Looking Outside to Jorge Sampaoli May Be Barcelona's Best Way to Regain Identity

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 22, 2017

Could Sevilla's coach Jorge Sampaoli take over at Barca during the summer?
Could Sevilla's coach Jorge Sampaoli take over at Barca during the summer?Sonia Canada/Getty Images

Jorge Sampaoli is a determined buck. There’s a photo of him floating around the bowels of the Internet perched up a tree. It’s taken from the 1995-1996 season. At the time, he was coaching in the amateur football leagues in Santa Fe, the province he’s from in Argentina.

The young man is unmistakably Sampaoli. He looks like a roadie for one of the Argentinian rock bands he admires. He’s balding and is wearing a black T-shirt and horn-rimmed sunglasses, and his pudgy cheeks are pushing through some stubble.

He looks transfixed, busy taking in the match unfolding below him. A short time earlier, a ref had thrown him out of the ground because he was sick of his haranguing. Sampaoli couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on the action, though, and shimmied up a tree so he could continue barking instructions to his players.

The president of Newell’s Old Boys, Eduardo Jose Lopez, saw the picture in the newspaper. He was impressed by Sampaoli’s unorthodox tenacity, and invited him back into the fold, Sampaoli’s career as a footballer with Newell’s Old Boys having been aborted back in the late-1970s from a double leg break. Lopez set him up with a job coaching the club’s feeder team, Argentino de Rosario.

It was another rung on the coaching ladder for Sampaoli. His "have whistle, will travel" attitude brought him around several South American footballing outposts in Peru, Chile and Ecuador before hitting the big time with Universidad de Chile in 2011, the year he led the club to its first Copa Sudamericana title.

Four years later, he managed the Chile national team, and the generation of Alexis Sanchez, Claudio Bravo and Arturo Vidal, to Copa America victory after a century of near misses. It was a notable achievement.

The win was enough to secure him a job in Europe’s big leagues, where he landed in the hot seat at Sevilla last summer. He has again excelled. In pre-season, the triple Europa League-winning side sold their two best players, Kevin Gameiro and Grzegorz Krychowiak. Undeterred, Sampaoli has marshalled a steely outfit that has challenged for the title with an eye-catching brand of football.

It’s put him in the shop window for the post at FC Barcelona that will become vacant in June following Luis Enrique’s decision, which he made public earlier this month in a post-match press conference, that he will depart the club at the end of the season.

There is much to recommend about Sampaoli. He seems a logical fit for the Catalan club for several reasons. His footballing philosophy is hewn from the same school as Pep Guardiola’s, who led Barca to 14 titles in four seasons before he took his attacking, possession-based football creed to Bavaria and Manchester.

There is a significant lobby in Catalonia that is anxious for Barca to re-find their footballing identity, which is based around dominance of the ball, specifically in the middle of the park. Guardiola once said he would play with 11 midfielders if he could.

Ramon Besa, one of the most revered football writers in Barcelona and who worked as a ghostwriter for Andres Iniesta’s recent biography, leads the clarion call. Besa despairs of Enrique’s dependence on his famous trident of attacking players, Leo Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar to win matches, per El Pais (in Spanish).

Sampaoli, whose teams share similar traits with Guardiola’s, particularly an emphasis on tigerish pressing high up the pitch, an ability to make rapid positional switches and relentless attacking, is seen as a man who could restore that Guardiola-like philosophical rigour.

Both men doff their hats to Marcelo Bielsa, the high priest of high-pressing, intense football. Guardiola paid a famous visit to Bielsa during his transition from player to coach, shortly before he became Barca B boss in the middle of the last decade.

In a scene reminiscent of Karl Marx’s first encounter with Friedrich Engels, where the pair of radicals spoke incessantly about politics and economics for several days in a Parisian apartment, Bielsa invited Guardiola into his Argentinian villa for a discussion on their shared obsession with football.

The pair debated the nuances of the game, which is brought vividly to life in Guillem Balague’s biography Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning, for 11 hours. At one point, Guardiola’s companion, David Trueba, had to man-mark a chair during a digression on positional play.

Sampaoli’s path diverged momentarily with Bielsa's at Newell’s Old Boys during the 1977-1978 season, when Sampaoli was a youth team player with the club and Bielsa played a clutch of games as a defender for the first team.

Sampaoli's management style is out of the Marcelo Bielsa school.
Sampaoli's management style is out of the Marcelo Bielsa school.Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Later, Sampaoli became a firm Bielsa disciple. When he'd go out for a jog, Sampaoli used to listen to Bielsa’s press conferences on his headphones, according to El Espanol (in Spanish), filtering Bielsa's ideas about positional play into his own consciousness.

Many years later, when Sampaoli took over the reins of the Chile national team in December 2012, he was building on work that Bielsa had done with the national team during an impressive run at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Sampaoli regularly paid his dues, summoning the spirit of Bielsa, for example, before Chile played in the 2015 Copa America tournament: "I want 11 fanatics to sweat their lives for the shirt. Eleven kamikazes like when Bielsa [was in charge] against Argentina and they looked like 15," as per Ovacion (in Spanish).

You only have to look to Sampaoli's right-hand side to see another important ideological link to Barca. Sampaoli appointed Juanma Lillo to his coaching staff with Chile in 2015 and took him with him when he got the job at Sevilla last summer.

Per Balague's book, Guardiola's two most important influences on his footballing methodology are Johan Cruyff and Lillo. Back in 2003, Guardiola and Lillo were part of the same team during Barca’s presidential election race. Lluis Bassat, who was campaigning for president (and subsequently lost to Joan Laporta), promised that if he won Lillo would be installed as the team’s head coach alongside Guardiola as sporting director.

Lillo, who still holds the record as the youngest man to coach a team in La Liga, is a football obsessive. He likes to dip into a private library of over 10,000 books for intellectual sustenance. He coached Guardiola when Guardiola played in Mexico and mentored him unofficially when he got his official coaching start with Barca B in 2007.

Lillo prizes space and positioning, which are key tenets of Guardiola's and Sampaoli's teams, and was instrumental in getting Sampaoli to sign Samir Nasri, one of Sevilla’s inspiring players this season. Bringing Lillo along as part of Sampaoli’s coaching ticket would be an attractive feature for the kingmakers at Barcelona.

Neymar is a big fan of Sampaoli.
Neymar is a big fan of Sampaoli.LLUIS GENE/Getty Images

Sampaoli, too, is popular with Barcelona's senior players. He has shared a sideline hug and a kiss with his fellow Argentinians, Messi and Javier Mascherano, which have been deconstructed endlessly in the Spanish media. Neymar invited him to his house and was reportedly pushing for him to become Brazil national team coach when the job was up for grabs, as per ABC de Sevilla (in Spanish).

Sampaoli’s South American heritage, and lack of ties close to the hierarchy at the club, could count against him, though. Tata Martino, the last coach to fail at Barcelona, was very public about the fact he wasn’t Dutch or from "the house of Barcelona," in reference to his lack of Barca DNA. Sampaoli is seen as an outsider.

The Barca board is anxious to appoint someone how knows the club’s ways intimately. It is why the front-runners to replace Enrique remain in-house choices. In the words of Barca sporting director Robert Fernandez, the club is looking for "someone who is part of the Barcelona family." This would be in keeping with successful recent appointments like Guardiola, Tito Vilanova and Enrique.

Enrique’s No 2. Juan Carlos Unzue is seen as a credible option. He’s got support among Barca’s players, who respect his technical nous, and his odds improved significantly after the comeback heroics against PSG in the last round of the Champions League. He would represent continuity.

Ernesto Valverde, like Unzue, is a former Barca player from Cruyff’s "Dream Team" days. He has yet to renew his contract as manager with Athletic Bilbao. It’s well known he’s on standby to take over from Enrique and has twice before been in the running to manage the Catalan club over the last six years.

Sevilla were shocked by Leicester City in a game which saw Samir Nasri sent off.
Sevilla were shocked by Leicester City in a game which saw Samir Nasri sent off.Rui Vieira/Associated Press

Last Wednesday, Catalunya Radio announced that Sampaoli, for all his compelling credentials, is out of the running, as per Diario Sport (in Spanish). Sevilla’s recent dip in form, which includes last week's exit to Leicester City in the Champions League, hasn’t helped his cause. Picking up only two points from a possible nine in its last three league games hints at a title charge that has run out of steam. 

But this football season in Spain has had some unusual twists and turns. There may well be a couple of other surprises in store. If Barca end the season empty-handed, there may well be a clamour for big change, which is something the colourful Sampaoli would guarantee.

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