European Football

The Ronald Koeman Conundrum

And why the answer may not be as clear as many think…

Well, it is time to talk about Barcelona again.

While it feels like there are only a few common threads that continue to be pulled on in this blog, you can hardly blame us for focusing on the central stories in the sport. Barcelona…well…they keep finding new and inventive ways to become more of an unmitigated disaster. Just when you think that Barça have hit rock bottom, they find a new low. The aggregate loss to Roma, that famous night at Anfield, the 8-2 against Bayern Munich, numerous league stumbles last season, and the departure of club icon Lionel Messi have now been joined by a 3-0 Bayern defeat that was every bit as dismal as the 8-2 and several league draws that were just as much disappointing in performance as result.

Most recently, Barcelona were swept aside by Benfica in a 3-0 defeat that felt almost surreal. It was a moment that, more than the 4-0 at Anfield or the 8-2 against Bayern or Messi leaving, truly showed us just how far the once-mighty Barcelona have fallen. Yes, Barça absolutely had some chances in that game. I do not think they were all that bad in the first half. If Lucas Veríssimo does not miraculously block Luuk de Jong’s shot and Barça equalize shortly after Benfica’s first goal, the game very well could have ended differently. But he did block the shot. And the game didn’t end differently.

And, if we are being honest, it could have also been worse than 3-0. Benfica should have had at least one other penalty aside from the one they were awarded. You could make a genuine argument that Gerard Piqué should have been sent off prior to his 32nd minute substitution (that we will get to in a minute), and all of that ignores that Benfica forward Darwin Núñez missed an open goal (admittedly from 40+ yards away but still). Yes, there is probably an alternate reality where one of the de Jongs scores after Darwin’s early opener and Barcelona come back to win comfortably, but there is also a reality where Benfica get two or three more goals.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

But this game was not surreal purely for the scoreline, it was how it all unfolded. You could tell from looking at the Benfica players, at how Nicolás Otamendi was taunting the Barça forwards or how Rafa Silva was almost toying with the fullbacks, that they knew they were on to something. Those 11 players, spurred on by the bear-pit atmosphere of the not even completely full Estádio da Luz, destroyed Barça’s strength, mentality, and spirit. They were like sharks, and you could tell that they had smelled blood in the water. By the end of the game, the players milked every moment, almost openly taunting their opposition, and you could tell on the faces of the Barça players that they were defeated. It was not just the scoreline, it was the manner in which they lost and the opposition that did this to them. And I mean no disrespect to Benfica, who are an institution of European football and one of the most well-supported clubs on the planet, a club that I have immense respect for, but do you know the last time Benfica defeated Barcelona?

1961. The European Cup Final that season, Benfica’s first of two triumphs in that competition. It was the only time in Benfica’s history that they had beaten Barcelona until now. The last time Barça lost to a Portuguese team? 1987, a 1-0 loss to Belenenses in the UEFA Cup. Did this game make any more history? Well, it is the first time Barcelona started a European campaign with two defeats since the 1972-73 UEFA Cup and the first time they had suffered consecutive defeats in the Champions League Group Stage since 2000, which was the last time they qualified for the Champions League and failed to make it out of the Group Stage (credit to Dermot Corrigan and The Athletic).

They were not just beaten, they were comprehensively destroyed by a team that they should be routinely beating, by a team that, even now, should not be on the same level as Barcelona. And that takes us to the elephant in the room. Ronald Koeman. What do we do?

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

This is the ultimate question and, to many, the defeat to Benfica is the final nail in the coffin. Rumors have begun aggressively circulating that Barça are putting out feelers on potential replacements for Koeman. While at times it has been difficult to tell what the club wants to do, it does seem that they are leaning more toward sacking him than keeping him at the moment. But should they? Well, that is much more of a complex question than many think.

Now, there is a very strong case for getting rid of him, and the Benfica game showed us exactly why. Koeman has often been criticized for his tactical failings, with many considering him some combination of being too defensive, too reactionary, and/or too rigid. He was a bit of all three against Benfica, choosing to line up in a very conservative 3-5-2 system that seemingly wanted to absorb opposition pressure first and foremost, which I guess is fair enough when playing Bayern, but against Benfica? Is that really the best course of action? And that being said, that plan was useless after Darwin ghosted past the backline and fired Benfica ahead. Even then, it was sort of working in a way too, as Frenkie de Jong and Pedri were causing mayhem in the midfield. Koeman then, being reactionary, decides to make the probably right move in taking off Piqué, but then making the baffling decision to push Frenkie, Barça’s most dangerous player, into the back three instead of moving to a back four and being more aggressive. It is something I have struggled to remotely comprehend. Barça lost most of their bite after that move, and despite throwing on more young players in the second half, they were unable to match the energy and desire of Benfica.

And this has simply been the most recent example of a larger problem. Barça were hopeless against Bayern, and their line ups and tactical mentality in their 1-1 draw with Granada and 0-0 draw with Cadiz exemplified a team that is either horrified of losing or simply has run out of ideas. After going 1-0 down to Granada, Koeman decided to resort to throwing Luuk de Jong and Piqué up top and lumping in crosses to the towering duo, 54 crosses to be exact. There were so many times last season, namely their late-season losses to Granada and Celta Vigo and draw to Levante, where Koeman had no ability to reverse an outcome, fix issues when things started to go wrong, or utilize his bench to change the game. He simply lined up every game praying that Lionel Messi would carry him through to the end of the day, and now that Messi is gone, there is nothing to save them.

But he is still playing the kids, right? He is ushering in the next generation of Barcelona stars. Surely he just needs more time, he is building a project isn’t he? Well, yes, but no. So yes, he is playing young players. The likes of Ansu Fati and Pedri have been joined by Ronald Araújo, Nico González, Yusuf Demir, and Gavi. Despite some rough starts, they look very promising, especially the Uruguayan rock defender Araújo and the 17-year-old Gavi, who has already earned a Spain call up despite only playing a handful of professional games. But is this the best for their development? Is it just about giving these kids playing time, or is there more to youth development?

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

I lean toward the latter. There is a quote from Marcelo Bielsa, an almost throwaway comment that he made during a press conference as Athletic Club manager, that I get drawn to when looking at Koeman’s youth strategy. Bielsa said that “It is easy to throw in young players to increase the number of debutants. What you have to do is put in young players in a position where they will not fail.” Is Koeman doing that? I am not so sure. Yes, Gavi is obviously succeeding, but they are running Pedri into the ground and who knows how Ansu Fati is going to recover from his knee issues. He has not consistently shown trust in Ronald Araújo, and Riqui Puig…well…yeah. What is going to happen with Demir? I have no idea. Regardless of stature and talent, Koeman threw these kids onto the pitch against Bayern and Benfica in unwinnable situations, making them experience the humiliation first hand, throwing them head-first into a situation so difficult that it is impossible for positive growth and development to happen.

It is not just a mentality question either, it is a technical and tactical one too. Barça did not have a tactical set up or idea of how to win in the second half of the Bayern game or the Benfica game; Koeman simply threw the kids on and told them to fend for themselves. You could tell, even against Benfica, those kids not only looked overwhelmed but were unable to get into the game or even have an idea of what to do as a team. Is there a point in giving players like Demir or Gavi the experience playing against Granada when all you are asking them to do is hurl crosses into the box? Are they growing technically or tactically as players in that situation? Are they becoming what Barcelona want them to become? There is nothing that screams “Cruyffist football” more than inspiring those young players by endless crossing. Is there anything people can point at that shows what Koeman is doing is beneficial for these kids’ futures?

Yes, when I said convincing arguments, I meant quite convincing. I will not lie, I do not think Ronald Koeman is a good manager. I am fighting hard to hide my internal dislike for him from his time at Everton, but it is becoming near-impossible to look at the job Koeman has done in Catalonia and say that he deserves to continue. Given that he is suspended for Barça’s away trip to Atlético Madrid and the fact that we are going into an international break after this weekend, this really could have been Koeman’s last match on the touchline. It feels strangely symbolic that it was at Benfica, the club with which Koeman enjoyed a very turbulent and very unsuccessful tenure as manager during the 2005/06 season, where the Dutchman’s final chapter as Barça manager could have been written. It is also strangely symbolic that the last Barcelona manager, Quique Setién, lost his job after his own humiliating defeat in Benfica’s Estádio da Luz, in this case the 8-2 to Bayern.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

But is sacking him a good idea? Well, there are also genuine arguments against it, and they revolve around two central questions.

Who would actually take this job right now? Can Barcelona even afford to sack him or hire someone else aside from a cheap placeholder?

I mean, it is a genuine question. Their financial problems are already well-discussed, and they also still owe money to both Setién and Ernesto Valverde from when the club sacked both managers in recent years. They would very likely only be able to hire a manager with a very cheap release clause or one who is unemployed, which explains the recent links to ex-Juventus manager Andrea Pirlo. But would any of them actually help? Would Pirlo succeed? Roberto Martínez? Jordi Cruyff? Would Antonio Conte even want the job given it is worse than the situation he left at Inter? Would Erik ten Hag willingly leave Ajax for this? Even if River Plate manager Marcelo Gallardo wanted the job, he has ruled out leaving South America until the season ends in December. Should Barça wait that long? Is Xavi even ready to take over this mess? Is there anyone else? How big is the Venn Diagram intersection between “high-level manager” and “would take the Barça job” anyway?

These are all questions that obviously no one really has the answers to, but it does make you think. I seriously doubt that there is any manager in the world at the moment who could come into this job and turn Barcelona into contenders for major honors overnight. The team, despite the young, promising players present, is just not that good. Koeman has been criticized for being overly negative in press conferences, and while it does sometimes go overboard and feeds into petty feuds between him and club president Joan Laporta, some of it is kind of true. Barcelona are obviously not in a good state, and having the normal expectations that fans usually have for this club will likely guarantee disappointment. That being said, bad situation or not, the team that Koeman put out this past week was certainly good enough to beat Benfica and was likely good enough to not have to struggle against Getafe and Cadiz. Things are bad, but that admittedly cannot fully cover for Koeman’s failings.

Ultimately, whether they keep Koeman or not, fans need to realize that this is not even the Barcelona of five years ago, let alone ten years ago. Especially given the long list of injured players, this team is currently not operating at full capacity, but even then they are not what they once were. This team is a far cry from the mighty Barcelona teams from the late 2000s to early 2010s, and it will likely be several years before we see them at that level again.

And repeatedly sacking managers, while keeping the chances open of eventually striking gold à la Atléti hiring Diego Simeone, runs the risk of increasing the chaos and disorder at a club. Not only are you increasing the amount of managers you have to pay off, but the sudden changes in leadership and philosophy can dramatically impact the development of those young players that we discussed previously, and those young talents are basically the only glimmer of hope remaining for Barcelona fans at this point. Barça do not yet have the worrying managerial turnover rate of, say, Palermo, but sacking Koeman would mean they are bringing in their third permanent manager since they sacked Ernesto Valverde in January 2020. That sounds like the start of a destructive trend, especially as I am not quite sure there is a manager out there that will magically cure all which ails the club.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Yeah, it is clearly a difficult decision, right? Barça are well and truly stuck between the theoretical rock and hard place. I do not pity Joan Laporta’s situation, but it is very clear that the relationship between him and Koeman has been, at best, on the rocks ever since Laporta was elected as Barça president. The risks are clearly obvious: this team could very well not only crash out of the Champions League Group Stages, but it is very possible that they do not qualify for the competition at all next season. No knockout stage games is lost revenue this season for a club already struggling financially, but not qualifying for the UCL at all next season would be nothing short of an apocalyptic financial disaster. Can Koeman keep Barcelona in the UCL places? I really do not know. But is there anyone out there who can do so who would also realistically take this job right now? I am not sure about that either.

We have entered into maybe the most important month in Barcelona’s history. One of Europe’s footballing giants has been engulfed in turbulent issues that have devolved into existential crises. We are witnessing history of the most unfortunate kind.

Oh, and they play Real Madrid at the end of the month.

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