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Analysis

Ronald Koeman’s first month compared to Barcelona managers of the recent past

Jan-Michael Marshall

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Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Managing FC Barcelona is unlike any other job in the world. Between the towering expectations, ruthless media, and passionate fanbase, there is no room for error. Each manager brings with them a unique set of questions and expectations that they must answer as quickly and assuredly as possible. 

Ronald Koeman — who came in with questions about tactics, integrating new players, and how he would bring stability to a disarrayed team — is a little over 2 months into his reign, and one month since his first game, but has already begun to offer answers.

Barça Universal attempts to look back at how well each of the last five Blaugrana managers — including Koeman himself — have met the problems and expectations asked of them during their first few months in charge. 

Gerardo “Tata” Martino (2013-14)

Tata Martino’s appointment came at a tumultuous time for the club. Whilst Barcelona achieved domestic success the prior season – winning the league with a record amount of points – they suffered a humiliating 7-0 defeat (across two legs) to Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi finals.

Unfortunately, head coach Tito Villanova announced in June that he would step aside from his role due to a bout with cancer. On the pitch, it seemed like the end of Tiki-Taka, and off of it, the void left by Villanova was impossible to fill. 

Tata was a relatively unknown hire at the time, heralded for his successful spell at Newell’s Old Boys and impressive quarterfinal run with Paraguay in the 2010 World Cup. He was hailed as a discipline of Marcelo Bielsa, and his style focused on pragmatic solutions.

Tata was known for his extremely pragmatic Paraguayan side. (Photo by MAURICIO DUENAS/AFP via Getty Images)

His Paraguay side was ultra-defensive, but Old Boys were more expansive and attacking. Naturally, there were questions about what style he would implement and whether he was fit for the role. Above all, results weren’t the only criteria; Barcelona fans wanted to look at the way they were achieved.

His reign got off to a hot start. Barça won their opening match 7–0 and then the Spanish Supercup the following week. They ended up winning their first seven La Liga matches. Although the results were more than encouraging, there were still concerns about the new tactical approach.  

During his first few months, Martino introduced more variation to the system. They were counter-attacking more than usual and would even rely on the long-balls. For many, this was unacceptable. They weren’t satisfied with just winning, but rather sticking true to the Barça-identity. Players supported him, however, including Messi.

“The more variations we have, the better. There will be days when it’s better to have the ball and move it around the park, and others when it will be better to park the bus and play for the counter-attack.”

Lionel Messi

Nonetheless, things didn’t change. On September 21st, Barcelona beat Rayo Vallecano 4–0, but all anyone cared about was that it was the first time since 2008 that Barca had less possession than their opponents. They finished the match with only 49%. It also ended a streak of 316 consecutive games of out-possessing their opponents.

“If Barça had played their own style but not won the title, it wouldn’t have been a failure. But we didn’t win and we didn’t play well either.” 

Tata Martino summing up his time at the club

Expectations were monstrous as Martino was required to not only get results but play well in the process. In his first few months, it was clear that he could not meet these expectations. 

It never looked like it would last. (Photo by Miquel Benitez/Getty Images

Eventually, the Catalan Giants were eliminated by Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarter finals and lost the league to the same team on the final matchday. They also lost in the final of the Copa del Rey against Real Madrid.

Martino left the club when the season ended and is a case study of how for Barcelona, winning is not, or at least was not everything. However, it would be fair to say that his dismissal was a direct consequence of the trophyless season the club endured.

Luis Enrique (2014-2017)

Luis Enrique is remembered as one of Barcelona’s most successful coaches, but it certainly didn’t look that way from the start. While his first few months were fairly successful with results, off the pitch issues dominated the headlines. 

The summer of 2014 brought a lot of changes to the club. Amongst new signings Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, captain Carles Puyol retired, and veteran goalie Victor Valdes left the club.

Enrique was a welcomed hire having been a rather iconic former player and coach of Barca B. There was hope that he would revive Barça after a disappointing season. 

They did get off to another good start, conceding zero goals in their first seven games, setting a La Liga record. The revamped squad looked encouraging.

Lucho used different lineups almost every game, rotating key players to give them necessary rest. To add, his “vertical tiki-taka” was a lot closer to old Barca than what Tata offered. It seemed that expectations and questions were well met. 

This is how Lucho’s first year ended. An icon. (Photo by QUIQUE GARCIA/AFP via Getty Images)

The tide turned in October when Barca went on to lose three out of six games. The first was against PSG in the Champions League. They then lost 3–1 in the El Clasico when Suarez made his club debut, looking unconvincing in the process.

These results had Luis Enrique facing new questions of whether Barca could beat bigger teams. Six days later, Barca lost 1–0 to Celta Vigo, a match in which Enrique continued his rotation policy, resting key players like Gerard Pique and Xavi. These back-to-back losses spelt distress for the club. To make matters worse, there was locker room strife and drama that would continue escalating until January. 

All hope was lost but eventually, all the pieces fell into place and Barca went on to have one of their most successful seasons ever. Enrique’s reign ended after a lacklustre 2016-17 season, but his initial slip-ups are minuscule compared to his success. 

Ernesto Valverde (2017-2020)

Ernesto Valverde’s hire was surprising, to say the least. Though he had a successful stint with Athletic Bilbao, his tactics and lack of Champions League experience did not fit the Barca mould. To make things tougher, he inherited a notably weak squad and also had to ensure the team stayed afloat after Neymar’s departure to PSG. 

The first of the nails came when Barça started the season with a 5–1 defeat across two legs to Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercup, in what was Valverde’s first official match as manager of the club.

“This is a long process and there is room for improvement, but in the nine years that I have been here, it is the first time that I feel inferior to Madrid.” 

Gerard Pique after the defeat in the Spanish Supercup

Nonetheless, they picked themselves up and dusted the defeat off. By the end of October, the Spanish manager amassed ten wins and one draw in their next eleven matches.

From his first few months, it was clear he brought a new identity to the squad. Barca played more pragmatic than ever, taking into account an ageing core, and so often utilized a 4–4–2 formation for defensive stability. Furthermore, gone was the dressing room drama and bouts with the press that Enrique was notorious for. 

Valverde’s tenure was defined by pragmatic football, European mega-defeats, and an impressing crouch on the sidelines. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Valverde didn’t initially have to face the monumental expectations of Tata Martino and Luis Enrique, but many supporters were still disappointed with his tactical decision making. Questions about his fit for a team of Barça’s stature were at first relaxed, but big losses on the European stage would eventually stain his Barcelona career. 

Quique Setién (January 2020-August 2020)

Ronald Koeman’s predecessor came in at yet another rough juncture for the club. Valverde was fired halfway through the season, and Barca scrambled for a new head coach. The board’s first choices of Xavi, Ronald Koeman, and Mauricio Pochettino all rejected their offer, so Barça opted for former Real Betis manager Quique Setién. 

He was an unknown hire, his most notable result being a win with Betis at the Camp Nou the year before. After a disappointing two seasons with Valverde, Culés’ expectations weren’t high, but heads turned after Setién’s first conference. 

He made headlines in his first press conference when he proclaimed his admiration for Johann Cruyff and promised to bring back Barca’s style which was lacking for previous seasons. He also promised an emphasis on youth which was welcomed by all. 

After his first match in charge, things looked great — the Catalans played well against Granada. With the team making over 1,000 passes, they operated with an expansive brand of football, and all looked splendid. To add, he brought on youth starlet Riqui Puig for his debut, who was integral in setting up the winning goal in the said fixture.

It seemed like Setién could answer all questions and expectations after his first match, but unfortunately, things went downhill from there. In his first few months, it became evident that Setién would not make the necessary decisions with the squad. There was not enough emphasis on youth over worn-out players and not enough rotation, to name a few. To make matters worse, he was not respected in the locker room

From grazing cows on the field to grazing his legacy with Barcelona; Setien’s tenure was a horror show. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

After his first match, Setién built great expectations for a deprived team, and his illustration is a clear one on careful expectations. 

Closing Thoughts and Comparison

Ronald Koeman’s reign has been hard to define. He is coming off yet another week with mixed results, including a 3-1 loss to Real Madrid and a 2-0 victory against Juventus.

Heading into November, Barca have four wins, one draw, and two losses, and sit 12th in the La Liga table. His tactics have been more or less welcomed by the Camp Nou faithful, though, as they know a change in formation will help bring the best out of their players.

That said, the main drawbacks include problems with game management, especially in crunch-time. In his wins, the crew look fresh and lively, but in his losses, problems of past teams – lack of effort and intensity – creep back in.

In terms of pure results, Tata Martino edges him out; but Koeman hasn’t had to deal with a fanbase with sky-high expectations or one that will harp on him for diverging from the Barça style. He also exactly hasn’t inherited a world-beating squad, but it sure has depth.

Both Koeman and Luis Enrique lost their first Clasicos and have tried to implement squad rotation, although not always to great effect. Also, both managers had to play through institutional crises, albeit at different times in their stints.

One could argue that Lucho’s losses were more attributed to off the field problems, more specifically pertaining to the dressing room, whereas Koeman’s have a lot more to do with overall team makeup.

Ernesto Valverde got off to a great start, but his style eventually wore down the club and supporters alike. Koeman’s style is similarly pragmatic with the 4–2–3–1 shape, however, it’s been somewhat accepted by supporters – probably due to manageable expectations of the squad he’s dealing with. 

Compared to those before him, Quique Setién clearly had a rougher start in terms of results and could never get the squad on the same page. In his defence, he arrived in January and had to deal with a worldwide pandemic.

Koeman is dealing with a similar squad as Setién, but he hasn’t had great results yet either. Although, the Dutchman hasn’t made promises he can’t keep. So far, he’s succeeded in integrating more youth players, something he promised when he was hired. 

In all, it’s clear that the former Everton manager is dealing with things not all past managers have: a change in administration midway into the season, the Coronavirus inspired schedule, a disjointed squad, and a fanbase with much lower expectations.

Koeman has not yet managed as many games as the sample sizes explored in this piece, so it’s hard to compare them on fair terms, but it’s clear that he’s already answered some of the questions asked of him. He has solidly implemented a new style, given the youth more chances, and injected a bit more life into the team.

This is just the start – how far will Koeman go from here? (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

On the contrary, Koeman’s job is made easier by Barca’s past shortcomings, as expectations are lower than ever. Audacious wins and bitter losses have defined his start, but hopefully, the team can find their footing under him. In the end, that’s all we can ask for. 

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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Analysis

Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal

Jan-Michael Marshall

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Photo via Imago

With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?

Player Profile

Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.

Isak is Sweden’s next star. (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.

Tactical and Statistical Analysis

Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.

Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.

Isak has the speed and strength to bully players anywhere on the pitch. (Photo via Imago)

Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).

In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.

Isak’s goal scoring locations for the 20/21 season, retrieved from understat.com

His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.

Where would he fit at Barça?

Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.

Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.

Isak is built for the modern game with immaculate pace and power. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.

Should Barcelona pursue him?

There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.

There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.

Isak is incredible, but he has a long way to go. (Photo via Getty)

He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.

While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.

Closing Thoughts

On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.

Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.

Maybe in a few years. (Photo via Imago)

Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.

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