When Ronald Koeman was hired to manage Barcelona, the club knew what it was getting.
He was stubborn and wouldn’t be pushed around. In August those sounded like positive qualities. The team was humiliated, Lionel Messi was determined to leave, and president Josep Maria Bartomeu was determined to stay.
It felt like rock bottom, the consequence of years of short-sighted decision making. Few people at the time were expecting Koeman to come in and win a league title. He inherited a mess, but with his reputation as a disciplinarian, he could provide stability and leadership.
In spite of the disappointing results, and general inconsistency from week to week, it could be argued that with elections for the new president around the corner, Koeman has done about as well as anyone could expect.
Realistically, Barca is playing for a top four finish in the league, and a decent run in the Copa del Rey and Champions League. This year is really about rebuilding, and with that in mind, these less ambitious goals still seem perfectly attainable. Ultimately the new president will provide a road map for the future, and the first decision will be whether to select a new manager.
Koeman now has a few weeks to earn that confidence. For the sake of the club, it’s best that he finds a way to get things right. Hiring a new manager mid-season would be a huge risk. Keeping things stable is what’s needed in the short term.
In order for that to happen, Koeman needs to take a critical look at what isn’t working, and not lose sight of the things that have.
What isn’t working and can’t continue
The most obvious problem on the field is the surplus of number 10s. Really only one person should be playing this role, but on any given day Barcelona has as many as four. Against Valencia, it meant Philippe Coutinho, Messi, Pedri, and Antoine Griezmann were running into each other.
This mistake has been ongoing, and there is no excuse for Koeman to keep making it.
To resolve the problem, he has two options. The first is coming to the realization that he won’t be able to play his most talented players at the same time. Coutinho is probably the odd man out, but that doesn’t mean he won’t play a role this season. There will be plenty of opportunities, but for now Pedri has earned the chance to be the first man up. In the end, however, this may not be enough. If the congestion in the middle continues, Griezmann may be the next player with the short straw.
The second option is to move away from the 4-2-3-1 once and for all. A 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 may not be perfect, but given the injuries, it would take advantage of the strength of the players that are available.
The flip side of this problem is how to get more width from the team. Recently, Martin Braithwaite has been asked to play wide. He’s done well, but it can’t continue. His impact comes as center forward, and not as a makeshift winger.
Luckily, Ousmane Dembele is returning soon. It won’t be enough. Konrad de la Fuente needs to be given an opportunity. Even if he’s not the first choice, he plays the position. This is massively important. The team looks totally shapeless and disorganized, even when they’re playing well, and the way to fix that is to get players in their natural positions.
Finally, what’s really not working is grudges against players. If Koeman doesn’t give Riqui Puig and Miralem Pjanic a fair shot, he’ll be shooting himself in the foot.
Adding these two players to the rotation, and changing the formation to accommodate it, would be a big bang for your buck move.
What is working and should continue
Since the Juventus game, the intensity has picked up, but it’s a fickle thing. To keep it going will require being rewarded for it with consistent winning.
Frenkie de Jong and Pedri have stepped up, and it’s the hot hand that Koeman needs to continue to play.
The double pivot should be banished. Instead, Barcelona has a winning combination with either Sergio Busquets or Miralem Pjanic holding (let them compete for it), and Frenkie playing alongside Pedri in the attacking midfield. This would require moving back to a 4-3-3, which would have the added benefit of providing opportunities for Riqui and Carles Alena.
Dembele was in great form before he was injured. He has been one of the highlights of the season, and when he returns, he should be given the prominent role he deserves.
Martin Braithwaite has been excellent, evidence that a real number nine is better than a false one. Even though he’s missed a few chances, he’s created enough to make up for it.
Finally, the kids are alright on defense. Sergino Dest, Ronald Araujo, and Oscar Mingueza have done well given the big shoes they’ve been asked to fill. Koeman should stand by them, even if they make mistakes. It’s the only way to learn and grow. If he gets the team attacking and applying pressure on opponents, these young defenders will execute on the other end.
Some of these changes are obvious. The only thing standing in the way is the manager’s ego. Koeman’s self-confidence has in some ways been a plus, but he’ll need to combine it with humility in order to make the necessary decisions going forward to keep the job.