If one were to talk of turnarounds, Ronald Koeman’s term at Barcelona would be a good starting point. The progression of the season has been unique in its own fashion.
In terms of pure performance, the season started in the most inconsistent way possible. Every now and then, the side came up with a powerful display that rattled the world. The first game against Juventus was the peak of the same, showing that there is some real potential in the dressing room of Barcelona. However, each of these stellar showings was followed by the lowest of lows. Equally frequently, the Catalans put up toothless performances that offered barely any competition. Pundits across the globe have brought up the point of inconsistency dozens of times.
But lo and behold! Look at what Barcelona are now, and the change is absolutely unbelievable. Consistency stands out as it has never shone before. Confidence exudes from every player In abundance. The Blaugranas have transformed into a machine that can detonate any opposition at their doorstep. Moreover, the side has now gone nine away games without dropping a point!
If Ronald Koeman has gone from a villain to one of the most loved coaches by the fanbase, he has surely done something right. Something right with hbis decisions, and his approach to games. And that is exactly what sets the Dutchman apart from his predecessors — his ability to learn from mistakes.
The largely forgettable 4-2-3-1
Oh, that 4-2-3-1, that dreaded formation that never seemed to go away. Though it was the idea that the Dutchman first arrived at the Caml Nou with, the games made it clear that it was not made for Barcelona.
While it not only clipped off the freedom from the veterans by placing them on foreign grounds, it had problems at much more elementary grounds. In a highly technical and organised league like La Liga, the formation just was not right. It made the side toothless against low blocks. Moreover, Barcelona did not have the players to fit into the winger’s profile, nor did they have a central striker of the required pedigree.
The differentiating factor
Barcelona has often favoured coaches with little to no experience in hand. On some occasions, the aforementioned gamble has reaped the rewards in diamonds. However, in some cases, such personalities never settle in and ultimately end up crushed under pressure. Many times, it is the stubbornness, close-minded approach and lack of flexibility that is their undoing.
When Ronald Koeman arrived, he arrived with the club legend tag. The quality on one’s resume possibly provides them a few months more to prove themselves at the club they once graced. His personality gelled with the dressing room like none other, and the players were behind him right from the get-go. Something Quique Setien failed to achieve in his entire tenure!
Setien was not a man who was radically different from Koeman in the fact that both were extremely rigid as to their philosophy. However, it was this close-mindedness that saw the end of Setien. While the former boss was meant to bring colour back into Barcelona’s football, he barely succeeded.
However, it is not something new with managers of the Catalan club. One reminisces the end of Luis Enrique’s tenure, just a season after his treble win. The now Spanish national team coach was constantly criticized for mismanagement of his resources. He prioritized the UCL and single-handedly conceded the league in a season where Barcelona’s midfield was visibly declining. Though his mistakes were brought up several times, even by media outlets, his reluctance to be open saw the end of him.
Ernesto Valverde did not have a very different fate either. After giving up healthy leads in two successive seasons, the manager just couldn’t accept his flaws. He continued to field a side filled with veteran players, totally ignoring the value of the youth who had impressed. And it was the veterans’ psychological incompetence at that time which showed him the door.
The Dutchman was initially reluctant to change. His press conferences oozed overconfidence in a system that clearly didn’t work. Matchday substitutions did not make sense. Barcelona was so unpredictable, one wouldn’t put their money on either side.
Over time, however, Koeman started being more flexible. His gradual shift back to a 4-3-3 brought back life into a seemingly dead side. Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and many others were suddenly revitalized. Frenkie de Jong began running the show like never before.
Most importantly, the coach also undid his mistake of going for the big names by default. Koeman must be applauded for his faith in youth, and they have not let him down. By trusting Pedri, Oscar Mingueza, Ronald Araujo, and Ilaix Moriba more recently, the manager did away with players like Samuel Umtiti, Phillipe Coutinho, and Pjanic, who one would have thought would be up the pecking order.
Koeman did not stop there either. His growth as a manager is worthy of a book in itself. As he progressed down his path, he stumbled across a novel idea of a 3-5-2/3-4-3. It was an approach that demanded three centrebacks from a side that was already short-staffed at the position. However, it was the only gamble that could surprise Sevilla. And oh boy, it changed Barcelona’s fortunes for the season.
One week later, Barcelona had destroyed Sevilla’s entire season. Both in the league and the cup, the Catalans were unstoppable. They made the long trip to Paris to give the French side a heart attack by playing some of the best football they have this season. Most recently, a 6-1 demolition of Real Sociedad attests to the fact that none of those is luck. This is football, this is Barcelona. And this is now Koeman-ball. And oh my, isn’t it beautiful.
Copa Del Rey final: Forgetting El Clasico, Supercopa Final and more
What seemed very unlikely at one stage in Barcelona’s season is now just one game away from a trophy. Saturday sees Ronald Koeman’s men contest this season’s Copa del Rey final against a familiar foe in Marcelino and his Athletic Club side at the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville, the scene of the Athletics’ manager’s most recent cup final triumph over the Catalan side.
The pair met in the Supercopa de España final back in January, with Athletic Club coming away from the tie as 3-2 winners after extra time. The defeat was a demoralising moment for Barça, as the Catalan side were just a minute away from victory until Asier Villalibre equalised.
Going into the final, Barcelona find themselves in another disheartening moment of the season after coming up short to bitter rivals Real Madrid in a 2-1 defeat in El Clasico, a result that could prove crucial in this season’s title race.
The potential of the season collapsing looms over the Catalan side, with doubt creeping into some of the players’ minds, with Jordi Alba being the first to express it.
Marcelino could not have asked for a better result to face Barcelona off the back of, as the Spaniard has a history of punishing dejected Barça sides. For Koeman’s men, the Clasico result must be swept aside because the manager in opposition dugout on Saturday provides a subtle reminder of what can happen if they fail to do so, the 18/19 season.
Forgetting El Clasico
“I don’t know, eh,” Jordi Alba’s words to Gerard Pique after Barcelona’s defeat to Real Madrid are simple, but those that know the place they are coming from know that they have the weight of fear and trauma behind them.
The conversation between the pair started with Pique stating “Relax, we will win [the cup final]” with the fullback replying “I don’t know, eh.” Unable to hear the centre back responds with “What?” before Barça’s fullback states again, “I don’t know [if we will win it].”
Alba’s doubt most likely casts back to the defeat in the Supercopa final, but in those words, “I don’t know” are the results of Anfield, the Valencia cup final, Bayern Munich and all the other setbacks the club have experienced in the last few seasons.
The 32-year-old knows the importance of El Clasico and the knock-on effect defeat can have in the weeks after, especially considering the importance of the latest chapter of the fixture.
Ronald Koeman cannot allow this psychological doubt to creep back into his team after doing phenomenally well to banish it over the last four months. There are positives to take from the weekend’s events, and it is here where the Dutchman can start to reaffirm the confidence shown throughout the Blaugranas’ 19 games unbeaten run.
Although the defeat was a setback in Barcelona’s pursuit of La Liga, focussing on the game itself, the difference between the sides was not that great.
It was a classic tale of two halves, with Real dominating the first with their counter attacks and Barça the second with their high positioning and possession. Koeman should find solace in the second-half performance, as his team came within the width of the crossbar of rescuing a point despite the added battle of monsoon-like conditions.
The match was somewhat ideal preparation for the final, as Athletic Club are also fantastic in transitions and are specifically very effective on both flanks of the pitch, areas of space that were exploited by Real. However, they are themselves in a sour spot, having already lost the Copa del Rey final 2020, against Real Sociedad, which was played no more than 2 weeks back.
Koeman will need to address this throughout the week, and it would not be a surprise if the Dutchman opted for four at the back for the cup final.
Another positive for Koeman is the timing of this cup final, as a result on each side of the coin could have an enormous effect on Barça’s season. Although defeat has the potential to ruin the Catalan sides season, there is no better way to bounce back from a defeat to Real Madrid than lifting a trophy, and it could be a springboard towards doing the double.
The problem for Koeman with addressing the doubts of Alba and others is not only the uncertainty left by the Clasico but the final of the Supercopa de España as well.
Expelling the Memories of the Supercopa Final
January seems a lifetime ago in terms of how Ronald Koeman’s team has developed over the months since. The formation has changed, Barcelona started winning big games, and a winning mentality has been firmly instilled in the squad. The Catalan club as a whole are moving in the right direction, and winning a trophy will somewhat symbolise this.
The Copa del Rey final will be the fourth time this season Barca have faced Athletic Club, winning two out of the three previous meetings.
Despite this, it is that single loss that has the potential to cause problems in the minds of the players on Saturday. The final of the Supercopa de España was the match that got away and reminded everyone in the squad of the embarrassing moments the club has experienced over the last three seasons.
Barça were one minute away from securing their first trophy since lifting La Liga in May 2019 until Asier Villalibre equalised to take the final to extra time. Iñaki William put Athletic Club’s name on the trophy with a wonderful strike leaving Koeman’s men dejected.
Jordi Alba’s doubts regarding this season’s Copa del Rey final most likely stems from this game, and if the full-back is thinking this way, there could be others as well.
Going into the final, Koeman must focus on the two wins the Catalan side have had over Marcelino’s men. The last time the sides met, Barcelona won the match 2-1 at the Camp Nou and performed brilliantly with the scoreline flattering the Basque side. Barca exploited Athletic Club on the wings and created multiple chances to score goals, with the winner coming from an Oscar Mingueza cross down the right.
Koeman can also turn to Athletic Club’s form for inspiration, with the Basque side winning only 4 of their last 14 matches. Within this run was a defeat in last years edition of the Copa del Rey final, in which Marcelino’s side lost to local rivals Real Sociedad 1-0.
At present, Barcelona are a much better side than Athletic Club. Form, head-to-head meetings, and the quality of players all fall in the favour of the Catalan side but having mentioned all this doubt, and how Koeman can address it, the fact is that there might still be some thanks to a recent encounter with the Basque side’s manager Marcelino.
The Ghost of the 2019 Final
In the 18/19 season, a Lionel Messi inspired Barca side were charging towards an unexpected treble at the start of May. With the league already wrapped up, two fixtures stood out within the final month of the season, a trip to Liverpool and the Copa del Rey final.
On the 7th of May, the infamous night at Anfield occurred, where Barcelona let a 3-0 lead from the first leg slip and failed to reach the Champions League final. The experience was confidence shattering and was not ideal with the cup final around the corner.
The 2019 Copa del Rey final was contested between Barcelona, and a Marcelino led Valencia. The Southeastern outfit won the tie 2-1 thanks to two first-half goals from Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo. As a stand only fixture, there is nothing special about this tie. However, the significance of this final to current events lies in the weeks that lead up to the final.
In the 17 days between Anfield and Andalucía, that one match would consistently nag away at the Barca players. Gerard Pique recently called that night the worst defeat of his career and previously stated that he believed that if they won that night, they would have claimed the Copa del Rey as well.
Fast forward to now, and the similarities are present. Barça go into a cup final against a Marcelino led side after a disheartening defeat in an important El Clasico.
Luckily for Ronald Koeman, things are much different. The Dutchman’s team is certainly a better one who have been in fantastic form of late, the defeat in El Clasico did not end Barca’s hopes of winning La Liga, and despite Jordi Alba’s doubts, the player’s confidence will not have taken the same level of a confidence hit the Anfield defeat brought.
However, it is still a memory that remains and Marcelino will only remind them of that.
The 2021 Copa del Rey final is nicely poised for fans of Spanish football. For Barca fans, it will ultimately show whether this team has overcome their psychological traumas of the past. The signs in the previous rounds seem to suggest that they have, but with Barcelona, you never know.