The paper delivery boy in Ronald Koeman’s neighbourhood likely skipped the Dutchman’s house for the majority of this season. For months, the Catalan press was full of open speculation over who would replace the 58-year-old as Barcelona boss at the end of the season. Koeman was, in the eyes of many, a placeholder merely installed to bridge the gap between presidential tenures.
Even at Koeman’s unveiling as Barca manager last summer, he was asked how he would handle the pressure of having Xavi Hernandez waiting in the wings. At the time, it was widely assumed the former midfielder would take over as head coach as soon as Josep Bartomeu was replaced as president.
As recently as January, it was suggested that Mikel Arteta and Julian Nagelsmann would be on Joan Laporta’s radar as he returned to the Camp Nou for a second presidential stint. A lot has changed since then, though. Far from being a placeholder, Koeman has seemingly earned his place in the Barcelona dugout for another season.
Koeman has turned things around. Barca are currently on a run of 12 wins from their last 13 league games which has lifted them back into the Spanish title race. They also have a Copa del Rey final against Athletic Club to look forward to later this month. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Barcelona could end the season with a league and cup double.
Even as the Catalans exited the Champions League in the round of 16 to Paris Saint-Germain, they did so with some dignity, showing some fight in the away leg. This was at least an improvement on recent seasons which have seen Barcelona crash out of the tournament in increasingly humiliating ways.
This season was always likely to be a transitional one for Barcelona. A generational shift is taking place at the Camp Nou with the club stuck somewhere between the generation that brought them so much success over the last decade and a new generation. Koeman, however, has managed this transition better than anyone could have envisaged.
A number of talented youngsters have been fast-tracked into the Barca first team this season. Pedri has been the most impressive of the bunch, quickly becoming a key figure for Koeman following his lowkey summer move from Las Palmas. Ronald Araujo and Oscar Mingueza have slotted seamlessly into the defence while Ilaix Moriba and Riqui Puig continue to develop in midfield. And this is before Ansu Fati, who has been sidelined for much of the season, is factored in.
New signings like American international Sergino Dest have been integrated quickly while past flops, such as Ousmane Dembele, Frenkie de Jong and Antoine Griezmann, have been resurrected. What’s more, Koeman is getting more out of the veterans in his squad demonstrated by how Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets are enjoying career renaissances.
Then there’s Lionel Messi. The Argentine appears to be enjoying himself again at the Camp Nou, scoring 12 times in his last 10 games. Messi has still to put pen to paper on a new contract, with the 33-year-old set to become a free agent this summer, but there is a quiet confidence that with with Bartomeu gone he will stay at Barca. Koeman has played a role in appeasing the number 10.
There is, of course, still a lot of work to be done. Barcelona are seemingly on the road to recovery, both on and off the field, but this is far from one of their best teams. The Camp Nou support don’t just demand domestic success, they want European titles and trophies. As already demonstrated this season, Barca aren’t quite at the level that they can count themselves among the continent’s best.
But Koeman, a club legend as a player, has earned himself the chance to get Barcelona back to that sort of standard. “It's not in my hands. The only thing I know is that I have another year of my contract to run after this season,” the Dutchman recently explained. “I'm just focused on winning games. The rest of it is out of my hands. There's so many games we don’t have time to think about much else. At the end of the day, the new president will decide and I’m fed up of these questions.”
Indeed, the new president, Laporta, will decide on Koeman’s future at the end of the season, but there is little evidence to support a replacement being brought in. Barcelona are entering a new age as a club and Koeman, an unpopular and underwhelming appointment to begin with, has played his part by looking after things on the pitch.