Barcelona was always Koeman’s dream job. But will this be a nightmare assignment?
Ronald Koeman has been here before. No, not Barcelona, where, as a marauding sweeper he once majestically drove them to Liga and European Cup triumphs. The Dutchman has trodden on scorched earth before, helping fan flames that were meant to burn out an era that was both long-established, but theoretically “past its shelf life.” (All of that happened at Valencia during one of the most convulsed, angry, mean and remarkable periods in the modern history of that great club.)
I’ve got no doubt, at all, that for all the “Welcome home, Ronald!” messages posted by FC Barcelona on Wednesday to note the return of their one-time captain and scorer of one of their all-time iconic goals, to win Barcelona’s first European Cup, at Wembley in 1992, the Camp Nou board remembered with crystal clarity the way Koeman treated the elder statesmen in the squad at Mestalla during 2007-08.
Should anyone be in any doubt — and surely only those who haven’t followed Koeman closely can be — about how firmly he’ll treat any of the sacred cows in this Barcelona squad, then it’s time to learn some history.
Back then, at Valencia, Koeman succeeded a different Quique: Sanchez Flores that time. Once he had his feet under the table, Koeman announced that a trio of long-serving, lynchpin, champion players, David Albelda, Santi Canizares and Miguel Angel Angulo, were all “out.” Out of his team, without the possibility of returning, out of the first team training and out of the club, so would they “please tell their agents to start looking for somewhere to go.” His decision divided the Valencia community, damaged the President, hurt the players very much and, ultimately, showed most of all that Koeman will follow his principles and the evidence of his own eyes to lengths other coaches would find intimidating.
It was nasty, brutish and short, to coin a phrase, because although Koeman somehow galvanised the rest of the Valencia squad into winning the Copa del Rey, knocking out Barça along the way, his league form had them hovering above the relegation zone and he was sacked in April 2008, not quite six months after taking up the post.
A few years ago, when asked whether he regretted his actions Koeman, rather typically, said: “If I had to do something similar again in my career then I’d do it, but perhaps in a slightly different manner. I’ve matured.”
Albelda, on reading the interview, commented that people in 2014 were beginning to talk about Koeman succeeding Tata Martino. The ex-Valencia captain had clear ideas on the subject, tweeting: “Hopefully Koeman does take over at Barcelona one of these days — that’ll make it easier for everyone else to compete for La Liga with them.”
More or less: yes.
Eighteen months ago Koeman, who’s still an acerbic critic of what he doesn’t like and who still possesses a sharp, intelligent football mind, used a Catalan TV interview to point out that he felt the spine of Barcelona’s team, except Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, needed replacing even then. Positionally that means Pique, Busquets and Suarez. What’s become clear more recently is that FC Barcelona presidential elections will be held in the Spring, the current Board will retire because in statutory terms their time is up (long after their football limit was reached) and elections will bring new Camp Nou governance.
All indications are that the most popular, turn-back-the-clock-to-Cruyff-principles candidate is Victor Font who, all things being equal, should win the Presidency. He’s utterly committed to persuading Xavi to take over as coach: Xavi would like Jordi Cruyff and Carles Puyol (plus Busquets, if he can be persuaded) to be part of his football structure. Meaning that the current coach, who’ll now presumably still be Koeman by then, is out.
More than that, Font made it clear that even if Xavi wasn’t available for one reason or another, he’s not a fan of Koeman being in charge. Thus this iconic, belligerent but football-qualified Dutchman has a very short run at what he’s considered his dream job for a very, very long time.
Granted, Koeman has had the opportunity before and missed it. When Joan Laporta won the crucial Presidential elections back in 2003, he was advised by both Txiki Begiristain, his Director of Football, and by Cruyff that Koeman was an ideal candidate to begin the rebuild. The bold Ronald was at Ajax then and wasn’t prepared to quit, especially with things looking rosy in Amsterdam at the time and a long way from perfect at the Camp Nou. When the Amsterdammers told Barcelona they couldn’t have Koeman without buying out the remainder of his contract, the price was too high for Laporta, who’d just found out that the financial chasm at the club was vastly bigger than expected.
So if you’ve a lot of sympathy to spare, then perhaps think gently of this 57-year-old who may soon learn the truth behind the age-old aphorism “be careful what you wish for.” Because Koeman has, at most, one year in which to imprint his vision on this squad, how it trains, how it plays and, most importantly, who plays, there may be a need for him to be brusque. He might need to abandon his promise, made in 2014, that if he’s faced with the task of sending sacred cows out to pasture, he’ll confront it with more tact, wit and maturity.
The brutal fact is that it’s going to be very hard indeed for Barcelona to do the kind of business they wish to execute in order to cull the ancien regime. Even if there are clubs wishing to benefit from the brilliance and accumulated winning experience of players like Busquets, Suarez, Pique, Alba, Rakitic or Arturo Vidal, are they the same clubs that can afford to pay a decent fee, plus heavy wages? And are they, at the same time, clubs capable of attracting these Camp Nou legends to abandon their footballing nirvana?
These are big, big questions. What is clear, however, is that Koeman, by definition, is going to want to achieve a few things pretty quickly.
Steve Nicol says Ronald Koeman is a sensible replacement for Quique Setien as Barcelona’s manager.
For a start, he’ll want intense, athletic, coach-led training sessions where the emphasis is placed heavily on positional play, pressing, passing the ball quickly and moving for return passes. He’ll want the middle of the team to be handed, mainly, to Frenkie De Jong and if Koeman tried to recreate his partnership with Donny van de Beek, you’d not be surprised. But how will he fund that?
As the new Barcelona coach, Koeman won’t be shy of using younger, emerging footballers, just so long as he thinks they have the football education, sharp technique and a complete willingness to follow his tactical orders. He’s probably been at his most successful when the players in his charge obey him, when they are either young and enthusiastic and ready to be taught, or already full of the knowledge that he can make them better, getting victories and trophies that other managers can’t.
Whether Koeman is a man-manager of subtlety who will be patient with the old guard if they refuse to leave in this transfer market… well, that’s a really big and potentially explosive question.
Not that anyone should underestimate him. Across his career, there have been notable important spells. Trophies of one sort or another at Ajax, PSV, Benfica, AZ Alkmaar, and he’d begun to make the Netherlands competitive again after missing the last Euros in 2016 and last World Cup in 2018.
Another example comes from when I interviewed Virgil Van Dijk last summer. I told Van Dijk that I’d believed him ready to play trophy-winning elite football from the days I saw him playing with Celtic. I argued that he could, and should, have gone straight from Parkhead to Anfield. He told me he disagreed. He explained that while being coached by Koeman at Southampton, he’d felt picked on, that the training ground treatment had been overly harsh and, in the moment, he’d felt resentment. With retrospect he knew, with total clarity, that Koeman had changed him, improved him, made him tougher, made him shrewder and given Liverpool a better player.
Which version of Koeman we’ll get now that he is, finally, Barcelona coach is not wholly under his control.
Around him is something approaching footballing chaos. In front of him, before the football even starts, is a potentially damaging and debilitating few weeks of transfer business. And in the immediate future, there’s what feels like an all-or-nothing meeting with Leo Messi to determine what the wee man things of the new big man.
From that moment, things can spiral downwards and out of control or, potentially, give Koeman something upon which to build. He’d better be on top form, in personal, football and energy terms, given that what lies ahead of him looks magnificently daunting. And, already, the clock is ticking.