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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Lionel Messi’s Barcelona exit could help Ronald Koeman build his own team

Leo Messi exit Koeman's benefit
Leo Messi’s exit from Barcelona appears imminent. Alberto Estevez, EPA

Sat beside Barcelona’s under-fire president Josep Bartomeu in front of the assembled Catalan media, Ronald Koeman insisted he had a grasp on just how difficult his new job would be. That he was prepared for whatever would be thrown at him at Camp Nou.

Nothing, however, could have prepared for the Dutchman for his first two weeks as the Barça boss.

This is a club in crisis.

Of course, Barcelona were a club in crisis when Koeman was hired, with talk of club elections, a dressing room clear-out and the future of Lionel Messi all casting a shadow over his unveiling on August 18. Hardly a week passed before the shadow grew so large that few doubt Koeman will ever emerge from it.

Messi’s decision to leave Barcelona, communicated to the Camp Nou hierarchy on Wednesday evening, shook the Catalan club to its core. The 33-year-old is, after all, the greatest player in Barca’s long and illustrious history. That he should want to leave, and in such a public and acrimonious manner, is a sad indictment of where Barcelona are as a club right now.

Conventional wisdom suggests Koeman, only a week or so into the job, may have been sent into spiral of despair by what has unfolded. At 33, Messi is into the twilight of his career, but the sunshine still shines brightly on his brilliance. Still, even after all this time, nobody can match Messi for the moments of pure, unexplainable magic he conjures on a regular basis. There’s a reason Europe’s elite are now tripping over themselves to sign him.

And yet an argument could be made that Koeman might stand a better chance of success as Barcelona manager with Messi out of the picture. Every Barca coach since Pep Guardiola has had to build their team around the Argentine, often to the specifications of the forward—such is the political power he holds at the Camp Nou.

With Messi gone, Koeman could construct his own team and his own ideology.

For all his undeniable brilliance, fitting Messi into an effective team structure has become more difficult in recent years. The 33-year-old’s fading physicality means he can no longer press and counter press like he used to. Messi isn’t rested for many games because he has become the master of resting during games, preserving his energy for when he has the ball at his feet. This isn’t to the liking of all coaches.

The 4-3-3 shape Barcelona have used for the last decade-and-a-half isn’t the best of fits for Messi at this stage of his career. Koeman would have greater freedom to find the right formula. Quique Setien was never afforded this freedom and lasted only eight months at the Camp Nou, crushed by the pressure of having to please Messi and forge a winning team.

Of course, even if Koeman somehow forges a successful Barcelona team without Messi, there will be pitfalls he’ll still have to contend with. The fan anger over allowing the club’s greatest ever players to leave might engulf all else. There is also the small matter of the presidential election coming next March. Victor Font, seen by many as the frontrunner, has already promised to replace Koeman with former Barca midfielder Xavi Hernandez should he win.

There’s also the possibility that Bartomeu is using Koeman as a political battering ram. The Dutchman has, according to reports, been given “total power” by the Barcelona president, with Koeman seemingly waging this power in informing Messi that he would no longer be treated differently to the rest of the squad.

“Everyone knows that Barcelona is my dream club,” Koeman said upon his appointment at the Camp Nou. “It feels very special to me to be able to become a coach there.”

Bartomeu has been keen to play up how the Dutchman’s return will see the Catalan club re-adopt their trademark values and principles.

“We chose Koeman because he knows Barcelona. We know him well: what he is like, how he thinks and how his teams play. But also for his experience, because he was in Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team, because of his way of understanding football. He knows our philosophy, our way of playing.”

But even if Koeman gets Barcelona winning again, it will be difficult to argue this is a true Barcelona team when Lionel Messi is scoring goals somewhere else.

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