“I’m very proud of my team. I can’t ask for anything more. We have changed our mentality.”
Ronald Koeman making that statement after his team managed yet another late comeback to turn defeat into victory, points to the best thing about today. We could go on and on, dissecting the match, breaking down key moments and finding various players wanting. But the reality is that FC Barcelona is maybekindasorta in the La Liga race, and now into the Copa final because this team has undergone an almost complete mentality change.
It’s easy to forget that not that long ago this group was a mental wreck. Late comebacks are the sign of a team with belief, and also the fitness to translate that belief into goals. It’s also a sign of a team that understands how to go for the jugular, how to get a win. Of all the things to celebrate about the season under Koeman, that mentality change is crucial. It’s also something that sets the stage for the future, whether Koeman stays or not.
When he rolled out with the same lineup and roughly the same formation against Sevilla as on the weekend, which resulted in a 0-2 victory, many wondered about the logic of that. Surely, Lopetegui, no slouch of a coach, will have adjusted. And yet, in the first ten minutes, Dembele could have had a brace, doing the exact things he did on the weekend against the exact same players. Maybe Koeman was on to something. And the third time’s a charm goal that Dembele eventually scored, a golazo of the highest quality, came about as a function of that formation, a shifting, dynamic, aggressive thing that liberated key players even as it exposed others.
Barça didn’t play as well overall as it did on the weekend, in a decidedly unruffled win. This Copa remuntada required a monster penalty save from Ter Stegen, a penalty shout that came as a consequence of Koeman reverting to a more traditional formation and Sevilla taking advantage of existing weaknesses. When the German net minder came up colossal, it was easy to feel like his team was going to get it done today. Yet the manner was unexpected, mostly because Barça should have put the match to bed earlier than in the 89th minute when a wobbling, tottering Sevilla, down to ten, was finally put to the sword. From that equalizer, there was only one way that extra time was going. That Braithwaite did the honors was a lovely thing for a lovely man, even if he should still be at Levante instead of in the Blaugrana.
The thing about faith, about a winning mentality is to always give yourself a chance. Teams win matches they are supposed to lose because they are there, always there, even at the end, even when a lesser team allows a little bit of relaxation, a little bit of “What could go wrong now?” Well, a flawless cross for a running Pique header, for one. It was an equalizing goal that felt inevitable, mostly because Barça played that match like a team that expected to win from the moment the first ball was kicked. It wasn’t just that they were at the Camp Nou, a place that has been a chamber of horrors for Sevilla and its manager. The team charged at Sevilla to get at them, to engage, to make it clear that this wasn’t the same group that meekly allowed itself to be played off the pitch in the first leg. This team had belief.
A football team will always take on the mien of its manager. It’s unavoidable. And perhaps some of the facilitating factors for Rome and Anfield was the dour, tacticurn, adaptable Ernesto Valverde. Don’t even get me started on Setien. But this team, under Koeman, is playing with a fire not seen since Luis Enrique was running the show. It isn’t arrogance, but it is belief. And a great part of that belief comes from how they are managed, from how they pick each other up, the psychological buttressing that helps a group become a group. Sevilla set up to stop Messi, so three other players scored. And the work continues.
It starts with being a meritocracy. Griezmann started his third straight match from the bench, and deservedly so. It’s a competitive environment that makes players want to fight for a spot in the team, then work hard enough to keep that spot. In the first half, Vidal was off on a tear against Pique, and looked to have the advantage. Dembele came streaking in off the full sprint to provide help for Pique, and change danger to calm. Putting in work is how you get results, but you have to believe the work is going to make a difference. That’s the thing about belief, about faith. We see it in matches, but it’s built in training, in the sessions that make players familiar with each other, that helps them understand the role of a crucial teammate at a crucial time. Griezmannn believed that Pique would make the run for that header, so he laid up the cross. There wasn’t a lot of joy in the appointment of Koeman, but it’s important to give him credit where it’s due: he did that. The mentality change that he cites is a consequence of the work of him and his staff. He has turned the team that was wandering the pitch like Setien was wandering the countryside when he got the call to take over, to a group of believers. For anything good to happen, belief is the foundation.
With a good hunk of time left and his team chasing a goal, Koeman subbed on Ilaix Moriba, a massive talent up from the B squad. Moriba is 18, same age as Pedri and Ansu Fati, also players who showed up huge for the club, even if Fati’s season was cut short by a contact knee injury. And Moriba delivered, even schooling Rakitic late into extra time, and delivering a master class on how to see out a match on the ball. He’s 18, and his manager trusted him in a match that is in essence, the team’s best shot at silver this season. Pedri went almost straight into the XI. Mingueza and Araujo, up from B, have become first-team stalwarts.
If you perform, you will play. All any player wants is a shot to play, to demonstrate that they have what it takes. Koeman has created a competitive team based on real competition for places. Dembele isn’t in the XI because he cost 140m. He’s there because he has done the work that his manager required of him. Pedri isn’t there because he’s a new transfer. He’s there because he’s 18 going on 30, a delight on and off the ball who heals like a superhero. Time after time this season, Koeman has rewarded work. Work is its own reward. Put it in and good things will happen for you. Not all the time, but enough times where something REALLY good might happen.
Right now, Barça is playing like a team that knows what it is doing and believes in it. That doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen by magic. All three presidential candidates were there to witness the team’s remarkable comeback. But they didn’t just see the comeback. They saw the togetherness, saw the affection the team displayed for the manager that has built something with them. None of that means that Koeman will survive any of their election. Xavi is looming, there are grand plans and designs. But based on his work this season, Koeman deserves a shot at a full, proper season with his own transfers. It’s worth remembering that he took over and got one transfer in Sergino Dest, the next Dani Alves who is looking more like an apprentice. Imagine how different the team might be had it had Wijnaldum, Depay and Garcia, who all meet glaring deficiencies in attack and how the team defends. Imagine how different things would be even if Fati hadn’t taken that foul on a planted cleat, that changed a season for him.
Koeman deserves a shot because he, with the help of his team, is building something. What that something is still remains to be seen, but the team is suddenly reliable in league, on a winning streak interrupted only by a ridiculous penalty call that gifted Cadiz a late, late equalizer. That is the second stunning, late comeback for the team in the Copa. The only psychological blot on the copy book is the PSG stomping, and it’s safe to speculate that even that match might have gone differently had Koeman chosen different personnel or a different formation. He, like his team, is still growing.
Most crucially, he has come to understand that he needs to play with what he has, rather than making what he has conform to an ideal of how he wants to play. In this game, flexibility is too often confused for malleability, for a lack of conviction. Koeman has flexed, and so has his team. And make no mistake, it is now his team. They have flexed their way into a Copa final, via another remontada for the ages. They repaired one glitch. Coming soon will be the chance to work to repair another, the chance to show if what we’re seeing is really and truly real.