With additional reporting by Rodrigo Faez
BARCELONA, Spain — Ronald Koeman’s first act as Barcelona coach was a working lunch with his new bosses on Wednesday. He dined with president Josep Maria Bartomeu, sporting director Ramon Planes and director Javier Bordas at La Venta in the swanky Sant Gervasi-La Bonanova neighbourhood. They had plenty to discuss.
Koeman has replaced Quique Setien as one of the many changes promised by Bartomeu in the aftermath of their Champions League embarrassment against Bayern Munich last Friday. However, sources have told ESPN that although Koeman was receptive to most of the necessary changes, he wanted one thing to remain the same: keep Lionel Messi at the club.
The new coach was anxious to arrange a meeting with Messi, around whom he hopes to build a team. The forward has been frustrated, disappointed and, at times, angry over Barca’s European shambles and, according to reports, is considering his future. (On Friday, the Barca board were divided over whether they should actually listen to offers for their talisman given the needs of the squad and the scale of the rebuild required.)
Messi, the six-time Ballon d’Or winner, has flirted with leaving the Camp Nou before, but the threat of him leaving has never felt more real. His silence during the week since Barcelona’s Champions League exit, which has been one of the most turbulent weeks in the club’s recent history, has only increased concerns that he could leave.
And so, a face-to-face between the new coach and the club captain was quickly set up on Thursday. Messi travelled back from Cerdanya, where he was on holiday with Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba and their families, to meet with Koeman. The star needs persuading that Barca will be able to undergo a rebuild while still competing domestically and in Europe. Sources close to Messi wouldn’t divulge how the meeting went, but the club confirmed that he told Koeman he has doubts about staying. Further talks are planned.
Messi’s contract runs until 2021 and includes a prohibitive €700 million release clause. For Koeman, persuading the No. 10 to stay would be a good start to his tenure, but the scale of the task at Camp Nou remains huge.
“It’s not an easy challenge,” Koeman acknowledged as he was officially presented after Wednesday’s lunch. “Even during good times, it’s not easy to be at Barcelona because the club demands the very best. But I like that, it’s how it has to be.
“I think there have to be changes. The image of the other day [against Bayern] is not the image we want. We will work hard to recover the prestige of a club that is still greatest in the world.”
It’s undeniable that Barcelona have lost some of that prestige, especially over the past eight months. In January, Barca sacked Ernesto Valverde, when the club was top of La Liga, and Setien’s reign has been defined by a host of mistakes, on and off the pitch, that culminated with last week’s 8-2 humiliation against Bayern. That defeat brought all the club’s woes bubbling back to the surface.
In addition to the possibility of Messi leaving, Barca need to replace an ageing core of players, reduce the game’s biggest wage bill and do it while dealing with a €300 million deficit caused by the coronavirus pandemic. That’s without delving into the crisis at board level, which resulted in six members stepping down in April, or even touching on the fact that, in March, a new president will be appointed and everything done this summer could be ripped up in favour of starting again, again.
The demise of Setien
After the heavy loss to Bayern, Setien refused to answer questions about his future, but he already knew he was going to be sacked. He didn’t even need to speak to Bartomeu to know that; instead of being relieved by Bartomeu, Setien received the news over lunch on Monday from sporting director Eric Abidal, who stepped down from his own role with the club 24 hours later.
It had been 217 days since Setien had been appointed — with almost 60 of them spent in pandemic lockdown. A source close to the first team quipped there is “nothing positive” to say about Setien’s fleeting Camp Nou stay.
Things didn’t get off to a great start in January when Setien replaced Valverde, who had been a popular figure among senior players, and they quickly went downhill. Sources explain that large sections of the squad, including Messi, didn’t click with Setien and his coaching staff from day one. It quickly became apparent that the players’ relationship with his assistant, Eder Sarabia, was particularly sour. Meanwhile, Setien’s goalkeeper coach, Jon Pascua, wasn’t even tasked with working with goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen. That job remained with Jose Ramon de la Fuente, who has been in the role since Tito Vilanova hired him in 2012. He has worked with Ter Stegen since 2014, and the two have built a close bond.
However, it was the tension with Sarabia that spilled into the public sphere. Messi ignored a briefing from Sarabia during the 2-2 draw with Celta Vigo on June 27; television cameras caught the No. 10 walking away from Sarabia as he attempted to issue instructions. It was a scene familiar in training, according to sources, where players didn’t buy into the “intensity” demanded by Setien and his staff. They thought some of his exercises were childish and others overcomplicated. This led to tension between Sarabia and Messi; on occasion, Setien even had to step in and keep the peace between the pair.
As the rift between players and coaches grew, coupled with dropped points post-lockdown in La Liga against Sevilla, Celta Vigo and Atletico Madrid, Bartomeu soon realised another managerial change was needed. Setien’s fate was sealed when Barca lost to Osasuna in the penultimate game of the season, handing archrivals Real Madrid the title. Sources explain that the top brass at the Catalan club believed that Setien’s lack of experience at the top level counted against him, which was why he didn’t garner respect among the players.
Despite that, after a series of meetings, there was a consensus among the players and the coaching staff that Setien would remain in charge for the Champions League campaign. Everyone on staff agreed to pull together for the sake of the club; however, per some sources, Setien seemed to have checked out. He didn’t give a proper team talk ahead of the Aug. 8 win against Napoli, instead telling the players they were experienced enough to know what they had to do. In the build-up to that game, some players turned to other members of the backroom staff to ask for information on Napoli’s strengths and weaknesses — analysis Setien would usually deliver.
Barca survived that game, winning 3-1 (4-2 on aggregate), but their preparation for Bayern was just as haphazard. Setien did try to exert some authority, asking players to step up during training sessions. After the Bayern game, despite the fact that players knew what it meant for Setien, sources say the players didn’t even say goodbye to the coach.
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There are two sides to every story, of course, and sources close to Setien say he realised within one month that he had an “impossible job” on his hands. He and his staff believe the players have too much power. They sought to change that, but without the board’s backing, they were fighting a lost cause. In the end, Setien staffers Sarabia, Pascua and fitness coach Fran Soto all left too.
How Barca courted Koeman
On Saturday, the day after the Bayern game, Koeman began interviewing for the job. The Dutchman dined at La Cupula Garraf, a fancy restaurant down the coast from Barcelona. He recently purchased a house in Vallvidrera and makes regular trips to the Catalan city, but this time his visit felt more pointed. He was one of three candidates sounded out by Bartomeu as the Barca president sought to avoid the mess that underpinned Setien’s appointment in January. Of course, Barca had landed on Setien only after being turned down by Koeman and Xavi Hernandez at the start of 2020. Despite rejection seven months ago, Bartomeu turned to the same two men, along with Mauricio Pochettino, when looking for Barca’s new coach.
Once again, sources say it quickly became apparent after discussions that Xavi — a Barca club legend as a player, now managing in Qatar at Al Sadd — was still not ready to return, which left Pochettino and Koeman on the list.
Former Tottenham boss Pochettino dined informally with Barca’s then-assistant sporting director, Planes, last week, and sources told ESPN that at one point — at least in the minds of Bartomeu and Planes — Pochettino had a real chance of landing the job. (Planes was confirmed as Abidal’s replacement when the former defender stepped down from the role.) The Argentine coach previously said he would rather “return to his farm” in his homeland than coach at Camp Nou because of his history as a player and coach at rivals Espanyol. Pochettino soon backtracked on those comments, appearing to open the door to the top job at Barca. However, sources explain that the overwhelming negativity towards Pochettino among supporters and on social media — as well as doubts among some members of the board — propelled Koeman into pole position.
Koeman played for Barcelona as a player and wrote his name into the history books when, as part of Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team,’ he scored the goal that secured the club’s first European Cup in 1992. A source close to the Barca hierarchy says they settled on Koeman this time because they believe he will command respect from the players.
The club also feel he’s capable of overseeing an overhaul of the playing staff. He’s never been afraid to stand up to big-name players — as shown at Valencia when, in 2007-08, he forced out senior stars Santiago Canizares, David Albelda and Miguel Angel Angulo as part of a rebuild — and given Setien’s power struggle with the squad, Koeman’s assertive nature is going to be needed. ESPN reported earlier this year that only three players were not for sale, and Bartomeu confirmed on Tuesday that basically every player over the age of 30, excluding Messi, can leave.
“They are legendary players and they need to leave with honours, but we have to talk case by case,” he told Barca TV.
There were minor doubts about the playing style Koeman has used throughout his managerial career and some other minor complications, such as agreeing on a severance package with the Dutch FA, but with a lack of other options, it was full steam ahead.
For Koeman, sources suggest that he felt this was a train he could let pass only so many times. It was time to board it. People close to him say he is in “perfect health” after a heart scare earlier this year and, after leading the Netherlands to their first major tournament since 2014, feels energised for what lies ahead.
The size of the task awaiting Koeman
In a remarkable interview aired on the club’s in-house television channel on Tuesday, president Bartomeu effectively made over-30 players such as Gerard Pique, Alba, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal and Suarez available for transfer. (These big earners are all over 30, entering the final years of their careers and deemed expendable.) Others, including Philippe Coutinho, Samuel Umtiti and Junior Firpo, have been mentioned in conversations (formally and informally) with half of Europe’s top clubs.
Barca have the biggest wage bill in football, with this season’s accounts revealing that it comes in at over €500 million a year. Bartomeu admitted this week that that is a “problem” and, with the club predicting a €320m fall in revenue next season due to the coronavirus, they need to reduce it. That will be easier said than done in the middle of a pandemic, not least because the majority of those players would like to stay. It’s for that reason, perhaps, that Koeman struck a more conciliatory tone on Wednesday. He said that age doesn’t matter but that he will demand hunger and commitment from his players.
“I don’t want to mention names; we have to look in the club’s best interests and make the best squad possible to try and win games,” he said.
“There are players of a certain age who you can start to doubt, although a player who is 31, 32 or even 33 is not necessarily finished — it all depends on your hunger and whether you want to give everything for the club. I only want to work with players who want to be here, and if they are not happy here, then they should say so. I only want people who are going to give everything for Barca.”
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To help him, Koeman will bring in Alfred Schreuder and Henrik Larsson as his assistants, one of whom already has a positive rapport with one of Barca’s key players. Sources say Schreuder arrives with Frenkie de Jong‘s blessing, given their relationship, and former Sweden international Larsson is a familiar face, having played for Barca 14 years ago, and boasts that institutional memory of what the club expects to be.
De Jong will be central to Koeman’s plans. The coach has dined out with the midfielder — along with Patrick Kluivert and family — on several of his trips to Barcelona over the past year. A source at the club say there’s excitement to see how De Jong, a €70m signing from Ajax last summer, will blossom under his compatriot.
Other youngsters will be brought through alongside De Jong — Riqui Puig, Ansu Fati and recent signing Francisco Trincao, for example — and new signings will also be chased. Sources say Eric Garcia and Lautaro Martinez remain targets, but all that matters right now is one player: Messi.