It was always a question of “when” and not “if”. That FC Barcelona’s decision to sack Ronald Koeman in the early hours of Thursday morning, didn’t come as surprise.
The only real surprise is that the former Barca central defender lasted as long as the season and a quarter that he managed in the job.
Koeman’s job quite simply became untenable after successive defeats to Real Madrid and Rayo Vallecano, with the loss to a recently promoted side with one of the lowest budgets in LaLiga the final nail in the coffin for a man whose time at the Camp Nou could be described as the “chronicle of a sacking foretold”.
The former Dutch coach was hailed as a returning hero when he was appointed the successor to Quique Setien, who was quickly shown the door in the wake of Barca’s failure to win the 2019-20 LaLiga title and their 8-2 humiliation to Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
That 8-2 defeat made clear the difficulty of the task that lay ahead of Koeman and a look at his curriculum, with standout failures at Everton and Valencia, meant that many questioned whether he was up to the task.
Koeman’s landing at the Camp Nou was less than smooth as he was presented with a summer of drama which saw Leo Messi present a bureaufax declaring his intention to leave the club, while the club’s dire financial situation meant that Luis Suarez would be shown the door.
The decision to allow Suarez to join Atletico Madrid, where he would help them win the title, probably wasn’t down to Koeman, but the Uruguayan clearly resented the fact that the coach told him he was leaving in a brief phone call, rather than in a face-to-face chat.
Messi eventually stayed to see out the final year of his contract – at the time because he had no option, but it was hardly a good beginning and things got worse when 17-year-old sensation Ansu Fati injured his knee at the start of the season and an expected four-month layoff extended into four operations and 10 months on the sidelines.
Barca ended last season third in LaLiga with some decent performances in the New Year keeping them in the title race until a disastrous home defeat to Granada and a 3-3 draw away to Levante when they had been 3-0 up, ended their title hopes.
Joan Laporta’s return as club President after Josep Maria Bartomeu (who had appointed Koeman) always looked as if it would leave Koeman on shaky ground and despite Laporta’s public support, relations between the two were never good.
Barca’s 5-2 aggregate defeat to Paris Saint Germain again highlighted that Barca were falling behind Europe’s most powerful clubs, but the run of form that saw Barca beat Athletic Club 4-0 to win the Copa del Rey, along with Koeman’s willingness to give time to youngsters such as Pedri and Ronald Araujo saw him cling on to his post – partly because nobody else seemed to want to join a club with debts of 1.3 billion euros.
This summer saw more departures, with Barca unable to afford Leo Messi, while Antoine Griezmann also returned to Atletico. Miralem Pjanic and Francisco Trinaco (neither used much by Koeman) also left along with Junior Firpo and although Memphis Depay, Eric Garcia and Kun Aguero arrived on free transfers, the feeling was very much of cost-cutting and getting by on a low budget.
The arrival of Luuk de Jong – arguably the least Barcelona-style player Barca have ever signed – on the last day of the transfer window, did little to alter this perception.
Koeman never hid the limitations placed on him in his press conferences, which although true, certainly wasn’t diplomatic, and responded by promoting more youngsters, with 17-year-old Gavi in particular impressing, while Nico Gonzalez has also looked good.
Once again injuries (this time to Pedri and Araujo, as well as Aguero) have hampered Koeman, but although his side at times looked confident on the ball, they have also looked very fragile. Atletico Madrid picked them off on the break, as did Real Madrid and Rayo and Koeman failed to correct the problems, seeming to make the same mistakes time after time (all be it with limited resources).
Successful Barca teams seem to play by memory, by clockwork—as if they were almost playing with their eyes closed as each player knew where his companions were. This automatic football hasn’t been there with Koeman, while gaps between midfield and defense imply a lack of work coordinating the team on the training ground.
Koeman will point to all of the departures and injuries and missed chances, such as Memphis’s penalty on Wednesday night, but although the club will be grateful for his work with the youngsters, he tactically fell short.
The big question is: Can the next man in the hot seat do any better?