Every manager sucks, until they don’t.
If you think about it, managers are like chefs. Some you turn loose in a kitchen and they can whip up something fabulous with whatever you have around. Others can take the best ingredients and somehow … “Hash? Again?”
If you were to give Ronald Koeman ice cream, whipped cream and hot fudge, he’d put it in a skillet, determined in his mind to make the best omelet anyone’s ever seen.
Give Quique Setien ground beef and he would tell you about the cow, how the cow contributed to the great burger you’re about to taste, then burn it because he’s talking about it so long.
With a dozen eggs, Ernesto Valverde would make an omelet. Every day. The exact. Same. Omelet. Salt one day, pepper the next, but always. An. Omelet.
When we assess managers as with chefs, it’s all about our palates. When a meal isn’t to our satisfaction, the chef stinks, the restaurant sucks. That’s just the reality of the thing. As teams look for ideal managers, it’s rare that they find them, that chef who makes the best possible meal with the ingredients available. Pep Guardiola was an amazing chef, until they stopped going to the grocery. Luis Enrique, fresh from a trip to the store, was a remarkable chef for a single, amazing meal. Valverde scraped together something tasty, but visually unappealing, then everything went off when the waiter tripped coming back from the kitchen.
Setien and Koeman each had to concoct a tasty meal from a pile of random-ass ingredients. The problem with them wasn’t the meal, but rather that they didn’t really know how to cook with what they had. Make a damn hot fudge sundae. Build with the ingredieants that you have. All that Koeman has succeeeded in making is a mess. It’s team that doesn’t know what it wants to do, and doesn’t know how to do it. So everybody is freelancing. Pjanic got the shot at the top of the box, and you knew he was going to shoot, even though it was a low-percentage shot at a keeper having an excellent match, you knew he was going to shoot. Why? Well, what are the options? Noobdy made a run, nobody did anything, so what the hell. Take a pop.
Look at the first Valencia goal. There are three Barça players around one attacker, two around another, while the man who scored the goal just ran to the spot and headed past Ter Stegen. What are the instructions? What is worked on when the team does set piece drills? It wasn’t like that goal was anything new and innovative. Teams try a runner across the face all the time. It worked because nobody knows what they are supposed to be doing.
Look at the second Valencia goal. Pedri wound up playing right back because Araujo was confused, Dest just out of position. Pedri did the best he could but the cross went in. And once again, a ball-watching team was beaten by a runner. If Mingueza turns pivots his head, he easily picks up the runner. Instead at the time the cross is struck, he’s watching the ball, like everyone else, instead of the runner. Goal.
It doesn’t surprise me that Mingueza let the man make that run across him. Lenglet does it as well. What surprises me is the complete breakdown of the team’s defensive structure. Again, it’s like nobody knows what to do. We see the same things in attack. The ball circulates slowly, a lot of people get it, dance around then, not sure what else to do, pass it to someone else, who dances around, and repeat. Until it comes to Alba, who does exactly what he always does, which is to scurry a little bit then hit it into the box. “My work is done here.”
It says so much about the system Koeman has that everything fell apart when Pedri came off the pitch. One person shouldn’t be responsible for providing the structure. The Guardiola teams played the same, even when the personnel changed. There was a very clear system, a clear way of doing things. The chef knew exactly the meal he wanted to make. With Valverde, we hated the same damn omelet every day, time after time, but you know what? You don’t leave hungry, either. Koeman has some fantastic ingredients, but has no real idea how to cook with what he has. He’s got his mind on a dish that you need different stuff for.
Managers are a great many things. At Barça, we went from an idealist, to a game changer to a pragmatist, then back to an idealist who lacked the courage of his convictions. Now it’s just your stubborn Uncle Joe.
As a team, Barça is better than Koeman. When supporters talk about a “way of playing,” the ones who aren’t just spouting gibberish mean there is a formation, a style. Luis Enrique was allowed to deviate from it because he had the three best attackers in football. Why fart around in the midfield? Just get the ball to the horses and let them run. Valverde won a domestic double with Paulinho in his XI. If that ain’t pragmatism, nothing is. We hated his football. It was gray, dour and safe. He was never going to take a risk on a player, or anything. Belt and suspenders. A domestic double with a team of geezers should have been lauded. Instead, Rome tainted everything. But the team knew what it wanted to do. It was just ugly to look at.
Koeman, on the other hand, has all the ingredients for a classic Barça Midfield Stew. It’s been a very long time since the team was so packed with quality mids. Do that 4-3-3 thing and let’s go home. Not so fast. Koeman has a different idea. Barça was up 2-1, and Koeman groused after the match about continuing to attack. At 2-2, needing a goal to win, he pulled an attacker for a defender. Some of us gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking he was going for 3 at the back and liberated fullbacks. Nope. He was trying to lock stuff down. Instead it was an ugly, dour thing, a melange that didn’t know what it wanted to be, so it wasn’t anything.
Koeman isn’t a good manager, so far, from any aspect. He isn’t a good human manager, isn’t a good tactician nor a good teacher, since we see the same mistakes week after week. He’s interested in giving young players a chance, something that runs counter to the tactical stubbonness he displays. Dest, Pedri, handing the keys to De Jong, Araujo and Mingueza. His adventurousness with young players is counterbalanced by his sheer tactical obstinacy. Alenya, an intelligent player who never does the wrong thing with the ball, would be invaluable for a team that, whenever it loses possession seems thisclose to conceding a goal. A clogged middle, screaming to be unlocked by a quick, attack-minded mid is beckoning for Puig, but Koeman won’t play him, saying that he doesn’t work hard enough in training to convince a manager to shift things.
We don’t see full practices, but what Busquets and Coutinho do must be a marvel to behold, because they start. Match after poor match, they start. Coutinho is a wreck, but he started. Koeman seems to have a vision, and he refuses to adapt or consider trying to cook something up with the stuff that he has. And week after week, Barça looks like 11 guys thrown together for a beach pickup game. It’s ugly and grim.
After the match, Koeman said the team made errors, lost possession. What he didn’t discuss was how he failed his team, how he doesn’t have it equipped to do what it needs to know, to even know what it needs to do. An organized team will always find success against a team that has no idea what to do. Late in the second half, Messi was just plunking shots at the keeper. Why? What else is there? Koeman is the wrong coach for this current team because he doesn’t seem to understand the notion of adapting to what you have. Valverde was quite good at that very thing, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t time for Valverde to go. It just means he should have been replaced with someone who was an actual improvement. Instead Barça has been reduced to a jumbled, directionless mess of a team.
And that ain’t the players fault.