Xavi, Pirlo and the contenders who could replace Koeman at Barcelona
Barcelona president Joan Laporta and his board are debating over who should replace coach Ronald Koeman after the club's concerning start to the season.
The Dutchman cut a hopeless figure on the touchline as Benfica sliced his team to pieces in a humiliating 3-0 Champions League defeat on Wednesday, and that result seems the final straw for Laporta, who has never fully backed the coach.
Koeman will still be in charge against Atletico Madrid on Saturday night, albeit not on the bench, as he is suspended for the clash with last season’s champions. Barcelona supporters expect to have seen the coach on the touchline for the last time, with perhaps only his legendary standing as a former player having prevented his dismissal already.
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Here, Goal looks at the cards that Laporta and Co. are shuffling in the search for Koeman’s replacement.
Xavi will inevitably coach Barcelona at some point in his career. He has made clear it is his principal desire and it would epitomise the club’s lust for bringing back homegrown talents, at all levels.
The former midfielder and current coach of Al-Sadd was the beating heart of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, a club legend who best exhibited the values Laporta wants to restore.
Just as Koeman’s history bought him some time even when results weren’t going his way last season, Xavi will be given more time and patience than any other possible arrival. The squad will look up to him and the fans will be in the palm of his hand.
His work in Qatar has been impressive and, as a La Masia graduate, he knows the club inside out. And everything around it, which is a big deal at Barcelona, where the pressure is huge.
However, Laporta has doubts about Xavi for three reasons. He was deeply linked with presidential rival Victor Font’s campaign, and would not be seen as a Laporta choice. In the ego game, that matters.
Furthermore, the 41-year-old would also be a power player at the club and, if he got into a row with Laporta like Koeman has, things could turn ugly.
More reasonably, unlike Guardiola, Xavi has not coached Barca B and is not said to be interested in doing so, which is something Laporta would prefer he did. He has no experience as a coach outside of Qatar.
Xavi is the endgame for the Barcelona model. If he doesn't work out, where do Barcelona go from there without starting over from scratch?
The Belgium coach is said to be interested in taking over at Barcelona and is one of the front runners for the post. “In football, you never know what tomorrow will bring,” he said, ahead of the Nations League final four.
Both Martinez and sources close to Barcelona deny there has been contact between the two parties yet but the former Everton coach does have a close relationship with Barcelona’s assistant sporting director Jordi Cruyff, which works in his favour.
Martinez’s possession-based attacking football would be more pleasing to Barcelona supporters than Koeman’s game, and Belgium have done well under his leadership. However, he also tends to prefer a three-at-the-back system with the Red Devils and has been accused of having no Plan B.
Born in Catalonia, Martinez is viewed within the region as one of their own, and his name has often been linked over the years with Barcelona. The main doubt over him is whether he would prove a pale imitation of Guardiola’s style, rather than the real deal.
While none of the candidates has a sparkling managerial CV at club level, Martinez has been coaching for 14 years and the only real honours to his name are winning League One with Swansea in 2008 and the FA Cup with Wigan in 2013.
Having been out of the club management game since being sacked by Everton in 2016, it is a big ask for him to come in and reinvent a fallen giant.
The former Italy midfielder is said to be Laporta’s personal favourite candidate for the job. He certainly has talked the talk.
“I’m not going to change (my style) because some of the results weren’t good,” he told The Athletic. “That’s still how I think about the game, playing out from the back, looking to keep the ball, regaining possession as quickly as possible.”
One of Laporta’s main frustrations with Koeman has been the coach’s defensive tactics against bigger sides, including reverting to the 3-5-2 formation against Benfica.
Pirlo struggled at Juventus, including suffering a 2-0 home defeat by Koeman’s Barcelona, albeit one he avenged at Camp Nou later on. His team were also eliminated in the Champions League by Porto in the last 16, in the type of result Barcelona have had all too much of recently in Europe.
However, the fact Juventus have dropped even further this season, currently languishing 10th, shows that a lot of their problems go deeper than the coach.
The River Plate coach is another who has often been linked with the Barcelona role and his contract is set to expire at the Argentine club in December.
He is arguably River’s most successful coach ever and likes to play attacking, quick football. The 45-year-old is also capable of adapting and problem-solving in-game, an area where Koeman has struggled. Gallardo has the endorsement of Guardiola, who labelled his work “incredible” and suggested he was among the top three managers in the world.
While Gallardo’s style isn’t the pure tiki-taka stereotype, that might be a good thing now. Football has moved on and he might be able to offer solutions to the problems teams like Bayern Munich posed a slow and defensive Barcelona.
Lionel Messi's departure might be a blow for Gallardo's hopes because appointing an Argentine coach would also have been a nod to the former captain's preferences. Having never worked in Europe will also be viewed negatively.
Former president Josep Maria Bartomeu considered Gallardo before appointing Quique Setien to replace Ernesto Valverde.
Bridge to Ten Hag
Other names have been linked with the Barcelona job - from Spain coach Luis Enrique, who says Laporta doesn’t even have his phone number, to former Chelsea and Inter firebrand Antonio Conte. One of the reasons Koeman still holds his post is that there is no one outstanding candidate.
Ajax’s Erik ten Hag might be the best bet but he is said not to want to arrive mid-season. Another option for Barcelona would be to appoint a youth coach as an interim, to help keep developing the squad’s young players, before moving for Ten Hag next summer.
Albert Capellas, who worked as an assistant to Jordi Cruyff at Chongqing Lifan, has been suggested as the man for the job. Former B team coach Garcia Pimienta would have fitted the bill perfectly but was dismissed in the summer while his replacement Sergi Barjuan has struggled.
If Laporta decides the club is better off without Koeman at the helm but can’t settle on a replacement, then this may be the best - and cheapest - solution.