Many of the things taking place at the moment at Barcelona stretch the concept of dysfunction to another level.
The Lionel Messi saga, Josep Maria Bartomeu’s vote of no-confidence, the construction of a lop-sided, ageing squad that needs trimmed, and the inability to ship out stars on big salaries is just the beginning.
But there was a small semblance of logic in the appointment of Ronald Koeman. The squad needs an overhaul, veterans need to be told some uncomfortable truths, and for the moment it’s not about tactics, but rather shaping the team for the future.
Koeman also isn’t stupid. He knows he is Bartomeu’s man and that the president is unlikely to see out the season. The other candidates have their own men, such as Victor Font with Xavi. So he’s looking to make an impact while he has the chance.
And there’s been some green shoots; Ivan Rakitic, a great player but on big money, was moved on, efforts have been made to offload Luis Suarez’s huge salary, as well as the implementation of Frenkie De Jong in his correct position and the inclusion of the likes of Ansu Fati and Trincao with the view to both of them featuring regularly this season.
But with Koeman you also receive that self-assurance, arrogance, and inflexibility that has stymied his coaching career and set him at odds with players and fans alike. And given everything that’s gone on in 2020, his decision to inform La Masia graduate and great hope, Riqui Puig, that he doesn’t count on him for the new season is both typically Koeman and utterly unnecessary.
Koeman said after the Joan Gamper clash with Elche: "I spoke with him yesterday before training and I am clear that the youngsters have to play and I told him so. I have told him that he has a future here and we are thinking about the best way to succeed at Barca. A loan is a possibility."
Riqui is 21, so he's as ready as he is ever going to be. He is beloved by the Barca support for what he represents; one of their own, an academy graduate at a time where they are thin on the ground, and as the golden generation of a decade ago drifts further into the past.
But he’s more than a token gesture; he’s actually a very good footballer. In the matches against Atletico Madrid and Alaves at the end of last season, when Quique Setien finally released him, he showed all the hallmarks of a La Masia midfielder. He is always on the half-turn, facing the opposition goal and looking to probe on the front foot. In games where Barca have struggled to break down a low block - of which there were many in 2019/20 - he provided the kind of passing profile which was missing from Barca’s pedestrian attacking play.
Koeman: "Riqui Puig ? I spoke to him yesterday & in my opinion, young players have to play. I told him that it will be difficult for him to play regularly, but I also told him that he has a future here."#RiquiNoSeToca pic.twitter.com/NsEYlsmKeC— Barca Galaxy (@barcagalaxy) September 19, 2020
Yes, he’s diminutive and probably needs to work on his physique to be relied upon regularly, but he has guile and that is certainly lacking in Barcelona’s functional midfield options.
And yet, forget all of this. Koeman just simply didn’t have to do this. The fans are less enthusiastic about an upcoming season than they have ever been, and the deep dissatisfaction with how their institution is being run is palpable. There is much to do to get them onside, and the slightest thing can alienate them even further.
Koeman’s decided he doesn’t care about that. He doesn’t think Riqui fits his system - fine. But to then leave him out of the squad to face Elche altogether and tell a kid who has been at the club since he was 14 that he should probably go somewhere else is something else entirely. Barca’s squad in midfield isn’t exactly stacked and there are games coming thick and fast in this covid-interrupted season. He will likely need minutes from him eventually, but Riqui has been grouped with the inferior Carles Alena and the admittedly young and untested Pedri in being told to get out and find a club.
Sergio Busquets is 32 now and has plenty of mileage in the legs. Miralem Pjanic was an accountancy transfer, and Frenkie De Jong might actually see some minutes in his correct position. But there’s not much depth beyond that and for Koeman to jettison Riqui in the pretence of saying he has a future, but needs to play, is, at best, disingenuous.
Koeman has always set himself up as the coach who promotes youth and then in this situation, with a player who is seen as the image of Camp Nou, he has proven himself more than capable of stirring a situation that hardly needs any more drama.