Luis Enrique on Manchester United's radar - but winning World Cup with Spain comes first

Spaniard would be perfect fit at Old Trafford but the timing is not ideal with Qatar 2022 finals starting in November

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Luis Enrique takes his Spain side to Barcelona on Friday for a friendly against Albania. Despite hosting their games all over the country, Spain seldom play in the country’s second city and this will be their first friendly in Barcelona since 2004.

The issue of Catalan independence has calmed and the game will be at Espanyol’s 41,000-seater home on the outskirts of Barcelona, where many residents are internal immigrants who would identify with Spain anyway.

Enrique, 51, knows the country better than most. Born and raised in the northern city of Gijon, Asturias, he started out at local club Sporting, which he still supports. He stood on the terraces near the ultra fans, once hiding a copy of the local newspaper from his parents when he was pictured near them.

He was still a teenager when he broke into the first team and roomed with veteran Irish defender Kevin Moran. Luis Enrique was the lungs of every team he played for – great teams where, in his words, he faced the pressure of winning every game. He didn’t want to leave Sporting but they needed the money so he spent five years with Real Madrid.

They bought him as a goalscorer, played him as a defender and settled on him being a midfielder. It made him the clever, skilful footballer he became. He wanted to play in England. He loved English fan culture and, in later years, couldn’t believe that Newcastle United fans applauded their team after being relegated, but there were only offers from Barcelona and Italy.

He moved to Barcelona – the criticism didn’t bother him one bit and he laughed at the idea that Real Madrid Ultras made a whack-a-mole style game, with his head replacing the mole.

He played behind Brazilian striker Ronaldo for a season.

“Football is a party not a prison,” he said. “And he was the most spectacular player I’ve ever seen,” he said. “He did things I’d never seen before. We’re now used to seeing Messi dribble past six players, but not then.”

Luis Enrique found his nose for scoring again and became club captain. He played in the same team as Pep Guardiola and worked under Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal. Jose Mourinho was there, too.

“The trainer I learned most from about the field of play was Van Gaal, even though he’s the one I’ve had the most confrontations with – well, disagreements,” he said. Other coaches he worked with were Beenhakker, Serra Ferrer, Camacho and Javier Clemente; he learnt from them all.

The goal which gave him the most pleasure was against Madrid away in the clasico.

“My celebration was passionate and effusive. My teammates jumped on top of me, the crowd were throwing things at me. I loved that moment of scoring.”

After eight years at Camp Nou, he hung up his boots. He featured in three World Cup finals too but wanted time out. He spent a few years surfing around the world, running marathons and watching big games. He travelled to Anfield and Parkhead to watch derbies and stood among the fans. Only one person recognised him.

“I stopped last season because I needed a rest. I’m lucky that my life is not only football, though, I’ve got other things in my life.”

Inevitably, football drew him back in as Pep Guardiola’s replacement at Barça B. He tipped his players Sergi Roberto, Gerard Deulofeu, Rafinha and Luis Alberto to make it.

He moved to Roma because he wanted to see the game in Italy and loved it.

“In Serie A, they wait to see how the opposition play, then they form their tactics. In Spain, the idea is to control the ball, but a lot depends on the players you have. The way of interpreting the game reflects the culture,” he observed.

He joined Celta Vigo as boss in 2013, beat Real Madrid away to stop them winning the league and impressed enough to get the Barcelona job after a season there. He won the treble in his first season at Camp Nou. His team were statistically better than Guardiola’s in his first two seasons at Barcelona.

He also said that having Lionel Messi was the difference between the side he managed that won the Champions League and the side he played for that didn’t. Messi rated him and Guardiola the best two managers in the world.

Of Guardiola’s Barca, Luis Enrique said: “The team are trained better, tactically they’re better, psychologically they’re better. And Messi is the reference, but he’s surrounded by top-quality players who make him better.

“The level Guardiola’s team reached has never been reached before. They reached such a level that all the other teams have to drop back and defend. They have 65-70% of the ball. Maybe Sacchi’s Milan are the only team who have come close to them, but even they can’t compare.”

Luis Enrique left Barcelona on his own terms after fulfilling his contract, just as he’d done at Madrid and Barcelona as a player. The managerial fuse is a short one at Camp Nou, but he did three full seasons. He took more time out, rode in more long-distance cycles and then took the Spain job in 2018.

In 2019, he again sought some time out. In August 2019, his daughter Xana died of bone cancer aged nine. Roma fans held up a huge banner in her honour on the curva before a derby against Lazio.

He re-joined the national team in November 2019 and took them to the semi-finals of Euro 2020 and an epic game against eventual winners Italy, which they lost on penalties.

His squad didn’t contain a single player from Real Madrid, the champions of Spain. Luis Enrique wanted control of the dressing room and to implement his ideas of fast transitions. It didn’t always come off. The media criticism was fierce. He handled the pressure well, defended his players and they then knocked out holders Portugal. He hopes to go one better this year and win the World Cup.

Whatever happens, he’s not short of suitors. Manchester United are interested in him becoming their next manager and it would be remiss if they didn’t sound him out.

United started the managerial process a month ago, making contacts and talking to coaches like Ajax boss Erik Ten Hag. Mauricio Pochettino of PSG and Julen Lopetegui of Sevilla are also on the shortlist. As is Enrique. There have so far been no talks with the Asturian who has always been committed to Spain.

Those coaches are setting out their visions, their ideas, their plans. They have to be ready to go into battle for what will be a very tough job. But of course Manchester United is an attractive proposition for managers.

United want a manager in situ by the start of the summer. Interested players, not unreasonably, are already asking the club who will be in charge next season. United need a coach like Luis Enrique capable of galvanising the dressing room, who would be deeply respected by players and fans.

The Spaniard started learning English a decade ago. He looks the part, he’s still ultra-fit, he’s been at the biggest clubs, dealt with the media effectively and has the CV to prove it.

But he’s in charge of Spain and there’s a World Cup finals this year. As with their past enquiries about Jurgen Klopp and Guardiola when they were both working in Germany, the timing is not good for United or Luis Enrique.

“I’d like to manage in England at some point,” he said in 2013. “My wife wouldn’t like the weather, she’s from Barcelona and likes the sun. It would depend on the team and the football they played.”

It has been sunny in England all week, cloudy and rainy in Barcelona, as Luis Enrique will experience when he leads his side out in the city he called home for so long.

Updated: March 24, 2022, 3:27 PM