After Barcelona thrashed Sporting Gijon 6-1 on Wednesday, Luis Enrique stunned journalists in the Ricard Maxenchs pressroom by announcing he would not be continuing at the club beyond the end of the season.
The coach’s contract expires in June and he will walk away from the Catalan giants in order to rest and recuperate after a tiring but trophy-laden three years in the Camp Nou dugout after spending eight years gracing the stadium as a player and three seasons in charge of the B team.
President Josep Maria Bartomeu says the search for Luis Enrique’s replacement will be undertaken with discretion, but rumours are sure to fly in the coming weeks about who it will be.
Here are five strong candidates for Barcelona to consider:
Luis Enrique’s right-hand man, Juan Carlos Unzue, would ensure a smooth transition into a new era at Barcelona.
1. Juan Carlos Unzue
According to Diario Sport, assistant manager Unzue is Luis Enrique’s choice to take over from him and continue his work. The Spaniard is already in charge of various aspects of the team’s strategy, including set pieces. On lesser occasions, like early Copa del Rey clashes, he has been the man directing the team from the sidelines, while Lucho took a backseat and let his assistant gain experience.
In the negative column is the fact Unzue has never coached a top-flight side himself, although Tito Vilanova was in a similar position when appointed in 2012 after Pep Guardiola left.
. Eusebio Sacristan
Like Luis Enrique and Guardiola, he is a former Barca B manager. But unlike the other two, he left in acrimony. The fans were angry about how he was operating — using new signings rather than La Masia youth products — and results were disastrous too, with the team slipping to relegation to Spain’s regionalised third tier after he was sacked.
He played for Barcelona between 1988 and 1990, but Valverde is better known for his time at Athletic Bilbao — as a player, then as a coach, where he is affectionately known as “the ant.”
He took over for his second spell on the bench there in 2013 and immediately steered them back into the Champions League for the first time in 16 years. A first major trophy in over three decades quickly followed, a Spanish Super Cup win over Barcelona, no less. The 4-0 victory at the San Mames was one of the most memorable games in Luis Enrique’s era, albeit for all the wrong reasons from a Barcelona perspective.
Valverde is the candidate most widely considered as the safe pair of hands, but after spending so long at Athletic, a side with a very different style and philosophy to Barca, will he deliver the thrills that fans crave?
He has gone a long way in recovering his reputation since then with Real Sociedad, who he has lead into a charge for the fourth Champions League spot this campaign while playing attractive passing football, overseeing a dramatic turnaround in the Basque side’s fortunes after David Moyes had left them in a sorry state.
A midfielder in his playing days at Camp Nou, he was also assistant manager to Frank Rijkaard for five years at Barca and took charge of Celta Vigo in 2009-10, so he has plenty of experience at the club.
Considered less likely among Spanish media than the previous four candidates, Koeman has still been linked to the job on various occasions and has stated that he would like to take over at Camp Nou in the future. Early betting odds put him as second favourite, despite his struggle to drag Everton into contention for the Champions League places in the Premier League.
Koeman has a rich Barcelona history, playing for the club over 250 times between 1989 and 1995, a key part of the “Dream Team.” He is fondly remembered at Camp Nou, having helped Barcelona to four titles, one Copa del Rey and their first European Cup in 1992. It was Koeman’s goal that helped them win it and the club are planning 25th anniversary celebrations for the achievement later this year. What better way to celebrate than to bring him back?
Richard Martin covers FC Barcelona for ESPN FC. Twitter: @rich9908.