The Champions League is up and running again and in this morning’s games fans were treated to some real excitement and heart break.
It’s the end of August 2019 and the curtain has been drawn on a terrible season at FC Barcelona.
The majestic club looked to bring some life back into its lungs after four successive Champions League humiliations. Reports came in thick and fast of feuds in the dressing room. The coach had been sacked. The big-name signings failed miserably. The president was under fire and the fans were howling for radical changes. Barcelona were in chaos.
It would require a brave man to take over the club in these conditions and Ronald Koeman was the chosen one. With his appointment, the club hoped to reignite their Dutch connection. No pressure – he was merely expected to follow in the footsteps of Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal and become a European powerhouse again.
The first few weeks of his tenure were a nightmare. Lionel Messi had publicly stated his desire to leave, the club’s huge debt became public knowledge, and the then president Josep Maria Bartomeu faced a vote of no confidence.
Koeman experienced a mixed start to the season, but the team raised their level as the season progressed. That led to a long unbeaten run in La Liga, which made them serious title contenders.
A strong ending would have sealed the domestic double for Barcelona, which would have been the optimum way for Koeman to respond to his doubters. But due to the team’s poor run of form – mostly due to defensive errors – in the crunch time of the season, he has had to bid adieu to those dreams.
There are three positive takeaways from Koeman’s first season in charge.
1. Barcelona are trusting their youth again
On the day of his appointment, Ronald Koeman made a promise of integrating the younger players into the starting XI, and that is one promise he has evidently kept.
The likes of Pedri Gonzalez – the find of the season for Barcelona – as well as Ilaix Moriba, Ronald Araujo, Oscar Mingueza, Sergino Dest and Francisco Trincao have all enjoyed plenty of game time while some of these players have managed to establish themselves as first-choice starters.
However, Koeman’s problems with Riqui Puig are a hard pill to swallow as the youngster’s quality is evident and he hasn’t put a foot wrong during the time he has featured on the pitch.
2. Koeman picked up a team on its knees
Koeman took over a squad that was in the dumps after the biggest humiliation in the Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich. The players looked shattered, beaten, exhausted, crumpled and hopeless.
A team that had ruled the world of football for a decade experienced difficulty finding its feet. Since then, the club has opened a new chapter and the hunger to win and the never-give-up spirit is now evident in the matches.
An appropriate example would be the Copa Del Rey semi-final triumph over Granada. The team’s morale looks better and their mentality is stronger.
3. Players are finding their best form
Under Quique Setien’s guidance, Barcelona’s attacking trident were in woeful form, the midfield looked out of ideas, the play was stagnant and it seemed as if any mediocre player could run through the defence and fling the ball in the back of the net.
But Koeman has managed to get the best out of the same players. Antoine Griezmann has found his goal-scoring boots, Lionel Messi is enjoying one of the best individual seasons of his career, Sergio Busquets seems rejuvenated, Frenkie de Jong might have been the most crucial player for Barcelona this season, and Ousmane Dembele has enjoyed a season free of injuries and full of goal contributions.
While there’s still a long way to go and there are some problems such as defensive issues, poor substitutions and the team’s performance in big games. But Barca has come a long way from where it was and Ronald Koeman deserves to be credited.