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Analysis: Should Koeman be given a long-term project at Barcelona?

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Photo via Imago

Just as some players are temporary fixes– brought in for a year or two to round out the squad– some managers are hired on a short-term basis, evaluated season-by-season and not in their board’s long-term plans. Sometimes they are caretakers, and other times, the board is just waiting for a better option to come through. But, if a manager does enough to impress, their short-term stay can turn into a long-term project – e.g. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United. 

Ronald Koeman was hired last August by president Josep Bartomeu on a two-year contract. The previous administration was notorious for their short-term thinking, although extending Koeman was never entirely out of the question, especially with a successful 2020-21 campaign. 

Unfortunately, this season has been yet another underwhelming one for the Catalans, prompting questions about whether Koeman will stay. Under the Dutchman, the Blaugrana did win the Copa del Rey, and they went on a blistering 19-game unbeaten streak in La Liga. Still, they also consistently faltered against top opposition and practically lost the league on their own accord over the last month. 

The last thing President Joan Laporta wants – and the last thing the club needs – is another stop-gap solution. However, there isn’t exactly a slew of (available) world-class replacements. One can not ignore the persistent rumours pointing to Xavi Hernandez as the club’s ideal next long-term manager, but the Spaniard might not be ready to take the helm just yet. Another Frank Lampard at Chelsea or Andrea Pirlo at Juventus situation – club legends brought in to manage without enough experience – would be detrimental to all parties. 

Rushed appointments don’t always work out. (Photo via Imago)

With no clear replacement in mind and a full season of work to analyse, has Koeman already reached his peak as manager, or has there been enough evidence this season to earn Laporta giving him a long-term project? 

What is a long-term project? 

Before exploring whether Koeman should be given a long-term project, let’s define what that entails. For managers, a long-term project revolves around one keyword: trust. These managers are fully backed by the board and ownership groups through thick and thin, whether second-place finishes or trophyless seasons. This trust either comes from past success with other teams or is earned through promising results.

For example, Pep Guardiola’s first season at Manchester City was the first (and only) time in his career he went trophyless, but he still had the full backing of the City Football Group. Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool also spent his first few seasons slowly but surely building a competitive enough squad to eventually win the Champions League and Premier League.

Backed from the get-go. (Photo via Imago)

Conversely, Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was brought in as a caretaker midseason, but a successful spell of games was enough to earn him a long-term deal.

Rather than being evaluated on a year-by-year basis, these managers are given multiple seasons to build the team of their desires and instill their tactical philosophy. This includes being heavily involved in the transfer market and contractual side of things.

For Koeman at Barcelona, this means Laporta and his board should judge him with a bigger picture in mind, they would give him full reign in the transfer market, and he would have their undivided trust for years to come. 

With that in-mind, let’s look at the pros and cons of Koeman’s first season as manager determine whether they are enough to earn him a long-term project. 

Pro: Steadied the Ship

Arguably the most positive thing Koeman has brought to Barcelona is a stabilized presence, a rejuvenated locker room, and little-to-no controversy. That may not seem like a lot, but for a team that was mired in a seemingly endless array of problems last August, stability should not be understated. 

When Barcelona was dealing with the embarrassment of the 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich, financial trouble, the Messi transfer saga, and the necessity to offload countless players, Koeman was one of– if not the only –manager willing to embrace the challenge of taking over the reins. It was a thankless job in many ways, but his presence and status helped transform the team from a disjointed group of players to a unified squad. 

A devastating loss to recover from. (Photo via Imago)

One can only marvel at the difference between Koeman’s Barça and that of his predecessor Quique Setien in the second half of last season. Under Setien, there were numerous reports of discontent and a clear lack of support coming from the locker room. While Koeman isn’t free of controversy – take the Riqui Puig situation, for example – he has been a well-respected presence who has brought much-needed stability, and that is a clear positive when considering giving him a long-term project.

Pro: A Cup Run for the Ages

When analysing Koeman’s first season in charge, one can’t overlook Barça’s incredible run in the Copa del Rey. The team played with fortitude and a never-give-up attitude that had been desperately missing for the last few seasons throughout the tournament. Without a doubt, a part of that change in mentality has to be attributed to Koeman. 

They overcame a 0-1 deficit against Rayo Vallecano in the Round of 16, a 0-2 deficit against Granada with only a few minutes left in regulation, and a 0-2 first-leg defeat against Sevilla. Furthermore, that latter result was thanks to Koeman’s decision to switch to a 3-5-2 in the second leg.  

Unexpected glory. (Photo via Imago)

In all, Koeman showed that he can rally the team to win silverware, and he helped bring out a fighting spirit that was long-dormant. Even if a manager is part of a long-term project, winning silverware is always an important test, and Koeman passed it in his first season. Although, that has not been the story of Barça in all competitions this season…  

Con: Tactical Rigidity

Underlining most of Koeman’s shortcomings as Barcelona manager this season is a lack of tactical fluidity, curious squad management, and ill-planned substitutions. When thinking of giving him a long-term project, these are unfortunately red flags. 

On a positive note, Koeman has shown some fluidity throughout the season in terms of changing formations, but that has been severely missing over the last few weeks. When his favored 4-2-3-1 was not working, he eventually embraced the 4-3-3, and when that stagnated, he switched to a 3-5-2.

The new formation has provided stability and gotten the best out of Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, for example, but even that solution seemed only temporary. When Barça desperately needed more numbers up front or a new approach to counter their opponents, Koeman still chose to stick with the 3-5-2, which was never going to be a permanent solution.

The best of Busquets and Alba. (Photo via Imago)

The formation has been particularly stale over the last few matches, with the Catalans winning only three of their last seven La Liga games. When given multiple tests to flex his tactical strengths, Koeman stuck with the same answer. 

Con: Squad Management & In-game Substitutions

In terms of squad management and in-game substitutions, Koeman also leaves a lot to be desired. He has overworked some players, underworked others, and shown little-to-no in-game tactical awareness – all of which are unsustainable in the long-term.

Positively, he has been applauded – and rightly so – for having given ample opportunities to youngsters like Pedri, Oscar Mingueza, Ronald Araujo, Sergiño Dest, and Ilaix Moriba. As such, thanks to Koeman, the future of Barcelona is clearer than ever. Additionally, his faith in both Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele has paid off, as the former has 12 more goal contributions this season compared to last and the latter, albeit still inconsistent, has shown genuine signs of promise.

Nevertheless, there is a lot about Koeman’s squad management that is unsustainable for a long-term project. As mentioned, he has overworked certain players like Pedri. The 18-year old has played in a staggering 51 matches this season and has the squad’s sixth most minutes played of any outfield player. Pedri is undoubtedly a gem and has shown immense durability throughout the entire season, but being overworked is not a sign of long-term planning on Koeman’s part.

Furthermore, other players like Riqui Puig, Miralem Pjanic, and Junior Firpo have been severely underworked. Over the last few months, Koeman found his favoured starting eleven and substitutes and stuck with them. Admittedly, Pjanic is not the player he once was, and Firpo is tasked with having to compete with an in-form Jordi Alba. Puig’s emergence was one of Barça’s highlights last season, and his presence would bring the team another dimension going forward.

Unfairly excluded. (Photo via Imago)

Having a more fully rounded-out squad will help Barcelona in the present and in the future, but Koeman has stuck with his favoured bunch more often than not. However, when he does choose to rotate, it is often ill-timed.

In the match against Granada that would have seen Barça go atop the table with a win, he started a backline composed of Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti and Sergi Roberto (who was out of position). Hindsight is 20/20, but that ended up being a costly decision as the Blaugrana lost 2-1 at home.

In regards to substitutions, Koeman has been notorious for his curious choices, often opting for overloading the attack when in search of a goal instead of having a more methodical approach. Last time out against Levante, he also subbed in Sergi Roberto at right centre-back, placing the Spaniard extremely out of position. 

Cons: La Liga Slip and “Big Game” Conundrum 

Just as one can’t overlook Koeman’s role in guiding Barça to the Spanish Cup, one also can’t ignore the team’s dismal performance in “big games” throughout the entire season and their disastrous slip in La Liga. Underlining this is the aforementioned lack of tactical flexibility, squad management issues, and in-game substitutions.  

Against Real and Atlético Madrid this season, Barça have won one out of a possible 12 total points, their worst performance in this stat since the 1964/65 season. Furthermore, in their other biggest tests of the season, whether playing Juventus at home in the Champions League to secure first place in the group or playing Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16, the squad faltered, losing 3-0 and 5-1 on aggregate respectively.

Another heartbreak. (Photo via Imago)

In the homestretch of a tight La Liga race, the team have also won only three out of their last seven games. That is in stark contrast with their previous 19 matches, where they went unbeaten.

Under the brightest lights, the team was consistently outplayed, and Koeman was left second-best against opposing managers. Now, he should not take the entirety of the blame –some has to be put on the players –but he did not do enough to quell concerns about his tactics and game management.

What should Barça do? 

Having evaluated the main components of Koeman’s first season in charge, what should Barça do?

In many respects, Koeman has done a commendable job, taking a team that looked destined to go trophyless to being so close to winning the domestic double. He has helped bring much-needed stability, and the intangibles that come with his presence can not be overlooked. Furthermore, he has helped usher in the next generation of Blaugrana players, and that impact will stay for years to come. 

Some bright points. (Photo via Imago)

Nonetheless, when considering giving him a long-term project, there are certain shortcomings that are too glaring to overlook. Namely, his tactical rigidity and in-game tinkering would continue to put Barça at a disadvantage against most top managers and opposition, and his squad management is unsustainable. 

Still, if Barcelona can not replace him with a long-term option this summer, he should stay for next season. Koeman has made many strides as a manager since arriving in August, and keeping him would be a no-brainer instead of finding another temporary solution. Without a clear replacement, Koeman can assuredly keep the ship afloat for another season, but he should still not be given a long-term project. 

Laporta is faced with a tough question, but letting Koeman finish out his contract seems like a straightforward choice. It would help maintain stability and consistency, and in the meantime, give the president more time to find a long-term choice, and certain candidates seem to be lined up. If that choice is Xavi, keeping Koeman gives the Spaniard an extra season to prepare and gain experience.

To make matters even more complicated, Laporta has to consider Messi’s contractual situation as well. If the Argentine decides to leave, then Barça’s timeline completely changes. They could afford to be more lenient in terms of results, albeit the club have prided themselves on never having “rebuild” or “transition” seasons. If he stays, then the team and manager would have to dramatically improve in order to establish themselves atop Europe once again.  

In all, despite changing managers, the Catalans continue to have poor results. The “manager” variable can change and Koeman can improve, but it is long-overdue to change the “player” variable too. Even if Laporta were to bring in an idealized “genius tactician” or experienced man-manager, the truth is that the squad can not compete at the highest level without proper reinvestment and quality replacements. 

A long and consequential summer awaits…

Throughout my life of constant change, one thing has never faltered: my love for FC Barcelona. Whether through watching every game, listening to pundits, or playing FIFA and Football Manager, I've always wanted an outlet to express my passion for the team. Barça Universal gives me the perfect opportunity to do so, as I can combine my love of writing with my love of Barça and the sport.

18 Comments

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  1. Tim Brown

    16/05/2021 at 11:13

    One of the best articles I’ve seen on this site. I’m a #koeman out fan… But yes he’s does deserve respect for what he has done… Its what he hasn’t that is the problem.

    Messi is probably looking for a shorter term results driven solution… Laporta… Might need it too for political and financial reasons.

    Not a lot of options out there for a quick fix and a long term Pochettino-like solution doesn’t seem available or cheap.

    • Jan-Michael Marshall

      16/05/2021 at 15:39

      Thank you so much! That’s true, there aren’t a lot of options out there but hopefully Laporta makes the right decisions.

  2. #1Culer

    16/05/2021 at 11:49

    This iss a really good article, love the thoughtful review of the entire situation. I am Koeman out, but this makes me rethink!

    • Jan-Michael Marshall

      16/05/2021 at 15:38

      Thank you! I think he should stay another season until we can find a long-term replacement, but let’s see what happens.

      • Kaniel

        17/05/2021 at 11:32

        Great article. This is very insightful, however I don’t think Koeman deserves another season. Barcelona isn’t a club where you have the room for trial and error. This team has suffered in the last 4-5 seasons and needs to get it right now. Yes, Koeman deserves respect but I don’t think handing him another season is respect. Barca should let him go as it is for the greater good of the club. I think Xavi should be considered and given a chance, we’ve all seen how his Al Sadd team plays, high intensity with so much fluidity. He understands how football should be played in this age and time, so much physicality and tactics, something we’ve not seen with Koeman.

        • Jan-Michael Marshall

          17/05/2021 at 15:02

          Thank you! Those are good points – Barça can’t afford to wait for trial and error. Hopefully Laporta makes the right decision.

  3. Gino Jude

    16/05/2021 at 18:28

    Honestly no, koeman is the worse Barcelona coach I see r. Koeman is pure garbage,if he remains at Barcelona I will never watch a game I will buy a Barcelona jersey

  4. George Lytsioulis

    17/05/2021 at 01:45

    Very good article. Barca need 1 very good attacking midfielder so messi is not dropping so far back to create the move from half way. They also need to steady the ship out bag.We need to be much faster in transition because the other teams just sit back and wait for us to mess it up. It is up to the coach to make this happen. Koeman realise on messi to be creator and scorer. I think the players are fine we could do with a attacking midfielder and a good centre back. I like Koeman but sorry I think his tactics are very prodictable and boring he spent a good amount of the season putting messi as CF messi is God he can play anywhere but we all know he does his best work coming in from the right wing. #Koeman out

    • Jan-Michael Marshall

      17/05/2021 at 14:49

      Thank you! I agree with your point about needing to be faster in transition, because we’re super slow and unthreatening. And we definitely need a new CB above anything else.

  5. Connor

    17/05/2021 at 03:06

    Nice article, I think Koemancould be a long term solution. He is a good coach and results will follow. It’s not good to swap managers over and over. There is always some rebuilding that happens with new coaching staff. Players have to learn a new system. If you give Koeman the ability to stay and bring in players the club will be better for it.

    • Jan-Michael Marshall

      17/05/2021 at 14:57

      That’s why I think he should have just one more season: if he does really well, they can extend him; if not, then they can find a replacement. Because I also think it’s a problem to constantly swap managers.

  6. olcay seref

    17/05/2021 at 11:39

    I would start the new project, with a new trainer, koeman has built the fundament, and therefore we are grateful. But given his sturdiness about tactical opinions, and the categorical neglect of riqui puig, he is not the man for a ship looking for new horizons. Barca and LA Masia should reinvent there whole approach otherwise they will decline in mediocracy, in my opinion. The world has changed, football has changed. Barca must be more physical p, sometimes the where just overrun, over bullied, in the last years, also in pre corona times. Barca is too slow, times are over in which you could win triples without header goals, or without speed. Barca is NOT able to drive a good counterattack, they play like 40 year old men.( It seems to me sometime) whenever there was the possibility of a fast raid, open space, they miserably failed. Another weakness :corners, my goodness, they are so harmless…. And the last point, the midfield (not to speak of de Jong) is full of players who are not able to shoot goals, in modern football nearly any player should be able to shoot, or create some danger, not just shove the ball around, no good defence will be in trouble, because they don’t have to mark that much players anymore. I am by far not an expert, but that’s what I have observed.

    • Jan-Michael Marshall

      17/05/2021 at 15:05

      I agree with a lot of your points. Barca have to do a complete rebuild or else these disappointing results won’t stop.

  7. Cyrille

    17/05/2021 at 14:36

    Very good article dude.
    There’s really nothing I can add, I feel like you just expressed my thoughts… I wouldn’t have done so in a better way than this

  8. Aravind Srinivas

    17/05/2021 at 15:42

    Excellent analysis!

    • Jan-Michael Marshall

      21/05/2021 at 14:03

      Thank you so much!

  9. Ben

    20/05/2021 at 09:35

    This is a good article overall. However, Barca(one of the best in the world), with the best player in the world, struggling to beat teams like Granada, Rayo Vallecano is a low for me. We were so bad that in some cases we had to come from behind to win against some teams. That may be a positive for the increase in team mentality, but aside that, that speaks poorly of the management from the bench.

    • Jan-Michael Marshall

      21/05/2021 at 14:09

      Thanks. I agree that the management, whether substitutions or in-game adjustments, has been poor.