Words of calm and calls for respect from Jordi Cruyff were what kept Ronald Koeman in a job at Barcelona before the international break. Now the Dutch coach has three games to prove that the decision to leave him in charge was the right one.
Barcelona president Joan Laporta told Sporstmail in an interview last December that he will never stop being guided by Jordi’s father Johan Cruyff – the Barcelona legend who was by his side as an advisor in his first stint as president from 2003 to 2010.
‘Johan, I always have with me, because of everything I learnt from him,’ he said of the late Dutch master in that interview a year ago. When he returned to the club as president after winning the elections last March he appointed Cruyff’s son Jordi to join his team.
Joan Laporta (right) was convinced to keep Ronald Koeman (left) as Barcelona manager before the international break following the pleas of Jordi Cruyff, son of club legend Johan
Cruyff (centre) is said to have made a compelling case to Laporta (left) to stick with Koeman
His role has been a low-key once since arriving in August from Shenzen FC in China but that all changed just before the international break when it seemed Barcelona would be sacking Koeman.
After a 3-0 defeat by Benfica on the last Wednesday of September Koeman was as good as gone.
It was one thing to lose to Bayern Munich – Barca did that with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in the team – but quite another to fall to the side that finished third in Portugal last season.
Reporters were briefed that a shortlist including Belgium coach Roberto Martinez, former Barcelona captain Xavi, River Plate boss Marcelo Gallardo and wildcard Andrea Pirlo had been drawn up and that what ever happened in the next game against Atletico Madrid Koeman would be sacked.
It would not be easy to replace him because Martinez was about to take Belgium into the Nations League final four, Xavi and Laporta were not entirely convinced about the timing of them coming together, Gallardo would not be free until December and Pirlo convinced no one.
The change would also cost around €12million (£10m) of money Barcelona didn’t really have but it had to be done.
Koeman displayed admirable gallows humour in his pre-match press conference ahead of what seemed like being his last game.
Current Barcelona boss Koeman (left) was part of Johan’s (middle) European Cup-winning side
He sat down in front of the assembled media and quoted Louis Van Gaal, who had said in May 2000 just before he was sacked: ‘My friends in the press; I’m leaving. Congratulations’.
Koeman used the same ‘friends in the press’ greeting but stopped short of saying ‘I’m leaving’.
All the same, the tone of the entire press conference was that Laporta had not spoken to him and that he expected the next time he did communicate with him it would be to fire him.
‘I’ve got eyes and ears,’ Koeman said. ‘I know a lot of things are being leaked and no doubt they are true’.
The coach’s press conference was on the Friday but by midday Saturday Laporta had u-turned, publicly backing Koeman as he emerged from the traditional pre-match lunch with his opposing number at Atletico Madrid, Enrique Cerezo.
‘Koeman deserves the benefit of the doubt, for various reasons,’ Laporta said. ‘He is an important figure at this club and he decided to come here in what was a very difficult moment.’
In a pivotal game against Atletico Madrid, Cruyff (right) sat in the stands alongside Koeman
They were very specific reasons for sticking with Koeman and they had been given to Laporta by Jordi Cruyff who had argued that dumping the man who scored the winning goal in Barcelona’s first European Cup triumph and who had guided the team through two difficult summers in which they had lost first Suarez and then Messi would be undignified in the extreme.
Catalan television channel TV3 reported that Cruyff had the made the case for the coach to Laporta later on Friday after Koeman’s dead man walking press conference.
On Friday night Laporta phoned Koeman to give him his backing and he did the same in person on the Saturday morning at Barcelona’s training ground before the team traveled to Madrid for the game.
And most emphatically of all, sat beside Koeman high in the stands of the Metropolitano watching that game against Atletico Madrid was Jordi Cruyff.
Koeman was in the stands because of a touchline ban. Cruyff was there to publicly back his man as he had done to Laporta 24 hours earlier.
Laporta would have given Koeman’s job to Cruyff if only he thought he would accept it. But Cruyff said in one interview: ‘I would never substitute Koeman, that would be very ugly and I have principles.’
In his exchange with Laporta he had not just refused to replace Koeman but argued successfully that he should not be replaced at all.
Barcelona have picked up just three league wins from their opening seven matches in LaLiga
Barcelona have not really had a Sporting Director since previous president Josep Bartomeu sacked Andoni Zubizarreta. Cruyff has been brought in as an assessor and the man at the top of the club’s scouting pyramid. It’s clear he believes in Koeman and, above all, in there being a right way to do things.
Cruyff’s support alone will not be enough to keep Koeman in the job indefinitely. When he gave him that public show of support outside the restaurant where he had just eaten with Atletico president Cerezo, Laporta added: ‘I believe in the team and even more so when we get players back fit again.’
Koeman’s justification for the shocking start to the season has always been injuries. He argued: how could the team play the expansive football in the 4-3-3 being demanded when there were no fit wingers?
Ansu Fati is now back, and Ousmane Dembele is not far behind. Sergio Aguero is also available once more and could feature against Valencia at the weekend. There are fewer excuses now.
Pedri is still struggling for fitness and Ronald Araujo has come back from international duty injured but with Gavi shining for Spain, and with Sergio Busquets and Eric Garcia also playing better for Luis Enrique than they do for Koeman the pressure is on him to drastically improve performances and results.
There are three games at home against Valencia, Dynamo Kiev and Real Madrid in just seven days. Winning all three would transform Barcelona’s season. Losing them would send Laporta back into replacement-search overdrive, and this time Cruyff’s defence would almost certainly not be enough.
Sergio Aguero played and scored for Barcelona in a training ground friendly on Wednesday