Ronald Koeman has finally found continuity with the 4-3-3 formation as a thumping 4-0 win over Granada enables the Blaugranas to win three games in a row for the first time in La Liga this season. In addition to maintaining a clean sheet, the front-line looked exceptionally fluid and clinical in the final third, making the most of Granada’s errors and utilizing possession to the maximum.
With braces from Griezmann and Messi securing an assertive 4-0 victory, Barcelona now prepare for their upcoming Super Copa clash against Real Sociedad.
1. Tactical and behavioral changes are beginning to bring the best out of Messi
Lionel Messi appears to be enjoying football again; from his body language to his desire to always be involved in plays, it’s fair to say he is a lot more comfortable representing the Blaugrana jersey, the same jersey he once desired to leave behind in an attempt to force an exit out of the club last summer.
However, despite a slow start to the season and questions regarding his commitment to the club continuously looming over him, the Argentine has finally found his rhythm again, with two blistering braces in a row establishing him as the undisputed leader of the Pichichi race.
Of course, the fact that Leo’s body language has improved drastically is certainly a core reason why the number 10 is back to his brilliant best, but deploying him as a false 9 in the traditional 4-3-3 system is also a key element in his recent performances. Against Athletic Bilbao and Granada, Ronald Koeman brought the best out of Leo – incorporating a well rounded 433 system – as Barça had thoroughly dominated, with Messi taking the center stage.
Leo continually dropped off from the defensive line, receiving the ball in deeper areas and finding room to turn and play. Employing Dembélé on the right flank paid the visitors dividends with the Frenchman frequently bombing behind the back-line as he exploited spaces to maximum efficiency. Additionally, Griezmann occupied the left-back and center-back channels efficiently, playing the perfect complementary role along with finding himself in goal scoring positions.
As a consequence of being on the ball more often and the team complementing Leo’s tendency to drop in midfield, Messi would successfully break free from cages surrounding him and situate himself in areas of danger. The pre assist he provided to Pedri’s goal against Bilbao epitomized his newfound role best – sending in a long ball from almost the halfway line, a crucial line-breaking run from De Jong gave the play purpose as he saliently provided Pedri with an open header.
Executing such a complex position bore Leo fruit in both his recent outings, especially with the inclusion of dynamic midfielders who would habitually make runs inside the box. Now that Messi is more influential on the ball and has regained his long lost precision in front of goal due to the recent enhancements in the formation, the little magician is back to tormenting teams.
2. Griezmann galvanized into action against Granada
Antoine Griezmann has adapted wonderfully on the left flank, which is, in truth, unfamiliar territory for the Frenchman. However, in spite of not being in the center of plays or being the focal point of attention, Griezmann’s alternation of roles between Pedri and freedom to roam around in the half-spaces has undoubtedly given him a massive edge.
Against Athletic Bilbao, while the World Cup winner failed to contribute to any goals, he was proficient in possession and accomplished in most of the ‘dirty work’ he was tasked to engage in, making a whopping 8 recoveries. Understanding his role better, coupled with his sudden coherence in front of goal, elevated his worth considerably against a gritty Granada side, despite not being deemed as a classic winger.
Albeit Griezmann’s opener against the Madrid-based club was largely due to Soldado’s error, a neat first touch enabled him to get the better of Rui Silva. Shortly after, the Frenchman carried the ball up-field with comfort as he provided a neat assist for Messi’s goal. To cap off a compelling performance, Griezmann then scored a magnificent half volley, cementing a 4-0 victory for the visitors.
Taking a look at Griezmann’s recent spike in performances and efficiency in the final third, it’s safe to say he can play a commanding role in the absence of Ansu Fati, doing his innate understanding of the game justice with silent, yet influential roles. A brace and an assist at a venue where Barça have previously not found much luck is testament to the fact that Griezmann is still far from being labelled a flop.
3. Three wins in three games: signs of better days to come?
For the first time in La Liga this season, Barcelona have managed to win 3 consecutive games in a row – a statistic that should not be perceived as a major achievement given the immensely high standards the Catalans have set, but it does slightly give hope for the future considering how dysfunctional and inconsistent the team has looked over the course of the campaign.
One of the key factors that have led to this rise in consistency has been reverting to the orthodox 4-3-3 set-up. Ever since the Dutchman has arrived at the club, he has failed to find the ideal formation, habitually tinkering with the system in search for short term success. But, while Ronald Koeman has attempted to come up with various solutions, in the end, the system he strayed away from most yielded him the most significant results.
Finding continuity with the 4-3-3 has enabled the club to find the perfect balance between freedom and organization. The players know their roles better, the defense is well guarded and the front-line possesses a great deal of authority, particularly since Messi has finally found a role that caters to his needs.
Although experimentation is always appreciated and has worked out on a few occasions, it is vital to have a go-to formation that is feasible enough to carry in the long term. One of Ronald Koeman’s major concerns with the 4-3-3 was the inability to incorporate the likes of Frenkie de Jong and Griezmann, but in actuality, the 4-3-3 has managed to bring the best out of the duo.
3 lessons learned from the Barcelona 2-3 Athletic game
The Spanish Super Cup final was another bitter reminder that Barcelona are a team in transition; a team wanting to reach for the skies but still failing to grasp the very basics of the beautiful game. Still, while getting beaten in the final is not a pleasant feeling, it’s the lessons that ultimately count. If you can learn from them, that is.
Barcelona have shown time and time again they seem to prefer learning the hard way and this time, that mistake has most likely cost them the only piece of silverware they were able to snatch this year. Of course, a lot can happen in football and there’s still time to turn their fortune around but the early signs suggest it’s going to be another long and dry season for the Catalan giants.
But even with that being said, there are certainly things Ronald Koeman should take away from this big defeat.
So here are three lessons Barcelona should learn from yesterday’s clash.
1. Squad depth (and rotation) is key
This may not come as a big surprise to many but it’s nigh impossible to battle on all front with a team that’s lacking any real squad depth. But the main problem here is not exactly the lack of personnel but the coach’s ability (or willingness?) to use them.
When you’re a team like Barcelona who will have to fight for the league, the Champions League and Copa del Rey, it’s inevitable your players get tired somewhere along the way. Soon, games will be pouring in mid-week every week and every couple of days even. What happens when Koeman’s favourite pieces are barely standing on their feet? Is he going to rotate then?
The Dutchman has been rather stubborn when it comes to his selection. Most of the surprises in the lineup have risen from the urgency and lack of options rather than purely giving some players a well-deserved chance or resting the others.
A great example is someone like Pedri – an 18-year-old prodigy who’s been playing so well he’s been impossible to drop. From that perspective, it’s understandable you’d want him on the pitch from the get-go for a Cup final but if he’s visibly exhausted and barely moving, you substitute him off and bring on fresh legs.
Barcelona have a thin squad in some compartments and maybe lack quality in others but playing 240 minutes in the span of a couple of days with the same squad is too much even for the fittest team out there. And the Azulgranas are far from that in the first place.
For that reason, it feels like proper – or maybe better – man management is needed from Koeman for the remainder of the season.
2. Shades of Anfield
What hurts the most about this final is that not only did Barcelona play extremely poorly throughout the 120 minutes, they were in the lead two times and still managed to lose the game. Unfortunately, once Athletic Club equalised for the second time, in the 90th minute no less, we already knew it was all over.
Even though we are still talking about a team full of superstars and even veterans of the game, the Catalans’ mental fortitude is non-existent. Lapses in concentration could be felt for the vast majority of the clash and that in a final of all events!
A team that wants to be the best in the world, or rather a team that has been the best in the world, cannot be of such fragile mentality. The same thing has happened before, first against Juventus in Turin, then in Rome and finally at Anfield against Liverpool.
Barcelona crumble under pressure and as soon as the other team shows heart and signs of life, they will retreat into their happy place, never to be seen again. And yes this may sound harsh – and may even be harsh – but until this issue is resolved, there’ll be no moving forward.
You can’t score a goal and then let one slip through the cracks the very next attack because your head is still in the clouds. And you can’t have such a poor marking structure in the final minutes of the game, allowing the opposition to secure extra-time and then overturn the deficit altogether.
There’s not much any of them could’ve done about Iñaki Williams’ sensational strike – one worthy of securing the crown – but the battle was lost long before that moment. As soon as Athletic Club equalised, it was game over for Barcelona.
We knew it, they knew it and Koeman knew it.
That needs to change. Fast.
3. A big Messi-sized problem
Let’s get one thing straight right away – Messi is a club legend and arguably the best player in the history of the game but there is no way he should’ve been allowed to play last night. He’s so competitive that Koeman’s hands were tied and, frankly, he doesn’t have the power to say no to the Argentine.
That in itself is a big problem as well but also a topic for another time. Back to the issue at hand, however, if Messi is not at 100%, he should not be starting that game in the first place. Of course, the club will argue that the only reason he was on that pitch is because he was healthy enough to be there. But was he fit enough to play in such a physically demanding game and a final at that?
Messi may be superhuman but he is also 33, has just returned from injury and was about to face a compact, organised and physically imposing team. Whoever thought that was a good idea didn’t really do their homework properly.
And then we come to the other big problem and that’s Barcelona’s in-game management of Messi himself. Playing for 90 minutes fresh from injury is one thing but playing the full 120 is a completely different story, a far worse one at that.
We can all understand Messi hates being substituted off and he is the difference-maker when Barcelona are in trouble but it was clear the goal wasn’t coming, not even from him at those latter points in the game.
Koeman may or may not have the authority to manage this squad entirely the way he wants to. That statement may or may not be true as well but the fact is, his in-game man-management was sub-par last night once again.
Koeman: "Messi knows when to play and when not to. He said he was ready, and he gave everything tonight."— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) January 17, 2021
It may be the time to dose Messi throughout the season and give this team a chance to see how it’s like without him on the pitch. Step by step, they have to be adapted to a situation that is inevitably approaching, regardless whether Leo is leaving in the summer or not.
It is, however, a Cup final and having Messi on the pitch can only be a plus. But not if he’s unfit to play or simply not at his 100%, and that was visible yesterday.
One way or the other, we are bound to learn at least something from this game and hopefully, Koeman does too.
It’s the only way to move forward.