Barcelona Coach Luis Enrique confirmed Wednesday that he would leave the reigning Spanish champions when his contract expired at the end of the season.
Enrique informed Barcelona’s players of his decision after a 6-1 win over Sporting Gijón, saying he needs “a rest” after almost three years in the role, one of the most high-profile — and high-pressure — jobs in soccer.
Enrique, a former player for Barcelona and Real Madrid, has had remarkable success since taking over for Gerardo Martino in May 2014.
Led by the attacking threesome of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez, Barcelona has won successive titles under Enrique in the Spanish league and the Copa del Rey. He also guided the club to victory in the 2015 UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup later that year; he has won eight of the 10 trophies he has contested as Barcelona coach.
His tenure has been dogged, though, by suggestions of uneasy relationships with some of his players — most notably Messi — and by accusations that his coaching style does not follow the elegant template laid down at Barcelona by Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola. His meetings with Catalonia’s ravenous news media have also been consistently fractious.
Barcelona now has three months to identify the most suitable replacement. Ernesto Valverde, the experienced coach of Athletic Bilbao, has considerable support among Barcelona’s executives as well as his own Barcelona connection: He won the now-defunct UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup as a player for the club in 1989. That his Athletic side beat Barcelona in this season’s Spanish Super Cup could add weight to his case.
Jorge Sampaoli, the coach of Sevilla, is the other leading contender. In his first job in European soccer, Sampaoli has turned Sevilla into a genuine contender for the Spanish title, and the expansive playing style he prefers is seen by some as dovetailing neatly with Barcelona’s traditions.
Sampaoli is also on the cusp of qualifying for the quarterfinals of the Champions League, something Barcelona — which was beaten, 4-0, in the first leg of its round of 16 matchup with Paris St.-Germain — is unlikely to do.
Other potential successors include Enrique’s longtime assistant, Juan Carlos Unzué, and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino, though Pochettino spent much of his playing career at Barcelona’s city rival Espanyol.