The resumption of the Champions League this week throws up some interesting reunions. Zlatan Ibrahimovic reacquainting himself with his hometown club Malmo, with Paris Saint-Germain, is certainly one, while Memphis Depay’s altogether more rapid return to PSV Eindhoven with Manchester United will make him even more eager to find his marks with his new club.
Neither of these—or, indeed, Jose Mourinho’s reunion with Porto before the end of the month—are quite as intriguing as Barcelona’s coach Luis Enrique going back to Roma with his Champions League title-holders. It is over three years since the man from Asturias quit Stadio Olimpico (as reported here by Reuters), packing it in days before the end of his sole season (2011-12) in the Eternal City.
It was far from a resounding success. Having been backed generously in the transfer market by the club’s then-new American ownership, the Giallorossi endured a steadfastly transitional season, in which the team finished seventh, missing out on Europe altogether.
Yet any invective aimed towards Luis Enrique on his return to Roma is likely to be limited. If there are regrets at the way his tenure at the club ultimately unfolded and how it was truncated, there is understanding for the difficulties he faced as an inexperienced coach in his first senior role. There is certainly an amount of residual affection for him too at his old club, who warmly congratulated him on his role in Barca’s triumph in June’s Berlin final shortly after the game on Twitter.
“Luis Enrique had some challenges,” BT Sport’s Italian football expert James Horncastle told Bleacher Report. “He’d never worked in a top-flight league before, and he’d never worked in Italy before. So there was a certain skepticism around him, and his staff, with Ivan De La Pena leaving shortly after he started his job.”
The Barcelona connection was no coincidence. For the new era being ushered in at Roma by the U.S. consortium, it was a statement of intent. It was an experiment, certainly, but strongly indicative of a plan to carve out a distinct identity. Then-director of football Franco Baldini was the man charged with making this theory concrete reality.
“Baldini is very much a romantic,” Horncastle added, “and both he and the owners wanted to introduce the concepts of Barcelona to Roma, and to implement some of La Masia’s idea at Trigoria—to get all the teams to train at same place, and to provide a route for the young players to find a way into the first team. Baldini left the first time (in 2005) because he became disillusioned about the result being paramount, rather than the performance. This seemed like a move away from that.”
Certainly Luis Enrique tallied with this view of football, building a project and strongly showing himself as a man of principle. One banner displayed by the Olimpico’s Curva Sud in an April 2012 match against Fiorentina (courtesy of Corriere dello Sport, in Italian), identifying the former Barca midfielder as a real man who stood out from the crowd, is typical of the esteem that sections of the Roma support held him in.
These opinions were not universal. Many were frustrated by the lack of rapid progress, especially in the light of expectations stoked in some quarters by the American investment. Miralem Pjanic and Pablo Daniel Osvaldo were among the expensive signings placed at Luis Enrique’s disposal by Baldini, but the team was still fragile.
“The Roma fans aren’t easy to please,” said Horncastle, “and sections can be very fickle. There were times when they thought he was the second coming of (Pep) Guardiola, and others thought that he was useless.”
Whether even a Barca recital in the manner of Bayern Munich’s at Olimpico on Wednesday could convince some of the local naysayers is open to doubt. It will be argued in many quarters (and not entirely without foundation) that comparing the current Blaugrana playing staff and Roma’s vintage of four years is like putting Kobe beef next to stewing steak.
There are several indicators, however, that Luis Enrique learned plenty from his tough year in the Italian capital and since, taking in a year of sabbatical, a season refining his ideas in the less intense environment of Celta Vigo to good effect and—of course—in an often fraught first year in charge of the seniors at Camp Nou.
“It was clear what he was trying to do,” Horncastle emphasises of Luis Enrique’s Roma tenure, “but when you looked at the numbers, the possession was maybe too sterile.” This is something that had clearly changed by the time he took the helm last season, with Barca often operating with an uncommon directness.
The coach has also been able to draw on his Roma experience to deal with the biggest obstacle to success at Barca—his relationship with his star player. It looked like Luis Enrique’s Camp Nou tenure would be cut short as soon as January in his debut season when (as reported by ESPN FC) an apparent breakdown in his relationship with Lionel Messi seemed to make his position untenable.
Except, of course, he’d been here before—with Francesco Totti. “One of his first major problems was the Europa League game (against Slovan Bratislava) he left Totti out for,” Horncastle said, “and they were (eventually) knocked out. Shortly after that, Totti wore a T-shirt in training which said ‘Basta’ (‘enough’) on it.”
Yet he turned it around, just as (improbably) he later did with Messi. Luis Enrique’s ability to extricate himself from that sticky situation with the Argentina genius has largely been credited to the efforts of senior players like Xavi and Busquets, but history suggests that he might have had a bigger role in winning Messi over.
“He won the players around by the end,” Horncastle remembered, “and he won Totti around.” His handling of other senior players certainly helped in this respect, with his development of Daniele De Rossi a notable factor. “De Rossi had a great season in a Busquets role,” added Horncastle, “and he was used at centre-back as well, which he never had been before Luis Enrique got hold of him.”
So Roma have plenty to be grateful to Luis Enrique for, even if his time at the club didn’t end as they hoped, with the first-timer seemingly burnt out by the pressure. They will welcome back a newly invigorated and even more canny coach this week, who has shown at Barcelona that he is more than capable of weathering a storm these days.