Who would ever want to be Barcelona manager?
You’re permanently in the world’s view, constantly under severe scrutiny, and always just one poor result away from turmoil. After the start of Ronald Koeman’s reign as Barcelona boss, it looked as though he’d be yet another face to be dismissed from the Camp Nou dugout.
After ten La Liga games, Barcelona found themselves seventh in the table, having accumulated just 14 points. La Blaugrana had lost four and drawn two of those ten, culminating in a shocking 2-1 loss to Cadiz in early December – the sound of ‘Koeman Out’ was ringing out loud.
But fast forward nearly six months and things have changed. Barcelona are now third in the La Liga standings, two points behind second-placed Real Madrid and five off leaders Atletico with a game in hand on both.
In the 20 subsequent league matches from that Cadiz defeat, Koeman’s side have been, for the most part, unstoppable. La Blaugrana have won 16 games and drawn three, and only lost their first La Liga match of 2021 to Real Madrid nearly a fortnight ago. They have, seemingly from nowhere, mounted a realistic and threatening title charge.
There have, of course, been lows throughout the season – well-documented lows. Their 4-1 defeat by Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie was nothing short of humiliating. Although they outperformed their Parisian counterparts in the reverse leg, Koeman’s side could only muster a 1-1 draw, dumping them out of the competition they are so desperate to succeed in once again.
But what we must not forget is that this Barcelona squad is one in transition. There were always going to be upsetting results and European success was always going to be out of reach this season.
La Blaugrana’s last outing, however, was proof of a progressive transition, setting up a successful side. A 4-0 thumping of Athletic Club in the Copa del Rey final gave Koeman his first taste of silverware as Barcelona manager and showed a winning and positive mentality that has reappeared among the players.
Lionel Messi stole the headlines with a brace and a captivating performance to inspire his side to glory. The Barça captain’s first was especially mesmerising, as he rolled back the years to show devastating feet and composure that a normal human being could only dream of.
While Messi’s magical performance proved his heart was still at the club, it was a night for the new guard to savour. Frenkie de Jong was absolutely everywhere over the course of the 90, and was just as worthy of the man of the match award as his captain, registering two assists and notching a goal himself.
The Dutchman has been crucial to Barcelona this season, especially since Koeman switched to a back three – which has coincided with La Blaugrana’s monumental upturn in form – and is a hallmark of the club’s transitional period, surely lining up to be a leader in years to come.
Koeman is also putting his faith in youth. Pedri has lit up Camp Nou since his arrival from Las Palmas in the summer and instantly established himself as an irreplaceable starter. The youngster has featured in all but one of Barça’s 46 fixtures this term, providing nine goal contributions.
The 18-year-old has repaid his manager’s faith with energetic, tenacious and beautifully skilful performances throughout the campaign and seems to have created a special and almost telepathic bond with Messi – reminiscent of the Argentine’s relationship with Ronaldinho in the noughties – to personify the Catalan side’s period of transition.
The promotion of players like Riqui Puig, Ilaix Moriba and Oscar Mingueza – who is excelling as a first team regular – demonstrates Koeman’s ability to nurture young players and develop their qualities. The Dutchman’s introduction has enabled a culture shift back to producing and promoting talent from La Masia, rather than splashing the cash on the likes of Arda Turan, Paulinho or Miralem Pjanic (just to name a few) – in Barcelona’s current financial state, this is integral to the future of the club.
It hasn’t been the best of seasons for the Catalan club; that is clear. A demoralising defeat to PSG to bow out of Europe’s elite club competition is what most will remember. But there have been highs; for a side transitioning into a new era, a strong title charge thanks to a quite phenomenal run of form and Copa del Rey success is impressive.
Messi may be stealing headlines left, right and centre at the moment, but a very exciting, promising and destined-to-be-successful new guard which represents La Blaugrana’s future is behind him – and it’s thanks to their manager’s trust and tactical versatility.
After ten games into the season you might have forgiven Koeman for not wanting to be Barcelona boss, but he is now well and truly driving this side into a new and exciting era.