19 matches without tasting defeat in La Liga and six wins on the bounce before facing Real Madrid for the Clasico. The coach had found a working formula to prosecute games. It involved playing Ousmane Dembele as a striker instead of the flanks where he’s featured all his career and his pace was the X factor that continued to cause defenders headaches. It involved giving Clement Lenglet some protection by playing two other centre-backs alongside him. The French defender had cost the team due to so many mistakes; from committing reckless fouls to handling the ball thoughtlessly in the box, inevitably conceding cheap penalties. The press was better during offence-defence transitions- less than six seconds of turning over possession and the lads had won it back. Sergio Busquets was gaining back the control as we know him to do consistently. Jordi Alba had a freer role to strut his stuff in attack and indeed, he was creating chances and combining very well with Lionel Messi. The Spanish full-back created eight chances in five games, beginning with the league game against Sevilla. This is in contrast with the six chances he created in eight games preceding the change in style and tactics. Sergino Dest became particularly comfortable, scoring his first two goals within that period. The credit could only go to Ronald Koeman- it was an absolute masterstroke- pure ingenuity!
Then, it was time for the Clasico…
For once, this season, against a big team, Barcelona were favourites for the fixture. Well, a few reasons for that were related to Real Madrid’s engagement in the quarter-final of the UEFA Champions League as well as recent injuries to key players in the team. While the reasons were valid, they were untenable. Koeman’s men were obviously on the rise- they had the longest active unbeaten streak in Europe’s top five leagues. Let’s face it; the Catalan club had injury problems of its own as well. Gerard Pique was going to watch the game from the stands, Samuel Umtiti was out as usual, Ansu Fati had been sidelined since November owing to a serious knee problem and Sergi Roberto had been in and out of the team since December.
That Saturday night was cold and it was not just because of the rain which had Messi trembling. Nothing worked! Barcelona did plenty of the play in front of the opponent’s area but with very little penetration. They just couldn’t get in. The hosts were physical and blocked the spaces in the middle.
First chance on the break for the defending champions and Karim Benzema was already celebrating his 19th league goal of the season. 15 minutes later, Vinicius was brought down by Oscar Mingueza in front of the box. Toni Kroos took the resulting free-kick, it took a deflection and skidded in. Zinedine Zidane’s men were headed to the top of the table, albeit temporarily. Crushed hopes for the fans! The most important game of the season had been bottled. Not just that, the club’s arch-rival had completed a double over it for the first time since the 2007/08 season. Messi walked a lonely road down the tunnel and with his jersey in his hand.
What now? What if Barcelona do not win the league title this season? The club’s captain seems to be on the decline too and his future continues to hang in the balance.
Has Koeman done well enough to buy himself another season? Should he be handed the responsibility of helping to rebuild the club, especially after its recent administrative change?
Barcelona may yet win the La Liga this season. There are still eight games left to play and the Blaugrana are just two points behind the leaders, Atletico Madrid. Even if they don’t, the Dutch tactician has shown the requisite competence to lead the team through its next cycle.
At the start of the season, the objective was to give the team stability and oversee the reduction of the average age of the team. The 2019/20 season had ended in the worst way possible. The Spanish giants were eliminated from the Champions League in an embarrassing fashion- losing 8-2 to Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals. After being top at the start of the year, two points above Real Madrid, they managed to conspire to hand the title to the rival at the end of the season. They concluded the season with nothing but shame. Coach Quique Setien was let go unceremoniously and without pay as a result.
The club had to do without the services of older players like Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal and Luis Suarez- a very good friend of Lionel Messi. Messi himself would send a message via fax stating that he wanted to leave. “There has been no sporting project or anything at Barcelona,” he said.
The outfit was also going through a financial situation, combined with the effects of the pandemic and could not make any big-money signings. They managed to get a 17-year-old Pedri from Las Palmas. Dest made the move from Ajax and Francisco Trincao joined the team from Sporting Braga.
The former club legend had the most difficult job in the world. First, he had to fashion out a competitive team using a blend of the old boys and some new kids and more importantly, Messi needed to smile.
After a torrid start to the season where Barcelona lost four of the first 10 matches and were available for spanking by any and everyone, Koeman has been able to steady the ship. He has learnt on the job and creatively solved the challenges before him without whining or making a fuss. The club is still in a good position to win a domestic double this season and Saturday’s Copa Del Rey final against Athletic Club could afford it its first. For whatever it’s worth, Messi has remained happy and committed to the ‘Koeman’ project.
When the fans and board take a retrospective look at how bad the season could have panned out and how Koeman has made the most of the resources handed him, they may yet accept that it has been a very successful season.
When all is said and done, the credit must once again go to the Dutch genius, Ronald Koeman!