Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona stint was always going to be an uphill battle for the Dutchman. The same is true for the squad he has. After all, these players have been through a lot and we all knew it would take a lot of time for everything to fall into place.
But while that moment hasn’t arrived just yet, it also felt right from the get-go that Koeman, despite doing some things right, wasn’t utilising this squad to the best of its abilities. Yes, this version of the Azulgranas is a couple of levels below their usual standard and have been sub-par in so many ways lately.
However, the very things Koeman prides himself on, namely man-management and situational control, have been lacking. Of course, there is simply no way of knowing what goes on behind the scenes, apart from what we can gather from the media that is, but some decisions seem… Questionable.
This inevitably brings us back to the Riqui Puig case. And yes, it does feel like the young La Masia talent is constantly talked about and yet, nothing – or rather little – changes between those discussions. But there does seem to be some improvement in his case that many may have missed.
If we look at the data available through Transfermarkt, we can see that Puig has been used a lot more as of late. In the last three games alone across all competitions, the 21-year-old has played a total of 69 minutes.
At first sight, that doesn’t seem that significant, does it now? In the grand scheme of things, maybe not, but when you take into account he’s played a total of 147 since the very beginning of the season until the moment of writing, the situation becomes much clearer.
The last three games equate to roughly 46% of his entire game time for Barcelona in 2020/21. Of course, some context is needed here before we jump to any big conclusions. The games in question are, in order: a 0-4 victory over Granada, a penalty shootout win against Real Sociedad and a 2:3 defeat at the hands of Athletic Club.
If we’re being completely honest, in normal circumstances, would Koeman really give Puig that many minutes? That still remains highly debatable. After all, he only came on for the last 17 minutes for the Granada clash with Barça four goals in the lead already, and was given a chance in the Supercopa because both games had to go to extra-time.
For that reason, there is a fair argument there that Koeman’s hand was somewhat forced in the latter two games due to fatigue and he had nothing to lose in the former one with the scoreline highly in Barcelona’s favour.
Still, Puig is in no position to be a chooser. He is a fighter, however, and these rather rough circumstances, while far from ideal, don’t seem to be affecting his morale too much.
Riqui Puig: “It’s time to get up and keep fighting for all that’s left this season that’s why we’re Barca!”— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) January 20, 2021
It may be a long shot but Riqui’s dedication and, frankly, stubbornness in the face of a difficult situation, may finally be paying off in some manner. Again, we don’t know what happens behind the scenes and Koeman’s has indirectly hinted before that some players are not working as hard as they should be.
But if what we see on the pitch is any indication at all, Puig really shouldn’t be among those players, who were never actually named publicly. The media will always have their guesses when it comes to such matters but the truth is, we can’t know for sure.
All we do know is what we see in that little game time the young La Masia prodigy gets every week. Or rather, every other week. However, with those special caveats taken into consideration, his minute tally has definitely risen as of late.
With Copa del Rey games also on the horizon, and fatigue piling up, we might even see more of Puig soon. Maybe that’s his chance to prove to Koeman once and for all that he needs to be a part of the squad far more often than he’s been so far.
Knowing him, the midfielder will surely be ready to face the challenge head on.
We can only hope that battle sees him emerge victorious once more.
The psychology at Barcelona: A leaf out of Jurgen Klopp’s book
Guest Contributor: Darren Looney
“When I came here, the size of the club was a burden. Now it’s our safety net, it’s our trampoline, it’s our home, it’s our basis, it’s everything to us. Now we are Liverpool before the club was Liverpool and we were just the guys who were trying to be good enough”.
In Melissa Reddy’s book ‘Believe Us’, Jurgen Klopp, the man who led Liverpool to become champions of England, Europe and the world, details how a change in psychology from having the clubs past success being used as a noose around their necks to becoming fully confident individuals, helped the club end their 30-year wait for a league title.
FC Barcelona has a noose of its own hanging over the Camp Nou at present. It has been placed there by former president Josep Maria Bartomeu, having left the club in a state that is unable to match the success seen over the last two decades.
The incoming president and manager will be the ones left to cut it free, and with limited economic resources to do this, a change in the mindsets of the lads could play a part in helping the club get the most out of what they already have.
Barcelona’s current state
The Josep Maria Bartomeu’s presidency oversaw a circus rather than a football club. In this timeframe, Barcelona lost the respect of its fellow European giants through humiliating performances in the Champions League, selling Neymar Jr. to Paris Saint Germain, poor recruitment, and a squad constantly breaking under pressure.
Players such as Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi, and Ousmane Dembele, of those that started in the latest Champions League match, have all been through the most of these embarrassing moments, which has no doubt left some trauma.
Others in the squad have laid witness to Bartomeu disregarding the club’s motto ‘MÉS QUE UN CLUB’ with his handling of club legends Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi’s transfer situations in the summer. That could not have inspired the non-senior members of the squad with any confidence.
Adding to that, players like Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho, Junior Firpo, and Antoine Griezmann have had their names constantly attached to rumoured player plus cash deals, such as the Neymar offers, which can lead to them questioning if they are good enough. This is the sort of psychology you do not want around a club trying to compete.
When asked about whether a sports psychologist would benefit FC Barcelona back in December, Barça manager Ronald Koeman stated, “I don’t believe in psychologists and mental [issues]. If you play for Barca, pressure exists, you know that, and you have to overcome it”.
This answer shows the Dutchman’s ignorance of the importance of a player’s psychological state. Additionally, it also shows arrogance about the club and the stress that comes binding with it. Ignorance that is evident in the pictures of Lenglet, as he left the Camp Nou after Sunday’s match in tears, most likely due to a lack of support. The kind of lack of support that eventually leads to careers dissolving.
In the same press conference, Koeman stated that “this team has enough personality and experience” to get through bad moments. This “experience” is also susceptible to being psychologically overwhelmed, the dressing room at halftime at Anfield is evidence of this.
Whether it is Koeman or the next president’s manager, one will have to get a hold of this problem. Luckily for them, the blueprint of how much power the manager can have over this can be seen in the place Jordi Alba shed his tears.
The Jurgen Klopp effect
When Jurgen Klopp arrived in Liverpool, one of the first things he addressed was a change in psychology from the supporters. He wanted the fans to believe in the process, and in his first press conference, he enforced this by saying, “we need to feel the confidence and trust of the people”.
In ‘Believe Us’, Klopp speaks about the psychological state he found the players in when he first arrived. He claims that “The players were obviously listening to all the voices saying they are not good enough for the club or that I can’t wait to get rid of them.” A situation some Barca players find themselves in now, as mentioned earlier.
One of the German’s first instructions was for the players to pay no attention to comments outside of him and his coaching staff, a message that took longer than expected to resonate, as the team collapsed in the title race halfway through the next season.
Klopp explains that the collapse was down to the players not complying with this request. The German explained how the players were focused on people saying, “they don’t have a plan B for deep-defending sides, they can only play one way”. A criticism that Cúlers this season know too well.
Klopp emphasises the importance a strong mentality within games had on the Red’s fortunes and claims new players alone would not have been enough. This is a note worth taking for those looking at Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe to change Barcelona’s fortunes.
It took Klopp years to convince some players that they were good enough to play for a club as big as Liverpool. New players added to the quality of the squad but that psychological attitude to keep going for the full 90 minutes, no matter the score, is what led the club to their recent success. This was visible countless times over last season as well, as Pool continued to take hits at teams till the last minute till they eventually broke. Barcelona, too, have been on the receiving end of their incredible mentality.
Koeman might be right in that the players do not need a sports psychologist. However, Lenglet’s incident exhibits that the psychological state of his players is something that he must take control of and not ignore.
Next season has the potential to be an important one for Barcelona’s near future. With a new president at the helm and a potential new manager. The Catalan side needs to banish the psychological doubts leftover by Bartomeu’s reign and move forward as one unit.
The fans and players need to get behind the project put in place, as Jurgen Klopp puts it “when you agree on a common idea and work towards it together, you can create something special”.