Criticism of Luis Enrique is not new but reflects Barcelona's identity issues
"Hunting season is open," Luis Enrique declared. The media closed in, and so did the Barcelona directors: they were looking for someone to take his place. There was tension between players and coach; no way could he last beyond the season's end. The president and his board were worried that they might not last, either, their own culpability cowering behind the coach even as their credibility was bound up in him. Everything was falling apart. An ultimatum was delivered, crisis gripped. In one poll, 68 percent said Luis Enrique should be sacked. Barcelona are losing their religion, they insisted. "It's going to be a 'nice' week," the coach said, sarcasm dripping from every word.
No, not this week. Not even this year. Not even the year before. It was 2014 when Luis Enrique said that. They were coming for him, he suspected; they always had been, he was sure. They could smell blood, relentless; he reacted at times as if he was cornered, or thought he was. At the start of 2015, the pursuit accelerated. Sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta was blamed and shown the door, the coach admitting that his position had been "weakened." At best, there would be a temporary truce. Six months later, Barcelona had won the treble. The year after that, they won the Spanish league and cup double.
At the end of his first season in charge, it was not clear whether Luis Enrique was going to continue. But there was a difference between then and now: Then, it was his choice. The board was hanging on his decision, not making it for him. They were hoping he would stay, not ensuring that he would not. And so they waited and waited and waited. In January 2015, elections had been called to calm the crisis and in a bid to bide time, and time was a great healer: it brought a treble. Keeping Luis Enrique, the man so many had wanted to go, became a vote winner.
Luis Enrique signed a new contract after the Champions League final, and president Josep Maria Bartomeu won. How could he not? This was not a campaign played out through the transfer market -- promises made and broken -- but there was a debate to be had, problems to be addressed, mistakes that had been made and would continue to be made, a deep divide and deeper questions. Many of them concerned identity and who Barcelona are. More than a club, or just a club? Yet it mattered little, less than it probably should have, because Barcelona had won the treble.
Trophy-wise, in his first season, Luis Enrique matched Pep Guardiola. In his second, he surpassed him. Only here's the thing: he couldn't match Guardiola, still less surpass him. Moreover, said his critics, he hadn't done what Guardiola had done, not exactly.
All of this goes beyond just results, but, when results go against Barcelona, those fault lines are exposed; all the more so when there are results like Tuesday night's 4-0 defeat against Paris Saint-Germain, which laid flaws bare.
The newspaper AS described the Parc des Princes hammering as an "Emperor's New Clothes" moment: Luis Enrique's Barcelona were standing there naked. The debate about identity intensified. It was not just that Barcelona lost, it was how they lost, what they have become. "This is not Barcelona," ran the headline on the front of the newspaper Sport. But maybe it is. That's the charge, anyway.
There was a moment this week, amid the post-mortem and accusations, the arguments and the philosophical treatises, when the opinion was put forth that Barcelona should have continued to follow their model: they should have promoted youth-team players, put their faith in La Masia academy, embraced Johan Cruyff's mode, their model... "And if you don't win for a while, no pasa nada" -- "it's OK" -- came the conclusion.
But, for huge numbers of supporters and commentators, it matters a lot if Barcelona go a while without winning, however "pure" their play, however faithful it is to the philosophy. Even as they won, some doubts remained and were voiced: "If you lose, they will kill you; if you draw or win, they will still criticize you," Luis Enrique commented, correctly. They will if you're him and your team plays like his, that's for sure.
Having been declared open, hunting season never really closed; it merely relented at times. Now, the hounds have been released. For some, that looks like opportunism, while, for others, it is proof that they had a point even during times of plenty: they could see beyond the trophies. They could see the flaws in the model, they could see the holes. They feared what would happen when Lionel Messi didn't do what Lionel Messi kept doing. The coach complained that they could not see the wood for the trees and that the wood was "abundant." His critics thought it the other way round, that the wood is the trees.
Luis Enrique once said "I live amid extremes," and he is right. There is a puritanical streak that runs through much of the criticism. It is often exaggerated, apocalyptic in tone. He has stood accused of "trampling upon" Barcelona's identity. Few want to admit that the identity is contested, not quite so clear cut or black and white. That speaks to a deeper debate, an internal battle, a civil war that goes back to Cruyff and still conditions much of what is said, done and felt at and around the Camp Nou.
At times, you would think that Guardiola's side never, ever played a long ball and never counterattacked. You would think that Luis Enrique's team never kept the ball, never passed it, never dominated matches; that instead they had become long-ball merchants, all hoof and no touch. His team: the team that, for the past three years, has out-passed every side in Europe. Or that it is his fault that Xavi Hernandez left, that Andres Iniesta is older and has suffered from injury? Or that Luis Enrique is responsible for the direction the club has taken at an institutional level.
Meanwhile, the front three have taken some blame for the apparent breakdown of Barcelona's identity, and there's something curious about that. The three best players are responsible; really? Luis Suarez, who embodies the pressing that obsessed Guardiola? Neymar, who alone offered something in Paris? Messi, who is, well, Messi? Another midfielder at times, the player who would best replace Xavi if he wasn't busy being Messi, a man who joined the club as a kid 15 years ago?
To judge by some of the criticism you would think that Luis Enrique is willfully destructive, gleefully tearing up a philosophy on a whim. Not because he wants to win or because the environment and opponents have changed. When he took charge, he talked about respecting the style but adding "nuance" and variation, but it hasn't always been judged like that: "Nuance" becomes "entirely new," a rejection of all that went before, something to be distrusted. In the spring of 2015, Guardiola said Barcelona were the best counterattacking team in Europe. It was meant as a compliment, but it wasn't always seen like that: "counterattack" is a dirty word.
The shift is real, though, and is troubling for Barcelona: That control has largely gone, the midfield is being overrun -- the midfield! at Barcelona! -- and the performances, if not as catastrophic as is claimed, have not convinced. They are losing their footballing religion, it is true. Messi was hiding flaws, that is also true. So were Suarez and Neymar. Perhaps their "culpability," if people must insist upon such a thing existing, lies in the cover-up?
Paris was coming. Maybe not to that extent, but it was. El País claimed that Barcelona "don't play football at all" and that the result was "predictable -- a catastrophe." That might be an exaggeration, but there's something there.
Barcelona's problems are a reality. The team that once invited opponents onto them now looks frightened when they are pressed, unable to find a way out; those passageways they once opened remain closed, the mechanisms malfunctioning. Or maybe there aren't any? Maybe that element of their game, once so central and important, has been relegated to a minor issue? The evidence on the pitch suggests so, and so did the comments on the touchline.
Sergio Busquets said after the game that PSG had been "better tactically." His words felt meaningful, as did those of Iniesta: he rejected attitude as an explanation and said the reason lay in "football." Barcelona do not play it as they once did. And that points straight at the coach.
Busquets, the guardian of Barcelona's style, has never looked worse. That might be down to him; it might be systemic; it might be both. It is forgotten that Xavi, perhaps the best player in Spanish football history, didn't really play to the right of midfield but in the middle of it; with Busquets, not away from him.
Some of the decisions have not convinced at all -- Andre Gomes baffles -- and, of recent signings, only Samuel Umtiti has been a success. It must be hard for Barcelona fans to look at their midfield and then look at across at Real Madrid and see Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. Some gleefully bade good riddance to Dani Alves; Barcelona miss him more than they ever knew. The hole on the right is gigantic.
Nor does Luis Enrique help himself at times. He is not close to players; he is even less close to the media, and they have helped shape his environment, his reality, his image. With his prickliness and refusal to "play the game," he has rarely reduced the tension. Although he is sometimes funny, although he sometimes has a point, although his targets are not coincidental and not always blameless, that does him little good. Some have been waiting for him, and he clearly feels as if they always were, right from the start. Hunting season opened three years ago.
Luis Enrique is a former Barcelona player, a Barcelona B-team manager, a man who embraced the city and the club and loved to wind up Madrid, who said he was coming "home" when he took over, likening the Camp Nou to Disneyland. But some critics suspected that he was not really Barcelona, and now they're even more convinced. When Luis Enrique said he was "faithful" to the style but wanted to "evolve it, perfect it, improve it," they suspected he actually meant destroy it. Now they're even more convinced of that. Not least because they were convinced of it then, even as he won trophies and fans chanted his name.
An Asturian, Luis Enrique signed from Real Madrid and played during an era when the club lost its way, but there is another thing: He just isn't Guardiola, just like Bobby Robson was just not Cruyff, neither in perception nor in reality.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.