Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho, Jupp Heynckes and… Luis Enrique? The managers to have previously won their league, domestic cup, and Champions League in the same season are some of the greatest to ever grace the sport. The man in pole position to join that exclusive list doesn’t seem like he should belong in the same conversation. But with La Liga wrapped up on Sunday, the achievements of the man known as Lucho — in his debut season at Barcelona, no less — could soon see him in very esteemed company.
Treble-winning seasons are a rare thing. Only seven teams in European soccer history have ever managed the feat. They typically involve teams and managers of historic quality. They stand on their own as the pinnacle of a club season and are so unique that they can only be compared among themselves. No matter now good Ferguson’s 2008 double-winning team was, the 1999 treble-winning version will always hold the hearts and minds of Manchester United fans. Guardiola may have made Bayern Munich a better team when he took over Heynckes’ treble-winners, but no matter how impressive Guardiola’s first two trophies were, two is still less than three. Heynckes’ Bayern wins that argument as well. Treble-winning teams are just that special.
That makes it especially hilarious that the man at the helm of the next potential addition to that club is Luis Enrique, a man who, deep down, we’re all not even sure is that good. As recently as January, most of the stories surrounding Luis Enrique were unflattering to say the least. Barcelona, a club perpetually on the verge of crisis, was in CRISIS. Luis Enrique was not getting along with Lionel Messi, and given that Messi is the de facto president of FC Barcelona, few expected the new man to last through the summer. Gossip emerged about the players not caring for Luis Enrique’s training methods, his rotation policy, or his authoritarian style of leadership. He was a poor man’s Guardiola, with half of the tactical nous and none of the man-management skills or taste in cardigans.
Then a funny thing happened: Barcelona improved. The team was never playing badly, of course. It was just not meeting the insane standards it had set for itself in the last several years. But after a disappointing league loss away at Real Sociedad, that changed. It met those standards, and perhaps even exceeded them. Much of this may be down to the players rather than coaching, but a rising tide lifts all boats. A pouting Messi and unavailable Luis Suárez make Luis Enrique look like an idiot in this fall, but a Messi in the form of his life (which is really the form of anyone’s life) and a settled Suárez made Luis Enrique look like the manager of the year this May. Without getting much attention, never mind credit, Luis Enrique is about to emerge from the shadow of Guardiola, potentially equaling the achievements of his former teammate’s greatest season.
Speculating on Luis Enrique’s legacy should not lead us to assume that a second Barça treble in just six years is a foregone conclusion. Athletic Bilbao, the other team contesting the Copa del Rey final in less than two weeks, is no pushover. But then again, Barcelona put five goals past Athletic at its own ground in the teams’ last meeting, so who are we kidding? The double is in the bag. In the Champions League final, on the other hand, Juventus is a genuine threat. The Bianconeri may have been treated by many of the media as some plucky underdog, but it is coming off securing its 31st/33rd Serie A title and is chasing a treble of its own.
In fact, the way that Juventus was breezily dismissed in the press before the start of the semifinals would make it equally hilarious if Max Allegri’s men were to win in Berlin. Allegri was chased out of Milan, his appointment at Juventus was met largely with bemusement, and he spent most of the season being unfavorably compared to his predecessor. Now he’s just two wins away from leading Juventus to its best ever season. The sheer scope of the stunting that Allegri would be able to perform on his haters is almost overwhelming.
All that said, we should keep our hopes for comical outcomes at a reasonable level. Juventus has a far tougher match-up in its domestic cup final (Lazio awaits in the Coppa Italia) and is still considered the underdog in the Champions League showdown. A Barcelona treble is a safer bet, and given all the doubts about Luis Enrique up until recently, just as funny.
In Luis Enrique’s case, it obviously helps to have world-class talent all over the pitch, good luck with injuries, and well, Leo fucking Messi. But that doesn’t mean that Luis Enrique doesn’t deserve his share of the credit. He didn’t try to get so clever with his formations that he took players out of their comfort zones, he let Messi do whatever Messi wanted (after some initial growing pains) and generally did a good job of simply not shitting the bed. He may not have introduced any tactical innovations, and his press conferences aren’t particularly quotable. But he got handed the keys to a Ferrari, and while he struggled with the handling at first, he managed not to total it.
Sometimes that’s good enough. And there’s something very amusing about watching someone “good enough” their way right into the history books.