Who is Juan Carlos Unzue and why is he a front runner for the Barcelona job?
He’s been labelled ‘the set-piece guy’ but in reality, there is far more to Juan Carlos Unzue, the man now seemingly leading the race to be Barcelona’s new boss.
Luis Enrique’s support network of coaches have been integral since taking the Barcelona job, and in fact even before that as he took his first steps at the top level of management with Roma, and then Celta. It was at the Galician club that Unzue first been to work closely with Luis Enrique, as his trusty assistant. Out of all the people surrounding the outgoing Barca boss, it’s Unzue’s input that has been most vital.
Yes, there are the set piece diagrams and plans. But there have also been other prominent contributions from Unzue. His work in the battles with Atletico Madrid is looked upon particularly fondly, with Unzue turning the tide on his opposite number Mono Burgos who had masterminded his own set-piece artillery at the Calderon. Unzue turned a frail, vulnerable Barca into a strong, competitive giant when it came to set-plays. Diego Simeone himself even gave a nod to the volume of work at Barca.
Beyond that, Unzue has grown more influential in Luis Enrique’s approach, including offering key tactical advice and becoming a bigger presence in the dressing room. This mainly due to Lucho handing more responsibility with day-to-day actions at the club. There is also the case of Claudio Bravo, in which Unzue advised Barca to bring the Chilean goalkeeper in to support rookie Marc-Andre Ter Stegen. Such a moved proved vital, with Bravo becoming a key feature in Barca’s early success in their new era.
It’s brought us to this point now, where Unzue has taken the lead in a race he maybe didn’t really think about entering. Someone put his name down, though, and he’s now setting the pace. Jorge Sampaoli and Ernesto Valverde meanwhile seem to be lagging behind for one reason or another.
So who is the man in first place?
Unzue during his playing career was a goalkeeper and a modest one at that. Part of his career was served as understudy to Andoni Zubizarreta at Barca, during the glorious Dream Team years. He then left for Sevilla, where he achieved over 200 appearances.
The former goalkeeper then turned goalkeeping coach at the end of his career, with Unzue taking up a role at Barca during Frank Rijkaard’s reign, before sticking around with the next boss Pep Guardiola.
He then had his only spells as a manager, first with Numancia and then Racing Santander. The latter effectively doesn’t count, as an internal conflict at the club prevented the Spaniard from ever taking charge of a game. The feeling is it’s this lack of experience that goes against Unzue the most when it comes to ticking the boxes for the next Barca coach.
However, there is a feeling if any club can ignore this factor it’s Barca, as they have done in the past with Tito Vilanova. The fact that Unzue is already within the walls of the club and knows how it functions could be beneficial when stepping up.
Taking up the assistant managerial role at Celta with Luis Enrique was evidently a key moment for Unzue, and his value to the coaching setup can’t be underestimated. Along with Joaquín Valdés, Robert Merino and Rafel Pol there have been a number of key figures in the shadow of Luis Enrique, and you’d expect the team to stay on if Unzue does take over. Again, this would be of huge benefit to the Catalans as it means no changes would be radical, and any transition over would be extremely smooth.
Even as Lucho departs, he does so on a bedrock of success. Barca don’t really need wholesale changes, what they do need to is to identify the nuances that have held them back this current season and stalled their development. Unzue’s knowledge of the squad, but with a potentially fresh approach to that of Lucho, is exactly what Barca needs more than anything.
A unifying presence
One area of the job that will be stable if Unzue stays on is surely to be the players. They have all warmed to Unzue and remain strong backers of the coach. Several have come out in recent weeks to support any decision in which Unzue would take over, including senior figures such as Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique.
"Unzue knows everything really well," stated Iniesta on his potential new boss, and believed he would be prepared should the decision eventually be made. "He is prepared, motivated and capable”.
Pique echoed those words of Iniesta, reiterating the belief that Unzue was ‘capable’. "He's spent many years here, since Guardiola's spell in charge and before that as a player. I'm sure he would be a good candidate, but it's not up to me to choose, that's not my job,” said the defender.
Those who do have the job are warming more and more to the idea of Unzue taking over, and providing the steady transition. But also a much-needed refresh of the club, without unsettling everyone.
Unzue is certainly the safe move, and Barca will be hoping he’s the smart one too.