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Is Ronald Koeman really the right manager for crisis-hit Barcelona?

With Ronald Koeman on the cusp of being announced as Barcelona’s next manager, it begs the question as to which parts of his CV got overlooked by Josep Maria Bartomeu and the rest of the club’s board. 

There are three Dutch league titles on there, two Johan Cruyff shields and a Copa del Rey. With Barcelona, in their own words, at ‘rock bottom’ he is far from the most accomplished option to assume position now at the Nou Camp. 

But Koeman is a risk-taker, a gambler even when things are going well – much as they are in his role reviving the Dutch national team. Even after suffering a heart attack in May, the 57-year-old is ready to take on what is arguably one of the most stressful and challenging jobs in world football right now. 

‘In life you get opportunities, and I grab them, that is how I am,’ Koeman said in 2007 as he departed PSV Eindhoven. ‘The fact is that the world of football is like that. And I am someone who goes for it.’ 

In England he went trophyless, in Spain he started a civil war in the Valencia dressing room and he was routinely mocked by opposition supporters who begged for him to stay, such was Valencia’s collapse under him. 

And so while Tintin, as he was affectionately known in Catalonia, walked away from Barcelona a legend as a player, it seems appropriately fair to hold a degree of scepticism as he prepares for the one job his whole career has been building towards. 

Much like Andrea Pirlo being appointed as Juventus manager, Koeman to Barcelona is as much about club DNA and identity as it is being an upgrade on the last man. 

Koeman has far more experience than Pirlo, that much needs to be accepted given he has had 10 jobs in the last two decades, but there have been plenty of scratches, bumps and bruises since his last stint in LaLiga spanning Valencia, AZ, Feyenoord, Southampton, Everton and Holland.

Start with his appointment at the Mestalla – not known as one of the more forgiving environments if things go awry. Koeman replaced Quique Sanchez Flores at the beginning of November 2007 – and they soon dropped out of the Champions League and didn’t even fall into the UEFA Cup.

A 0-0 draw away to Chelsea ensured Los Ches finished bottom of Group B, failing to score in any of Koeman’s three group games in charge. And the poor form, the bluntness in front of goal, spanned all competitions. He won one of his first eight games and failed to score in six straight matches in that run. 

Early in the season there was a degree of optimism surrounding Valencia even if there is always a natural undercurrent of cynicism. They were four points off the top of LaLiga when he took over from Flores.

Soon they couldn’t score, never mind win, and Koeman, rarely ever lacking in confidence and swagger, decided to tear up the dressing room. The consequences that played out in public were damning. 

‘Valencia is a ship and those who don’t want to be on board, will be out,’ Koeman boldly stated in a press conference ahead of the 2008 January transfer window. His way or the high way, then.  

David Albelda, captain of the side and one of three senior players called out by Koeman, felt ‘humiliated’ and eventually took legal action against the club in order to terminate his contract. It was a bold power play given Koeman was not getting the results to back it up.   

‘Koeman just said he didn’t have any faith in my leadership on or off the pitch and I responded that after 20 days in charge of the team he didn’t know me well enough,’ Albelda told reporters in an explosive press conference at the time. 

‘The directors at this club have no class or status to humiliate me like this.’

Koeman was himself close to being pushed off that ship he spoke of as title prospects faded and Valencia plummeted down the table. It was a disaster, nothing short.  

And this was a side full of future stars: David Villa, Juan Mata and David Silva were all part of this Valencia crop. Koeman had the tools – he just never quite managed to figure out what he was building. 

Winning the Copa del Rey, and beating Barcelona in the semi-final, was a real feather in his cap and there is no doubt the Catalan side remember that double-header well.

It was Valencia’s first Copa del Rey win since 1999 and yet come their visit to San Mames to play Athletic Bilbao in April, there wasn’t a Valencia fan keen to see Koeman remain. 

He turned up to the Basque country on the edge and come full-time after a 5-1 hammering, Koeman was finished. They had gone from four points off top to two above relegation. 

Joaquin bemoaned Koeman’s tactics as having players ‘running round like headless chickens’ and Raul Albiol said ‘the dressing room is a funeral’. In the first big audition to catch Barcelona’s eye, Koeman had failed miserably.  

A year at AZ Alkmaar pulled him out of the media spotlight and three years at Feyenoord allowed him to hit the reset button before becoming Mauricio Pochettino’s successor at Southampton. 

Southampton’s squad had been savaged, ripped apart and there was a fear that a season battling the drop lay in wait. Again, a gamble from Koeman. 

But unlike his malaise at Valencia, Koeman hit the ground running after recruiting smartly with Sadio Mane, Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle. 

In his first season they finished seventh and in his second they finished sixth. Koeman’s Southampton were fast becoming the side to watch in England. 

‘Koeman is a great manager and he’s a nice person,’ Mane told Sky Sports in 2016. 

‘When he was at Southampton, everybody liked him at the club. It was easy for the young players, for us and for me personally because he helped me a lot and if I’m here today, some of it is because of him. He gave me many chances and I’m happy for that.’ 

Koeman was outperforming Pochettino’s side and suddenly his stock was given a real shot of adrenaline. His goal of getting to Barcelona was, for now, back on track. 

Southampton fans could dream of cracking the top four – they were within touching distance. And then Koeman’s divorce from the south coast club became bitter and drawn. While those at Valencia couldn’t wait to see the back of him, Southampton were left bemused the Dutchman walked away to join Everton. 

The club statement took a clear shot at the short-termism they felt was showed by Koeman after just two years: ‘Our focus now is to build on our long-term plan, to work with a new management team who share both the club’s and our supporters’ values and ambitions.’ 

‘Values and ambitions’ felt pointed and has been levelled at Koeman before at Valencia and later at Everton. At Barcelona he won’t need to be educated on either.

At Everton it went from the sublime to the ridiculous in just over a year. 

Koeman guided the club to seventh in his first season, into Europe and with an increased budget to what he was used to on the south coast, he spent £140million to bridge the gap on the top four over the summer. 

In came Gylfi Sigurdsson. In came Davy Klaassen. Out went Romelu Lukaku and no orthodox striker arrived to replace him. 

When Koeman was given the boot in October 2017, 16 months after arriving, the club were licking their wounds from a 5-2 loss to Arsenal and sat 18th in the league having won two of their first nine games. He’d spent a fortune and they had got worse. He left with a 40 per cent win record. 

And so what Koeman serves up in Barcelona could be the sequel to Valencia or a re-run of what happened in Southampton. Given the extremes to which his results seem to play out, it could also be anywhere in between. 

He finally has the job he has always wanted since he left his role as assistant in 2000, now Koeman needs to prove all his gambling was worth it.  

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