The problem with Koeman

Back when everyone was raving about Quique Setien after his Betis side got a result against Barça, I had a TV show appearance in which that question came up. My answer was, “I don’t want him anywhere near the Camp Nou, because his teams still make the same mistakes, even after all of his time with them.”

When thinking about Koeman and his continued tenure at the club, lots of people are reacting to a lot of things, but it strikes me that the biggest, or one of the biggest issues with his team right now is that it doesn’t look as though they have learned anything. About anything.

Back in the day, I had a husky mix. One day, I got to wondering about instinct and animal coding. So off we went to am empty parking lot, where I put on some inline skates, got behind him, grabbed his leash and said, “Go.” And well, he started pulling for all he was worth. It was automatic. He had a task, and the coding. The rest was reflex.

When Pep Guardiola took over Barça, he set about making the simple stuff relfex, creating an action template that is like a dog’s really. Retrievers retrieve. Throw the ball and off it goes. Guardiola players pass, move and receive, skills honed through repetition to the extent that they become automatic. It isn’t quite Pavlovian, but it’s close.

Managers instill a team with tactics, plans and discipline. It was often said of Guardiola’s Barça teams that they lacked a Plan B. But when Plan A worked so well, what was the bother? A team has to have a way of playing. Koeman’s team doesn’t.

In the wake of the Granada debacle, everyone was talking about the more than 50 crosses into the box. Okay. But if Koeman’s team was playing like that all along, then you can certainly get riled about the ugliness of it all, and the submission to the idea that this is the only way that he thinks his team can score from open play. But at least it’s consistent.

Koeman has played about 48 different ways, moving about like a cat in a room full of toys. Passing and control, crosses, Dembele at the tip of the spear, various formations, all kinds of stuff. And none of them are stuck with long enough for the team to establish fluency. When a group is constantly learning something new, how does instinct ever happen? When we tried to train our husky to play fetch, we threw the ball and he looked at us like, “What do you want me to do with that?” Then he sighed and went inside the house. New systems require adaptation.

Barça defenders still don’t cover runners, still leave men loose in the box, still don’t tactical foul, still can’t find effective ways to stop opponent breaks. Effective wing play still doesn’t exist. It makes you wonder what the team works on during training. Granada was able to do the same stuff, unfettered, as Bayern. That points to fundamental flaws that should have been corrected long ago.

A manager is supposed to help their team get better. That’s it. Learning, teaching, repetition, reflex, systems, analysis. “This is the team we have, now let’s figure out the best way to play with it.” Koeman appears to have done none of that.

After the match, he essentially said, “My team is kinda crap, so what do you want?” And this would be acceptable if …

No, it isn’t acceptable even if it was true. You just don’t say that. But his team isn’t crap. The way that he chooses to use and instruct it, however, is most decidedly crap. Ten different managers will look at a team and probably end up with ten different XIs. Koeman, with the deficiences of the teams that he chooses match after match exposed, doesn’t seem to learn. He still starts Busquets, even though opponent after opponent take advantage of his immobility, is just one example. Tenure doesn’t automatically equal superiority, especially not in athletics.

Watching Atleti play Athletic Club, every time Athletic Club got a break going, if it wasn’t clear that Atleti had enough players back, they just fouled. Done. Then you set up and defend. Barça acts like every counter they face is the first time they have ever faced a counter. And that’s on the manager. So many failings, so many things are on the manager.

After CrossFest, Koeman said in essence, “You want me to play tika-taka with this team?” Well, yeah, especially given that the hothouse that trains players trains them for precisely that. Pass, move, receive, repeat. As a manager builds a team that is capable of playing a given style of football, a repeatable style, you take that into account.

Ter Stegen
Mingueza Araujo Garcia Balde
Nico Gonzalez
De Jong Pedri Gavi
Demir Depay

Say what you want about the idea of tika-taka (and I have my own ideas about it), but that XI is one possibility. Tighten the lines, play off the one touch without any of the big spaces and individual runs that the team is now doing when it isn’t crossing, and you see what happens. And you try it for an extended period, not for a few minutes before you shrug and go back to throwing in crosses.

Barça tried a negative, doomed variant of possession football against Bayern, aimed at stroking the ball around to keep it so that the scoreline isn’t violent. That isn’t anything that a team should be playing. The possession stats at the end of the first half were 50/50, which doesn’t describe anything about what play was like.

As a manager, you have one job: make your team better. The trophies, parades and stuff come later, if they come at all. But the metric is whether your team is better. If your team has regressed, you need to ask yourself some hard questions. And if, in the face of those questions you say that you don’t have the personnel to do what people want you to do, you might as well resign. Because it’s the wrong thing to say, and if you’re talking about the team currently managed by Koeman, there are so many messes that it’s difficult to know where to start. But they all begin with leadership.

Laporta let Messi leave, which was a hard decision but one necessary for the good of the club, to his view. Every day that Koeman lingers damages the team. And it isn’t about ugly play. It’s about everyhing that needs to happen, that hasn’t happened and probably won’t happen.

Yes, Koeman has been amazing in playing youth, but as Bielsa said this week, if you play the kids but don’t give them any success template, don’t play them in a way that teaches them anything, then what are you doing? Koeman isn’t providing for the future, he’s breaking it. And it can’t be allowed to continue.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.