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Puig, Pjanic, and past problems: Ronald Koeman’s rigidity will be Barcelona’s undoing

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Photo via Imago

“I would have liked [Ronald] Koeman to tell me to my face, you’re not for me. Face-to-face didn’t exist and I don’t understand it. It’s complicated because it is the first time that it has happened to me and I have seen such behavior.” 

Following his loan move to Besiktas, Miralem Pjanic spoke out against Koeman and his relationship with the manager while at Barcelona. The news was eye-opening yet expected and added to the laundry list of fractured relationships the Dutchman has had with various players throughout his managerial career. Riqui Puig, Matheus Fernandes, and plenty of examples from past-managed clubs all come to mind. 

We all know what a teacher’s pet is – someone who is incredibly loved and favoured regardless of whether they deserve it or not. It’s common everywhere, from schools to the workplace. But, what about the opposite? How often have we heard about cases where people aren’t given chances regardless of how much they would deserve it? 

In the following article, Barça Universal will explore Koeman’s rigidity regarding particular players and how that negatively affects on-the-pitch results. Rather than be a subjective critique on Koeman’s character, this will examine past and present examples and come to a conclusion on how all parties can move forward positively. 


While Miralem Pjanic and Riqui Puig immediately come to mind, there are similar cases found in Koeman’s past teams. 

In 2007-2008, Koeman was the manager of Spanish side Valencia. Although he led them to the Copa del Rey title, the club hovered near the relegation zone for much of the campaign.

That season, he had an infamous conflict with Joaquin, wherein the two would consistently clash, resulting in the Spanish midfielder being pushed out of the starting eleven – and the squad as a whole. To this day, Joaquin has the following to say about their relationship, “I wouldn’t appoint Koeman as kitman!”

Koeman has burnt a lot of bridges in the past. (Photo via Imago)

Former-Everton striker Oumar Niasse has also come out in opposition to Koeman, as the striker was reportedly mistreated in 2016-17. 

Flashforward to Barcelona in 2021, and the same issues persist. 

In the Catalan capital, the most damning example is Riqui Puig, the starlet who impressed Culés in 2019-20 with his energy, line-breaking passes, and ability to create “something out of nothing.” After an impressive (half) season, even starting key La Liga matches down the stretch, he quickly fell out of favour with Koeman, for reasons still entirely unknown. 

Throughout the 2020-21 season, Puig totalled 598 minutes, only seven more than Ansu Fati, who missed nearly seven months due to injury. Additionally, the Spaniard would not feature in games where the team desperately needed a bolt of energy or if midfielders were underperforming and clearly gassed. 

This season, Riqui had an impressive pre-season, but that failed to muster any support as he’s played zero minutes this campaign. His situation doesn’t look like changing any time soon. In fact, Puig now looks to be behind the pecking order of not only Frenkie De Jong, Pedri, and Sergio Busquets, but Sergi Roberto, Nico Gonzalez, and the 17-year old Gavi too.

As fans cry out for his inclusion, Puig often finds himself on the bench. (Photo via Imago)

Puig is not starter quality yet but has so much more to offer the team. More importantly, the reasons for not playing him remain curiously unclear. If he was clearly a level below Barcelona’s standards or completely disrupted the team every time he played, then there would be no issue at hand. 

Similarly, Miralem Pjanic ran into the same problems. The Bosnian midfielder arrived in the summer of 2020 in an admittedly strange swap deal with Arthur Melo, but he was still expected to be a key squad member, whether off the bench or as a rotation piece. His first few starts with the Blaugrana were sub-par, although not enough to be completely kicked out of the picture. 

In the 2020/21 season, Pjanic totalled 1302 minutes, 30 total matches played, and an average of 43 minutes per game – less than half a game. Once again, his performances were never out-of-this-world, just not egregious enough to not deserve more playing time.

And how can we forget Francisco Trincao, who was (and is) an admittedly raw, unpolished talent. After a promising run of games in February, the Portuguese winger stumbled and rarely saw the pitch again. 

However, for a team lacking wingers, the Portuguese probably should have made more appearances.

Trincao could have done a lot of damage when given a clear run in the team. (Photo via Imago)

Speaking of talented young wingers, Alex Collado has found himself in the same situation. The ex-Barca B captain was set to be promoted to the first team for this season, but he was left out of the official squad registration and not given chances to prove himself. 

Elsewhere, Matheus Fernandes comes to mind. The Brazilian was another perplexing transfer, only featuring once (for 18 minutes), where he, in fact, was quite decent.

Upon leaving the club a few months ago, more information was revealed about his relationship with Koeman. Fernandes said, “I think Koeman has some personal problem against me.”

He added, “A month after my debut against Dynamo and not having played after, I went to Koeman’s office and asked ‘Did I play badly?’. He replied: ‘No, you played well, but I can’t give you chances. I don’t count on you. You don’t have the quality to play for Barça.”

Still, Koeman is not entirely to blame for this fractured relationship, as the club as a whole failed to introduce, integrate, or utilize Fernandes properly.

Much ado about nothing? 

When examining this potential issue, it’s also important to address the most compelling counter-argument: namely, that no manager – or person – gets along with everyone.

A common example comes in the form of Pep Guardiola and his notorious differences with Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Yaya Toure. That prompts the question, “If one of the greatest managers of all time has some fractured player relationships, why can’t Koeman?”

Managers and players fall out all the time, don’t they? (Photo via Imago)

While a solid point, the difference comes in the sheer number of cases and the fact that Guardiola’s teams could still function at an elite level without those players. With Koeman, utilizing more of Puig, Pjanic, and Trincao would have benefitted the team in the long run, as Barcelona’s squad is relatively thin and, frankly, lacks quality. 

Additionally, the problem is that the reasons for these players’ lack of playing time is shrouded in mystery. If not for lack of skill, effort, or talent, what is it? As this question will realistically never be answered, one can only hope for less rigidity because its repercussions are drastic.

A dangerous habit

Why is this such a problem? The answer, as briefly mentioned, is that this sheer reluctance to play certain players will negatively impact performances on the pitch. 

In terms of Puig, the 22-year old could have been a crucial spark off the bench or against low-block opposition where his creativity could be maximized and risk-taking minimized. This was especially the case during the end of the when Pedri looked evidently overworked.

For Pjanic, he could have featured more as an interior or as a central defensive midfielder in the 3-5-2. With more defensive cover, the Bosnian could have thrived, picking out long balls and controlling the pace and tempo of the game. 

One of the best midfielders of the past decade, Pjanic was sidelined like yesterday’s trash. (Photo via Imago)

Sergio Busquets benefitted due to the same reasons in the same formation, with minimal defensive duties, and it’s only fair to assume that the Bosnian could have, as well.

Last season, Trincao should have been given more time and patience to grow, while Collado potentially going from Barca B captain to without a club is a travesty, to say the least. 

These issues — both rigidity and miscommunication — can also stagnate player progression. Unclear squad roles and on-and-off-again appearances prevent players from gaining meaningful experience and the chance to improve consistently. However, at a club like Barcelona, patience admittedly runs thin. If one fails to impress in their first showing, a second chance rarely comes, but that is far from a justification.

In the bigger picture, this coincides with Koeman’s shortcomings in terms of rotation, wherein a select group of players are relied on week-in and week-out, culminating in a lack of focus throughout a 90-minute match or burnout at the end of the season. To add, this dangerous habit prevents the development of a sustainable and healthy team structure.

Moving Forward

The truth is, in addition to all the players explored in this piece, names like Luis Suarez and Junior Firpo come to mind too. Reports state that even President Laporta stepped in and asked for more minutes for Puig and often-sidelined Samuel Umtiti.

At this point, the evidence is overwhelming, and hopefully, Koeman can mend current and future relationships in order to bolster the squad as a whole and improve the team’s on-the-pitch results. 

All that culés ask is that (all) players are given ample time and sufficient opportunities to prove themselves. Then, let the performances take us from there.

Throughout my life of constant change, one thing has never faltered: my love for FC Barcelona. Whether through watching every game, listening to pundits, or playing FIFA and Football Manager, I've always wanted an outlet to express my passion for the team. Barça Universal gives me the perfect opportunity to do so, as I can combine my love of writing with my love of Barça and the sport.

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  1. krishna Ramachandran

    09/09/2021 at 16:56

    Not only Pep even Mourinho had problems with players. Man city LB Angelino said nasty things about Pep recently. Players that don’t play invariably are angry with the coach. Jorginho’s comments on Frank Lampard is a case in point.
    Puig, i am not sure is a player he is made out to be. He didn’t have a great pre-season and just happened to score a beautiful goal. As a mid fielder, he did not showcase any skill that made him stand out. Gavi impressed more in certain games and Nico is a DM who could replace.

    • Seehle

      09/09/2021 at 19:49

      Every Koeman apologist will bring up Pep as an argument, forgetting that Pep has receipts, he’s got trophies and is responsible for creating some of the greatest teams in the history of football, what does Koeman have? He’s got so many issues, no in-game tactics, no structure, he panics, his subs are horrible, he’s the last person who should be beefing with 22yr old kids.

  2. Guy

    09/09/2021 at 17:44

    Valid points made. And I don’t think anyone can argue with such a well said closing statement.

    Koeman leaving a trail of greatly distraught and unhappy players in every team he coaches is well beyond the average “players are unhappy because they didn’t play”, especially if you’ve ever read what the player Joaquín has had to say. Koeman must surely be doing something wrong. And If he won’t change, I personally can’t wait to see the back of him. He’ll have to leave. He’s so far not proven to be that great a coach.

    And to those who say “Riqui is all hype”. Please just don’t. That opinion has no legs and it it did, what about all the other players?

  3. Desanti

    09/09/2021 at 21:17

    Koeman has weak understanding about football, alot of teams wish to have players like Puig, Pjanic umitti and callado. To me he has hatred on these players, u can’t pic pedri, gavi , moriba a head of Pjanic and Puig .Umitti is far better than lenglet everyone in this world knows that but koeman favourism is ruining and killing talent at Barcelona. Koeman out out out pep has only problems with few of his players , one is Ztalan was alonely striker which pep didn’t want in his system of 433 formation. Yaya was given two conditions
    One is Sergio busquests raising
    Two is he was told to play in central defend which he didn’t want at Barcelona.
    Etoo is third on the list, pep had doubts at Etoo at first but Etoo was given a chance he proved himself as a starter in Barcelona untill he was sold by the president without Pep’s knowledge. But koeman just hate players without giving clear reasons for not playing them in matches .

  4. Emmanuel S. Rabo

    10/09/2021 at 09:06

    It’s good that such revelations are being made by maltreated players. We that watch FCB matches know that Koeman is not fit to manage a good club-except if it is to manage the death of players.

    However, Koeman, Satien and Vervede are all the tragedies that befell FCB with the reign of Josep Bartomeu as FCB President. Unless Koeman is sent packing, FCB is going nowhere in Spain, much less Europe.

  5. Steve johnson

    10/09/2021 at 13:20

    Manager and player bust ups have occured in the past and will occur in the future and to some extend are anavoidable. Umtiti has not realy played much since 17/18 season, so before Koeman arrived. Then it is doubtful anyone would choose Pjanic in the place of Pedri, De Jong or Busquets so one would guess he play 2nd fidle. Taking into account the contribution to the team/ performance to value/salary ratio of the players it does seem that Koeman is not wrong on how he is treating them, basically he just wishes umtiti and pjanic were not there and would not “occupy” the 2 x 200,000+ per week salary or that somehow they could be sold off. As for Puig, like Trincao and others, if we take the 2005 to 2016 period as a guide, they was/are not for Barcelona.
    The notion of bringing up Peps titles into this comparison is interesting. Afrer spending probably 3 billion (not calculating salaries) on players, over around 15 years Pep still only has 2 CLs. Take inflation into account when calculating, but Brian Clough at Nottingham has the same record having spend much less.
    Different times, different teams, different etc someone can claim that if Kruyf had xavi, iniesta, messi etc in his 90s team he would have won 6 CLs and not just 2 that Pep has won with them.
    Demir should be given time, more thsn a year so Barca should take the option and buy him paying 10mil. But i doubt Barca will “discover” another pedri or fati in the face of demir. It is more likely he will become something between say pedri / fati and puig/ trinxao and then Barca will have to deside we keep him or sell him if the price is right.
    The biggest error Koeman has done is the way he talked about Moriba, telling him off because of his salary demands for the new contract. Something koeman should never have gone into considering how many players at Barca are paid so much (umtiti, pjanic, even de jong) and returning so little to the team.

  6. Lunga Maqalekane

    10/09/2021 at 20:58

    Keenan is turning Barcelona into a mini Netherlands training facility. Everyone seems to be falling for his nonsensical acquisitions.

  7. Timothy Brown

    11/09/2021 at 08:43

    If the limited times Puig was given opportunities he played poorly it would be a different story. But he has always played well enough. He’s earned the right to prove himself further which Gavi and Nico haven’t done yet.

    It took Koemen too long last year to build a winning team last year because if his lack of trust and inflexibility and it cost us the league.

    If he was building a team for the future we could cut him some slack… But he’s not. He’s building a team to get the best out of aging stars, Busquets and to some degree last year… Messi.

    He’s not the right coach for Barcelona and definitely not for the Barcelona we have right now. Despite the expense getting rid of him now might be the cheapest option to start righting the ship which might take 2 seasons where a winning team built around Pedri, Fati, Frankie, and Puig could start another dynasty.

    A high pressing, young dynamic forward and midfield would also ease pressure on Arajo, Mingueza, Dest and Garcia giving them time to turn into a world class back line. Sprinkle in some Memphis confidence and Alba experience and we could do well enough as this team develops into world beaters.

    As it stands we have the right players and the wrong coach.

    Koeman out.

  8. Steve johnson

    12/09/2021 at 09:18

    Koeman will probably leave in the end of they year because it is unlikely Barca will win anything. And it is probably not going to be his fault! While he is no Pep, Murinho, Anseloti etc he is a good manager. It is a pitty he will be the scapeGOAT for all of Barcas troubles (finansial as well as well as on the field etc) the last 2 years or more. For everyone saying Koeman doesnt give youth a chance, which Barca manager after Pep has given chance to youth more than Koeman?
    He is trying to make a fine balancing act between a club that has the worst finansials it probably ever had, with most transfer decissions after Neymar left being abysmal, with players that are overpayed, trying to bring in youth and still have a competitive team, with all Barca supporters having the mentality that because Barca had the xavi, messi, iniesra team oncethey can rebuild a similar one in no time.
    In a parallel universe, i would love to see Pep, Enriquez, Murinho, Anseloti Gidane etc, take Koemans place. It is more likely they would all fail to do much if any better. Maybe the Murinho of the 2000s that did something similar with Porto would do better. But with the current players Barca has, the salary stracture, the number of ‘dead wood’ players, the expectations etc, whoever is/or will be the Barca coatch in the place of Koeman will become a scapeGOAT like Koeman will probably become.

  9. olcay seref

    12/09/2021 at 10:49

    i think koemans behaviour is NOT acceptable !
    he should be replaced as soon as possible. Barca is in a very bad financial state, and he should do his best to integrate players, that are available, and talented, at all costs !
    Riqui Puig could become a star, and could grow, why should barca spend money on buying midfielders from elsewhere ??!!! especially when there are very limited financial capacities , and you have all that you need in your arsenal, the same goes for collado. Somebody has to stop that stubborn old white man.

  10. Des

    12/09/2021 at 22:32

    As far as I am concern Koeman is proving nothing in Barcelona. He doesn’t deserve that seat. If u don’t give players the chance to prove themselves how would they improve. I can’t wait to see him leave even if he wins treble.