Next Barcelona manager: Sampaoli, Valverde, Koeman & the contenders to replace Luis Enrique

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With the current Blaugrana manager planning to step down at the end of the season, who are the contenders to be the next coach at Camp Nou?

Choosing a new Barcelona manager is a complex business.

At Camp Nou, it is never as simple as looking to the Premier League or Serie A for the latest title winner. There is an identity - mes que un club - to be upheld that encompasses a range of ideals, from the team's on-pitch style of play to its off-pitch status as a global symbol of Catalan culture.

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As the first team's figurehead, the coach must ensure the protection of those values while also, to a certain extent, acting as the embodiment of them.

So it's unlikely, when Luis Enrique departs the club this summer, that the Barca hierarchy will attempt to poach a rising managerial superstar such as Antonio Conte, Massimiliano Allegri, or Thomas Tuchel. Their previous appointments prove that; no one would have described Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova, Gerardo Martino or Luis Enrique as one of the top 10 coaches in the world on the day they took the job in Catalonia.

Who, then, is in the running and what are the pros and cons of each candidate? Here are the favourites to take over at Camp Nou this summer.


Ernesto Valverde Athletic Club La Liga

Athletic Club coach Valverde is the bookmakers' favourite to replace Luis Enrique and, according to multiple reports, the man Barca plan to approach first in their hunt.

The first box the 53-year-old ticks is his knowledge of the club and its culture. Valverde spent time at Barcelona as a player and while his stay at the club was fairly brief, lasting only two seasons, it came while Johan Cruyff was the manager. He subsequently has a first-hand education in the principles that continue to guide the Blaugrana to this day.

He has moved to the front of the queue as a result of his success with Athletic. They have finished fourth, seventh and fifth in his three seasons in charge thus far and lie seventh again this year - an impressively consistent record given their exclusive use of Basque players, the best of whom, such as Ander Herrera, are inevitably snapped up by bigger clubs. Valverde also took Athletic to the Copa del Rey final in his second season in charge, where they were beaten by Barcelona.

Barca also put a significant emphasis on the development of academy players, of course, and the job Valverde has done nurturing the likes of Aymeric Laporte, Mikel San Jose and Inaki Williams into first-team stars is another feather in his cap. When you add in the fact that he is yet to extend his expiring contract at San Mames, he seems a good fit.

The risk, of course, is that he has never coached a club of this size and his biggest success came in Greece, where he won the league title three times with Olympiakos. A lack of top-level experience has not put Barca off before, but the challenge of regenerating their ageing squad is a daunting one for anyone, let alone a manager who has not been in that kind of environment before.


Jorge Sampaoli Sevilla La Liga

Sampaoli is a popular choice among Barca fans. He is intense, outspoken, has a major honour under his belt in the Copa America and is doing a superb job at Sevilla, who are currently third in La Liga and on the verge of qualifying for the last eight of the Champions League. While Valverde has a good track record, the Argentine has an outstanding one and is already halfway to managerial stardom.

What's more, he could hardly be more of a perfect fit in terms of his preferred style of play. Sampaoli is from the Marcelo Bielsa school that heavily influenced Guardiola and believes in ball movement, pressing and the strength of the collective above individuals. One of the primary criticisms of Luis Enrique, fair or not, has been that Barca have become too much like Real Madrid during his tenure; still hugely successful, yes, but reliant on their stars to win games rather than a clear team philosophy. Sampaoli would change that.

Then there is the Lionel Messi factor. Sampaoli has lavished praise on his compatriot for some time now, and speculation has suggested the feeling may be mutual. With Messi still yet to sign an extension to a contract that expires in 2018, that will be on the minds of the Barca decision makers.

Why, then, is the 56-year-old not top of the list? It probably comes down to internal politics and doubts. Despite Sampaoli's clear compatibility with the Barca ethos, the board is said to want someone who previously played for the club. Then there is his fiery personality, which is not a quality those in charge have gravitated towards previously - even if it might be exactly what they need at this particular moment in time.

That Barca could miss out on Sampaoli for reasons such as those may be disappointing for many supporters, but that's the way it is.


Ronald Koeman Everton Premier League

Koeman seems like the anti-Sampaoli; an ex-player who could be in the running because he is a 'name' at Barca rather than because he seems a particularly good fit for the job.

To be fair, the Dutchman was an exceptional footballer who was a key part of Cruyff's 'Dream Team' and scored the goal that won the club its first European Cup. He has won three Eredivisie titles as a coach, did a good job at Southampton and is on his way to recording an encouraging debut season at Everton.

But he has not really elevated his status in the Premier League as Mauricio Pochettino has done since taking the same job at St Mary's, and neither has he become known for a distinctly identifiable style of play that can be traced back to Catalonia. Koeman likes his teams to keep the ball and play good football, but so do a lot of managers.

He also drew criticism at Southampton for his reluctance to blood academy players, bluntly admitting he was "not impressed" by what was on offer after watching one Under-21 match. That assessment came back to bite him when 19-year-old Josh Sims assisted the Saints' winning goal on his return to the south coast with Everton, though Koeman will point to the emergence of 18-year-old Tom Davies at Goodison Park as proof of his willingness to use teenagers he believes are of the required standard.

Finding a way to keep Barca in the running in the top competitions while also preparing for the ageing and/or departure of the likes of Messi, Andres Iniesta, Luis Suarez and Gerard Pique is going to be a huge task - perhaps the most difficult any Blaugrana coach has faced in recent years - and Koeman does not particularly stand out as the special kind of manager who could pull it off.


Arsene Wenger Arsenal 07032017

Arsene Wenger looks increasingly likely to leave Arsenal this summer but seems to plan to continue in management, making him a potential safe pair of hands with plenty of experience at an elite level should Barca require a short-term option.

His record in recent years does not make him an inspiring choice, however, and while he has always emphasised an attractive style of play with the Gunners it is not necessarily much of a replica of Barca's ideal football. It would be a huge shock to see him approached.

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Eusebio Sacristan was said to be on Barca's initial shortlist but demonstrated his commitment to Real Sociedad by signing a new contract. He was Luis Enrique's replacement as Barca B coach and has done an excellent job to lead La Real into fifth place in La Liga on the back of the David Moyes fiasco, but this is his first season in the Spanish top flight and sticking around at a lower level a while longer seems a wise move.

Ex-Barca defender Giovanni van Bronckhorst is building his reputation as a coach at Feyenoord and has them top of the Eredivisie this season, but the Camp Nou position would seem to have come too soon for him on this occasion as well.