When Bayern Munich beat Barcelona 8-2 in last weekend’s Champions League quarter final, Barcelona Manager Quique Setién knew it was a matter of when, not if, he would be sacked. It was the first occasion in 74 years that the club had conceded 8 goals in a game, and the first in 69 years they had lost by a 6 goal margin.
His time in the top job was short; he was appointed in January this year after Ernesto Valverde was shown the door after two and a half years in charge. In both full seasons, Valverde had won the La Liga title, but success in Europe had eluded him. Since Barca last made the Champions League Final in 2015 (a 3-1 victory against Juventus) they’ve been knocked out at the quarter final stage four times, with a semi-final defeat to Liverpool last year.
Barça’s first victory (of five) in Europe’s premier club competition was in 1992 (when it was still known as the European Cup) when they beat Sampdoria 1-0 at Wembley. Their manager that night was a Barcelona legend, Dutchman Johan Cruyff; the scorer was fellow Dutchman Ronald Koeman.
Barcelona and the Netherlands have had plenty of interaction over the years and when Koeman was announced as Barça’s new manager yesterday, he followed in the footsteps of countrymen Cruyff, Louis van Gaal (twice) and Frank Rijkaard. Champions League success was out of reach for van Gaal, but Rijkaard won the competition in 2006 when they defeated Arsenal 2-1. After his sacking in 2008, Pep Guardiola took the reigns at the start of an incredible period of success for not only the Catalans, but also the Spanish National team. Guardiola won 14 trophies in just 4 seasons before he did something relatively unusual in modern management – he decided to take a sabbatical, rather than be shown the door. Guardiola was blessed with Spanish talent such as Xavi, Andrés Iniesta as well the hard work and leadership of Carles Puyol; all three were a key part of the National team’s success as they won the European Championships in 2008 and 2012 as well as the World Cup in 2010.
Also in the Barcelona ranks at that time, was a certain Lionel Messi, arguably the club’s finest ever player. He won the Ballon d’Or in four consecutive seasons between 2009 & 2012 before he started to rotate that award with Cristiano Ronaldo.
Messi is now 33 and is out of contract next summer. Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez are also 33, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic are 32, Jordi Alba is 31. Pique himself said after the Bayern defeat last weekend, ‘no-one is safe.’ It seems that is true – with the exception of Messi. Securing Messi’s future seems to be the priority for Koeman and the club, but as he enters the twilight of his career (and surely it would be the last contract extension if he does resign) is he the right person to build the next Barcelona team around?
There is plenty of talent in their Academy. Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati are exciting attacking prospects, but are they ready, or more likely, will they be trusted to be first team regulars? Up front, Ousmane Dembélé is still only 23 years old and has only played 74 times since arriving at the Nou Camp three years ago for a whopping €105M. In midfield Frenkie de Jong is the same age having been there a year, so there’s certainly plenty of existing stock, but I’d expect there will also be some arrivals. Koeman himself said back in January 2019:
‘Suárez is over 30, Messi is over 30, Piqué is over 30, Sergio Busquets is over 30. They still have a few years left, yes, but then what. You have to change because they’re important positions in the team, the entire spine. You’ll have a goalkeeper, but you don’t have a centre-back, a pivot, a centre-forward or Messi. So … good luck.’
Koeman joins Barça from the Dutch National team, where he’s been since 2018 – he had a contract until after the 2022 World Cup. He’s had success there, making the 2019 Nations Cup Final and qualifying for the delayed 2020(21) European Championships. Importantly, he was regarded as developing some great young talent in that role, but when some teams come calling, even leaving a job like that is an easy decision. It’ll be his eleventh Managerial role over a 20 year span. He’s managed five clubs in Holland and has also had jobs in Portugal and England, as well as a brief stint in Spain back in 2007/08 when he took charge of Valencia. Apart from Ajax and PSV, where he won Dutch titles, he’s had little success in terms of trophies, so Barça aren’t bringing in someone who is used to winning silverware, but their president, Josep Maria Bartomeu has said:
‘We chose Koeman because he knows Barcelona. We know him well: what he is like, how he thinks and how his teams play. But also for his experience, because he was in Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team, because of his way of understanding football. He knows our philosophy, our way of playing.’
Presidential candidate Victor Font has already said he will sack Koeman and replace him with Xavi if he is elected next year so already Koeman is under pressure to deliver. Can the man nicknamed ‘Tintin’ get the club back on track to achieve former glories? Will he even be given that time? Watch this space.
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