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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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…