Quoting fellow writer Grace Robertson, Ronald Koeman spent his entire career trying to engineer a move back to Barcelona. However, he arrived in one of the most chaotic periods in the club’s recent history. The Barça board led by Josep María Bartomeu has lost most of its political capital, and if they lose the upcoming club elections, there is a good chance that their opponent, Victor Font, will try to replace Koeman after this season. But even if Koeman’s stay in Barcelona is short-lived, he can still have a positive influence in his club’s future if he manages to start the tough process of rejuvenating the team.
The Usual Lineup and Game Plan
Turning around Barça’s sporting crisis requires some significant changes on how the team sets up, and Koeman has been trying to do exactly that. He has ditched the traditional Barça 4-3-3 in favor of something closer to a 4-2-3-1 shape and a more direct attack.
In these first four La Liga games, Barça have seen a 50% increase in their passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA) compared to previous seasons. This means that instead of recovering the ball in the opposition half, the Blaugrana often recover the ball in their own half. This is not by design: Barcelona’s four attackers try to press, but right now the pressing is not that intense, consistent, and well-coordinated, so opponents often bypass it and get into Barça’s half of the pitch.
After recovering the ball, the Blaugrana center backs and double pivot aim to slip line-breaking passes to Coutinho, Fati, and Messi who await in between the lines, or maybe even send a long ball to Alba, Fati, and Messi when they run behind opposition defenders. This change in Barça’s attacking style and shape affects several key players.
First, the 4-2-3-1 allows for a true double pivot of Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong. Last season, Frenkie often had to play a more advanced midfield no. 8 role in Barça’s 4-3-3, which does not fit de Jong so well.
Also, if you're going to play Frenkie de Jong like this, you've probably bought the wrong blond kid from Ajax. pic.twitter.com/VeDyAQnpg7— Erik Elias (@erikelias_) January 25, 2020
The Dutchman’s biggest strength is his ability to pass and carry the ball the ball from deep midfield zones. You want him receiving the ball from his defenders like a deep playmaker instead of receiving the ball between the lines. The new 4-2-3-1 creates a similar tactical context to the one Frenkie thrived in at Ajax. It allows him to drop beside the center backs — almost as a “false left back“— and direct play from that position (similar to how Kroos does at Real Madrid).
The forward line has also seen significant changes. With Messi’s poor start to the season, super starlet Ansu Fati has taken the goal-scoring baton, netting 3 goals in 229 league minutes and one in his first Champions League game this week. Fati is exactly the kind of winger profile Barça have lacked for years, a player who starts on the wing and then chooses the right moment to move into the opposition box and score. And I honestly cannot remember a 17-year-old with his composure in front of goal. That being said, Fati has scored 3 goals out of 6 shots and that kind of scoring efficiency is not sustainable over the long run, so expect Fati’s goal scoring to regress to a more normal level in the coming months.
Fati’s intelligent movements on the left wing have revitalized teammates Jordi Alba and Philippe Coutinho and created a very dangerous triangle. Fati starts on the left touchline, but, as he nears the final third, he makes runs to the center and leaves room on the left wing for Alba to push up. Meanwhile, Coutinho roams around the left half space waiting to slip a through ball to Fati or Alba who are running behind the opposition defense. Their interplay was the key behind Barça’s dominant victory over Villarreal in the first game of the league season.
Barça’s best football so far, as well as most of their attacks, have come from their left side due to Frenkie’s increasing influence in the team and the Alba-Fati-Coutinho triangle. This, however, comes at the expense of one Lio Messi...
Messi looks more isolated than ever on the right side and Koeman seemingly wants the Argentine to leave the buildup to his teammates and focus more on having an impact in the final third and the opposition box.
On paper, this should be a good thing for Messi. Last season, the Argentine was everything for Barcelona: not only the key goal scorer and assist provider, but also their key deep playmaker. Messi needed to be everywhere on the pitch and his 33-year-old body struggled with that more than ever. Therefore, deploying him in a more striker-like role allows him to focus his energies on deciding games in the final third.
This seems like healthy and sustainable team play. pic.twitter.com/XccUWCaFY2— John Muller (@johnspacemuller) July 10, 2020
There is, however, a key trade-off. Using the words of Dani Alves, “If Messi doesn’t touch the ball for two minutes, he disconnects from the match.” And the numbers show that Messi has switched off more than usual in these first few games under Koeman. In 300 league minutes, he has registered only 1 goal from a penalty and 0 assists. His expected goals and assists are also half of their usual value.
I believe Messi’s more isolated role in Koeman’s system affects him negatively, but it’s only been four games and I’d be foolish to jump to conclusions now. There could be many alternate reasons behind Messi’s decreased productivity; maybe he’s still upset over the transfer saga, maybe he’s finally experienced age-related decline, or maybe it’s just a random small run of bad games (even Messi’s allowed to have those!). Whatever the case, let’s keep an eye on this: if Messi producing at half his usual rate becomes a real, long-term thing, that changes EVERYTHING.
Barça’s first four league games have taken on us a roller coaster ride, showcasing both the pros and the cons of Koeman’s new setup. Their 4-0 victory against Villarreal was their most impressive showing and the one that best showcases Koeman’s intended game plan. Villarreal’s rather ineffective pressing set-up left tons of space behind their midfield. So, whenever Busquets, Frenkie, or Lenglet slipped a pass through Villarreal’s pressing line, Fati, Coutinho, and Messi found themselves in plenty of room to demolish the Villarreal defense.
The next game versus Celta saw Barça overcome a difficult situation with the early sending off of Clément Lenglet. Barça handled this issue well, defending with a deeper block during the second half and picking off an increasingly desperate Celta on the counter through Messi, Fati, and Coutinho. This was arguably Messi’s best half of football up to now in the league, with a big individual action leading to a Celta own goal.
The next two games saw Barça struggle a lot more against two of the best pressing sides in the league. They drew 1-1 with a tough Sevilla, whose pressing game managed to reduce the influence of the dangerous Blaugrana left side. In the second half, Barça adjusted and started passing the ball more often on their right side with Sergi Roberto and Messi, but that was not enough to let them dominate the game and get a winning goal. And finally, Getafe — the side with the most aggressive press in the league — made life even harder for Barça and defeated them 0-1. Koeman did not start Fati and Coutinho this time, with Dembelé and the young Pedri taking their place. The pair actually had a good performance, but Barça still struggled to control the game, generate many shots, and finish their few chances properly.
All in all, these last two games have shown that Barça’s buildup play is still not mature enough to overcome good pressing systems. And, while the 4-2-3-1 has rejuvenated Barça’s attacking game in some ways, having only two central midfielders does make it harder for them to control proceedings and set the tempo. Most importantly, Messi often allowed Barça to win games in which they were tactically dominated in previous seasons. This time around, he’s had much less of an impact in these situations.
So how do they match up against Real Madrid?
With Jordi Alba returning from injury on time for the Clásico, Barça’s main absence due to injury is keeper Marc André ter Stegen. On Real Madrid’s side, it looks like Sergio Ramos will return for the game, so the main absences due to injury are Carvajal, Odriozola, Ødegaard, and Hazard.
Given Barça’s struggles against pressing sides in the last league games, it would make sense for Zidane to deploy Fede Valverde and go for the more aggressive pressing version of his team. I expect Valverde to start and do specific pressing work focused on Frenkie de Jong, which will be key in deactivating Barça’s left side.
The main question marks in Zidane’s lineup are the fullbacks, right midfield, and right winger roles. In the fullback positions, the expectation is that Zidane will prioritize defending against Messi and Fati, so Mendy and Nacho — the more stable defensive fullbacks — will probably start. In the right midfield and winger positions, there’s a chance that Zidane could surprise us by using Valverde in a right winger role, instead, while starting Modrić as a right central midfielder. After all, Zidane likes to use more midfielders in big games and neither Rodrygo nor Asensio have been super productive from the right wing lately.
From Barça’s perspective, perhaps the key lineup question lies on the right wing. Griezmann has not been performing well. He and Koeman have even taken swipes at each other through media and press conferences. Meanwhile, Ousmane Dembelé and Francisco Trinçao have shown some promising performances over the last week in right wing roles, hinting that perhaps they’re a better fit than Griezmann for that position. So don’t be surprised if Koeman finally decides to pull the trigger on Griezmann for this Clásico and start Trinçao or Dembelé instead.
Key players for Real Madrid: Valverde and Vinícius. The Uruguayan midfielder’s defensive work will be key in reducing the influence of Frenkie de Jong and neutralizing Barça’s left side. Meanwhile, Vinicius will have an interesting duel against a Sergi Roberto, who’s not a great 1v1 defender. That being said, compared to last season, the Brazilian’s dribbling numbers are down (as pointed out by Om Arvind), so he’ll need his dribbling game to be at its best this time around.
Key players for Barcelona: Frenkie de Jong and Ansu Fati. If Barça want to connect with the Alba-Coutinho-Fati triangle and create danger, Frenkie will have to overcome the Real Madrid press, particularly the marking of Fede Valverde. Meanwhile, if Barça want to generate good chances in the final third, Ansu Fati will have to outsmart Nacho with his movements into the box.