On the back of one of the most turbulent seasons in recent memory, Barca Universal takes a detailed look at players and manager alike in the 2020-21 season review, starting from first-team coach Ronald Koeman.
The expectations coming into the 2020-21 season were tremendously low. After Barcelona’s 2-8 demolition to world champions Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League, few, if any, held onto any hope of the campaign yielding anything worth celebrating.
Ronald Koeman took over a bruised and battered Barça side, one barely expected to make the top four and guided it to a third-place finish in La Liga, a Copa Del Rey triumph in a run for the ages, and a harrowing loss to PSG in the Round of 16 in the Champions League.
His management of the side has raised many eyebrows. To some, his use of the team and its achievements — especially given the context — has been meritorious of another year in the dugouts. To others, his seemingly irredeemable flaws, which showed their ugly face on innumerable occasions, are the hallmarks of a manager deserving of an odyssey from the club.
In this article, Barca Universal explores Koeman’s highs and lows in what has been one of the most tumultuous campaigns for the Blaugrana, culminating in a season rating for the Dutchman.
The highlights of the season
Some of the biggest criticisms of Barcelona’s previous two managers were in their inability to elevate the levels of their footballers. Ernesto Valverde built his team around Lionel Messi, accentuating his strengths through unsustainable tactics that saw the collective level gradually deteriorate with time. Quique Setién meanwhile had a handful of players increase their overall output, but his minimal impact was too little too late, as the damage was already done by the time he was appointed.
His sacking, and the volume of the defeat, was an eventuality given how the club was managed at the time. Under Koeman, however, players both youthful and experienced saw substantive and unprecedented upgrades to their individual levels.
Frenkie de Jong is the first. Having endured a rather bland and forgettable debut season in the Blaugrana, the 2020-21 season saw him reach staggering heights. Through the delicate management of his countryman, the Barça number 21 unlocked aspects of himself no one could have even fathomed, let alone harnessed. Regardless of whether or not he was a libero, a box to box midfielder, a false striker or, on rare occasions, a false winger, he was an absolute treat to the eye.
With his performances finally matching his hefty price tag and him entering his prime years, uncovering this unheard of version of Frenkie is one of the biggest long term impacts Koeman has had on the club, with his contributions vital in Barcelona’s only taste of silverware for the season.
Sergio Busquets was, at some point, considered dead weight. A calamitous performance in El Clásico should have spelt the end for him and his Barça career, but as he has done throughout his career, Busi shattered all doubts surrounding him. Since December — when Koeman got a firm understanding of the team — the World Cup winner has unravelled a long lost part of himself.
Several structural changes, in particular the 3-5-2, gave him the luxury of performing with fewer restrictions defensively, maximizing his offensive output in the final third of the pitch while anchoring the midfield trio with typical solidity. Last season was, on almost all accounts, one of his individual best as a Blaugrana in recent memory, with every match serving as an exhibition for his greatness.
Le Petit Prince, Antoine Griezmann, is finally living up to his mammoth price tag. In 51 appearances for the Garnet and Blue, the Frenchman has scored 20 goals providing 12 assists in the process. The former Rojiblanco, in his altruistic self, never ceased to give his all whenever he stepped onto the field of play.
His remarkable Copa Del Rey campaign saw him play a pivotal role in his side’s triumph, with Koeman extracting the most of what he could from him, deploying him as a classic winger in a 4-3-3. Such tactical revelations and the bond formed between himself and Lionel Messi made for quite the season for the World champion.
Granting Pedri Gonzalez ample time and a context with which to establish himself and unravelling the hidden gem that was Oscar Mingueza certainly deserves its plaudits. The overall blend of youth and experience this season and his management of them will only reap benefits for the club, whether or not he stays beyond his contract.
Improved — though not perfect — mentality
Taking over a broken squad was always going to prove a hurdle for any manager. The initial months suggested that the fissures from his predecessors were still there, and wounds running so deep were always going to be tough to heal. A brilliant run of form in December was brutally ended by damning defeats to Athletic Club and Paris Saint Germain in intervals.
Nonetheless, the team overcame these hurdles, with the evidence of this being their historic Copa Del Rey campaign. Two emphatic comeback victories against Granada and Sevilla, followed by a rout of Los Leones in the final itself was just what the doctor ordered. The elated mood from all this ecstasy translated to the Catalans’ 1-6 annihilation of Real Sociedad in the Reale Arena.
Come the end of the season; the team was victim to yet another capitulation, one that ended all title hopes in just a matter of weeks. Despite this almighty fall from grace, the groundwork has been adequately laid for future successes. The team have shown resilience in the face of adversity, and the only way from here is up.
More attractive football
In a season where no one really expected silverware, the minimum the fans desired back in their club was football worth watching. The broken notes from the distasteful orchestra of Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién left many begging to at the very least enjoy whatever was left of football’s historically greatest performers. While what was played paled in comparison to the adrenaline and excitement that Pep Guardiola’s tactics brought to the modern era, it was well worth watching nonetheless.
The team’s best period, running for the better part of the five months between December and April, had Culés counting the days till when they’d next tune into a Barcelona match; sensations they couldn’t pride themselves in feeling for around three years. Even at their worst, the Catalans were still a bearable unit to watch.
It wasn’t the pristine perfection of Pep Guardiola’s Juego de Posición, but the football was enjoyable nonetheless. In spite of the team’s flaws, the comebacks, the sense of unity brewing within the team and the many well fought victories over the course of the season have meant that despite the singular trophy, Barcelona had more than just the Copa Del Rey title to savour.
Welcome to the flip-side
A glaring lack of an identity
Being a Barcelona manager goes well beyond the quintessential aesthetics that are normally associated with it. More than the supposed need to implement a particular formation — in this case, the 4-3-3 — Barcelona managers should hold onto several fundamental ideas deeply ingrained into the club’s idiosyncratic history.
Rather than follow the said ideology to merely appease the football romantics, this should be done because the coach believes in and is ready to follow them. Timeless methodologies such as positional play are followed because, at the peak of their implementation, the club reaped success from the fruits it sowed. With Ronald Koeman and his 3-5-2, this hasn’t truly been the case.
Tutelage under the great Johan Cruyff doesn’t directly translate to managerial success. With his back against the wall, Koeman has displayed a worrying incapacity to follow a set code of conduct. This has happened to the detriment of both the club and his individual reputation. Rather than have an established course of action for when things don’t go as planned — take the first and final seven or so matches of the season — he illustrates via either his tactical adjustments and setups that there is no coherent plan.
Throughout the season, it has seemed as though he played a game of improvisation, one leading up to him finding a seemingly stable methodology, until the altered tactic became predictable, and he adjusted it too; an endless state of limbo. In defeat especially, his impulse was to void the team of all stability in the centre of the park rather than maintain a visible structure. Even when the system demanded reshaping — take his initial 4-2-3-1, or the 3-5-2 right at the end — his stubbornness led both him and the team astray.
Lacking a clear plan is as detrimental for the team as it is for the coach. Regardless of the formation, if the pieces on the chessboard have no clear path to follow, then everything will inevitably fall apart — as it did at the end of the season. This was the case against Cádiz, both home and away, or Granada, where the team struggled to create any meaningful opportunities, left themselves open to being hurt, and severely punished by the cheapest tactical errors. A motif throughout this campaign.
The substitution conundrum
Tying into Ronald Koeman’s lack of identity is his curious case with substitutions. This was perhaps the darkest spot of his first season in charge of the Blaugrana. Somehow, against top or bottom table opposition, the Dutchman displayed a disgruntling lack of tactical solutions whenever the team needed them most. There was almost always something amiss that would always drastically, but meaninglessly, alter the team when it came to the changes.
When the system appears to be ripping at the seams, precise timing is the fine margin between failure and success. Making tactical changes early enough grants the team ample time to make a difference. With Koeman, this is hardly the case when the team needs to snatch victory from the clenching jaws of defeat. When they are made, changes are often far too late to make any significant impact on proceedings.
Even more bizarre are the changes themselves. The ex-Oranje boss has garnered a despicable reputation for making the most unorthodox and equally least sensible changes to the team. The more logical shifts would involve a like for like substitution or changes that would preserve an idea even with different blocks on the field.
Under the Dutch manager, the formation could easily switch from a 4-3-3 in the opening minute to a 3-1-6 by the final whistle. The result is ten outfield players running like headless chickens on the pitch, not one with a clue what their precise role is in the setup. All control is lost, and with it, valuable points are dropped.
A manager having preferences is nothing new to the game of football. Iván Rakitić for instance was a favorite for Barcelona managers in seasons past, even with his diminishing levels as time went by. His altruism and sheer adaptability regardless of occasion was a heaven-sent for every manager he had.
Such is the case with Pedri Gonzalez this season, an 18-year old revelation firmly set to mark an era of his own in the Garnet and Blue of Barcelona. In his first season as a Blaugrana, the teenage sensation played a staggering 52 matches for the club of his dreams. This wouldn’t be an issue, if not for Koeman’s over-insistence on always playing him, and his negligence of others at the cost of the collective.
Through no fault of his own, Riqui Puig has been ostracised from the starting eleven for a significant chunk of the season. When considering his precocious dexterity in the heart of the midfield, it makes little sense why such a beloved figure at the club would miss out on so much football. The same goes for Miralem Pjanic, a more than reputable figure who ideally should slot into any midfield by virtue of his excellence in the role.
Many times, these preferences and prejudices taxed the team. Pedri’s clear and obvious fatigue in a system in which intense pressing is paramount was blatantly evident in the home stretch of the season. Instead of switching up the starting eleven, or making more prompt substitutions, Koeman simply let an overbearing problem run its course through the team, eventually ending whatever little hope for a title there was.
And it cannot be a mere coincidence, considering Matheus Fernandes’ recent words about the Dutchman, pointing to a worrisome lack of clarity.
Ronald Koeman’s season has been filled with ups and downs. Arguments both for and against him are valid, and each of these in their own right. At the end of the day, his future rests in president Joan Laporta’s hands, and not his own. His improvement of certain players, and the team’s football might go in his favor, but the fact that even a year after coming in, the team lacks any visible identity, coupled with his inability to learn from himself or may tilt things the other way.
All in all this has been an above average season especially considering the context preceding it, but only just. Should he remain another year, then many of his troubles should find their remedies. If the club parts ways with him, then as a legend, he will certainly not be forgotten.
Barca Universal Rating: 6.75/10