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‘Sergeant Koeman’ has already earned the respect of Barcelona players… even Lionel Messi

Ousmane Dembele was getting some rare pats on the back earlier this week because he appeared to be training on his day off. Then it was pointed out by well-informed broadcaster Lluis Canut: he’d not turned up of his own volition, he had been given extra work by Ronald Koeman.

Barcelona’s new coach has knocked the squad of discontented and demotivated players he inherited when he took the job into shape, and he’s earned the respect of those same players while doing so.

The taskmaster with the ‘Sergeant Koeman’ nickname has a habit of not treading lightly when he first steps into a new dressing room but Barcelona players knew when he replaced Quique Setien three months ago that things were going to have to change.

Ronald Koeman has earned the nickname 'Sergeant' at Barcelona due to his strict methods

Ronald Koeman has earned the nickname ‘Sergeant’ at Barcelona due to his strict methods

Thomas Muller said when Bayern beat Barca 8-2 in that Champions League quarter-final: ‘Before the start of the game we had been out warming up 10 minutes before they appeared. They seemed very relaxed.’

That damning verdict on Barca’s complete lack of intensity before the club’s most humiliating European result ever was something that had all the players wanting a fresh start with a more disciplined approach.

Koeman has brought back training sessions on matchdays. It’s something that Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique both insisted on as they went about winning trebles in their first seasons.

Advocates say far from draining players before they have to perform it puts every player in the group on alert. It also provides set-piece coaches a chance to get free-kick and corner work done with the minimum time before it then needs to be put into practice out on the pitch.

That’s not the only Guardiola/Luis Enrique method restored.

Players are now obliged to clock-in at the club’s Joan Gamper training ground an hour before training starts.

Dembele has already fallen foul of this new rule. Some argued, in his defence, that he had only been 10 minutes late and was still therefore on site 50 minutes before the beginning of the session but that does not wash with Koeman who wants players to get their pre-training routines out of the way long before the session starts.

Ousmane Dembele (right) has been told to improve on his punctuality by the new Barca boss

Ousmane Dembele (right) has been told to improve on his punctuality by the new Barca boss

Far from alienating the squad with the new rules the players are delighted with it. When Ernesto Valverde was replaced last January, then sporting director Eric Abidal said certain players had ‘not been working’ under Valverde.

The comment is remembered because it caused Lionel Messi to openly criticise Abidal on social media, asking him to name names because in not doing so he was casting doubt on the entire group.

Messi’s fury came from him having been a Valverde supporter. But clearly some senior players had made noises regarding low-tempo training sessions that then reflected in performances. Abidal was not making things up. Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique are two of those who felt the squad needed new impetus.

Having tried to bring in Koeman in January or Mauricio Pochettino or Xavi the board failed to land any of their targets and had to turn to Setien who never earned the respect of the squad and whose reign, therefore, inevitably led to an even less intense atmosphere around the training sessions and matches.

Koeman has ramped things up. He has put a rocket up some and an arm around the shoulder of others. Philippe Coutinho has been told he does have a Barcelona future and he has been moved into his favoured position just behind the striker for the first four games of the season.

Barcelona celebrate Philippe Coutinho's goal against Sevilla earlier this month

Barcelona celebrate Philippe Coutinho’s goal against Sevilla earlier this month

Similarly nice things were said to Antoine Griezmann although not everyone’s favourite position request can be granted at the same time. Against Sevilla, Coutinho played well and scored. Griezmann missed chances to kill the game and Koeman admitted such after the match.

Perhaps because of his pedigree as a former European Cup and La Liga winner with Barcelona, such frankness has been embraced by all, even those who are the target of the criticism.

This is the coach who upset almost everyone at Valencia in 2008. In a recent Sportsmail interview Joaquin couldn’t even bring himself to say Koeman’s name when mentioning the manager who was in charge of him at Valencia.

But so far Koeman is charming all and alienating almost no one. Even Messi.

The Barcelona captain wants to win first and foremost, and he has liked the way the team has played in the first four games of the campaign.

The new 4-2-3-1 system is working for him at the moment. He starts at the top of the team but there is licence to drop into the No 10 position or drift wide right.

Lionel Messi agitated for a move away from Barcelona this summer before backing down

Lionel Messi agitated for a move away from Barcelona this summer before backing down

Messi yearns for another serious project that will produce another Champions League success. He remains upset about the departure of Luis Suarez but as the Uruguayan made clear when he left: it was not Koeman’s decision to move him on.

Koeman still has many battles left to fight. It’s clear that Messi’s priorities have swung in favour of Argentina in the last few months. He is committed to Barcelona and happy with Koeman but things have broken down sufficiently for him now to be happy to go and play 180 minutes for his country when in the past he has put getting himself right for Barcelona first.

Does Koeman start with Messi on Saturday after his exploits in Bolivia? How does he deal with no left back for this weekend’s game against Getafe and when the first slip comes, do things fall apart?

They are hurdles that will have to be crossed, for now Koeman feels he has already scaled the most daunting obstacle – building a relationship with a squad shattered by that awful Champions League exit and the subsequent circus that engulfed the summer and pre-season. So far so good.

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