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Is Ronald Koeman the right man for Barcelona?



Header Image by Dean Mouhtaropoulos via Getty Images

With nothing but the official announcement remaining, the current Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman will replace Quique Setién as the Barcelona manager. Is it the right choice?

Let’s face it. The seat in the dugout at the Camp Nou is not really a welcoming one right now. What was one of the most exciting – albeit challenging – job profile in the football world is suddenly looking like a daunting prospect. Whoever decides to take up that seat next, will have a plethora of hurdles to deal with: a divided club, a not-so-cohesive dressing room, an ageing squad, and a team that has lost its identity and credibility.

According to the latest reports it is merely a matter of time before Ronald Koeman takes up this job. A true Barcelona legend as a player, the Dutchman has always expressed his dream to manage this club. So what is he going to bring to this side?

“Everyone knows it’s my dream to coach Barça.”

Ronald Koeman in June

Koeman was one of those fortunate ones to play and learn under the tutelage of Johan Cruyff. Whilst that does not automatically qualify anyone for such a daunting job, Koeman’s accomplishments as a player at Barça were impeccable. His versatility on the pitch saw him play mostly as a central defender as well as a defensive midfielder. Meanwhile, his contributions with goals are also notable, his winner giving Barcelona their first European Cup title in 1992 and him being one of the top scoring defenders in world football and the best in this category for the Catalans.

Koeman’s journey as a football manager has been quite topsy turvy to say the least. Beginning as an assistant coach at Barça alongside Louis van Gaal, his first big job was with Ajax Amsterdam. He began with a domestic double in the 2001/02 season and retained the league in 2003. However, the team fell off its perch and was knocked out of the UEFA Cup, following which he resigned in 2005.

His stints with SL Benfica and PSV were average, yes; but he managed to take both these teams to the quarter-final stages of the Champions League, defeating quality sides like Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal etc. These were followed by a short term at Valencia, during which he won the Copa del Rey. The team’s overall under-performance and dressing room problems, though, got him sacked in six months. 

Ronald Koeman Barcelona the Netherlands

Managing Barça is different to any other team in the world | Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos via Getty Images

The next notable job was at the English club Southampton, whom he took to a solid seventh and sixth placed finish in the league in consecutive years. He also won a few Manager of the Month awards while at Southampton. This good run was then followed by a dampening year at Everton, where in spite of a spending spree in the transfer market, his team underperformed and he was sacked once again.

In 2018, he took up the reins of the Netherlands national team, which was quite out of shape, and took them to the finals of the Euros – and that too from a group that included France and Germany. The team was looking ahead to a strong performance in the Euros, when the pandemic struck and it was postponed to the next year.

If one were to go by his track record as a manager alone, it can be assumed that Koeman hasn’t exactly lit up the ground with the teams he has managed. But things are not always that simplistic. One could argue that the last successful coach at Barcelona, Luis Enrique – considering how they won a treble with him in 2015 – did not have a fantastic track record either, before he came to Barça. Pep Guardiola had only coached the B team before being appointed in 2008 and in spite of his success at Barca, he is yet to achieve European success since he left the club in 2012. 

The point being that track records can only help us so much in predicting what is going to happen. There are several factors at play when a new manager arrives at a club. And these factors and challenges are only compounded by the circumstances that we find at Barça right now. Can Koeman be the one to turn around their fortunes? He could certainly be. But the thing is, neither him, nor anyone else will be able to accomplish that on their own. He needs the full support from the board as well as the players in assuming charge of this recuperation.

“He’s a very smart boy and perfect for football. He’ll succeed, for sure. What’s hurting him is that he’s not playing in his natural position, like at Ajax.”

Ronald Koeman on Frenkie de Jong in April

It works in Koeman’s favour that he has placed his faith in youth in the teams he managed before. Barça does have a good crop of youth, and their integration into the squad is what the team direly needs. For example, Frenkie de Jong, who is touted as the lynchpin of the next generation of Barça midfielders, has already exhibited his creativity and flair for his national side, under Koeman.

If the latter can manage to replicate this and bring out the best from the likes of Ansu Fati, Riqui Puig, Carles Aleñá, Francisco Trincão, Álex Collado etc., as well, and integrate them with stalwarts like Lionel Messi, then he can lead this side to success. His teams also tend to blend positional play with verticality which may be the direction that Barcelona needs to go, now that even Pep has modified the system that he made famous whilst at Barça.

“The defects of Barça? I see two. One, intensity. Like it or not, today the top teams play at a very intense rhythm for the 90 minutes. Barça find it hard to maintain that. We saw it in the famous Liverpool game, but in the Spanish Super Cup against Atlético this year. Barca were superior for 80 minutes, they disconnected the last 10 and Atlético, fresher and more intense, won.”

Ronald Koeman in April

Back in April, Koeman had pointed out two areas Barça needs to work on: intensity and control. He added that with the world of football changing and gaining pace, it is necessary for the blaugranas or any team for that matter, to keep up their intensity throughout the game rather than switch it on and off. He also noted that Barcelona does not control and dominate the game as they once used to, and that they needed to do this by getting their identity back. Those issues if anything, have only compounded further, and it looks like he will be the man who is assigned to solve them.

“The other defect? They don’t dominate games like in previous years. In that aspect Barça have to get their identity back, that’s part of their DNA. They have always had control, but a more effective control”

Ronald Koeman

His familiarity with the Barça system and his experience with Ajax are definitely positive points. But beyond all that what will determine his success at Catalonia would be the respect he earns from his squad, and his man-management. The kind of career he had at the Camp Nou must ensure the former, as to the latter, we are going to have to wait and watch.

Article by Nassif Ali

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