Wanting the best for a club that you love, and almost joyfully anticipating and predicting the worst aren’t the same thing.
As Ronald Koeman assumes the manager’s role at FC Barcelona, weird things are happening, along with the feeling that somehow he has already failed. It’s like football fandom doesn’t have time for hope or optimism. As a culer, my job is to always hope for the best for my club. As a grumpy journalist, my job is to examine a situation and peck at a keyboard. The two aren’t always compatible.
What Koeman is coming to is, on the surface, a manager’s graveyard. Since Pep Guardiola left, except for a brief interregnum under Luis Enrique, he assumes the helm of a team that has been trying to play football a particular way, wedded to the notion not only by philosophy but by personnel. When Bayern tried to kill that idea in 2013, it was thought that execution was the problem, along with an injured Messi. The team just needs to play the right way, and everything will be fine.
Tata Martino adapted that system, and the result was a record-setting first half of the Liga season. When he reverted, the second half of the season was less grand and the team finished trophyless and Martino lives on in infamy. He should have stuck to his guns.
Luis Enrique came in and went heavy metal, and won a treble even as supporters complained about the style of play, in one of the most typically culer things anyone will ever witness. What should have happened was a light bulb coming on, along with a gradual process of adaptation to the demands of the modern game, which shifted to manage the threat presented by the very Guardiola teams that have been lionized (and rightly so) in culer history. History being the operative word there.
Ernesto Valverde arrived, a diametric opposite of Luis Enrique. Dour and tacticurn, he made the most of an aging team, winning the domestic double his first season mostly by employing a heretical style that took into account the aging legs of incumbent players, then adding Paulinho. That it worked seemed to make supporters madder than if it hadn’t.
Quique Setien arrived, as much a caretaker as Tata Martino, full of talk about proper play and Cruiffian ideals. But his team was older, his ideas less interesting than Valverde. That he presided over an epic European obliteration wasn’t entirely his fault but whoo, man.
And Bayern once again tried to kill the idea of trying to play football a particular way. And now comes Koeman, whose biggest job will be in the dressing room.
When club president Josep Bartomeu listed names of non-transferable players in an interview, there were some notable names who weren’t on that list: Pique, Alba, Vidal, Rakitic, Busquets, Suarez. That these are also players who were incumbents in the XIs of the previous two coaches makes their omission from that Bartomeu list even more significant. That they should be on a list of players on the way out is immaterial to the reality of the situation that Koeman and the club technical staff face.
Guardiola came in and put Deco, Ronaldinho and Eto’o on notice. The Cameroonian survived by being a badass, and earning his stay. But Deco and Ronaldinho were legends, architects and key players in the success of the team under Frank Rijkaard. Guardiola knew they had to go, made it clear and got his wish. Out they went, quickly and with very little stress. That won’t be the case this time, and how those transfers are handled will affect a lot of the perception of the coming season.
Nobody wants to leave a great job that pays you a crap ton of money, even if you aren’t cutting it any longer. And why should we? Great life, millions of Euros, a home in one of the most amazing cities in Europe, on the team of one of the best clubs in world football. You would have to drag me out of there, kicking and screaming. What will happen to the players who are deemed surplus to requirements?
Players are often said to love a club. At presentations, they kiss the badge, signifying that love. Presumably, love means doing what’s best for the club. At the press conference after Bayern beat his team into another galaxy, Pique said it was time for change, and if that change meant beginning with him, he would be happy to do so. So this is where it gets interesting. If none of the players who the club want to leave wants to leave, what then? If loving a club means doing what is best for it, what happens when that runs afoul of what you think is best for you? Bartomeu had the unfathomable testicular capacity to say that the club has a sporting problem, NOT an institutional one, leaving mouths agape. What’s to keep a player from saying, “I will stay and fight for my place.” They do it all the time.
The first battle that Koeman will have to fight will also be a test of how much carte blanche he has been given by a board which has previously demonstrated all the support of a tissue paper doorstop. Eric Abidal is gone, another casualty of the 2-8 jour sans. And he should have been, a man in over his head and leaving the club he was hired to protect, a victim of bad luck and worse, poor decisions. But Abidal wasn’t the only one responsible. The president and the board were as well. Most notably, so were the players.
In the wake of a beatdown, people went berserk on social media. Bartomeu, Setien, Semedo. Only the most reserved and bloodless accounts said, yeah, and the team sucked too. The whole team. Not just unfavored players. And the match wasn’t even as close as the scoreline indicated. So if you’re a player who was part of the group taken to the woodshed, what is your responsibility to the club that employs you, the club for which you pledged to do your best? “I understand the club wants to move on, and I will make it easy for them to do so. They have given me so much, that it is the least I can do.”
Talk about fantasy football.
Koeman also said, during his presentation, that “It’s the moment for Barcelona youth … It is time to play youngsters who are deserving.” You can read a lot into that statement, but don’t neglect the italicized portion. Making a transition isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. The way Luis Enrique slid Xavi into a substitute role while still making him a key part of his treble-winning side was as elegant as the storybook ending to his Barça career was perfect. Players feel they have unfinished business. Everyone on the “good to go” list will as well. People think it’s easy to transfer players out, but if they don’t want to leave — look at Gareth Bale at Real Madrid as just one example — what recourse does a club have, especially one with the biggest wage bill in football, trying to transfer some of the biggest earners.
Koeman will also have a big job winning over supporters who don’t trust management, so why trust their manager? He wasn’t good at Valencia or Everton, but he also didn’t have the quality of player that he will have at Barcelona. If we can draw any inferences from the way his Dutch NT group plays, there won’t be much room for players who can’t run and play with intensity anyhow. Yet make no mistake, transfer exits will greatly determine the potential template for Koeman, especially at a club that lost more than 200m due to effects of the ongoing pandemic.
The good thing is that Koeman has a lot of young players at the ready, even if incumbents dig in their heels. Puig, Alenya, Fati, De Jong, Araujo, Todibo are all part of the roster, making for a great and active nucleus. Semedo looks set to stay as well, along with Griezmann and Dembele. And despite rumors centered around one Brazilian journalist, it’s difficult to see Messi going anywhere. Koeman has said that he wants to build his team around Messi (duh!), and also that of De Jong and the rest (but let’s not kid ourselves here), the goal is to put a player in a position where he is most comfortable.
At his presentation, Koeman said, “We have to make changes. The image of the other day is not what we want. We must recover the prestige of the largest club in the world.” That isn’t going to happen in one season.
When he arrived, Guardiola transferred in eight players. Luis Enrique transferred in seven. And transfer fees aren’t what they are now, nor were the club finances as dire. There is lots of talk of who might or might not come, but the realist looks at the current roster and thinks, “Okay, maybe not much different than this.” And jsut because Setien came in saying all the right stuff doesn’t mean that he had a managerial record that was all that impressive. Yet people who gushed over him are foretelling doom for Koeman, who is vastly better equipped for taking on this task. He’s also been part of the entorno, which nothing except being part of that hellscape can prepare you for.
We supporters have to be realists, without mistaking incessant pessimism and doom prognostications as “realism.” Cheerleading isn’t the path, either. The club and the team have problems, and Christ off the cross wouldn’t be able to solve them in one season, so don’t expect a hard-assed Dutchman to do so. But man, give stuff a chance. Will next season be lost? Dunno. Will it end in failure? No idea. But wanting the best for a team, for me, means anticipating the best, even (shudder!) hoping for the best.
Now strap in. It’s gonna be a wild ride.