Few managers in the recent history of Barcelona were as divisive as Ronald Koeman is currently on the job. The Dutchman had a less than underwhelming first season in 2020-21, the Blaugrana limping to third place and lifting the Copa del Rey.
🏆 The Copa del Rey is back where it belongs. pic.twitter.com/fiJwggm3u1
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) April 17, 2021
It will not be an overstatement that Lionel Messi had a lot to do with it, racking up 47 goal contributions. The departure of the Argentine legend has left a deep mark amongst the Catalans, with Barcelona predictably struggling in the early parts of this season. That is why it was a little jarring last month to hear Koeman say, “Thanks to me, this club has a future.”
Ronald Koeman: “Thanks to me, this club has a future.”
Two days later…
Barcelona fail to have a shot on target in a Champions League game for the first time since OPTA started collecting data. pic.twitter.com/iBmnv1Rbz9
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) September 15, 2021
He was ridiculed in the press for his statements, but a recent upturn in form thanks to their budding youngsters, show why Koeman was not entirely out of line just yet.
IN WITH THE NEW
Koeman has already used six players aged 18 or under this season, a mix of players from La Masia, Barcelona B and other clubs. Among the lot, two players stand out due to the seismic impact they have had already in the past two years.
Ansu Fati and Pedri's new contracts have €1 billion release clauses 😳
The future has arrived at Barca 🌟 pic.twitter.com/Ab4RLTJGeL
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) October 21, 2021
Pedri and Ansu Fati are the leading lights of the next generation, with the former becoming the standout midfielder of his age group. Pedri’s performances with the Blaugrana and then the Spanish national team were rewarded with a new long-term contract having a release clause of €1bn. Hot on the heels of that, came the renewal of Messi’s apparent heir at Camp Nou.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) September 1, 2021
It was more than a bit surprising that the club decided to hand the famed number 10 to Fati. The attacker had just returned from a serious injury having sidelined him for more than a year but showed his class immediately, netting in his first appearance against Levante.
— LaLiga English (@LaLigaEN) September 26, 2021
Koeman, and indeed the whole of Catalunya, have placed major hopes on the development of Fati into a world beater in the coming years. He was also given a bumper new contract, running till 2027, with the same release clause as that of Pedri. The extension of Fati seems to be a bigger deal than Pedri’s, given his position on the pitch and the fact that the rest of the youngsters who have featured already play in midfield too.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) October 21, 2021
Fati is being earmarked as heralding a new era under Koeman, but it took a lot of tinkering to get there in the end.
CHANGE IS INEVITABLE
The days of Xavi-Andres Iniesta in midfield have long been gone, with more and more responsibility falling on the shoulder of aged veterans. Sergio Busquets remains the only relic from that era who has struggled mightily this season in terms of pace and marking. Sergi Roberto has often been chastised for his performances as well.
Pique defends Sergi Roberto after fans whistled at him when he came off. pic.twitter.com/HPL9xJZtgR
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) September 14, 2021
Pedri’s inclusion since last season has stabilised the team a lot but larger concerns remained after ugly departure of Luis Suarez last year. Messi’s brilliance was enough to paper over the cracks for a long while but it was all laid bare after his exit, as acknowledged by Koeman himself.
1 – Barcelona are the first team ever to have two goalscorers aged 17 or under in a single Champions League match (Ansu Fati and Pedri). Future. pic.twitter.com/FoXmfyNhI0
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) October 20, 2020
Furthermore, the depleted finances of Barcelona have made it mandatory to tie up their best youth players on long-term contracts, for they will not be able to spend lavishly for some time. Even though Memphis Depay and Sergio Aguero signed for free, the latter has been beset with injury issues so far and is still some way off of full match fitness.
— beIN SPORTS USA (@beINSPORTSUSA) October 18, 2021
With Martin Braithwaite also out for a while, Depay has toiled to hold up the goal scoring front on his own. Fati’s reintroduction will ease the burden by quite a bit and with Luuk de Jong still taking time to…find his shooting boots, Barcelona can look forward with optimism on the horizon.
BAD NOW, BETTER SOON?
“Tanking” is a term used often in the NBA, where a team loses games somewhat intentionally once they realise they have no hope of making the knockout rounds. They do it in order to be so bad that they are able to select higher up in the subsequent draft and get a franchise changing young player. Barcelona and Koeman, for that matter, recognized it early that the old timers were not able to cut it.
Ansu Fati. ✅
Ronald Araújo. ⏳
Pablo Paéz 'Gavi'. ⏳
Ousmane Dembélé. 🤔
ℹ The contracts of Alejandro Baldé, Nico González, Óscar Mingueza and Álex Collado were also renewed earlier this year. pic.twitter.com/CqbnnmGAZC
— Barça Buzz (@Barca_Buzz) October 21, 2021
He quickly introduced Gavira, Nico Gonzalez in midfield, Alejandro Balde at left-back and Yusuf Demir in attack over a variety of games. Gavira has since gone on to make his international debut with Spain and has established himself as a starter, with Pedri also injured. Aside from these names, Koeman has also been instrumental in using other, more recognized youngsters over the past year.
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) October 6, 2021
Oscar Mingueza, Sergino Dest, Ronald Araujo have all become regulars in the side and have developed into important fixtures in their respective roles. Furthermore, Barcelona’s financial situation is also helped by tying up the youngsters, so that they can address their other concerns in the near future.
— Reshad Rahman ✆ (@ReshadRahman_) October 2, 2021
Fati is the leading light of this golden generation of youth and has helped Koeman back up his words. The club indeed has a future, but for that, results might suffer a bit in the present. Patience is needed in order to reap the rewards in full over the coming years.