Exactly one year today, FC Barcelona presented Ronald Koeman as their manager. The Dutch coach would sign a two-year deal, marking the start of this brand new chapter of his coaching career in one of the darkest times for the Catalan club.
The Blaugrana were fresh from their heaviest defeat, domestic or continental, in over 80 years. Adding insult to injury, club captain Lionel Messi expressed his immense desire to leave the club for its lack of competitiveness and the lacklustre management from the previous board.
Many chapters would unfold in his tenure as coach, with a season of unprecedented highs and lows. Come the end of his first year in charge, he easily became one of the most polarising figures within the Barça fanbase.
In this article, Barça Universal explores the highs and lows of the ex-Oranje manager’s tenure at Barcelona, as he celebrates his one year anniversary as head coach.
A ‘record-breaking’ start to the season
Upon his arrival, expectations were as low as they had ever been in Barcelona. Trounced by Bayern Munich in the Champions League and helplessly losing La Liga to arch-rivals Real Madrid was one thing, but coming to the absolute shambles that was the club was another in itself.
Koeman had a very short and almost negligible preseason, barely having enough time to understand the dynamics of his team. Naturally, the knock-on effect this had was a record-breaking start to the season, and for all the wrong reasons.
Within just a few months, the Catalans had won their fewest points ever in more than 30 years. With a meagre fourteen from their opening ten matches, Barcelona had recorded their worst start to a La Liga season since the 1987-88 campaign.
Losses to Real Madrid themselves, Atlético, Cádiz and Getafe meant that Barcelona were a whopping twelve points behind leaders Real Sociedad, albeit with two games in hand. Their position was so dire, in fact, that the Blaugrana had more points in five Champions League matches (15) than they did in double the domestic league games (14).
To make matters worse, Barça then went on to lose that sixth game against Juventus, taking their already ludicrously low confidence levels to uncharted depths. All this coincided with Messi’s disastrous lack of form, as his scoring rate went to the lowest it had ever been in his 17-year long career.
Koeman simply could not get anything in the team to function, and unlike with the past two managers, even Messi couldn’t bail them out or paper over the cracks when the team failed to perform.
The Dutchman could rightfully be blamed for being far too clueless in his approach. The lack of a preseason did him a number, but his own tactical ineptitude and poor game management were the real daggers in his team’s heart.
Koeman did not want to follow the set script that was imposed on him by previous managers and the club’s history either. He had his own vision, with a 4-2-3-1, but it fell completely flat with little understanding of his team. The vast majority of his players had been raised for decades under the same system, and a deviation from this resulted in loads of unnecessary and nimbly avoidable levels of confusion.
Juxtapose onto this his horrid in-game management, and you have one of the worst and least adaptable versions of the club that has ever been.
The ex-Oranje manager seldom made tactical substitutions, and even when he did, the team ended the game far better off without them than with them. In the Clásico, for instance, Barça ended the match with six forwards, three centre-backs, and a lone midfielder somehow meant to conjure up equanimity amidst the imbalance. This theme was a motif in his tenure; one few, but he understood.
Koeman often used the random defensive mishaps the team would succumb to as a scapegoat for his individual poor management, but at the root of every consequence is a cause. If a mistake happens regularly, then that is not the footballer but his manager to be blamed.
If the positioning of the players upfield was so flawed that Clement Lenglet would have to make a rash decision and concede a penalty, then it is on Koeman to explain exactly why that was the case. He never did, and when he did, it wasn’t his fault.
By November, the garnet and blue were a faceless entirety. The only thing they could accurately stand out for was how much a brewing mess they were as a collective
A moment of bliss
Going by Pep Guardiola’s words, leagues are lost in the first eight games, and Barça lost theirs far too early into the campaign. By the time the Garnet and Blue got to the halfway point of the season, Atleti had run away with it, sitting eleven points above them.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and now more than ever, Koeman needed to show whatever ingenuity he had in him. Despite all the doubts, he did. The Dutchman’s previous tactical ineptitude was gradually supplanted by some long-awaited and equally unprecedented aptitude.
He experimented, and with great success, the three at the back formation against Real Valladolid. Granted, this was far from the most daunting of opponents, signs of growth were clear as day to even the most untrained eye.
Barça experienced genuine progress all through December until mid-January, then reality hit in yet another dark period for the team.
Koeman has a clear and obvious preference for using fullbacks to offer width in place of wingers, whose natural role is to provide the same. This is a well-known risk, one he took in the least calculated ways possible.
Against Athletic Club, Barcelona were superior to their Basque counterparts for the vast majority of the match, but their inability to adequately defend their flanks left them blatantly exposed to Los Leones’ attacks.
Koeman would get some respite as he got his sweet revenge on Athletic and trounced Deportivo Alaves, but he was again brutalised by Paris Saint Germain in the UEFA Champions League.
Through the same error in judgment, Koeman could not form an adequate system to defend the wider areas or recover the ball infield. PSG was the worst possible opponent to have such frailties against. The swashbuckling football of Kylian Mbappé did a number on Koeman’s side, as the 22-year-old scored the first hat trick against the Blaugrana since Emmanuel Boateng’s stunner in 2018.
That thumping defeat left Barcelona in a position from which they could only go up. Koeman pulled the rabbit out of his hat and came up with a tactical revolution in his style of play that shocked absolutely everyone. Its roots were in that almost negligible victory against Valladolid: the 3-5-2.
Barcelona went on the very daunting away trip to Sevilla, who had fairly recently beaten them by two goals to nil. It was there that Koeman unlocked a part of the team that had not been seen since the Luis Enriqué era.
For the better part of two months, The Dutch manager was as close as he had ever been to perfecting positional play as he ever had in his tenure as Barça coach. The three pillars of Johan Cruyff’s football, these being intense pressing, passing and positioning, were respected to the nth degree.
Barcelona tactically outclassed all that dared cross their path, and all acknowledgement for this success was reserved for Koeman, who engineered an almost perfect team. Against Paris in the return leg, if not for the predictably inadequate finishing of Ousmane Dembélé, the Catalans easily could have recorded their second ‘remontada‘ against their foes in blue and red. Such was the team’s drive, superiority and ambition that PSG could do nothing, tactically or individually, to stop them.
Such a level of football led to the Catalans being crowned Copa del Rey winners for the 31st time in their history. As the advertising by the club would suggest, this was truly the start of a new era.
In terms of sheer performance, the crème de la crème came against Real Sociedad in Anoeta. There were doubts here and there in regards to Barça’s chances to win, but nothing could stop them from annihilating their opponents.
With two goals in the opening half, the Garnet and Blue, this time dressed in sleek black and gold, hit four past La Real in the second period, ending the night with a six one victory. That was the first time since the 8-2 win over Huesca that Barcelona scored more than five in a match, and shockingly enough, it could have been worse for the hosts had it not been for usual problems in finishing.
By the time the referee blew the full-time whistle, Koeman was well within his rights to feel a sense of accomplishment. If by the end of December Barça were ten points behind Atletico de Madrid, then come the international break, they were a mere four behind. A La Liga title charge, which by then seemed unfathomable, now became a reality.
For once in quite a while, the Garnet and Blue were a force to be reckoned with. Their football was enthralling, effective, and Culés finally got in touch with a part of their team they thought to be lost with Enriqué. As is entrenched in their values, Barcelona could finally boast of having some of the best football in Europe.
Koeman finally had his day in the sun, however, this was just but a moment of bliss before the storm set in.
A steep fall into the depths of hell
Owing to the team’s football, a mere fortnight was too much to bear. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it only grew impatient with the sheer amount of time it took the team to get back onto the field of play.
The return did anything to appease supporters, as Barça played out a hard-fought 1-0 victory over a tightly knit and tactically organized Real Valladolid side. The excuse given by supporters to defend this deplorable performance was that the team lost some of its chemistry due to time spent apart, which may or may not have been true, but Koeman had no time to waste; the Clásico was just around the corner.
Offered a chance at retribution, the Catalans failed. Granted, the overall performance was comparatively better than that displayed in the 1-3 thrashing in the Camp Nou, the defeat left a sour taste in the mouths of fans. This was the beginning of a bitter end for the Blaugrana.
The same issues that so painfully marked Koeman’s first ten matches for Barcelona reared their faces in the final 10 fixtures, this time with just two points more to show for.
Despite their superiority, the club dropped points against Levante, Granada, Celta de Vigo and Atletico de Madrid. Far too little the team did made even less sense during these matches. Barça became overly conservative in random phases of play, leading to laxity in defence when they should have been pressing, which in turn was severely punished by the sheer clinicality of their rivals.
Barcelona went back to their desperate selves from the first ten matches of the season in the final ten games of the league campaign. They were a disoriented and faceless style with little of a tactical blueprint that they could claim to have followed.
It was not positional play, and neither was it Catenaccio; it was neither here nor there, but whatever Koeman decided they would do on the day, or worse, given the team’s inferiority, whatever his opponents made him play.
Barcelona conceded 25 shots on target in the eight matches following the victory over Los Pucelanos, and from these, they conceded 14 goals. A conversation rate of more than 50% is far from normal over such a period, but as Koeman said, they conceded almost every shot they faced.
Rather than take this as an opportunity for introspection, blame was on the team’s goal concession and not on why these chances were conceded in the first place.
While Barça had played worse during the start of the season, this was perhaps their worst moment. Koeman knew his team perfectly, they played their best football in at least four years and yet despite this, they looked lost and utterly helpless. The brand displayed on the ultimate Matchday of the campaign was reminiscent of Ernesto Valverde’s own deplorable football, as only Antoine Griezmann could save his blushes against a relegated Eibar.
Ronald Koeman’s first year in charge of Barcelona was one of lows, highs, and lows deeper than he perhaps ever could have fathomed. His start, while unacceptable, was nevertheless understandable given the context.
The rise he experienced was always to be expected, but the fall at the end was utterly unjustifiable given the sheer resources he had to learn from past errors. His (over)confidence cost his reputation, the league title, and a good chunk of the trust people had bestowed upon him.
This season he has lost his biggest offensive asset, but in turn, gained a chance to right the wrongs of yesteryear with a new squad. Will he rise to the challenge, or like he did more than once last season, fall apart when the team needs his leadership the most?