When Ernesto Valverde came to FC Barcelona, his mission was clear. Work to maximize the veterans, help the team win some more for and with Messi. One of the sharpest observations about his first season came from Levon, a mod here and @barsalev on Twitter. He said that Valverde did his job so well that he made Barça into a team that he wasn’t good enough to coach.
Quique Setien took over, his death as certain as the young couple who are about to have sex in the woods during the slasher film. He said the right things, but couldn’t do anything. No power, no tenure, no respect. And that was that.
And then came Koeman, and he talked about intensity, using young legs all else being equal, all the right stuff. Culers were skeptical because we’ve heard it all before. What’s interesting is that the last time a new coach rolled in after a stank season … the last TWO times as a matter of fact, a treble ensued but in different ways.
Guardiola came in and screamed, “Run, you bastards run!” And he might have sent a more significant message by selling Ronaldinho and Deco, and putting Eto’o on notice. This is the game. Play it or get out.
Luis Enrique came in and said, “Get the ball to the horses and let them run.” Purists screamed, “Where’s the midfield?” The team answered, “Celebrating goals with the rest of the team.”
Both coaches had strong personalities and a clear way of playing. They also had the nucleus of a strong team, a group of frustrated players made hungry by failure. And now, Koeman.
On the surface, many of the same factors are present in a talented squad angry and hungry after a beatdown, and a coach with a strong personality at the helm, and change on his mind. It’s only been a pre-season with easy opponents and two matches that the team was supposed to win, despite narratives to the contrary. A proper test will come on the weekend in Sevilla, but is there anything to be learned so far from what Koeman has done? Plenty.
Like Guardiola, he has served notice that nobody except Messi is safe. People are running, jumping and hustling in a way that they didn’t last season or under Setien, the substitute teacher. He has moved players around, letting them play in a position closer to their natural one. This is particularly true of Coutinho and De Jong, and they are rewarding Koeman with revelatory performances, particularly the Brazilian. And the most powerful player of them all, Koeman didn’t have to say anything to. But when you saw Messi running like a wee Ferrari to chase a Celta break late in the second half, it was enough to make you excited about the season in a way that we haven’t been for a very long time.
The team is hungry. Getting pantsed 8-2 on a global stage tends to do that. It doesn’t matter what tactical changes a manager makes if the team isn’t ready to implement them. Coutinho is running and making magic because this is his last best chance. Messi is playing like he has something to prove, and he does after a summer of turmoil in which he wanted to leave the club. Busquets is being helped by a capering De Jong and an active, aggressive press.
Koeman might be a man who has a year to prove himself to whoever the new president is, but he’s acting like a manager with tenure and power, empowered by veterans who want it and young players who are learning from the veterans. When everybody is hungry, a group figures out how to eat. Villarreal was supposed to be a challenge. They got wrecked. To be sure, naive tactics and an ineffectual attack made them founder on the rocks, but they had a lot of help in falling apart. Then came Celta at their house, a place where Barça hadn’t won since 2015, and a 0-3 scoreline was the result. How the team played in the second half, down a man but up a goal was eye-opening. The press remained, the intensity didn’t wane.
There are still problems. The team still needs an athletic, quick, pacey centerback. The answer for that seems to be Ronald Araujo. The team also needs two fullbacks because as much as people like Sergi Roberto, he isn’t anybody’s answer at right back, unless the question is “What would make Sergino Dest turn down Bayern to come to Barcelona.” Left back is still a problem and becoming more of one by the week. Junior Firpo seems to be a psychological mess, a mere shell of the dynamic creative force that he was at Betis. And the team also needs a midfielder to apply pressure to Busquets, who isn’t what he once was by even the most optimistic assessments.
Answers? If Dest is better than any of us think, then Sergi Roberto becomes that useful midfield profile, an active, energetic player who is smart on the ball and can provide forward thrust while also being solid on the press and defensively. In other words, the Wijnaldum that the club couldn’t afford to buy. Not sure what the answer is at left back, and it matters. Lenglet is sitting out a red card suspension because Alba was a mess, stranding him in the first instance then not fighting hard enough for a ball that other players would have come away with. Yes, Lenglet was a dummy for sticking the arm out, but it should never have come to that.
And speaking of Lenglet, his on the ball skills have improved. His play out of the back has reached a new level this sesaon. But he still has slow feet, doesn’t turn quickly and isn’t that strong in the air. In the acres of space that Alba routinely leaves, a reactive CB isn’t ideally what you want. Enter Araujo as an option that we should expect to see more of as the season progresses.
But so far, the biggest thing that Koeman has done isn’t tactical or on the transfer market. It’s psychological. Fati, Trincao and Pedri are sending messages to incumbents. Dembele just got back from injury and is fit, but under pressure from youngsters. Koeman said that Trincao and Pedri played over Dembele because they are better defensively. Yes, he meant that match and in that situation, but the underlying meaning was clear. You’re on notice, and you get the feeling that Dembele isn’t the only one. If we noticed how much better the team played and moved as a unit when Griezmann came out, you’d better believe the coaches did as well. That’s a problem that will need a solution, because what Griezmann brings to the side is very useful. But the balance so far is tilting negatively, even as his value to the side is compensatory as it augments a slow midfield in bringing defensive heft to the second layer of the press.
Sterner tests are to come. The next three matches for Barça are Sevilla, Getafe and Real Madrid. The three after that includes a resurgent Betis and Atleti. We will know a lot more about Koeman and a longer view by mid-November. What we know now is that he has been able to make players understand that they have to put out, and that if they don’t, there is a set of young legs waiting to take their spot. That was pressure that Valverde couldn’t apply, pressure that Setien didn’t have the power to apply. The players grew to adore Guardiola, but started out fearing him, because he put them under pressure and on notice. So far, Koeman has done the same, helped by a hungry Messi. And the team is fun again.