For Barcelona, a season that started with Messi addressing the Barcelona fans and promising to do all they could to bring the Champions League trophy back to the Camp Nou ended in embarrassment. No La Liga trophy, no Copa del Rey trophy and the complete embarrassment of an 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-final. While the nature of the defeat came as a shock, the outcome of the fixture did not. This was merely the culmination of an ageing squad that have lost their direction and a number of failures in the transfer market. The issues are deep-rooted and things must change if the glory days are to return for the Catalan club. On the face of it, it is a bad season. In reality, if the direction isn’t changed fast this could be the first of many, especially if talisman Lionel Messi is to desert the club to which he has given so much.
In the aftermath of the Bayern Munich defeat, Quique Setién lost his job, something that was always likely to happen unless he delivered the trophy. Eric Abidal’s departure as sporting director soon followed. The man chosen to replace Setién is a man that knows Barcelona very well, having made 264 appearances for the club. Dutchman Ronald Koeman has taken the reigns, with the job coming perhaps slightly too early for Xavi, the man seemingly earmarked for the job in the near future. Make no mistake about it, this is a rebuilding job. This may be one of the reasons Koeman was chosen, with his recent rebuild of the Dutch national team from international football wilderness to a force to be reckoned with again an impressive feat. Spanish fans are notoriously hard to please and Barcelona fans are no different. The fact that Koeman was the man who scored the goal that won Barca their first ever European trophy will give him some breathing room but should results not follow the fans will soon turn.
Further restructuring may follow at board level and this will no doubt impact the players that are pursued in the transfer window but Koeman will be looking to add players he trusts to put the building blocks of his rebuild in place. For this reason he may look to players he has coached for the Dutch national side, while also looking to bring the best out of Frenkie de Jong. Last season was difficult for De Jong, a player so young thrust into a Barcelona midfield. He held his own but perhaps didn’t display the kind of performances he was brought in for. Koeman has favoured De Jong in the pivot role for the Netherlands and may look to do the same at Barca, potentially using him to phase out the ageing Sergio Busquets. Koeman could opt for the famously Dutch 4-3-3 formation but alternatively he could favour a 4-2-3-1 to get the best out of a number of players. This could allow De Jong to play a double pivot with Sergio Busquets or new signing Miralem Pjanic who was effectively swapped for the much younger Arthur much to the dismay of the Barca faithful.
Gini Wijnaldum epitomises reliability and, with his future unclear at Liverpool, he could be a shrewd piece of business. His contract is coming to its end so he wouldn’t be expensive which makes it a low-risk signing and Koeman knows him well. He may not start should he join but would add depth to a frighteningly shallow squad. There has also already been talk of Koeman considering Memphis Depay to join his front line and he would be sure to be keen to link up with his former manager and prove himself at a club like Barcelona after his ill-fated spell at Manchester United. The links with Dutch players may just be media frenzy highlighting Koeman’s Dutch links but there is sure to be some truth to Koeman wanting to bring in players he knows he can trust and Barca could do far worse than Wijnaldum and Depay even if neither would be guaranteed starters.
The change in approach could offer a lifeline to a number of players. Phillipe Coutinho’s time at Barcelona so far has been disappointing, but not necessarily through any fault of his own. Loaned to Bayern Munich last season and stuck on the left wing at Barca the season before, could Koeman bring the Brazilian in from the cold and make him a key component of his side? His two goal performance off the bench against Barca for Bayern showed he has qualities they lack, with goals from midfield hard to come by at Barca. Ousmane Dembele could also be given a lifeline and add the pace that Barca so desperately craved on a number of occasions last season. It’s hard to argue that Antoine Griezmann had a positive debut season at Barca, finding himself on the bench more often than not towards the end of the season but he was also never utilised in the correct way by Setién. Griezmann was often stuck on the left, similarly to Coutinho, which isn’t a position he thrives in. With Suarez’ contract set to be terminated, Koeman could play Griezmann centrally and hope that he flourishes with the added responsibility. Coutinho, Dembele and Griezmann cost a combined £362 million yet played a supporting role, or no role at all in Coutinho’s case, last season. Surely the Barca board would be keen to see these players come good, especially as they are highly unlikely to recoup the fee paid for any of the three. Koeman could save the club a lot of money should he be able to find a way to get the best out of the three.
If anyone can carry a team on his own it’s Lionel Messi. However, all too often last season it appeared that if Messi wasn’t to produce some magic there was no other way that Barca could win. This over reliance on Messi must be addressed, especially as he is now 33. He often appeared visibly stressed last season as the pressure seemed to weigh heavily on his shoulders. Rumours of the Argentinian looking to move elsewhere crop up every couple of seasons but perhaps this time there is the most truth to them. The latest reports are that he has informed the Barcelona board that he wishes to activate a clause in his contract that allows him to leave for free at the end of the 2019/20 season, although the Barca board are said to dispute this clause. Koeman must persuade Messi that he can transform the club’s fortunes or face the very real risk of losing him. Will a 33 year-old Messi commit to a rebuild operation when an exit would leave the world’s biggest clubs all scrambling for his services? The unthinkable could be set to happen and we could finally see Lionel Messi play for someone other than Barcelona.
To fund transfers Barca will have to remove the deadwood in their squad and, in truth, many of these players have more than outstayed their welcome. Arturo Vidal looked a shadow of the player he once was in the defeat to Bayern and will surely be moved on. Sergi Roberto isn’t a player of Barcelona quality and at 28 now he is no longer a prospect so must be moved on. Sergio Busquets has been phenomenal for Barcelona for the best part of a decade but his powers are waining. However, he will be a good player to have in the squad. Luis Suarez will be allowed to leave. Martin Braithwaite will be sold after signing in bizarre circumstances with Barca being granted permission to make an emergency signing outside of the transfer window. Samuel Umtiti could be sold and Nelson Semedo could join him as the right back has yet to convince at Barca, while Ivan Rakitic is sure to be moved on too.
Barcelona could raid their former manager Pep Guardiola for young centre back Eric García and full back Joao Cancelo to freshen up their sluggish back-line. In attack, 17 year-old Ansu Fati can provide cover for Ousmane Dembele as he continues his development.
Koeman’s philosophy is in keeping with Barcelona’s and he will look to play attractive football. The Dutchman is the highest scoring defender of all time and his managerial approach reflects his playing days. The football under Setién wasn’t what fans had become accustomed to at Barcelona, with his often-deployed rigid 4-4-2 a far cry from the all conquering tiki-taka of the Guardiola era. The first task will be to regain the La Liga crown from Real Madrid and European glory may have to wait, although it won’t be allowed to wait for long. The board will have to back Koeman if they want results and cannot afford to view him as a stop-gap until Xavi is deemed ready. The recruitment mistakes of the recent past must be learned from if this rebuild is to have more success than the last and the bizarre trend of signing players aged 30 and above is unsustainable.
Below is the line-up that Koeman could opt for should he sign his targets and Messi does end up staying at the club. This could be the way to get the best out of his key players and has a far more attacking look to it than Setién’s line-ups which Barca fans had grown so tired of. The pace of Dembele gives them another dimension although he would prefer to play from the right. Coutinho and the front three would be given more freedom from the double pivot of De Jong and Pjanic or Busquets and the bench has options that can make a difference which Barca have inexplicably lacked so much in recent times.