Ronald Koeman has been unconvincing. Whether or not he does continue as Barcelona coach next season, his start to life at Camp Nou has been far from ideal, even if he were granted leeway for the terrible state the club was in when he assumed responsibility.
It’s no secret that the Dutchman wouldn’t have been Joan Laporta’s first choice to lead a new project (at the time, Nagelsmann was named, since made unavailable, of course). Many have suggested that the best course of action may be to start afresh with a new, long term managerial appointment to guide the team in the right direction, which hasn’t quite been seen under Koeman.
It was understandable that Barcelona would be far from their best this season, but everyone wanted to see positive signs under the Dutchman, who has shown signs of questionable game management, a lack of elite mentality, and in some places, even a style of football that takes away from the Barça DNA.
Naturally, this has stamped huge question marks over his future, and although his departure isn’t confirmed, there are three names that are likely replacements for the club legend, should he be relieved of his duties: Xavi Hernández, García Pimienta, and Ajax’s Erik ten Hag.
Realistically, Xavi is going to coach FC Barcelona. It is just a question of when rather than if, and it might just be a case of managerial inexperience that prevents him from coming to Camp Nou at the moment.
There’s no question that Xavi epitomises the Barça DNA: as one of the greatest midfielders to ever grace the sport in Barcelona’s sextuple winning team from La Masia, he understands and even plays the Blaugrana style at Al-Sadd, which looks to be a precursor to life at Camp Nou.
Not to mention, his relationship with president Joan Laporta is fantastic, having played under him in his earlier tenure. Xavi certainly belongs to a brand of young coaches that play attractive, attacking football and embracing the game’s adapting nature.
Without a doubt, the sheer status that he held at Barcelona as a player will be enough to immediately command the respect of the dressing room, having played with some squad members himself, including a certain Lionel Messi, who may be convinced to stay if Xavi were to come in.
Xavi isn’t just limited to his good relations and prior status: he’s enjoyed a considerable amount of success at Al-Sadd so far, having recently won the domestic treble. He is, above all, tactically competent for his age and experience.
Al-Sadd are reliant on possession-oriented attacking football, keeping an average of 64% possession of the ball this season. In traditional Barcelona style, the fullbacks push up in a 4-3-3 or flexible 4-2-3-1 with Gabi dropping close to the two ball-playing centre-backs, ensuring that all spaces are occupied.
A positional play proponent, Xavi offers Barcelona their golden roots that it seems to have lost in recent years; he appears set on developing as a tactically astute coach. His highly attacking brand of football is certainly sourcing itself at Al-Sadd. That said, Xavi’s tactics aren’t nearly as developed as what is needed for a club of Barcelona’s stature.
That isn’t to say that they won’t be; since he is still is young and developing as a tactician, but there are still major holes in narrow-faceted football, which, although working fine in the Qatari league, are more than likely to be exploited, should he manage the first team at Barcelona.
The most glaring of these is Al-Sadd’s defensive record. The huge emphasis on getting the ball forward and keeping it deems the team massively vulnerable on fast breaks. While they’ve remained the most attacking proficient team in the league, their defensive record was considerably below average last season.
Still, Xavi is tactically developing and has certainly learnt from his tactical inadequacies and considerably shaped Al-Sadd’s defence, who improved their defensive record from 29 goals against them to 14 goals conceded during the span of the season. Even then, Al-Sadd have been vulnerable and have had huge chances created against an error-prone defence that has been saved by a minuscule efficiency rate in the Qatar Stars League.
The defects of his defensive strategy survive alright on an experimental basis in Qatar, where the level for the players is substantially lower and explains the generally lower standards for attacking football. In La Liga, it’s unlikely that Barcelona’s defensive woes will be solved under the former captain who is yet to develop a coherent defensive identity at Al-Sadd, which remains his greatest tactical shortcoming yet.
On exactly those lines, Xavi’s tactics are yet to be tried on a European stage or experimented with. Having only served as manager for two seasons, there’s a huge scope for him to try his tactics at a higher level for a longer amount of time and coming to Barcelona with a greater degree of certainty.
Pep Guardiola is one of the few exceptions to this rule, who managed the first-team after only one season at Barcelona B, but even then, he was gifted with arguably the greatest football team to play the sport (not to take away from any of his achievements).
Xavi’s lack of experience is, for lack of a better term, worrying. We’ve seen legends return to their clubs as managers and desperately fail: look no further than Juventus, who lost the Serie A title for the first time in 11 years under Andrea Pirlo and are now grasping for a Champions League spot.
Knowing the club’s philosophy and DNA isn’t a guaranteed recipe for success. There’s no reason to sully Xavi’s managerial reputation by playing underdeveloped tactics at Barcelona. It would make more sense to give him the time, space, and experience that he needs by allowing him to experiment with his coaching style, potentially even at another club in Europe, before he is appointed.
The B-team coach’s appointment would certainly be the most romantic tale out of the three. Pimienta has given his entire managerial career to Barcelona. Starting as a youth coach assistant in 2006 to Barcelona B assistant in 2015 to youth manager in 2017 to Barcelona B manager in 2018.
His entire career is born and bred in the La Masia DNA, serving as the longest active coach at the club. There isn’t a shadow of a doubt over the fact that the Spaniard is familiar with the principles that are required of a Barcelona coach. Pimienta bleeds claret and blue in the way he plays, and his passion for the club has revitalised the B-team and produced talents like Ansu Fati, Riqui Puig, Ilaix Moriba, Ronald Araujo and Oscar Mingueza.
There’s a reason we’re familiar with those names, and much of it is credited to the 46-year-old’s trust in the youth and ability to develop them. That is, after all, the foundational value of Barcelona, who succeeded most when they put faith into their academy graduates under Pep Guardiola.
If Pimienta were to be made the first-team manager, one would expect the Cruyff model to seep from the players, from his trust in youth products, which may see him develop a cogent tactical setup that includes Riqui Puig in the squad, to the style of football.
With an up-and-coming set of players graduating from the academy this season, it’s easy to see how Pimienta is highlighted as the best man to get the most out of huge youth prospects. Of course, an added benefit to his appointment as first-team manager is that it would open up the much-lauded position of Barcelona B manager, perhaps for a certain club legend mentioned earlier.
Pimienta’s credentials are not just limited to abstract principles, but instead, a coherent set of tactics bred in the Barcelona philosophy that he applies to the reserve team. Playing the historic 4-3-3 in the vast majority of his games, the Spaniard demands a highly tiki-taka conditioned, possession-based brand of football. A positional-play tactician, the player roles in Barcelona B are highly fluid, similar to the Cruyffian style the first-team would desire to employ like they did under Guardiola.
There’s no doubt that Pimienta utilises the foundational footballing values of the Barcelona style in attacking build-up play, but he does, however, waver slightly defensively.
As opposed to the traditional high-pressing defensive and flexible style that Barcelona is known to exemplify, the former winger is slightly more conservative in his approach, utilising a more calculated pressing pattern based on heavy touches. Instead of the “if you can score once, we will score twice,” Pimienta ends up dropping his players deeper in many cases, relying on genuine defensive capabilities from his centre-backs to prevent goals.
Even his fullbacks play a more defensive role, only crossing the halfway line in more certain goal-scoring opportunities when the opposing defence is broken through. As a result, there’s a massive wide-playmaking responsibility on the two wingers, Alex Collado and Konrad de la Fuente, who have assumed it considerably well.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this defensive approach, but there’s an argument to be made as to why it doesn’t quite suit Barcelona’s situation. La Blaugrana’s defence is especially dire, and relying on good defensive performances to prevent goal-scoring after allowing opposing play to build up is, frankly put, tactical suicide given the current defence.
Eric García is a long-term prospect instead of an immediate defensive solution that will massively heighten Barcelona’s defensive quality. This style may have worked at the reserve team, which had a stock of defensive talent that could genuinely outshine opponent attacks.
The same treatment cannot quite be extended to the first-team defence, which has struggled after runs of individual errors and general incompetency. To ensure any degree of success, Barcelona must still rely on its attacking output (the defensive record still has to be bettered under new management), which Pimienta would have to adapt his earlier tactics to.
Pimienta’s fullbacks do not always join the attack, which is counter-productive to Sergiño Dest and Jordi Alba’s talents, the latter of whom functions virtually as an auxiliary winger when Antoine Griezmann cuts inside.
The greater emphasis on width from the wingers is also unlikely to work in the first team. Except for Ousmane Dembélé and Trincão (who is unlikely to start), Barcelona have no natural winger in the squad. Griezmann cuts to the middle of the pitch to assume a more central role, while Lionel Messi famously drifts to all areas of the pitch in a free roam position which is unlikely to change.
The wide playmaking responsibility in attack is both the profile and rational tactic of Barcelona’s fullbacks, which would require Pimienta to adjust his system significantly.
Erik ten Hag
Unlike the other two managers on this list, the manager who took a bunch of children to a Champions League semi-final, ten Hag is the only one with proven success at the highest stage of European football. For the first time since 1997, he brought Ajax to a Champions League semi-final, only losing to a 96th-minute winner from Lucas Moura against Tottenham.
Ten Hag has beaten Real Madrid more times than Ronald Koeman has. He epitomises the elite mentality and tactical proficiency that the latter has been criticised for being lacking, exemplified by the 2018/19 Champions League run in which he took down major teams like Real Madrid and Juventus with a far more inexperienced and younger squad, all by tactically outclassing them.
The Dutchman would be familiar with certain squad members, having already worked with Frenkie de Jong, who played a crucial role at Ajax before moving to Barcelona. The 51-year-old has shown an unwavering trust in the youth. It would certainly epitomise this principle with the vast amount of young talent present at Barcelona as opposed to relying on ageing members of the squad.
More importantly, ten Hag is incredibly suited for the environment at the Catalan club; he adopted an ageing and out-of-quality Ajax squad during a transitional period when he took over in 2017 and revolutionised the squad through his faith in the academy products. Barcelona, more than ever, require a manager who can face adversity and make bold decisions that prioritise the future of the club above all else.
Upon being appointed after Marcel Keizer’s dismissal when Ajax failed to win the Eredivisie for the fourth year in a row, ten Hag entirely revitalised the team by making brave changes to the leadership and management structure, including captaining 19-year-old Matthijs de Ligt and tactically revolutionising the squad.
After four successive defeats, the Dutchman won the league (and has done so every year since) in his first full season as Ajax manager, almost going undefeated in the 2020/21 campaign. To date, he remains the only coach to win two successive Dutch doubles with Ajax since the legendary Rinus Michels.
Ten Hag’s successes cannot be credited to a history of success and Ajax’s dominance in the Eredivisie, but instead his tactical alterations and courageous decisions that were in line with the current and future successes of the club. The Catalan club is in an incredibly similar situation and is undoubtedly transitioning between an ageing group of players and young, promising players.
Ten Hag’s footballing principles are entirely predicated on the Cruyffian attacking brand of football. Pep Guardiola’s imprint is visible via his time under the Spanish manager at Bayern Munich through a huge emphasis on fluid positional play in attack and defence. Interestingly, the Dutchman’s major total football influence is despite having never played for Barcelona nor Ajax in his time as a player which, for once, may work in the Catalan giants’ favour
As opposed to blind adherence to Cruyffian principles and philosophy, ten Hag is flexible and acknowledges where there is scope for change in adaptation to the modern game, much like Thomas Tuchel has at Chelsea.
Undoubtedly, however, the Ajax coach’s major advantage is his proven tactical pedigree, which gives him a major edge over the other two candidates. Ten Hag’s tactical system is far more robust and in-depth than either two coaches and, more importantly, relies on a range of attacking options to lower the predictability of attacks.
This is something that Barcelona have struggled with desperately, often entirely relying on inward passes from Jordi Alba to break defences and score goals. In 2018/19, the Dutchman lined up with a fluid 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3, with Frenkie de Jong as a crucial ball-carrying pivot.
In attack, Ajax are massively possession-oriented, utilising short passes to maintain possession. If pressed high, the 4-2-3-1 breaks into a sort of 3-2-4-1, with the pivot dropping into the backline (in Barcelona’s case, it would be de Jong, as he has shown he can do on numerous occasions) and bursting forward via ball-carrying drives to break the opposing press.
Ten Hag’s tactics utilise goal scoring wide players exactly like Antoine Griezmann and centralises the role of the attacking midfielder, who when flanked on either side by playmaking midfielders (think Pedri) can drive the defensive line backwards by joining the central striker in the attack.
Ten Hag, much like Guardiola, relies on generating superiority via an extra man, primarily done by introducing one of the ball-carrying centre-backs as an auxiliary midfielder to dominate the opposing midfield. The Dutchman has an obvious talent for goal scoring tactics, with a whopping 119 goals scored by his side in the 2018/19 Eredivisie campaign. His attacking play epitomises total football, but in defence, ten Hag has been slightly more flexible.
The Dutchman amalgamates Cruyffian positional play with German Gegenpressing in defence, relying on heavy pressing. To remedy the counter-attacking vulnerability of this approach, ten Hag introduces a ‘four-man rule’, wherein four players are constantly behind the ball at all times, implemented via communication and positional play. Counter-attacking bursts are therefore more predictable and avoided.
The 51-year-old’s coherent defensive strategy which, while still demanding defensive stability from its centre-backs relies on suffocating opposing attacks by maintaining possession and fighting for the brief moments for which the opposing line loses shape after recovering the ball by immediately pressing for it, has had undeniable success, with Ajax having the best defensive record in the Eredivisie in the 2020/21 season (and maintaining the best-attacking record for the third season in a row).
Ajax were in an (albeit smaller) moment of crisis when the Dutchman assumed responsibility, and his highly developed tactics have, so far, seen a 73% win rate with the club. Ten Hag is, of course, not without his flaws. To begin with, Ajax has a dressing room mainly consisting of either ageing players towards the very end of their careers with supporting roles in the squad or youth prospects.
The Dutchman has never dealt with major personalities that have huge roles in squads which Barcelona is more than famous for, which has, in recent history, seen its share of troubles within the structure of a squad, especially with ten Hag’s bold and hardline approach that prioritises football above all else.
His immediate communication with the squad is unlikely to be as effective, considering the fact that there is a language barrier (although if David Beckam can learn it, so can he).
The most glaring limitation to the Ajax manager’s appointment is the fact that extended his contract with the Amsterdam club only two weeks ago amidst rumours that Tottenham Hotspur were interested in replacing José Mourinho with him. Bringing him in would be heavily complicated and undoubtedly costly, which isn’t quite ideal for a club facing the biggest financial crisis in its history.
That said, the Dutchman is perfect for the club considering its identity and his brand of football, and Joan Laporta has his ways about him when it comes to getting things done.
Xavi is the perfect coach in the long run. His style of football, history at the club, and managerial promise suggest that he could potentially take Barcelona to major successes. That said, it’s certainly the wrong time: the club legend is far too early in his coaching career and the failures of rushed legend appointments are far too common.
If instead given the time and experience to develop his tactical proficiency, Xavi would make for an incredible coach. For the time being, he deserves to get further experience away from Barcelona; he seems to think so himself, considering the fact that he extended his contract at Al-Sadd till 2023.
It is hugely fallacious and idealistic to expect Pimienta to be the second coming of Pep Guardiola, which seems to be the driving factor for many that support his appointment. It’s unrealistic to expect every Barcelona B coach to revolutionise the team in a matter of a season the same way Guardiola did in the span of one season. The fans who expect a similar result are likely to be disappointed, that said, Pimienta is likely to be a good appointment for the future of the club.
The ideal pick, therefore, seems to be Erik ten Hag. The Dutchman falls perfectly between the spectrum of immediate results and instituting long-term foundations through his tactical genius (there truly is no other word). His approach to management focuses on the club, and that’s exactly what Barcelona are in desperate need of and his tactical proficiency is what the club, at the moment, lacks under Ronald Koeman.
As opposed to random tactical changes that rely on ageing players and experience, ten Hag is calculated but bold and prioritises his tactics over man-management. The Catalans’ biggest shortcomings that have seen their previous managers fired is the diminishing superiority of the club against elite European clubs; from the comebacks at the hands of Roma and Liverpool to the humiliation against Bayern.
This year, the mentality has lacked more than ever, and Barcelona have beat one top-flight team in their eight matches, a lot of which can be chalked up to arbitrary tactical decisions. In stark contrast, ten Hag possesses the exact mentality that Barcelona needs, epitomised by the 2018/19 Champions League run that relied on the freshness of youth prospects (which the Catalans have an abundance of).
Ten Hag is often overlooked because his successes have been limited to the Eredivisie as opposed to a top-five European league. Ajax were not the dominant authority that they are today when he took over, and their current status owes a lot to his contribution.
It seems too perfect to be true, but Barcelona would finally get a tactical mastermind in the Dutchman and the impact that just one well-placed appointment can be made can be seen in Chelsea’s case with Tuchel. Ten Hag is, by far, the hardest of the three to get, but it would be foolish to let such a perfectly-placed coach slip. Anyone but Jordi Cruyff would be okay in all honesty.