Perhaps there’s no coming back from getting utterly shamed 8-2 in a Champions League quarterfinal. Even if this is something of a makeshift Champions League tournament, 8-2 is 8-2. Barcelona have their own “Belo Horizonte” now, and cleaning up after it is going to be a massive undertaking.
Whether they’re aware of how to do that seems very unclear.
The firing of manager Quique Setien is obvious. If it weren’t bad enough that he had already been fighting with the players, especially Lionel Messi, and seen their league results tumble (allowing Real Madrid to win La Liga), Friday’s loss not only was a violent exposition of the team’s flaws — the day saw players actively quitting on the field. You can’t give up eight goals without at least some of the roster giving up the fight, and once that’s gone, there’s nowhere else for a manager to turn. It had likely already been over for Setien, with only a European Cup victory as his salvation, but that projectile diarrhea of a capitulation turned his departure from a pleasant walk out the door to an active kicking out of it.
But if the rumors are true, then hiring Ronald Koeman to replace Setien is curious at best, bewildering at worst.
Barcelona rarely get caught up in the “celebrity” manager cycle like their fellow members of Europe’s glitterati. Jose Mourinho would never end up there as manager, for instance, even if he had already worked there. Other managers who have worked for Munich or Juventus or Paris Saint-Germain are unlikely as well. It’s just not their way. Barcelona prefer to have managers with a previous connection to the club, versed in their ways, whether they have name recognition or not.
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Koeman certainly meets that criteria, having played for the club and securing their first European Cup/Champions League in 1992 with a brilliant free-kick. He appeared 264 times for Barca, scoring 88 goals. Koeman is a club legend.
But that’s hardly enough to erase a managerial record that is spotty, let’s say. The last time Koeman was seen in club management, he was getting drummed out of Everton in the Premier League after just over a year in charge. Now, Everton has a reputation for being a basketcase of a club, frequently changing managers before they’ve had a chance to install their own systems and players, and are still in the process of cleaning up the previous manager’s mess.
In Koeman’s only full season there, Everton finished 7th. By the next October, when he was fired, Everton were in the relegation places. Koeman was able to benefit from 25 goals by Romelu Lukaku in his first season, but once Lukaku left for Manchester United, he didn’t have any answers. Koeman spent Everton’s largest-ever transfer budget on Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane, Theo Walcott, Cenk Tosun and others, while seeing Lukaku, Ross Barkely, and Tom Cleverly head for the door. Sigurdsson, Keane, and Pickford remain major parts of the squad, but others were definite misses.
Koeman’s managerial record at every other club looks something like that, too. Before moving to the higher ground of Everton, he managed Southampton to their two best Premier League finishes. Nothing wrong there, though he mostly did it with the foundation that Mauricio Pochettino had installed before him.
Still, Koeman clearly had an eye for talent, as he brought Sadio Mane, Shane Long, Dusan Tadic, Ryan Bertrand, Virgil van Dijk, and Oriol Romeu, among others, to the south coast of England. All either become huge parts of Southampton’s team or were sold on to much bigger clubs for much bigger prices. Koeman did this while negotiating the losses of Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Nathaniel Clyne, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers, and Morgan Schneiderlin, who had formed the base of Pochettino’s success. But Southampton’s front office is well known for being the sharpest around, so you could argue either Koeman or the club benefitted from the other.
Koeman’s managerial record has some definitely red Xs on it. He was only in charge of AZ Alkmaar for 16 games before they shitcanned him. When he took charge of Valencia before that, he guided them to a Copa Del Rey victory but left them in the relegation zone as well. He wasn’t even there a full season. Stretches at Ajax, PSV, and Benfica also saw Koeman initially successful, only to collapse.
And this Barcelona team is a project. Koeman might only get a say in transfers, if that, and he certainly won’t be in charge of them. Barcelona need a lot of transfers. The most telling difference between Barca and the Munich side that car-crushed them into a cube is this: Of the 11 players who started the last Champions League Final Barcelona won in ‘15, six of them started on Friday. Ivan Rakitic was on the bench for a seventh. Five years is a long time in soccer, and Barca have clearly held on to too many for too long. Compare that with Munich only having four players in the lineup on Friday from their 2013 Champions League triumph, and none of those four were over 25 in 2013, aside from the keeper Michael Neuer. Barca have needed the same overhaul that Munich has undergone in the past few years.
Koeman’s act of immediately reversing a team’s fortunes or maintaining them is going to be a real trick at the Nou Camp. And that’s if everyone ignores the death cloud hanging over everyone, which is if Lionel Messi wants to stay.
The clause in his contract that would have allowed him to simply walk this summer has expired, so it’ll take a little more effort if he truly wants to go than it would have. But even if he wants to stay, Koeman will be overseeing a decrepit squad with an iffy transfer budget. No one’s sure what a pandemic-stricken market will look like, nor can they predict Barca’s ability to spend in it.
Can they afford enough to help everywhere? Gerard Pique needs replacing at center back and Nelson Semedo may never recover at right back from having Alphonso Davies poltergeist him. The midfield needs to be completely redone around Frenkie De Jong, and maybe that’s part of the reason Koeman was hired. He’s overseen De Jong’s transformation into a key cog with the Dutch national team, Koeman’s last post. De Jong seriously regressed in his first year in Spain from his last year in Holland with Ajax, and he has to be the fulcrum for the team going forward. Up front, Luis Suarez is 33 and past his inspirational (if unhinged) force days, and Antoine Griezmann has been a misfit since his arrival.
It’s hard to know what style Koeman can employ before we know just what the squad will be. Their last historic team of 2015, under Luis Enrique, eschewed some of the traditional Barca “tiki-taka” for more direct play, as it wasn’t hard to see getting the ball up to Messi, Suarez, and Neymar all in their primes as quickly as possible would have serious advantages. But some in the hierarchy of the club bristled at this change, which helped hasten Luis Enrique’s exit. And a return to their pass-until-ennui-set-in has got them to this. Will Koeman be allowed to change things? And with whom?
Is Koeman the man for this? A couple of Dutch league triumphs, a Spanish Cup, and some decent if not outlandish Premier League finishes would not be the resume you’d be looking for. They need new blood and new ideas. Koeman has had some success building on what was there and finding some new talent, but at this level? Barca aren’t a sell-on club like Southampton. His chance to create something completely new at Everton was an abject failure. His last attempt in Spain didn’t even last a season. He helped rebuild the Dutch national team from its darkest days of not qualifying for consecutive major tournaments, but national team management is a different animal.