Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona have been a huge disappointment, but the positive signs have slowly started to show themselves. Should Barcelona continue with Koeman in the near future?
Barcelona are currently undergoing one of the most critical stages in the club’s history. After a decade endowed with the greatest honours in world football, the team is now well into the dreaded transition phase that could make or break the next few seasons. The appointment of an inexperienced manager in Ronald Koeman as the manager was always going to be a risky one in this period for Barcelona.
After months of inconsistent performances, Barça are practically out of contention for the league, and the situation does not look any better in the UEFA Champions League. As a result, fans are already calling for Koeman’s head, with a wide range of people believing that he is not the right man to lead the team. However, sacking the Dutchman might not be the best option for the club.
Background on rebuilds
Rebuilding a club after a golden period is an unimaginably difficult task. If done improperly, the consequences can be dire. A person does not need to look too deep into the history books before one comes across the trail of failed transitions and the years of poor results that followed.
From the all-conquering AC Milan of the late 1990s and early 2000s to the unbeatable Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, several once-great teams fell into the grips of mismanagement. The errors of their respective directors and presidents led the clubs into years of struggles. While this looks like the fate the Blaugranas are headed towards, it might not be too late to make it out with minor injuries.
Barcelona’s next generation is in crisis
Much like the aforementioned examples, Barcelona too, have been the victim of horrible leadership. Just as their time at the top was coming to an end, Josep Maria Bartomeu was chosen as the club president. What followed was years of scandals, controversies and questionable decisions.
As legends like Xavi and Andres Iniesta departed, the holes they left in the team were filled with poorly-researched big-money signings that did not fit the system. It was always going to be difficult to replace players of their quality, but the replacements caused more problems than they solved.
Their particular set of qualities did not benefit the system directly. Despite the efforts of three different managers, the three transfers have not worked out. Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann continue to underperform while Ousmane Dembele’s injury woes are yet to subside.
More often than not, the team are still heavily reliant on the talent of Lionel Messi. But even the incredible Argentine has his limits. His steady decline due to age has started to set in and the days in a Barça shirt are running out. Even though a direct replacement can never be found for Leo, his void can be somewhat filled if the entire team elevates their performance level.
At this juncture, the management is faced with a compelling dilemma. The said dilemma is led by the obvious — a coach who can spearhead the team effectively is essential for the next few years.
On one side is current manager Ronald Koeman. Barcelona under him have looked underwhelming, and to a large extent, have flattered to deceive. ‘One step forward, two steps back’ is a household phrase when describing his tenure.
Despite a decent start to the campaign, it did not take too long for results to go downhill. It is not often that Barcelona are practically out of the title race by January; however, Culés all over the world have had to face this nightmarish reality.
With public opinion against him, it seems inevitable that he will soon face the axe. Presidential candidates like Victor Font have already expressed their desire to see Xavi at the helm.
Fortunately for him, as the days pass, it seems that the ex-Barcelona player has finally found a steady system. Intense pressure after poor results forced Koeman to shift to a more traditional 4-3-3. With this new formation, rather than his preferred 4-2-3-1, the team is slowly growing.
The likes of Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann, and Frenkie de Jong are starting to catch form, and even Ousmane Dembele is looking fitter, sharper and more mature as the season progresses.
Two sides to the poor start
Ronald Koeman has several quirks that make him a risky option for leading the club ahead. There are times when his decisions can be questionable, to say the least. His so-called grudge against Riqui Puig has enraged fans all over the world. Whatever happens on the pitch, something prevents him from relying on the La Masia product, who has been excellent when called upon.
Then comes his naivete when facing adversity. On occasion, the Dutchman has harmed the stability of the playing eleven in desperate attempts to salvage games. Additionally, the horrible position the squad finds themselves in may appear to be the last straw.
Unlikely as it may be, writing off the European Cup winner could be the wrong thing to do. For all of his mistakes, Koeman has also done a few things right. His disliking towards Riqui Puig is astounding, but he has given chances to several other young players. Pedri, Oscar Mingueza, and Ronald Araujo are players who Koeman gave opportunities to. And likewise, they repaid his faith by putting in solid performances.
He has also been bold all season. With the respect that he has earned as a player, he hasn’t been afraid of dropping the underperforming heavyweights. His management of Lionel Messi has been almost perfect, and he has shown that he is ready to change his system if required.
Another positive is the added work rate and fitness. Koeman has increased the team’s overall fitness and strength by taking extra sessions and rewarding players for their hard work. While games do still tend to be sluggish, there has been an improvement in the intensity of pressing, which is essential to Barcelona’s style of play. He has also rotated the team, ensuring that everyone can always perform at a high level.
Does Koeman warrant more time at the helm?
Ronald Koeman’s reign has brought a mixed bag of positives and negatives. While the Blaugranas have dropped several points, their away form has drastically improved. He is the first manager since Tito Villanova to win eight of the first twelve away games.
At the same time, Barça’s chance creation has also seen a hike. The Azulgranas have been one of the best in opening up defences statistically. In fact, Barcelona have the highest number of shots on target, with seven per game, across Europe’s top five leagues. However, a combination of good goalkeeping and lack of clinical finishing has resulted in fewer goals.
Barcelona have averaged more shots on target per match (7) than any other team in Europe's top five leagues this season. Last campaign they ranked 13th in the same stat (5.9).— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) January 11, 2021
— @WhoScored pic.twitter.com/TP5nKVZXHo
Not just that, but Koeman has also had to deal with several injuries throughout the squad. From the incredible Ansu Fati to the ever-present Gerard Pique, the Dutchman has had to cope with several long term absences. Especially in defence, the former centre-back has had to make numerous enforced changes, with a lack of stability leading to costly errors at the back.
And finally, Koeman hasn’t even had the chance to sign additional players to help implement his ideas. The lack of a true poacher has affected the team. With Martin Braithwaite as the only out-and-out number 9 in the team, no one has matched Luis Suarez’s output last season.
All in all, Koeman has faced a turbulent time as manager of FC Barcelona. From unexpected injuries to financial setbacks due to the pandemic, he has had limited tools to make his ideas work. But his own inability to react swiftly to the imbalance has left the team in a difficult spot.
The upcoming weeks will be critical, and his response to the pressure will ultimately decide his fate. Although there are positive signs in recent victories, Barcelona need a long streak of wins to show that they are back at the top of their game.
Winning the Supercopa de Espana this week will be an important stepping stone in the process, no less beating the likes of Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao or Real Madrid in the process. It will serve as a confidence booster going into the game against Paris Saint-Germain. One cannot expect Barça to win the UCL, but going past PSG to reach the Quarter-Finals will be a statement-making opportunity.
Giving the youngsters a chance will show a glimpse of what can be expected from the future. As signings arrive, the team will slowly begin a new era with a completely different generation of players. However, patience is key in this process. Like Liverpool have shown, it took Jurgen Klopp several years to bring Liverpool back to the top level of football.
Granted, Barcelona have a much better squad than what the German started with, but learning from other such clubs is essential. Along with patience, though, a clear project with a stable staff is also important. Whether Ronald Koeman is the right man to fulfil that role, only time will tell.
Despite the lack of time in the club’s hands, Ronald Koeman’s past few games have been encouraging. An entire season in-charge will help the new president get a better picture of his abilities. He does deserve credit for what he has done. Taking hold of a team that had been battered 8-2 by Bayern Munich was never going to be easy. The mental blow suffered by the players was extreme.
All the Dutchman needs to do is move past controversial feuds against certain players and focus on the football. Maybe with the in-form and clinical Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele at his disposal, he will finally be able to turn a new page in his Barcelona chapter.
Can the ban to Messi turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Barcelona?
Though the ban to Lionel Messi does seem terrifying news, a deeper thought suggests that it could be a blessing in disguise for Barcelona, opening up several avenues for Ronald Koeman to experiment.
Lionel Messi has made a name for breaking records for fun. Be it goals or assists or dribbles, he has the accolades decorating the walls of his quiet haven in Barcelona. On Sunday the Argentine found himself breaking yet another record, however, not one he would have relished too much.
The six-time Ballon d’Or award winner was sent off for the very first time in Barcelona’s famous Garnet and Blue. An unarguable offence involving a violent swing of the arm at Asier Villalibre was the incident that saw him earn the same. Consequently, a ban awarded will see Messi missing action in the upcoming two fixtures – namely against UE Cornella and Elche.
Though it does seem terrifying news, to begin with, a deeper thought suggests that it could indeed be a blessing in disguise for Ronald Koeman’s side. Temporarily so, though. Moreover, it could benefit both parties involved: the player and the team.
Sparing a scenario where he participates in Barcelona’s second-round fixture in the Copa del Rey, Leo will return to action once again against the side he received his marching orders against. The speculated return date is the 31st of January against Athletic Bilbao.
Having just come back from a muscle injury he picked up against Granada, the Argentine was far from his best in the Super Cup final. A red card was a miserable end to a painful night for him. It was evident that he was not ready to play. He pulled on through the night, almost till the very end before his patience caved in.
A fit and ready Lionel Messi is one of the key cogs in Barcelona’s engine. Rushing the captain back from injury would not be wise either for the team or the player. Messi, at 33, needs to be managed efficiently yet cautiously. This includes embracing the fact that regaining rhythm after injuries will require a longer window. Bearing that in mind, a forced two-game hiatus could be exactly what he requires to return raging.
However, the absence of the La Liga top scorer will put more burden on the shoulders of €100 million club players Antoine Greizmann and Ousmane Dembele. The French duo can see this as the perfect opportunity to step up. It is the perfect chance to prove why exactly they do have a bright future at the club. The talisman’s absence provides Griezmann with exactly the position he considers his own, and enable him to take up the baton of scoring. It will be the ideal stage for him to dictate the play between the lines and orchestrate the proceedings.
Meanwhile, for a certain Dembele, it almost guarantees successive starts. The youngster is just beginning to find his rhythm at Catalonia, and he will be looking forward to making up for the absence of his captain.
The games Leo is set to miss are relatively low-pressure on paper. This could now tempt Koeman to push in youngsters and experiment with the forward line. The Copa del Rey fixture against Cornella could well see young Alex Collado and Konrad get deserved minutes.
While Collado has constantly been superb for the B team, Konrad has been patient on the bench for many games. The La Masia graduates deserve a chance in the top flight, and Messi’s suspension could give them a chance. Either way, both have made it to the squad list for the Kings’ Cup fixture.
Similarly, the opening up of a spot on the right-wing, an infrequent occurrence, could see chances given to Fransisco Trincao. The youngster has hardly got a sniff of a start so far, and the opening up of a spot in his natural position could be what it takes for him to earn a start.
Moreover, there is a certain aspect of this on the team as a whole. Coming back after a defeat poses its own range of challenges. Nonetheless, bouncing back after a defeat in the final of an event requires suturing of a much deeper and painful wound. Having Leo on the side is always a reassurance to his teammates on the field. However, his absence following a major defeat will be a real test of the sides resilience.
An individual effort will not suffice in the coming games. With the captain on the sidelines and the hounds of the traumatizing defeat set loose on them, the players will have to be on their toes. It will be a test for the coach, and one that examines the drive in the players. What could that be in the eyes of a true fan, if not a blessing in disguise.
The team is in dire need for motivation, and for a sense of confidence. Victories in two games without their talisman can provide the biggest boost in morale for all the players alike. As for his return, Messi will be looking to come back with a bang against Bilbao next week once his ban calls curtains
It is no secret that the club-captain’s presence would lift the spirits and confidence of all personnel involved. However, the ban to Messi benefits multiple parties in the given situation, himself included. It also provides the chance for the likes of other players to step up and take responsibility on the pitch when, namely the likes of Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, among others. Alternatively, an empty spot in the team might force Ronald Koeman’s hand to give minutes to Konrad de la Fuente, Fransisco Trincao, and even Alex Collado. Will the side be able to cross the line? One really hopes so.