That was that. Well, not yet quite, but, everything seems to be signalling that this is the end. The end of Luis Enrique’s troubled tenure at Roma. And, with it the end of the club’s bold and ambitious Barcelona-inspired project.
From the start it was always going to be a monumental task for a coach with no prior top level experience. Italy’s Serie A is demanding for a coach of any stature. But, for a relative novice like Enrique, it has proven to be a baptism of fire. And, the fire has proven too hot for the Spaniard as this week he dropped his biggest hint yet that he is already looking for the emergency exit.
Inconsistent results, staggered progress, dashed hopes of Champions League qualification, grievances from the terraces and internal rumblings within the team have all characterised Enrique’s first and, most likely, last season at Roma. But, even far back as August the warning signs were there.
It was in a Europa League qualifier against Slovan Bratislava. Enrique opted to leave out Francesco Totti in the first leg. He played the inexperienced Stefano Okaka, Gianluca Cipriani and the young Bojan Krkic instead. They lost 1-0.
The decision to exclude Totti caused consternation between him and his captain – and some fans too. The fact that they lost the game made matters even worse. He reinstalled the former Italy international to the starting team in the return leg, but, Roma only managed a draw and exited the Europa League before it had even started proper. For a club of such standing, for a club of such (new) ambition, it was a miserable outcome.
Matters did not improve when the Serie A season kicked-off either. A 2-1 defeat at home to Cagliari was followed by two uninspiring draws. Then came the first of two derby losses to Lazio.
Yet, to their credit, Roma’s fans remained faithful to Enrique’s project. In a country with a long held thirst for results first and everything else second, their faith probably extended further than what many would have expected.
This was no more clearer than in late November in a home match to Lecce. At the time, Roma had traded wins for losses; four for four along with two draws. Yet, during the match a banner was spotted amongst the crowd that read: “Never slaves to the result”. Had such a show of faith been held aloft if Roma had not been winning – before going on to win – this match is debatable. But, it nonetheless had the media talking about how Roma’s usually demanding and impatient followers had bought into Enrique’s football philosophy.
Yet, barely two weeks elapsed before fan opinion massively swung against Enrique. This came following two consecutive away defeats; first at Udine and then in Florence. Where before the discontent was only a slight murmur; now the fans were boisterous – to put it nicely – in their opposition.
Roma’s fan rounded on Enrique after their 2-0 loss at the Stadio Artemio Franchi while some in the stadium called for him to be sacked. A small group of fans were even waiting at Termini station to reinforce the message to him upon his return to Rome.
A six match unbeaten streak followed. Hope was again in the air. But, eventually, inconsistency crept back.
Nevertheless, up to a month ago Roma were still in with a chance of qualifying for the Champions League. Albeit requiring that they end the season with consistently strong results – something that they had failed to do for the best part of the season.
Any such hopes were severely dented on April 22 when Juventus hammered four unanswered goals past the Giallorossi. It was the fourth time this season that they had shipped as many goals. In a woeful display, Enrique’s men had practically lost the match after 30 minutes as by this time they had already conceded three goals, conceded a penalty – which Andrea Pirlo failed to convert – and saw their goalkeeper, Maarten Stekelenberg, sent off.
If their Champions League hopes were dented in Turin, they all but evaporated three days later. A 2-1 loss at home to Fiorentina effectively ended Roma’s chances of making the top three. It proved too much for the club’s fans who broke out in protests, blocking the team bus as it attempted to leave the stadium.
A 2-2 home draw to Napoli followed and there the anger and frustration amongst the club’s fan worsened. As the two teams were warming up, Roma’s players were booed. The boos continued as the teams line-ups were announced, as play commenced and even after the final whistle. In another show of the power Ultras yield in Italy, Francesco Totti was forced to apologise to the club’s fans at the end of the Derby del Sole. As if it was his fault.
After the match, Enrique accepted all the blame for the team’s poor results, “if anyone is responsible for the failure of this season, then it is me. This club is different from many others and I wish them all the best for the future”. His words not so vaguely hinting to a future without him.
And if he really is thinking of jumping ship after one season, it is understandable. It has turned out to be nothing short of a nightmare season for Enrique. A return to sunny Barcelona probably seems an enticing option. With Pep Guardiola stepping down, it may be good timing too.
But, Enrique was warned. Former Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi welcomed him to Italy last summer with words that now seem prophetic, “welcome to hell”. With scarcely anything going right, it has been hell.
But, perhaps it was an impossible task from the beginning. Enrique was employed by Roma with the mission of transforming the club’s culture and philosophy and basing it on a foreign idea, a Catalan idea. As Roma’s director of Sport, Walter Sabatini, explained at the time of his appointment, “Enrique represents an idea of football that we would like to follow, which imposes itself today through Spain and Barcelona, a kind of football, which is a little baroque but very effective.”
Enrique’s job was to produce the same football with Roma. But, this was always going to be extremely difficult with a group of heterogeneous players of contrasting abilities.
Not only did he not have the right ingredients, but, Rome was probably not the best city for such a radical project based on concepts more at home in north-east Spain to take place.
Barcelona is a city known for its progressive culture, liberal thinking and its love for new ideas. Rome, alternatively, is more conservative, traditional and prefers continuity over change. Football has always represented the society and the culture of its locale and, maybe, for partly this reason was it always doomed.
The very thought that by bringing in Enrique – and a couple of his own hand-picked Spanish assistants – the club could change its ethos overnight, or in one season, was perhaps ill-conceived from the off. A little naive too it could be said.
Nevertheless, despite such criticisms, the club deserves praise for even attempting such a project at all. In a country that, generally, is quite conservative, merely by stepping out and trying something different, provocative and daring have Walter Sabatini and club president, Thomas Di Benedetto, distinguished themselves from the rest.
It may have ended in failure, but, as with any failure, lessons will have been learned. With the same will and courage, maybe next time the club will get it right with whatever ‘idea’ they wish to follow next.