Sacking coach may not bring an end to Barcelona’s woes

Quique Setien’s sacking part of Barcelona’s root-and-branch overhaul following the 2-8 defeat to Bayern Munich which bookended a stuttering, trophy-less season that began with a loss to Athletic Bilbao in La Liga? Or is it mere scapegoating?

“The new coach will be announced in the coming days as part of a wide ranging restructuring of the team,” Barca said following Monday’s six-hour board meeting. Media reports named Ronald Koeman as frontrunner.

“It is only definite when my signature is on the document,” said Koeman, a Barca legend and current Holland head coach, on Tuesday. According to a Reuters report, Koeman has a clause in his contract with the Dutch federation that allows him to leave if Barca approach.

Bringing forward the date of the presidential election to March 15, 2021 from summer— calls for it to be held immediately in the aftermath of the humiliation in the Champions league quarter-final were turned down by the board “due to the economic and social framework caused by the Covid-19 crisis”—sacking technical secretary Eric Abidal and reports of Barca looking to sell ageing stars are other indications of change.

With the sackings and by staving off election president Josep Maria Bartomeu, who has been in charge since 2014, has removed himself from the line of fire. Election at the members-run club is important because key decisions tend not to get taken in the year leading to one. Former captain Carles Puyol didn’t want to continue with this regime and Xavi and Jordi Cruyff are said to be not keen either.

Earlier in the year, neither was Koeman. But when Koeman turned them down, it wasn’t known that the European season would be stretched. So it is possible that Covid-19 has made the 57-year-old reconsider his deal with Holland which runs till the 2022 World Cup.

Setien won 16 of the 25 games he was in charge, losing five. The performance was similar to predecessor Ernesto Valverde’s (16w; 6d; 4l) but as Lionel Messi said after the 1-2 defeat to Osasuna, Barca are “obliged” to win every game. It was part of an outburst, Messi saying the defeat “sums up the year for us” and that “we are a weak team who can be beaten without enough intensity and enthusiasm.”

Not all of that was Setien’s fault. The extent of Barca’s problems could be gauged from why Setien, a fan of Johan Cruyff’s way of flair play, took to managing games often waiting for Messi to make the difference. This was far removed from the possession-based, intricate passing football of Pep Guardiola or the fizz of Luis Enrique’s team but Barca losing their mojo had begun under Valverde because as the team got older, its intensity dipped.

And there lies the problem for Setien’s successor. Barca don’t have strength in depth—against Alaves, they had only five substitutes including two goalkeepers when 12 could be listed—and a series of transfer misadventures by Bartomeu’s board hasn’t helped bolster a squad where four players are over 33, two over 32 and four between 29 and 31.

Reports in Spain said Bartomeu wants to sell all players barring Messi, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, Clement Lenglet and Frenkie de Jong. Easier said than done because many of them have long-term deals: Jordi Alba’s is till 2024; Samuel Umtiti and Philippe Countinho’s till 2022-23; Ivan Rakitic, Rafinha, Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal’s till 2021.

They also have high wages and huge buy-out clauses meaning there could be few takers. Barcelona’s only recession proof player is Messi but though they don’t want to sell him, it is not clear yet whether he wants to stay.

Barca’s famous academy La Masia isn’t the assembly-line of talent it once was. So if he is the chosen one, Koeman will have his task cut out. More so because there is no guarantee that he will survive next year’s election.

Koeman’s coaching record is patchy and he hasn’t been in charge of a top club. But the appointment would fit the trend of popular players returning as coach; one reignited by Barca when they appointed Guardiola.

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