Football Features

Ronald Koeman: The new Barcelona manager’s in-tray, from transfer targets to club structure

By Muhammad Butt

Ronald Koeman: Barcelona manager's in-tray, from transfers to line-ups

Published: 10:38, 19 August 2020

Ronald Koeman is the new Barcelona manager.

The Dutch coach has left his position as head of the Netherlands national team to take over at the Camp Nou after the Blaugrana sacked Quique Setién following the humiliating ceding of their La Liga title and brutal Champions League elimination.

This move seems like a shock, as Koeman’s record in club football isn’t exactly glittering and he was last seen being decidedly unimpressive as Everton boss back in 2017. He’s done well managing the Netherlands, guiding them to some impressive wins and a Nations League final, but international football is a different style of management to the club game.

Barcelona, however, have never really done things like other clubs. Of the seven coaches appointed since Joan Laporta revolutionised the Catalan club in 2003, only two had previously won senior titles, and neither were in major leagues (Ernesto Valverde in Greece and Tata Martino in Argentina and Paraguay). They look at how a coach fits their system, and go from there.

To that extent, Koeman’s history with Barcelona and Ajax, two clubs linked by the influence of Johan Cruyff, is largely why he is going to get the job in Catalunya. He played for Ajax back in the mid-1980s, and then Barcelona in the early-1990s where he was part of Cruyff’s “Dream Team” that won four straight La Liga titles as well as the club’s first European Cup, where Koeman scored the winning goal in the final.

So there is an understanding that Koeman “gets it” because he was there when it happened, a student of Cruyff, a team-mate of Guardiola. As such there will be an affection there between manager and fanbase, which is something this current board value very highly as it buys them more leeway should the manager go through any difficult periods. Part of what made Setién’s life so difficult is that no one held any affection for him whatsoever as he came from outside the system, there was no history like there is with Koeman.

Winners and Losers

Since becoming a manager at the start of this century, Koeman had a four-year spell managing Ajax where he took them to two Eredivisie titles by bringing through young talent like Wesley Sneijder, Raphael van der Vaart and the monumental Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

He’s not exactly an avowed Cruyffist in terms of his tactical shape, but he is well aware of the teachings and shares his mentor’s passion for bringing through young players. Wherever he’s gone, Koeman has trusted and placed faith in youth. After three consecutive coaches who seemed less than interested in using the immense talent La Masia has to offer, Koeman will be a breath of fresh air in that regard.

Riqui Puig, Ansu Fati, Ronald Araujo and even signed youngsters like Pedri and Francisco Trincao… all of them will get their chances under Koeman and that can only bode well for the short, medium and long-term health of Barcelona.

The youngsters will thrive, as will the wingers as Koeman likes them to be fast and direct. Ousmane Dembélé may finally get a run of games out wide with a manager who will trust and encourage him. If he can stay healthy, maybe now we can finally see him start to repay the massive €100m transfer fee that Barcelona splashed out to sign him.

In terms of losers, a lot of the veterans at the club may find themselves in trouble. Barcelona have already been planning a clear-out and allegedly have made all senior players bar four (Leo Messi, Frenkie de Jong, Clement Lenglet and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen) “available”. Given the club will likely have to sell before they can buy, you can imagine Koeman wanting to clear out some of the bigger names to make space both in the squad and on the wage bill. Luis Suárez and Arturo Vidal in particular should be worried.

New Signings

Vidal would have initially been confident of his success under Koeman, given that he excels as an advanced attacking midfielder who makes goalscoring runs into the box. However, unfortunately for him, it seems Koeman is targeting Donny van de Beek as his first signing.

This move makes a lot of sense, as Barcelona don’t have a goalscoring midfielder (beyond Vidal, who is old and probably needs to leave) and Koeman has always made great use of this kind of player. Someone who can create but who is definitely a goal threat. Van de Beek has 45 career goals for Ajax, and has hit double figures in each of the last three seasons.

Signing Van de Beek makes the prospect of using Messi as a false nine much more real, as the Dutchman would be free to race into the space vacated by the Argentine. And thanks to the good relationship between Ajax and Barcelona, it’s unlikely that it would be as expensive a transfer as it would be for other clubs.

In addition to Van de Beek, a move for Man City’s Eric Garcia to return home also appears to be in the works. And, of course, Lautaro Martinez remains a priority target though that could be a bridge too far, financially. At least this summer. A right-back would be superb and again Barcelona could dip back into Ajax, taking young Sergino Dest.

How could Barcelona line up under Koeman?

Obviously there are many ways Barcelona could line-up with Ronald Koeman as coach, but the most likely one, with the most realistic transfer expectations, would see the Dutchman once again use the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hybrid shape he did with the Netherlands.

The defence will operate as standard, changing only to accommodate new signings like Garcia and Dest. They will bring the ball out from the back and move it into midfield. There De Jong will surely be given the reigns to control things, much as he was for the Dutch national side under Koeman.

The other pivot role could see Sergio Busquets or Miralem Pjanic deployed alongside De Jong to hold position whilst the young Dutchman runs the show. However, this role could also see Van de Beek play deeper, adding possession and passing but also an explosive capacity to burst forward and threaten goal, the kind of dynamism that Barcelona are crying out for.

Of course Van de Beek would be more likely to play as the most advanced attacking midfielder, but this role could just as easily be given to Puig, the young Catalan sensation who is begging for more responsibility to come his way. He’s repeatedly demonstrated an ability to handle big games, big opponents and never look out of his depth. A midfield trio of De Jong, Van de Beek and Puig would be athletic, technical and tactically coherent. It could develop into something very special indeed.

Up-front, what if Lautaro doesn’t arrive? Well the presence of Van de Beek means that playing Messi as a false nine, much like Memphis Depay did under Koeman for the Netherlands, becomes genuine again. With the guarantee of a lethal goalscorer always running into the box, Barcelona don’t necessarily need to have a dedicated No. 9 if they can’t get the exact No. 9 they want, and Messi can play centrally to always be the reference in attack. The additional benefit to playing Messi here is he doesn’t have to do any defensive tracking back, or the side doesn’t have to adjust to the fact that he doesn’t track back.

Moreover, if there is no one filling that central role then the possibility of wingers getting into goalscoring positions is very high.. Dembélé, Fati or Trincao could play out wide for Koeman’s side and see an upturn in their production. All three young men have shown they have a knack for scoring goals that could only increase under the Dutch coach.