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Is Ronald Koeman the right man for Barcelona?

Nassif Ali



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.

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In my thirty years filled with accidental decisions - that got me as far as a PhD in history - one deliberate constant has been football. I have been an avid fan of the beautiful game since the 1998 world cup. Back then, in India, following football meant reading about it rather than watching it. I owe much of my love of the game and passion for writing about it, to those fantastic sports journalists and writers who could recreate the excitement of the whole game in a few succinct words.



Barcelona vs Real Madrid: The Game through Numbers

Soumyajit Bose




A detailed look into the game by numbers, statistics, and tactics as FC Barcelona fell to defeat against Real Madrid in the first El Clasico of the season.

Following a high-flying victory against Ferencvaros in the opening game of the Champions League, FC Barcelona returned to action in La Liga against Real Madrid at Camp Nou. However, the game didn’t go as Ronald Koeman planned, and Barcelona stumbled to defeat in the first El Clasico of 2020-21. This followed a draw against Sevilla and a shock loss to Getafe and left Barcelona midtable 5 games into the season.

Team Structures

Ronald Koeman sprung in several surprises ahead of this fixture. Firstly, Jordi Alba returned from injury to play as left-back, while Sergi Roberto was omitted altogether for Sergiño Dest. Philippe Coutinho played as left-wing. 17-year old Pedri got to start the Classico as a reward for his performances but was fielded on the right-wing. Lionel Messi played as the no. 10 behind Ansu Fati as the striker.

Off the ball, Barcelona defended in a 4-4-2 with Messi and Fati staying and pressing up. From touch-based heatmaps, there are two interesting features.

Firstly, while Frenkie de Jong played in a relatively advanced role, he stayed quite wide. Sergio Busquets occupied the central channels. However, tasking his old legs to guard such a big zone resulted in recurring issues.

Secondly, Pedri is not a natural winger. He loves to play centrally. Having three natural CAMs in Pedri, Coutinho and Messi on-field and forcing two of them to play as wingers was never a good idea, to begin with. Pedri kept drifting inside, as shown in the heatmaps. Both Coutinho and Pedri were limited in their influence. Koeman’s overthinking and tinkering nullified both their strengths.

Real Madrid on the other hand set up in a skewed 4-3-3 as shown. Early injury to Nacho resulted in Lucas Vazquez coming on as the right back for the remainder of the game. Vinicius stayed high and wide, while Marco Asensio drifted in and out, often letting Federico Valverde occupy the wider channels.

Barcelona’s structure after the 81st minute deserves a special mention. Koeman made several offensive subs, bringing on Antoine Greizmann, Ousmane Dembele, Martin Braithwaite and Fransisco Trincáo into the game, in place of Pedri, Fati, Busquets and Alba. To top it all off, Coutinho was slotted as the only pivot in the side, instead of de Jong as the shape devolved into a bizarre 3-1-6.

Attacks and Buildups

This game had a clear moment after which the game changed – minute 62. Until then, Barcelona were evidently the better team starting to dominate a bit as well. Here are the stats from the entire game:

Barcelona were outshot, outscored, and had fewer shots on target – but a lot of that’s skewed from what happened minute 62 onwards. From the PPDA (Passes per Defensive Action) data, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, it’s evident that neither team went for a very high press. Here is the shot map and xG flow:

Minute 62 was when Clement Lenglet fouled by pulling Sergio Ramos’ shirt inside the penalty area while defending a corner. Ramos didn’t need a second invitation to exaggerate the pull. He fell theatrically to the ground, won a penalty, and Barcelona were chasing the game that moment onwards.

The first blood was drawn by Madrid after a moment of disastrous marking by Busquets allowed Federico Valverde to run into Barcelona’s box, unmarked, and smash home from Karim Benzema’s pass.

Thankfully, Barcelona did not take long to reply. A delightful ball over the top from Lionel Messi met Jordi Alba’s well-timed run, and Alba’s square pass was prodded home by Ansu Fati. Here is a little animation of the goal:

As mentioned earlier, Madrid’s second goal came from a penalty, scored by Ramos himself. And Luka Modric capitalized on some terrible defending to make it 3-1 in the 91st minute.


Neither team were truly impressive in passing. Here are the most dangerous passes by both teams:

Passes into the box were few by either team. Barcelona did manage to get into the box from central zone 14 or half-spaces, while Madrid clearly utilised their greatest strength – attacking from wide areas. It’s also shown in the key passes map:

However, in buildup, Madrid were far more expansive. They switched the play a lot as compared to Barcelona.

Comparing the passes completed in the final third by each team, quantified by field tilt – Barcelona completed a greater number of final-third passes. However, the field tilt, or final third territory gained, was being dominated by Madrid in the first half. Barcelona started the second half positively and dominated territory. However, they got scored against the run of play. After that, Madrid were happy to let Barcelona keep possession and attacked the team on the counter.

Defence and Pressing

Both teams exhibited some terrible defending in the first half, to say the very least. Both goals were conceded from such cases.

As mentioned before, there were huge gaps in the midfield, and too much space between the midfield and defence; i.e. poor covering by Busquets and de Jong. Madrid made the best use of this for their first goal, and repeated it several times as the clock ticked ahead.

In the first image, it is evident that too many Barcelona players got sucked in trying to press the Madrid defence, resulting in a huge void in the midfield. Madrid play out of the press with ridiculous ease.

In the second image, the gap between Dest and Pique is appalling. Both centre-backs are engulfed towards Benzema for some reason, and Busquets completely loses track of Valverde’s run. One simple through ball and the job is done.

Almost immediately after that, Vinicius almost scored a second. Quick combination with Benzema in the box, while Busquets is seen jogging outside the box, there is a huge space to attack. Thankfully, Vinicius’ poor decision making and first touch allow Alba to throw him off.

The next example, again in the first half, shows terrible spacing between defenders, and terrible tracking from Busquets. A simple ball behind Dest, who is in isolation with the rest of the backline meets a well-timed run that Busquets can’t keep up with.

The next two examples are from the second half:

In the first one, the “pivot” Coutinho loses track of Toni Kroos’ run. Kroos runs onto Vazquez’s cutback to take a shot that Neto saves marvellously, and denies the German again pouncing perfectly on the rebounded shot.

The second image shows the moment when Vazquez lobs a ball into Ramos’ path, who is completely unmarked on the far post. Thankfully, Neto comes to Barça’s rescue saving the Madrid’s captain volley with his foot.

Madrid didn’t cover themselves in glory either, especially in the first half. Barcelona’s only goal of the game came as a result of terrible tracking from Nacho as Alba found space behind him. There were giveaways in midfield that led to multiple chances as well.

Most notably, Fati’s lofted ball into the path of an unmarked Messi, who eviscerated Ramos with a quick dribble but shot straight into the hands of Thibaut Courtois at the near post. However, they weren’t as often as Barcelona’s, and in general, resulted in lower quality chances.

As mentioned before, neither team went all out to the press. Barcelona’s pressing structure was so poor that Madrid played through it without trouble. They could even manage elaborate buildups, with two examples shown below:


Shambolic would be the right word to define Barcelona’s defending in the game. The lack of speed and the alertness to track runners was exposed yet again. The card-happy centre-backs came to haunt Barcelona again, as Lenglet gave away a poor penalty.

Busquets, on the other hand, looks far from being a starter and should be replaced as soon as possible. And if he somehow manages to retain his spot in the lineup, the midfield structure needs to be fixed so that he doesn’t get tasked with defending such a wide area.

The substitutions and Koeman’s game management made little to no sense. As seen in the Getafe game, in more cases than not, more forwards does not equate to more goals. The midfield was non-existent in the last 10 minutes, and Los Blancos made the best use of this as they scored the third where Luka Modric made the Barcelona defence dance.


The game was pretty even for nearly one hour, with neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid standing out as the better team. Post that, however, the scoreline spoke for itself.

Sergiño Dest made a solid claim for starting as right back in the coming games. He was outstanding in defence and quite courageous and innovative in the offence, with some neat dribbles. Fati kept his goalscoring form alive, becoming the youngest ever scorer in an El Clasico. Neto ended the game as arguably the best player on the pitch, but that is more bad news than good for the Garnet and the Blue.

However, there are defensive, structural, tactical, and personnel problems to be ironed out by Koeman in the future, especially if he wants to retain his job after a change of presidency. Otherwise, this could turn out to be a worse season the previous one for La Liga.

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