Football managers are either wizards or muggles.
Some people insist that the difference between failure and success is managerial genius, others are convinced that everything starts and finishes with the men on the pitch. The mystique of the manager is phoney. “Barcelona? My granny could win the league with them.”
The Granny Theory of Management finds an echo in the reaction to Barcelona’s seemingly unstoppable march towards the treble. When you can field their three-man attack, with Luis Suarez, Neymar and above all Lionel Messi in full cry, it doesn’t much matter who is at the helm.
Even José Mourinho seemed to be arguing something of the sort a couple of weeks back, suggesting that any of the top four sides in the Premier League would win the Champions League if they had Messi.
At the start of the season, few people anticipated that Luis Enrique and Max Allegri would emerge as the top two managers in Europe, even though they were in charge of two of the top teams.
Both relatively young, both new appointments, both faced scepticism.
In Italy it was argued that this was the moment for the chasing pack, Roma especially, to challenge Juventus. Allegri might have won the title in his first season at Milan, but it was most unlikely he could repeat that success.
Antonio Conte’s unexpected departure to take over the national team had left a gaping hole and Allegri was a risky choice to fill it, after a troubled final season at Milan ending in the sack. In European competition he was still seen as rookie.
In the event, his takeover at Juventus was almost seamless. He gradually modified tactics, switching from three to four at the back, though continuing to use 3-5-2 as a variation. Juve’s attack became more varied, giving a freer role to Carlos Tevez, who has become their player of the season. And his sensible modifications convinced the players.
Luis Enrique is even more of a rookie than Allegri. His year at Roma in retrospect looks consciously experimental. But at the time it seemed idiosyncratic.
Roma played some scintillating football with him, but they were fragileand went out of the Europa League to Slovan Bratislava.
As a player, Luis Enrique became a Barcelona legend, above all because he defected from Real Madrid. He was also a good coach for the B team. So unlike Allegri at the Juventus he did seem like a natural appointment for Barcelona last summer.
It has not been plain sailing however. In January, Real Madrid were riding high having just broken all-time records with 22 consecutive victories. Meanwhile, Barcelona appeared ready to go into meltdown.
Sporting director Andoni Zubizaretta, another club legend and the man responsible for putting Luis Enrique in charge, was forced to depart, taking the blame for the club’s breach of transfer regulations and FIFA’s ban on new signings. Carles Puyol, the very spirit of the club, announced he would be moving elsewhere.
Meanwhile the Spanish media were for once united in a chorus of disapproval for the manager after a 1-0 defeat by Real Sociedad. “Barca, che pena!” said Mundo Deportivo. “Luis Enrique throws away three points” was the verdict in Sport. “Luis Enrique shoots himself in the foot”, said AS, and Marca announced that the manager was leading the team to suicide.
Football by its nature tends towards hysteria. Luis Enrique kept calm, the storm blew over. Within weeks Messi was playing some of the best football of his career. Now Real Madrid were stumbling, Carlo Ancelotti the fall-guy, while Barcelona were unstoppable.
Like Allegri, but unlike, Luis Enrique has kept his nerve. And in management that can make all the difference.
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