Ronald Koeman’s first season in charge of Barcelona has been quite the rollercoaster, but there’s no doubt that they’re ending the campaign in better fashion than they started it. The Dutchman inherited a club in sporting and institutional crisis but has steadied the ship and injected positivity into it.
One of the first things Koeman did upon his arrival at Camp Nou was get rid of Luis Suarez, as well as bringing in Alfred Schreuder and Henrik Larsson, two key members from his coaching staff at the Netherlands. One of the primary things they identified as a problem was a lack of physicality, something they sought to remedy by raising the intensity of training.
“Everyone is plugged in and they want to be involved, even the injured players,” Koeman said recently, hinting at the importance he holds in getting the basics right and ensuring their collective fitness is on point. “That shows on the field, that atmosphere and energy. It’s incredible looking at the data of how the team are physically. We’ve improved our game without the ball.”
Koeman and his team worked on limiting overloading their players with information, instead focusing on key insights so as to avoid cluttering minds before games. Lionel Messi was dealt with carefully, given space to cope with his failed exit. The Argentine is said to have valued Koeman’s direct manner. As soon as Messi clicked after returning from his extended Christmas break in Argentina the game changed.
Matches Barcelona were failing to win they were securing victory in, aided by Koeman’s decision to switch to 4-3-3 and his occasional use of a three-at-the-back system. Koeman has used it in seven games this season, of which he’s won five and drawn two. It enables him to free Sergino Dest and Jordi Alba on either wing while retaining defensive solidity.
Koeman’s time in charge of the Blaugrana has been marked by his adaptability. He’s never put in as many hours at the training ground according to those who know him, and he’s worked to resuscitate the Barcelona careers of players like Frenkie de Jong and Ousmane Dembele. Antoine Griezmann is another who’s shone intermittently.
“He’ll be here for many years,” He said of De Jong. “His improvement is there and he feels more responsible at Barcelona. Although he’s young, he’s taking more and more responsibility in games and I like that. To be a foreigner, you have to make a difference, and he’s doing it. He’s having a very good season. You cannot ask for more than for him to continue doing things as he has been.”
He’s also brought through young players like Pedri, Ronald Araujo, Ilaix Moriba, Oscar Mingueza and Ansu Fati, giving them the minutes and prominence others didn’t. Barcelona are four points off Atletico Madrid in La Liga, but are in fearsome form. The blaugrana went into the international break off the back of a 6-1 evisceration of Real Sociedad in San Sebastian last Sunday, while Atletico nervily beat Alaves.
With Real Madrid seemingly focused on their Champions League quarter-final with Liverpool, the path is clear for them, it seems. They’ll also face Athletic Bilbao in the final of the Copa del Rey. Were they to do the double, it would be news all over the world, from the streets of Barcelona to portals like telecomasia.net.
“We’re aiming to win titles,” Joan Laporta said at his inauguration as Barcelona president this month. “Ronald, you already know you have the confidence of this new board of directors. What we want to see is that the team is improving and we are happy and hopeful that it will continue to grow.”
Koeman, while clearly pleased with such a public vote of confidence given the scrutiny he’s been under since talking charge at Camp Nou, was keen to keep expectations controlled.
“I don’t like talking about a double,” he said. “This is something that can change very quickly. A while ago we were bad. We have to keep working, taking things game-by-game. We’re four points behind and the calendar is complicated. In the Copa final, there’s a strong opponent. There’s still time to win things, but we have to go game-by-game.”