For almost two decades it had felt inevitable that Ronald Koeman would get the Barcelona job sometime. And now he has it, walking into the chaos left behind by Friday’s 8-2 Champions League quarterfinal defeat to Bayern Munich and signing a contract through June 2022. If narrative were the driver of success, this would be perfect: two entities that have seemed meant for each other for so long, finally brought together in a state of crisis. But the reality is that it’s far from clear whether the coach was the major problem, or whether anybody could put right what has gone wrong without a major overhaul.
Even as he led Ajax to the Dutch title in 2002, Koeman was being mentioned in connection with the job as Barcelona went through its last major crisis, going through four coaches in three years after the end of Louis van Gaal’s first spell in charge. He seemed like an obvious choice. He was not merely a great former player but had scored the winning free kick in the final of what was, at the time, Barcelona’s only European Cup success. He came from the Dutch-Barcelona tradition, had played under Johan Cruyff, been an assistant to Van Gaal, and his Ajax played football in what was seen at Camp Nou as the right way.
As Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique brought a decade of success and four further Champions League titles, though, Koeman’s star waned. His time at Benfica was disappointing, and although he won a league title with PSV, the Copa del Rey with Valencia and was quietly successful at Southampton, a stint at Everton didn’t work out. The sense was of a manager who hadn’t quite lived up to his promise.
But then in 2018, he took charge of a Netherlands side that had failed to qualify for both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup and improved its fortunes almost immediately, leading it to the Nations League final and qualification for Euro 2020. In January, when Ernesto Valverde was sacked, Barcelona offered him the job. Anticipating that he would be leading his national team in the Euros this summer, he turned Barcelona down–even though he had a release clause in his contract allowing him to leave if Barcelona made an offer. When he says it has always been his dream to be Barcelona coach, it is true.
The postponement of the Euros has changed the picture though. Koeman has no desire to tread water for a year before the competition. In addition, he recently had heart surgery which, at 57, has perhaps made him realize the opportunity may not come around again. Barcelona had initially seemed to favor Mauricio Pochettino, but he is an ex-Espanyol player and manager and, although he has recently pulled back on comments that he would rather work on a farm than manage his former club’s great rivals, there is also a sense he is not quite of the Barcelona school.
Barcelona has for years tended to prefer managers who play in ‘the right way’ rather than those who have necessarily had success–a policy that worked with both Rijkaard and Guardiola. Koeman, though, is no Total Football romantic. He grew up as a player not at Ajax but at PSV. He is, essentially, a pragmatist, a manager whose controversial use of a 3-5-2 formation while at Feyenoord persuaded Van Gaal to adopt it with the national side at the World Cup.
The situation Koeman inherits is desperately complicated. More than $1 billion has been spent over the past five years, and yet the core of the side has barely changed. Manager Quique Setien and sporting director Eric Abidal have been the first to pay the price for the Bayern humiliation. Frenkie de Jong, who played under Koeman with the Netherlands, will presumably be restored to his natural position at the back of midfield, but aside from that, it’s not completely clear who, aside from goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen (who has undergone surgery on his right patellar tendon and is out until November), is safe.
Under-fire president Josep Bartomeu confirmed Tuesday that ter Stegen would be signed to a long-term deal, while also claiming that Ousmane Dembele, Lionel Messi, de Jong, Clement Lenglet, Nelson Semedo, Antoine Griezmann and Ansu Fati would not be for sale. That, seemingly, leaves everyone else up for purchase, including Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba.
Even Messi, though, whose contract expires next summer and who has hinted at a desire to leave, has become problematic. His lack of running and pressing creates structural problems in the side, for all his brilliance on the ball, for all the cracks he has consistently papered over throughout the years. That’s not to suggest that Koeman would force Messi out–Bartomeu claims that Messi is "key" to Koeman's vision–but if the Argentinian does stay, there has to be major surgery to devise a way in which he can best be used without exposing the midfield in the way it has been for the past four seasons.
In an interview in Spanish outlet Sport in April, Koeman identified two key defects with Barcelona.
“One, intensity,” he said. “Like it or not, today the top teams play at a very intense rhythm for the 90 minutes. Barça find it hard to maintain that… [Two] They don't dominate games like in previous years. In that aspect Barça have to get their identity back, that's part of their DNA. They've always had control, but a more effective control.”
Few would disagree. But with an aging and unbalanced squad, a board that recently has seemed barely competent and presidential elections coming up next year, it’s not clear how much power the coach, even one as forthright as Koeman, will actually have.
Given his background, and given the way he dragged the Netherlands out of its slump, though, he is at least a logical appointment.