In June 2019, less than a year after taking over as Spain manager, Luis Enrique announced he would be leaving for personal reasons. It was later revealed that his beloved daughter Xana had contracted bone cancer, and her death two months later, aged nine, put everything in perspective.
Luis Enrique – not unnaturally – closed in as he and his family struggled to come to terms with their loss. He came off WhatsApp because he did not want to share his feelings with many, but kept in contact with the Spanish Football Federation throughout.
His position was filled by long-time colleague Robert Moreno, a man who had been with him since the start of his coaching career, at Barcelona B in 2008. Moreno had served as his assistant at Roma, Celta Vigo, Barcelona’s first team, and then Spain.
Moreno took over with Euro 2020 qualification already under way and guided the team to an unbeaten campaign. Then, five months after announcing his temporary departure, Luis Enrique returned.
Moreno had said he would “step aside” for his friend whenever he wanted to come back, but it was far from a smooth transition.
The two men fell out. Luis Enrique was reinstated – and promptly dismissed Moreno.
It is said that, at a meeting, Luis Enrique got the feeling their synergy had disappeared, that their goals were different now, that Moreno could no longer be his assistant. At a press conference, he said Moreno had wanted to stay in charge for Euro 2020, and that such a request was disloyal.
“Moreno worked hard for this and he is very ambitious, which is a quality I admire very much,” he said in the press conference marking his return. “However, I believe his actions were disloyal because I wouldn’t do this and I want no-one in my staff with those characteristics.”
Moreno, Luis Enrique felt, had fallen on the wrong side of the line.
But Spain’s manager is a far more complex character than can appear. His public persona – shaped by his at times torturous stand-offs with the media – is in stark contrast to how he is seen by those closest to him.
Life has hit Luis Enrique hard and, while no-one can ever see the pain people carry inside them, he has not lost his passion or positive outlook. The motto is: “Be braver than ever.”
There is a joke that wherever Luis Enrique has coached, the nerve-wracking, lung-bursting, pre-season training sessions he ran would invariably show the fittest member of the squad was actually the manager himself.
They breed them tough in the mountainous terrain of Asturias, that daunting and beautiful land where he was born and raised, on Spain’s northern coast.
Both as a player and as a coach, he has always been obsessed with peak fitness. And it goes way beyond football.
He enjoys surfing, swimming, endurance running and long cycle rides up the steep climbs of Spain’s Picos de Europa. In 2007, he completed the Frankfurt Ironman challenge – a 2.4-mile swim, a 118-mile cycle and a full marathon. The following year, he ran the legendary Marathon de Sables, a 155-mile race over six days in the Sahara desert.
But it would be a mistake to think this obsession defines his coaching style. That is more a reflection of his rich footballing education.
A midfielder or forward in his playing days, Luis Enrique made his senior debut in 1988 with Sporting Gijon, in the city of his birth, moving to Real Madrid three years later.
Despite winning a league title and the Spanish cup in the capital, he never felt loved by Madrid’s fans or management – and so in 1996, left for arch-rivals Barcelona on a free transfer. After overcoming the initially suspicious Barca faithful, he was made captain and won two leagues, two cups and a European Cup Winners’ Cup before retiring in 2004.
It was only ever going to be a matter of time before he moved into coaching. For five years, he had shared the Blaugrana changing room with Pep Guardiola. They had a special connection and would talk football for hours, conversations that helped form their vision of an evolved style based on Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona.
When Luis Enrique was in the running for what would have been his first managerial job – at modest Nastic de Tarragona, now in the third tier but a La Liga side in 2006-07 – he had pencilled in Guardiola as his second-in-command, but in the end wasn’t offered the role.
Luis Enrique’s style goes hand in hand with his personality; naturally attacking, competitive, uncompromising and contagiously passionate. He has a lust for life and firmly believes that it should be enjoyed to the maximum but always within a carefully thought-out framework. He knows exactly how he wants to play, what he expects of every single individual at every phase of the game and how to create the best conditions to ensure they deliver.
His teams are a reflection of the player he was; in their element when taking the initiative and controlling the game through link-ups and passes but still ready to attack in a more direct way if there is an option. He prefers to press aggressively in the opposition half, trying to regain possession as soon as possible, but is also prepared to defend one-on-one at the back if the game demands it.
It is a style he has insisted on wherever he has coached, going right back to his first role at Barcelona B – from 2008-2011, three years that coincided with Guardiola managing the first team – when some of those tactics were still being developed and mirrored by the two Barca sides.
He has introduced any number of new practices, including the observation of training via a raised platform, rather than from ground level, revolutionary gym work and an emphasis on the importance of eating the right sort of food. Although commonplace now, he was one of the first coaches to see the importance of nutrition.
Ideas come to him after hours of reflection, another example of his obsessiveness. But as someone who finds it difficult to switch off, he has now finally recognised the importance of at least trying to do so – and to that end is assisted by the psychologist in his team, Joaquin Valdes.
Valdes has created some triggers and habits to help him rest, as well as preparing him to be at his peak mentally and physically. But old habits die hard and he is still invariably the first to arrive at the training ground in the morning and the last to leave in the afternoon.
Although his head is always full of fine detail, he has learned the importance of reducing to a minimum the messages he wants to get through to his players, both for matters on the pitch and behaviour off it, simply because it guarantees their attention.
He is also working hard on improving his English – including by regularly listening to the BBC’s Football Daily podcast – to prepare himself for a much-desired role in the Premier League at some point in his career.
But the Spain job was the one he always dreamed of.
On 9 July 2018, that dream became reality, although probably not in the way he would have wanted.
Julen Lopetegui was sacked two days before the opening game of the World Cup, when it emerged he had agreed to become manager of Real Madrid immediately after the tournament, leaving sporting director Fernando Hierro to try to steady the ship. It did not work. The team were knocked out in a shock last-16 defeat by hosts Russia.
For a Spain side seeking to rediscover the irresistible force that led to back-to-back European Championship titles and the 2010 World Cup in between, Luis Enrique was the obvious choice. His three seasons as Barcelona manager, from 2014, had seen significant success: He had been the architect of a league, cup and Champions League treble in his first season at Barca, adding a domestic double in his second.
Just over a year after he stepped down at the Nou Camp, he was now was in charge of the national side, but tragedy lay around the corner.
Slowly, he has begun to regain the strength needed to help him cope with the death of his young daughter in 2019, and to enjoy the job he has such a passion for.
Working as an international coach, as opposed to having to deal with the day-to-day rigours of club level, has allowed him the time he needs with his family and friends.
And for Spain, his return has brought order and professionalism, creating a positive dynamic where everybody feels empowered.
Can Luis Enrique lead his country to glory at the Euros this summer? He believes he has at his disposal around 35 to 40 players of a similar level. Historically, many of Spain’s players have come from Real Madrid and Barcelona. Not on this occasion.
For the first time ever, not a single player from Real Madrid was selected, with just three from Barcelona. To put that into perspective, of the 23-man squad to go to the 2018 World Cup, no fewer than 10 (43.5%) came from the two Spanish giants.
His squad mixes veterans with young players, exciting talents such as Pedri, 18, and Ferran Torres, 21, alongside veterans including 31-year-old Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta, and the experienced Sergio Busquets, 32.
There is another new face in Manchester City defender Aymeric Laporte, who had turned down the chance of representing Spain in the past, citing that his aim was to play at senior level for France. But with Les Bleus coach Didier Deschamps repeatedly opting not to play him, and with Fifa approving a change of nationality, Laporte is now eligible for Spain and started their frustrating opening 0-0 draw with Sweden.
Despite dominating world football between 2008 and 2012, Spain have not even got close to winning any of the three major tournaments that have taken place since.
If it goes well this summer, Luis Enrique will be a hero. If it goes drastically wrong, the media will have a field day. But for some time now, the 51-year-old has been convinced it does not matter what he says in front of the cameras or microphones because most journalists, he feels, are only looking for a soundbite or moment of controversy.
For that reason, his relationship with the media has been strained at best – and he does not give one-on-one interviews now. In the past, he has never felt the need to make the right noises to the press or go through hoops in order to placate them.
“If you don’t like my style then I don’t give a damn,” he told one gathering of journalists. Another reporter who asked him about a conversation that had allegedly taken place in the dressing room was told: “You still have 15 years competing in the lower categories before we can bring you into the first team. When you’re a first-team player, then you will find out about the talks given by the coach.”
But to the media’s credit, the self-imposed news blackout during his daughter’s illness was strictly adhered to and demonstrated from them a show of compassion.
Luis Enrique himself has a very small group of journalists he knows and trusts and whom he counts among his friends and in recent times, convinced by the media department of the national side, and he has certainly made efforts to build bridges, trying to come across in a more amenable and less confrontational manner.
Much of that will matter little compared to the ultimate metric of what happens on the pitch. But either way, there is little chance Luis Enrique will change.
He has always been, and will always be, his own man.