Everyone knows just how challenging the circumstances are at Barcelona right now, yet many are of the belief that they are better than they are currently showing. Expectations have been lowered after a summer which saw Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann depart the Camp Nou, but not to the point that just one win in six matches is deemed acceptable.
Ronald Koeman might well pay for Barça’s poor start with his job. The Dutchman was already under pressure when, after a defeat to Bayern Munich followed by draws against Granada and Cadiz, the Catalans arrived in Lisbon for Wednesday’s Champions League clash with Benfica. A 3-0 dismantling at the Estadio da Luz hardly helped his case, and this weekend's 2-0 capitulation to Atleti merely poured salt in a gaping wound.
Now, discussion in the Catalan media has turned to who could replace Koeman with few obvious candidates waiting in the wings. Nonetheless, defeat to Atletico Madrid in La Liga almost certainly marks the point of no return for Koeman as Barca boss. The Camp Nou club is now forced to go through the recruitment process.
For many fans, Xavi Hernandez should be Barcelona’s top target. The legendary midfielder has long been tipped as a future manager of the Camp Nou club and has been cutting his managerial teeth for the last few years as head coach of Qatari team, Al Sadd. His appointment would be a widely popular one.
However, Xavi has previously shown a willingness to bide his time. He resisted Barca’s overtures two summers ago when the club offered the 41-year-old the manager’s job ahead of Koeman, instating choosing to stay in Qatar for the time being. He must feel a great deal of vindication given what Koeman has faced over the last 12 months.
Back then, Xavi’s issue was reportedly with the Barcelona board and maligned president Josep Bartomeu. The former midfielder’s relationship with Joan Laporta is much stronger, but he might still wish to keep his distance until Barça’s playing squad is in better shape. This might not be the right time for Xavi to take over as seems to be his destiny.
Roberto Martinez is another manager reportedly on Barcelona’s radar as a potential replacement for Koeman. The Spaniard is more of a tactician than Koeman and so might stand a better chance of imposing a system and a structure to sustain the talent still at the Camp Nou. However, Martinez’s record at club level is patchy.
As Belgium boss, he has earned some plaudits, but Martinez has still to lead the country’s so-called golden generation to the glory many expected of them. Does this qualify him for a club post as big as the Barcelona one? What have the Catalans seen from the Spaniard to suggest he would turn their fortunes around?
Rather bizarrely, it has even been suggested in some quarters of the Catalan press than Jordi Cruyff, currently employed as a member of Barcelona’s board, could take over until the end of the season in the event of Koeman being fired. Cruyff might give Barca another dose of nostalgia to help them through some tough times, but his managerial record is barely worth mentioning. Handing him the reigns would be an almighty risk.
In some ways, it might be best for Barcelona to keep Koeman as someone who can absorb much of the criticism for a situation that is largely outside his control. Another managerial appointment might cast more light on the club’s board and the mistakes they have made even after the election of Laporta.
“I don’t think changing the coach is the solution,” Frenkie de Jong insisted after the damaging defeat to Benfica in the Champions League. “I can’t talk about Koeman, it’s not my place. We have to keep fighting, stay together and overcome this situation. We can only escape this with hard work and being united as a team.”
“As I’ve said just the other day, regarding my future I can’t say anything,” Koeman himself said after that loss in Lisbon. “Because I don’t know what the club is thinking in this respect, and I don’t want to answer any more questions on this because it is not in my hands. We’ll see.”
There is still a lot of quality in the Camp Nou dressing room to work with. Koeman should be getting more out of the likes of Ansu Fati, Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and the rest. But there is no guarantee that replacing the Dutchman at this point would point Barcelona in the right direction again.