Ronald Koeman took charge of Barcelona in a storm. The club, so proud, were reeling from the 8-2 beating they took at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League mini-tournament in Lisbon and were dealing with the unprecedented crisis of the greatest player in the history of football trying to force through an exit from the club he joined as a pimply and diminutive teenager.
Quique Setien, Koeman’s predecessor, had struggled from the jump. The Basque’s professorial style didn’t fly amongst a group of players as experienced and decorated as Barcelona’s, and he failed to assert his authority on a dressing room laden with player power. He was an easy sacrificial lamb post-Lisbon, but his jettisoning left a daunting task of transition for whoever took control next.
That someone was Koeman, a man known for his arrogance and self-belief. He was never going to be daunted by the task given his reputation at Camp Nou; as a player, he scored the winning goal in Barcelona’s first-ever successful Champions League final, and was one of Johan Cruyff’s most trusted lieutenants on the pitch. His managerial career, however, left a lot to be desired, characterised by mediocre performance and accusations of absenteeism. Everton and Valencia fans, particularly, warned Barcelona what to expect.
Koeman realised he had the chance of a lifetime, however. The Dutchman put in hours nobody close to him can remember him doing, working tirelessly to seize his opportunity and help return his club to where they belong. The first few months of his tenure was difficult, with Lionel Messi’s infamous burofax casting a long shadow off the pitch and inconsistent performances doing the same on it.
Messi returned from an extended Christmas break in Argentina like a man possessed, however, firing Barcelona to an incredible winning run and a victorious Copa del Rey campaign that included a stirring remontada against Sevilla. They fell in the Champions League to a Kylian Mbappe-inspired Paris Saint-Germain, but catapulted themselves back into La Liga’s title race to become many’s favourites heading into the final three games.
Messi was undoubtedly the lightning rod that made all this possible, but Koeman had his moments. He trusted youth, integrating the likes of Oscar Mingueza, Ronald Araujo and Pedri into the first-team and revitalising the careers of Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele. He was unlucky with injuries, with Ansu Fati and Gerard Pique, two La Masia products at the opposite ends of their careers, missing most of the campaign.
But what’s tactical flexibility when you’re winning becomes tactical inconsistency when you’re losing, and that’s what happened in this past week. Barcelona went into it with a chance to take the title in their hands, only to lose to Granada at Camp Nou and then drop two points at home against Atletico Madrid and away at Levante. The latter, a 3-3 draw where Barcelona threw away two leads, was the killer blow, an unlikely result that shocked everyone from Casino Online España to Catalonia.
What’s not been mentioned is the drama in the president’s office. Josep Maria Bartomeu was forced to step down and subsequently arrested, with Joan Laporta elected his successor. Laporta was the man who appointed Pep Guardiola, with his first term, between 2003 and 2010, teeing up the monumental success of those late-2000s and early-2010s. While respectful of Koeman, he’s been silent in recent weeks in backing him to be Barcelona’s coach next season. The Blaugrana’s stumble at the final hurdle in La Liga’s title race may be the final straw, the catalyst for a new man to come in and pick up the work Koeman’s done this season. A significant summer looms at Camp Nou.