move to sign him and he could become the best player in the world at the club if he is managed correctly.
This season hasn’t been as eye-catching as his debut season in senior football, but he has been very impressive still, especially when his age is taken into consideration. He has contributed nine goals and seven assists across the two major competitions, with a goal involvement of 86.5 minutes. This is incredible, but there have been some critics as he isn’t as noticeable playing alongside Edinson Cavani and Neymar. He is clearly the best young player in the world and this list from CIES reflects that.
The conductor of the Barcelona orchestra: Reflecting on the career of Xavi Hernandez
Barcelona is an iconic city. FC Barcelona is an iconic football club. The Nou Camp is an iconic football stadium that has been graced by the presence of countless prestigious and legendary players over the last century.
The esteemed names roll off the tongue. Luis Figo, Patrick Kluivert, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Diego Maradona, Pep Guardiola, Johan Cryuff – the list in almost inexhaustible.
Even amidst the glamour, sensationalism and capitalist ideology of modern football Barcelona have entertained the world through the magic dust sprinkled by Lionel Messi with the supporting cast of Luis Suarez and, prior to the summer, Brazilian superstar Neymar.
However, among the stellar names it is hard to identify an individual who has won more trophies and influenced the very essence of the game itself than Xavi Hernandez.
No other Spaniard in the history of football has lifted more trophies. No other player in the history of Barcelona has made more appearances. No other player has been as synonymous with the development of a club.
He is truly a legend of the game.
The conductor of the orchestra
Xavi Hernandez first joined Barcelona via the club’s La Masia academy as an 11-year-old, where he swiftly proceeded to rise through the ranks. He was technically efficient, intelligent and appeared to possess an instinctive awareness of when, and more importantly how, to alter or influence the rhythm and flow of the game. When he was handed his first team debut in 1998 he seamlessly slotted into the side.
However, Xavi developed into much more than just another star player. He represented the definitive transformation of Barcelona during the early twentieth century and he embodied the new total football philosophy that was implemented and progressed by a series of managers, culminating in the tiki-taka style of play that was fine-tuned by Pep Guardiola.
He was synonymous with the possession-based football that led to Barcelona dominating European football for almost a decade and played a pivotal role in the club’s development.
Whilst other players produced exuberant moments of skill or brilliance he adopted a different style of play that was crucial to the tiki-taka philosophy. You would rarely see Xavi dribble beyond a player and he was never a regular goal scorer from midfield, but his contribution was no less important.
He was the conductor of the Barcelona footballing orchestra, dictating the flow and rhythm of the game with a range of elegant, measured passes. When he received the ball he never looked flustered or unsure and there was an air of confidence and assertiveness that made him attract the ball, like a flame attracts a moth.
He stroked the ball around the pitch unperturbed by the pressure of the occasion or the state of the game – when Xavi played well, so did Barcelona.
By the time that Xavi departed Barcelona, joining Qatari side Al-Sadd in 2015, he won eight La Liga titles (the first coming in 1999), the Copa del Rey three times, six Spanish Super Cups, two European Super Cups, two Club World Cups and four Champions League titles.
However, he was equally as impressive for the Spanish national team, playing in four World Cup tournaments and three European Championships. His haul of 133 caps is a record for a Spanish outfield player and he lifted two European Championships (2008 and 2012) and one World Cup (2010) during an era in which he became the embodiment of domestic and international dominance.
The very best of a generation
As with every great player, a decline eventually began to set in and Xavi Hernandez’s powers began to wane. It is perhaps testament to his importance and influence that his departure has coincided with the gradual deterioration of Barcelona’s authority in world football.
In 2015 he joined Qatari club Al-Sadd after agreeing a three-year deal, in essence taking a step into semi-retirement, and in April 2017 he won his first trophy – the Qatar Cup. In addition to his playing commitments, Xavi is also undertaking his coaching qualifications and has taken up an ambassadorial role in order to promote the 2020 World Cup as he ultimately begins to plan for a career beyond the realms of playing football.
Xavi’s impact and influence at Barcelona and for the Spanish national team is arguably unparalleled for a player in the modern era. His style of play was unique and embodied the emergence of a new tiki-taka, total football philosophy which came to dominate domestic and international football for over a decade. Whilst he became a genuine icon, Xavi always avoided controversy or contradiction and is looked upon with respect and admiration by his peers and all those connected with the game.
It is little wonder that the conductor is regarded as one of the very best players of his generation.
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