Having waited his whole career to return to Barcelona as manager, Ronald Koeman’s appointment last summer came in less than ideal circumstances for the Dutchman. The club’s greatest ever player had made public his desire to leave while president Josep Bartomeu faced accusations of corporate negligence as Barca buckled under €1 billion of debt.
In his first press conference, Koeman was asked in more than one way whether he felt helpless knowing he would only have one season in his dream job. As the majority saw it at the time, Xavi Hernandez or Julian Nagelsmann or some other high-calibre coach would be hired once a new president was in place with elections looming.
Now, though, in the light of Saturday’s Copa del Rey triumph, that doesn’t look so certain. Indeed, a new president (or old president, depending on your viewpoint) is in place after Joan Laporta’s election victory, but Koeman has surely earned himself a second season in charge having successfully turned around Barcelona’s season.
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The former Everton and Southampton boss always warned that this season would be a transitional one for Barca. The need to rejuvenate and re-energise the squad at the Camp Nou was clear and so some difficult decisions were required. Koeman’s call to let Luis Suarez leave, for instance, was widely questioned with some still of the belief that the Uruguayan should have been kept for another season.
But Koeman has committed fully to the task at hand, fast-tracking a number of young players into the first team while keeping Barcelona competitive on all fronts. Pedri has earned himself a reputation as one of the most exciting teenagers in the sport. Comparisons with Andres Iniesta have been unavoidable.
Ronald Araujo and Oscar Mingueza, promoted from Barcelona B, have quickly made themselves dependable senior squad figures while Ilaix Moriba has broken through. This is without even mentioning Ansu Fati who scored four goals in seven games at the start of the season before suffering a serious injury.
Koeman has done more to re-establish the link between the Barcelona first team and the club’s famed La Masia youth academy than anyone since Pep Guardiola. Even if the Dutchman departs the Camp Nou this summer, he will have left the club in a good position with regards to the number of young players now comfortable in the senior squad.
Not exactly renowned for being a master tactician, Koeman has experimented with a number of different shapes throughout the season, most recently settling on a 3-5-2 formation that looks a good fit for his squad. He is even getting more out of players like Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, previously seen as expensive duds.
All this has happened while Barcelona have lost just one of their last 11 fixtures in all competitions. The Catalans might end the season with more than just the Copa del Rey trophy in-hand, they could still finish top of the pile in La Liga with Koeman’s side just two points off Atletico Madrid’s pace.
Barcelona can still improve in a number of areas. Their only four defeats in 2021 have come in Spanish Supercopa final to Athletic Club, Sevilla in the Copa del Rey semi final first leg, Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last 16 first leg and Real Madrid in El Clasico. Barca are expected to win the biggest matches.
Messi’s future at the Camp Nou remains up in the air and Barcelona still need a new centre forward after the sale of Suarez - Martin Braithwaite is not a long-term option. But while Laporta’s to-do list surely once included the search for a new manager, Koeman’s dream job will almost certainly last longer than just one season.
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