Barcelona won all three preseason friendlies ahead of the 2020/21 campaign, but what individual and collective conclusions can we draw? Is Ronald Koeman’s new team ready for the new term?
In stark contrast to the International Champions Cup games that we have all become used to watching during preseason in the previous years, this year’s preseason games unfolded quietly, behind closed doors often, for all of the clubs.
FC Barcelona completed their preseason games in the city of Barcelona against Gimnàstic de Tarragona, Girona FC and Elche FC. Successive games against a Segunda B opponent, Segunda opponent and La Liga opponent provided a gentle step up to match fitness for the blaugrana players.
The encounter with Elche was particularly significant, as it was also the Joan Gamper Trophy, which Barcelona won again 1–0 courtesy a goal from Antoine Griezmann. Let’s have a look at some details of each match as it unfolded. The majority of the discussion will be from the perspective of the players, with some tactical discussions from the team point of view as well.
Game against Gimnàstic de Tarragona
The new coach Ronal Koeman’s first game in charge was against Nastic and brought a clear glimpse of the formation that he has amply used when in charge of the Netherlands national team, a 4–2–3–1.
In the first half, the back four was formed by Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet, Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba, with Neto standing in goal for the injured Marc-André ter Stegen. The double pivot comprised of Sergio Busquets and Carles Aleñá. Lionel Messi played as the 10, flanked by Ousmane Dembélé and the new signing Pedri, while Griezmann was the nominal 9.
The first half saw a goal from open play by Dembélé from Sergi Roberto’s pass and a Pedri dummy, and then Gerard Piqué got hauled down inside the box and Griezmann converted the penalty. The rest of the half was really a drab affair, with Nàstic actually pulling back a goal and creating some amount of panic.
Dembélé’s safe return to game time and Pedri‘s assured performance – although subdued – were really the highlights of the first half. Let’s have a look at the two youngsters’ event data in details:
Dembélé played on the left, was very measured with his ball control and passes, provided ample width, and scored with his only shot. It was a good showing after a long injury disrupted his season.
Pedri played the bulk of the half on the right, which is quite an unfamiliar position for him, but also interchanged positions with Messi in the centre. His passing was conservative, as is understandable in his first game for a new team. But he looked very neat in possession, and also helped out defensively.
Koeman brought on an entire new team in the second half, with Iñaki Peña in goal, Nélson Semedo, Ronald Araújo, Jorge Cuenca and Junior Firpo in defence, a double pivot of Frenkie de Jong – referred to as FdJ in the graphs – and Riqui Puig, Philippe Coutinho as the 10 flanked by Konrad de la Fuente and new signing Francisco Trincão on the wings, and Martin Braithwaite as the 9.
The youthful team brought an uptick in the energy levels and intensity of the play, almost as if someone had pressed the fast forward button on the video. De Jong and Riqui completely dominated the midfield, with brilliant passing and ball-carrying, as shown:
The duo also showed brilliant defensive acumen to completely shut down any Nàstic attack. In fact, De Jong’s lofted pass into the box to Semedo’s well-timed run was what eventually resulted in a penalty, that Coutinho converted.
Coutinho‘s return from a successful – trophy-wise – loan spell at Bayern Munich went pretty well. He enjoyed dictating the offensive transitions of the team, and in addition to his goal, could have had an assist if Konrad converted his wonderfully weighted key pass into the box:
Trincao also shone on his debut, with some silky ball control, positive ball-carrying, and a wonderful lofted pass to Konrad who was harshly judged offside. In general, he provided both width and cut into the half space whenever needed, showing a good understanding of the tactical side:
The game ended 3–1, and almost everyone who played the second half ended with a positive showing.
Game against Girona
The second preseason game was against a far more difficult opposition, Girona. The Catalan club was a familiar opposition a couple of seasons back in La Liga. Now plying their trades in the Segunda, they are still a dynamic and high-tempo side with a comparatively attractive brand of football.
Ronald Koeman rang in some changes in the first half team from the previous game, with De Jong coming in to partner Busquets as a pivot – probably this will be the starting choice going forward –, Trincão came in for Pedri on right wing, and Coutinho played on the left wing. Messi and Griezmann played as the 10 and the 9, respectively. Ronald Araújo came in to partner Pique as thee centre-back, and the rest of the back five remained unchanged.
The first half went better than the last game, although De Jong started tiring around the 25-minute mark for some reason. He let a couple of runs go by, didn’t close down crosses quickly enough, and lost track of his mark in a corner Barcelona conceded. Thankfully, Girona didn’t score there. There were two high-quality goals scored by Barça, though. The first was a brilliant little build-up, culminating with an amazing through-ball pre-assist by Messi to Trincão, who squared it for Coutinho to tap it in.
The second was an amazing right footed rocket by Messi after receiving a simple pass from Coutinho outside the box.
The second half started disastrously, with De Jong continuing his nightmare game by giving away possession cheaply deep in his own half with a casual pass, leading to Girona scoring. However, Barcelona soon restored their two-goal lead, thanks to Messi. Trincão did good work to take the ball out wide and then pass back to Sergi Roberto. Roberto’s pass was controlled by Messi, who turned and unleashed a characteristic left-footer into the goal.
Soon, around the 60-minute mark, there was a flurry of substitutions, and all but Araújo and Neto were replaced. Lenglet wore the captain’s armband. Firpo and Semedo came on as the full-backs. Riqui Puig and Aleñá formed the double pivot. Pedri played in a much more comfortable role as the 10, behind Braithwaite. Konrad played as the left winger, and Dembélé on the right.
As in the previous clash, the tempo was raised again, and the kids enjoyed a good game in general. While no more goals were scored, there were lots of encouraging moments and attacks, especially by Konrad and Pedri, and Girona didn’t get even a snuff at Barça’s goal. Here are some of the highlight moments by some of the youngsters; first up, Trincão:
Next up, Pedri:
He had 4 shots and should have at least scored once. He needs to improve his shooting skills a bit, but his cameo was definitely encouraging and positive. Finally, Konrad – the 19-year-old was electric and has rightfully deserved an entire article separately. Here are his activities from the game:
Direct running at the defenders, quick feet to dribble, and a key pass to set Pedri up for a shot – it was an immensely brilliant cameo from Konrad, so much so that Koeman singled him out for praise.
But the second-best player of the match, after Messi, was arguably Ronald Araújo. The Uruguayan youngster was immense as centre-back. He was assured in possession and kept his passing quick and simple to keep the ball moving. Out of possession, he showed great physical strength, speed and defensive intelligence to snuff out almost all danger.
He isolated Girona ball-carriers very effectively to the sidelines and then beat them in speed and physicality to win possession back, was attentive enough to snuff out dangerous attacks all across the backline, and often showed a good reading of the game to step up and intercept or clear the ball before a Girona player could control it.
He was an absolute defensive wall for Barcelona, and will have given Koeman a glint of hope for the coming season.
Game against Elche – the Joan Gamper Trophy
The final preseason game was against the hardest opposition of all: Elche FC, an opposition from La Liga itself. The game saw the return to action of Ansu Fati, who was suffering from an injury till date. This time, Koeman went in with a very interesting line-up – one that would not surprise me a bit if it became the gala XI for Koeman, not because it is the best, but it involved all senior players or players who had significant minutes last season.
Neto started in goal. Sergi Roberto, Piqué, Lenglet and Jordi Alba formed the back four. Busquets and Frenkie de Jong predictably formed the double pivot. Griezmann started out as the nominal right winger, Ansu Fati on the left, and Coutinho and Messi through the centre as the 10 and the 9.
But the front four, especially Griezmann, Coutinho and Messi, were fluid enough that I wouldn’t necessarily assign them a fixed position. Messi certainly didn’t play like an ordinary 9 – he played with his usual freedom. He dropped deep to facilitate attacks, sometimes as deep as right next to Busquets. He moved out wide interchanging positions with Griezmann. Whenever he dropped deep, either Coutinho or Griezmann pushed up higher to occupy his vacated position. It’s kind of reminiscent of his false 9 days, except he had to do way more ball progression than before.
Coutinho played as slightly left-skewed 10 who often pushed high up and made runs into the box. Griezmann roamed a lot as well but did stay out wide for most of the time. It was a highly fluid front four in short. Here are their average heatmaps in possession:
The game itself started in spectacular fashion. Messi pulled off one of the most outrageous passes from the centre line into the box for Alba, who made a great run to reach it ahead of any Elche defender, and then played a simple square pass for Griezmann to score. Griezmann’s run was equally impressive, ghosting in from the blind side of the Elche centre-backs to score. In fact, Griezmann was quite impressive against Elche, pulling off several good off-the-ball runs, and having around 6 shots.
Lionel Messi was his usual sublime self – apart from that gorgeous pre-assist, he had 5 shots himself – all blocked or saved, and gave 3 key passes. One of his shots came from a direct free-kick and required a full stretch from the Elche keeper to palm it out.
Coutinho played quite alright as well, with 3 key passes – the turn and scoop pass to Trincão in the second half the best of the lot – and had 3 shots, although only one of them was on target.
Ansu Fati sparkled on his return as well. He looked composed in possession, generally combined well with Jordi Alba and Coutinho, didn’t lose the ball much, and played a great key pass to release Messi through the centre. He also had 3 shots, all of target. The best of the lot came from an electric dribble and burst into the box, but the left-footed shot was just wide of the far post.
De Jong had an excellent showing again. He only misplaced two passes all game and had around 70+ accurate passes. His role was adjusted from a nominal pivot. He had a bit more offensive freedom, and made several runs into the box, something that didn’t happen in the previous fixtures.
The best part were his runs to intercept and force a turnover high up the pitch. He alone enforced 3 such dangerous turnovers, and went on to have a shot from one of them – should have really scored had he kept his composure in the final moments.
Francisco Trincão yet again had a good cameo in the second half, for about 30 minutes, and could have scored his first goal from a magical Coutinho key pass. He displayed his usual composure and skill and strength in possession, and easily retained the ball under pressure. It’s honestly a blessing to have such a tactical and physically nuanced youngster for the right wing.
Also, the second half brought about the highly awaited debut of Miralem Pjanić, the new arrival from Juventus. The veteran midfielder has been brought to shore up the midfield, and he slotted into the double pivot next to De Jong.
He had an interesting cameo: simple quick passes to recycle possession, got tackled in the Elche’s penalty area, which would probably have the VAR intervening had this been a La Liga game, blasted two shots embarrassingly high, and looked a bit rusty and slow – expected – in tracing back. He committed a few fouls while trying to win the ball back, and this week will be crucial for him to get up to speed and full match fitness if he is to pull off cleaner tackles during actual La Liga matches.
Even Ousmane Dembélé had a nice and short outing, displaying his blistering pace and dribbling skills to get ahead of Elche defenders and have cracks at the goal.
There were some nervy moments in the last 10 minutes, when Elche almost pulled a goal back, but overall it was a pretty good game, with many attacking opportunities and great shots that required an inspired goalkeeping performance from the Elche keeper to keep it down to 1–0 only. There was also a spell of about 20 minutes of intense high pressure in the Elche final third.
Drawbacks of the formation and tactics
The drawbacks of the 4–2–3–1, Koeman’s staple, while not quite on display against weak opposition, still did show at points. The way teams like Bayern Munich pull off their 4–2–3–1 requires immense athleticism and concerted pressing from the entire team. All ten outfield members press like demons, Thiago Alcântara (formerly) and Joshua Kimmich are incredibly versed at winning the ball back and are deceptively quick, and Leon Goretzka is a superb athlete. Their pressing traps are also well coordinated.
None of these is true for Barcelona, at least as of yet. Firstly, Lionel Messi presses very little, which requires the other nine outfield members to offset that by pressing harder than usual. However, only one of the midfielders, Frenkie de Jong is a natural in a double pivot. He has played there at Ajax and for the national team, is highly skilled and athletic and young. His to-be partners Busquets and Pjanić, while elite midfielders in their prime, are at an age where they simply cannot keep up with counter-attacks in transition.
Neither Pjanić nor Busquets were known for their speed. They were known for their cerebral qualities like positioning to win back balls. But this 4–2–3–1 with one less pressing man means opposition teams will often be able to play out of the press and start an attack, which will leave the two midfielders very isolated. De Jong has shown the ability to go to toe-to-toe in speed and physicality while tracking back and win the ball; it remains to be seen how successfully Busquets and Pjanić support him.
Barcelona’s pressing in the final third also had mixed results in the games. Excessive pressing seems to tire out the team quickly, after which the pressing stops working completely. This was particularly on display against Elche. In the last 10–15 minutes, the pressing stopped working completely, even though Barça players tried their best to press high in numbers. Elche in fact almost equalized after playing out of the press, and only Neto’s heroics denied the game from going to extra time or penalties.
“It may be different and somewhat more defensive than what has been seen in recent years, but the objective is to move the ball, hold on to it and find the spaces to play between the lines, and behind rival midfielders. I think this team can do it because we have midfielders to play like that”Ronald Koeman, after Barcelona’s 3–1 win over Nàstic on the new system and double pivot
Also, the excessive fluidity on display whenever all three of Griezmann, Messi and Coutinho are on the pitch can be of concern. All three of them prefer to move into central zones while attacking. Unless they are asked to stay wide, this often leads to an extremely crammed central zone where progression becomes impossible. Contrastingly, Dembélé, Trincão and Ansu Fati have shown great positional intelligence and discipline in staying to their assigned wings. A lack of width is often a problem for Barcelona, and this should be something to be kept in mind.
Finally, and this again comes back to the issue of double pivot, is the midfield personnel who still remain with Barcelona. Carles Aleñá is not a natural pivot, and Busquets and Pjanić are not fast. This got exposed somewhat against Nàstic, where both Aleñá and Busquets failed to close down on the shot that led to Nàstic’s goal. While the attacks were few in these three preseason games, Barcelona will face far stronger opposition in La Liga and will require their pivots to show great athleticism, positional discipline and proactive defending when out of possession.
The preseason, in my opinion, went well for Barcelona. All the front men are back in good shape and have scored crucial goals to boost their confidence. Koeman has tried out interesting tactics and personnel with different degrees of success. And, thankfully, Messi is still at Barcelona and still a genius of the game and in fine form. Add a couple of defenders to the squad, and Barcelona can do well in the league at least. Setting too high expectations might not be realistic, but as Barcelona fans, let’s go into the season hoping for the best.