Barcelona have a new coach and a new project, but nobody is fooled. Things will not be right at the club for some time and however turbulent you think this year has been so far, more upheaval is on the way.
President Josep Maria Bartomeu refused calls from fans and media to resign after Barca’s 8-2 Champions League humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich, instead axing coach Quique Setien, before sporting director Eric Abidal left by mutual consent.
The only minor concession Bartomeu made to his numerous doubters was bringing forward the elections to March 2021, but he and his board will still rule the club effectively next season.
Now was the time for change, as Gerard Pique vociferously stated. Bartomeu agreed but decided it didn’t mean him and instead others needed to make way, with Ronald Koeman hired as Barcelona’s new coach.
Abidal went to lunch with Setien on Monday to tell the coach he was being let go, while the board debated how to get out of another fine mess, but by Tuesday the Frenchman was out of the door, leaving Ramon Planes at the transfer wheel.
The director will work with new coach Koeman, but unless Barcelona can raise money from sales, there isn’t much scope for significant game-changing reinforcements.
The truth is, this new project is likely doomed from the start.
Victor Font is the frontrunner to be the club’s next president and he has pledged to bring in legend Xavi as coach. So, any decisions Koeman makes may prove wasteful and irrelevant, within the space of a year.
“We have to be grateful that Koeman wants to come to Barcelona in these circumstances but it’s a pity,” said Font on Tuesday night, speaking to RAC1 radio.
“He arrives for a project with no structure and no future. It’s a risk that should be avoided. If we come out on top (in the elections), we will not bet on him as our manager.”
But Bartomeu made his bed and now here we are.
There will be sales aplenty, with the president speaking in an interview on Barca TV on Tuesday night, saying that the only untouchable players at the club were Leo Messi, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Frenkie de Jong, Nelson Semedo, Clement Lenglet, Antoine Griezmann and Ansu Fati.
That means the likes of Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba, Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal, Gerard Pique & Co. are in the shop window and, if their wages aren’t too great a stopping block, there will be plenty of takers. Making it so obvious Barcelona are desperate to rid themselves of most of their squad isn’t the best way of getting a good price for your assets, but they’ve never been a good selling club.
Bartomeu staying and hiring Koeman is the move of a bleary-eyed gambler who wants one more spin on the roulette wheel at closing time to try and halt a losing streak, having lost most of their life savings already (on Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Griezmann).
In some ways the Dutchman is a good fit, in that Barcelona like hiring men with history at the club, and Koeman has that in spades.
The Champions League is the trophy they are so desperate to win, that Messi craves the most, and Koeman is the man who first brought it to Barcelona. The Dutch defender rifled home a free-kick in extra-time to hand Barcelona a 1-0 win over Sampdoria at Wembley in 1992 and end decades of restlessness in the Catalan capital.
He truly adores Barcelona, with a clause built into his contract with the Dutch national team allowing him to leave for the Catalan giants, and has never hidden his desire to coach them one day.
Although he rejected them in January after Ernesto Valverde was sacked, the landscape has changed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Euro 2020 was pushed back a year and depending on how the global health outlook is, there’s a chance it might not even happen. Meanwhile, it was now or never for Koeman at Barca; the train was passing and he jumped aboard.
Yet in other regards, Koeman’s hiring looks like another disaster waiting to happen. He has not thrived at club level in his managerial career. He had a disastrous spell at Everton which saw them slump into the relegation zone – and Sam Allardyce was his replacement who came in to save the day.
Perhaps the only way for Koeman to win is to do the best rebuilding job he can, trimming the dead leaves of the squad and allowing green shoots like Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig to thrive. Whether he will accept that as his duty is another matter, because he has dreamed of succeeding at Camp Nou and playing youngsters is not likely to beget instant glory.
That is playing on Messi’s mind too. Rebuilds don’t usually instantly lead to silverware. At 33, he is entering the final phase of his career and needs to choose between ruining his one-club-man legacy or never winning the Champions League again.
At least he understands what Barcelona’s biggest struggles are on the pitch. Speaking to Diario Sport during the lockdown, Koeman pointed out how hard they find it to maintain the same intensity that teams like Liverpool manage for 90 minutes.
Whether he can change that immediately will have to be seen, but most would guess not. That hasn’t stopped Bartomeu throwing his last few chips onto the table anyway.