Barcelona was 12 points away from LaLiga leader Atletico and trapped in institutional chaos, but now have their courage back and are just one point behind – Ronald Koeman has revived Ousmane Dembélé … and has Lionel Messi happy again
- Barcelona closed the gap with LaLiga leader Atletico Madrid to one point on Monday
- They were 12 points behind in early December and were in seventh place
- Ronald Koeman has placed trust in young people and has found a system that works
- Rejuvenated, Ousmane Dembele and Lionel Messi are leading the attack
If someone had told Ronald Koeman in December that his team would rely on themselves to win the title in April, he would have dismissed the idea as madness.
At the end of January he said: ‘At the moment we are not able to win much at Barça’. Was it reverse psychology? Was he trying to give the rest of LaLiga a false sense of security? No, he really believed it, and rightly so.
Barcelona was 12 points behind leader Atletico Madrid and was trapped in institutional chaos with no president and no means to enter the January transfer market.
Barcelona closed the gap with LaLiga leader Atletico Madrid to just one point on Monday evening
Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman has turned things around after a disappointing 2020
He has shown faith in young players such as Sergino Dest (left) and Oscar Mingueza (right)
Turn the clock forward three months and on Monday night they closed the gap on Diego Simeone’s side to just one point. After cutting Atletico’s lead by 11 points, they are now in a position where nothing can stop them from being crowned champions if they win the remaining nine games.
It’s hard to attribute all of this to a man who didn’t really believe in the turnaround himself, but Koeman has to take a lot of the credit. He believed in young players like Sergino Dest and Oscar Mingueza and he came up with a system that made them shine.
Barca’s 3-4-3 with Mingueza one of the back three and Dest and Jordi Alba released as flying fullbacks was a revelation.
With Frenkie de Jong as one of those three defenders, Barcelona has had the ability to bring the ball out from behind, not seen since the time when Gerard Pique, or let’s say Koeman himself, was in his splendor.
On top of the decision to play Dembele through the middle stretching teams, with the threat of his pace and unpredictability with two feet, space has been created for Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann to play right behind him.
Koeman also knew when to change that new system. He loves it, but he’s not married to it and on Monday night, when Valladolid wasn’t cut short, he went back to a 4-3-3. He could well go back to plan A over the weekend as Real Madrid will be a very different proposition than Valladolid.
With midfielder Frenkie de Jong in the defense, Barcelona has made it possible to play from the back
Ousmane Dembélé (left) now plays like the player Barcelona thought he signed
Koeman has also landed happiness on his lap in his first season at the helm. No one suspected at the start of the campaign that Pedri would play himself in everyone and everyone’s XI of the year.
He looked like a huge talent at the start of the season, but someone who would need protection given the limited runs in attacking midfield when Philippe Coutinho needed a break. With the injured Coutinho, Pedri was thrown into the deep end and emerged as the fully formed, complete midfielder of just 18 years old – a gift for any coach.
This extraordinary run from Barcelona also coincided with Dembele staying fit and playing as a man who only has one year left on his contract at the end of this season.
On Monday night, he played again as the player Barcelona thought he would get when they signed him to replace Neymar – he pulled the albeit hard red card for Oscar Plano and scored the 90-minute winner.
Skipper Lionel Messi is happy again and will likely sign a new contract after much speculation
Koeman’s young team have also been able to enjoy the wave of enthusiasm created by Joan Laporta’s election victory and the idea that it will bring a long period of stability and the signing of a new contract by Messi.
The captain was heard in the tunnel on Monday evening and warned his teammates against a difficult second half if they did not increase the pedestrian pace of the first half.
It was Messi who sounded like a skipper – not something heard all too often over the seasons and an incredible change from the start of the season when, following his desire to leave the club, he looked his best like a man who would. reluctantly see his senior year, but not with the captain’s armband.
If Barça wins the remaining nine games, nothing can stop them from being crowned champions
With Laporta’s winning grin in the director’s profession and Messi leading the team on the field, Barcelona suddenly looks out of control and is floating in the wind. At the start of Monday’s game, tribute was paid to Messi for breaking the all-time performance record. Nobody misses a trick to keep him happy at this point.
Even the meeting between Mino Raiola and Jan Laporta is portrayed in a positive light. Barcelona was Erling Haaland’s first stop as he toured potential new clubs. And if other major European clubs follow Manchester City’s example and distance themselves from the circus and the huge fee, Barcelona might even get their man. And if not, they will continue anyway. They have their mojo back now and it took them to touch the distance of the top from the table.
Real Madrid could wipe it from them on Sunday in the second Clasico of the season, but if they don’t, it’s hard to see how this won’t be their 27th and most unlikely league title.