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How Ronald Koeman is proving the doubters wrong and making real progress at Barcelona

Ronald Koeman has ignored the turmoil off the pitch to make real progress at Barcelona
Ronald Koeman has ignored the turmoil off the pitch to make real progress at Barcelona
Aaron Gales
ANALYST
Modified 27 Mar 2021
Feature

Ronald Koeman's career in management was always going to lead to one place.

Barcelona.

It was a place where Ronald Koeman excelled as a player, scoring 88 goals in 264 appearances, winning four league titles and one European Cup.

But it hasn't been an easy road for him to get there, particularly when you consider his achievements at the Camp Nou as a player. Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique were both given one of the biggest jobs in world football with little to no experience. Guardiola had only managed Barcelona's B side while Enrique had managed Roma and Celta Vigo for a season each with only moderate success.

Even Frank Rijkaard, who never played for Barcelona, was given the job despite two poor years as manager. First with the Netherlands national team and then with Sparta Rotterdam, who had to face relegation in the Eredivisie.

Ronald Koeman's managerial career, on the other hand, has been extensive and varied, with domestic spells in Holland, Portugal, Spain, England and at international level with the Netherlands.

Although there have been mixed results and a relative lack of silverware given the caliber of some of the clubs that he has managed, Ronald Koeman has built a reputation as a competent and capable manager.

Although linked repeatedly with the Barcelona job, it appeared that it may be destined to pass him by, particularly considering the disappointment of his sacking at Everton.

However, a short but impressive spell as manager of his country went a long way towards restoring Koeman's reputation. During his 18-month spell with the Netherlands, he led them to the final of the inaugural UEFA Nation's League and then to qualification for Euro 2020, the country's first major competition since the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

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This was enough to finally attract the attention of the powers that be at Barcelona, who were coming off the back of a hugely disappointing season as they missed out on the La Liga title to rivals Real Madrid, before being humiliated by Bayern Munich in their 8-2 defeat in the UEFA Champions League quarter finals. They sacked Quique Setien following that defeat, having previously dispensed with the services of Ernesto Valverde in January 2020.

Ronald Koeman took over during one of the most difficult periods in Barcelona's history. Not only had they failed on the pitch, but off it things were looking even more precarious.

Loss of revenue due to the Covid-19 pandemic played its part, but it was their transfer policy where much of the blame lay. Since selling Neymar to PSG for nearly £200 million, they had frittered the money away on expensive replacements such as Phillipe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, all of whom failed to match the heights of the player they had been signed to replace.

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Their wage bill was astronomical, which needed to be reduced quickly. Perhaps most dramatic of all, though, was the transfer request from the club's greatest ever player, Lionel Messi, to leave the club.

In the initial days of Koeman's dream job, he was greeted with chaos and confusion. A number of high profile players and earners were allowed to leave for nominal fees. These included Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitic and perhaps most controversially Luis Suarez, who was allowed to join Athletico Madrid, much to the dismay of his great friend and team-mate Messi.

The challenge for Ronald Koeman was to create some harmony in the dressing room as well as on the pitch, and to ignore the off-field politics.

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After two comfortable victories at the start of the La Liga season, things got tricky for Ronald Koeman and his side. In their next eight league games, Barcelona would lose four, draw twice and win twice. However, following a really poor 2-1 defeat to Cadiz on December 5, Ronald Koeman and his team started to turn the corner.

They are now unbeaten in 18 league fixtures, winning 15 of them and drawing three, closing the gap on league leaders Athletico Madrid to just four points with 10 league fixtures remaining.

Ronald Koeman's team will also have their first opportunity to put some silverware in the trophy cabinet, having overcome a 2-0 deficit against Sevilla to win the second leg 3-0 and progress to the Copa Del Rey final, where they will take on Athletic Bilbao on 17 April.

They progressed out of a UEFA Champions League group which included Juventus, and were unfortunate to draw a rampant PSG side in the last 16 of the tournament. PSG proved to be superior over two legs, knocking Barcelona out with a 5-2 aggregate scoreline.

However, there is now light at the end of this season's tunnel for Ronald Koeman and his side. The presidential elections saw the highly unpopular Josep Maria Bartomeu voted out and replaced by Joan Laporta, who enjoyed a very successful first seven years at the helm between 2003-2010.

Ronald Koeman could still finish his first season in charge with two trophies
Ronald Koeman could still finish his first season in charge with two trophies
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Lionel Messi also seems happy at the club once more, scoring 29 goals and claiming 13 assists in just 37 matches. Keeping Messi at the club will be key to Ronald Koeman's long-term success at Barcelona.

Whatever happens, Ronald Koeman can hold his head high knowing he has done a superb job during the club's most fragile period in many a decade. All things considered, Koeman's job at Barcelona could go down as the best in his managerial career.

Published 25 Mar 2021, 00:55 IST
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