Ronald Koeman: The Glue to fix the broken glass?

5 min read
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Barcelona not going as favourites into the European competition in a long time indicates the state the club is in. And rightly so, they’ve yet again capitulated in the quarterfinals of the European championship for the fourth time in five seasons (an exception being the semi-final against Liverpool last season) while suffering embarrassing defeats (especially in away games) to crash out of the competition (an exception being the rare remontada against PSG).

Sacking of Setién

Setien’s appointment mid-season was a culmination of joy for the fans, who believed in bringing back the fluid attacking style that the previous coach had lacked.

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Taking over his dream job at the Camp Nou, he reminisced the times he would gush over the Blaugrana right from his playing days, even remarking that he would have cut off his little finger to have played for Cruyff. He also said all the right keywords- ‘intensity,’ ‘the right way,’ ‘work ethic,’ ‘enormous energy,’ ‘identity,’ etc. that would get even the anticipant fan’s attention. The Cantabrian, however, was fighting a losing battle ever since his appointment, which was sealed after a second-place finish in the league. While the excitement of his job was waning as the season wore down, it was clearly indicative of the discordant dressing room atmosphere (preventing him from experimenting with a three chain backline that he favored and many such endeavors), especially among the ‘heavyweights.’ This led to a similar monotony that made the Barca under Valverde extremely predictable.

This, however, does not account for the good that he brought about – improving the previously non-existent build-up structure, improving control of the ball in the midfield, and quick counter-pressing high-up the field to win it back.

Nevertheless, the cracks were all the more noticeable, especially in the defensive phase of the game. This was partly due to lack of quality squad depth in the wide areas up the field that would force him to move the full-backs up the field (by building up from the center and freeing full-backs to run into space wide to cross into the narrow forwards) that were caught in transition. The aging squad and overall lack of pace didn’t help either. The absolute lack of penetration in the final third was the next most important worry, which led to harrowing stagnation in the middle of the field without resulting in many chances.

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In the wake of the demise of Catalan football at the hands of the Bavarian giants, media confirmed the sacking of Setien with a rather ruthless statement- ‘Quique Setien is no longer the first-team coach.’ No, thank you. No good luck, nothing. In the eyes of the Barcelona faithful, he will be forever applauded for the introduction of Riqui Puig (in the absence of Frenkie due to injury) and Ansu Fati (when Suarez and Dembele were out injured) into the first team and hope that like Lopetegui (who carried Sevilla to a UEL final while suffering a horrendous blotch at Real Madrid) will find great success at a club that values him.

Arrival of Koeman 

Most news outlets have confirmed the ‘second coming’ of the coveted Dutch center-back, Ronald Koeman. This is slightly surprising despite Koeman’s affinity for the job (having been linked ever since 2003 when Joan Laporte was president) as he steps into the uncertainty that has become of this club. The only explanation could be the heart condition that he was said to be suffering, which might limit his further chances, especially with Xavi waiting in the wings.

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As a player, he experienced the highs of the Blaugrana set up as the key player in the ‘Dream Team.’ After over 200 appearances, Tintin (as he was called due to his physical similarity with the fictional character) moved back to his second stint in the Netherlands (after Ajax) to Feyenoord.

Koeman as a Manager

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Soon after retiring, he was fast-tracked into management first under Guus Hiddink (along with Rijkaard) at the national team for the ’98 world cup, and then under the famous Dutch stalwart Louis van Gaal (at Barcelona between ’98-’00).

This led him to his boyhood club Ajax (after a brief stint Vitesse in 2000), where he enjoyed the most success winning two Eredivisie titles and the KNVB Cup in his three years present there. The ex-player’s sour relationship with his former boss van Gaal (who was appointed to ‘guide’ and ‘evaluate’ the junior manager by the board) led to a premature end in his third season.

Koeman

‘These Football Times’ quote ‘Mix of Cruyff’s imagination and van Gaal’s pragmatism’ exemplifies Koeman’s managerial style. Even though he usually remarks- “If I’m in doubt I will think what Cruyff would do”, he is also influenced by shades of pragmatism after stints at PSV. Unlike most post-Cruyffian managers, he’s not the most innovative tactically while being flexible in playing 3 or 4 man backline (i.e., 4-2-3-1/4-3-3/3-5-2). His defensive implementation mostly being simplistic man orientations (even getting CBs high to press forwards who drop), while counter-pressing (or pressing) only situationally. The build-up (which is rather typical of positional teams) involves the usual 3+1 staggering (with a ball playing pivot like Frenkie/Jorginho instead of a more defensive one like Rodri/Busquets), he’s not shy to play a target man approach if it doesn’t work out. In contrast, the shades of pragmatism are seen especially in the defending phase when they drop deep or forgo control of the ball (especially against dominating teams) with especially deep central midfielders.

The highlight of his managerial skills has always been the development of younger players. This involves Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Staklenberg, and Sneider at Ajax. At Southampton, he was in charge of rebuilding a team down in the relegation zone, while brining and developing players like Mane, Tadic, van Dijk, Pelle, Aldeweireld and Forest. Similarly, at Feyenoord, he was instrumental in promoting young players in the setup after they went bankrupt and got them within touching distance of the title.

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If he indeed does prefer the switch, he is expected to be accompanied by Alfred Schreuder (reportedly suggested by Frenkie de Jong, who played at Ajax) who helped Naaglesman (2016/18) and Erik ten Haag (2018/19) before taking up the Hoffenheim position himself this season.

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The magnitude of problems at Barca, especially from the second Valverde reign (source: Craque Stats)
Conclusion

In spite of the appalling club record (in Everton, AZ, Benfica, PSV), Koeman and company should be given the benefit of the doubt. As Jonathan Wilson points out, most coaches coming into Barcelona have had poor records at non-post-Cruyffian clubs due to a lack of quality technical players. The most famous one being Luis Enrique, who enjoyed much success at the Catalan club while enduring poor campaigns at Roma and Celta Vigo on his CV. This, coupled with his man-management style being very ‘Amsterdammer,’ the board expects a clean transition (with many experienced players set to leave) before handing over the reign to Xavi.

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