A look into the frequency and success of Barcelona’s formation changes throughout the 2020/21 season
With a new manager and new personnel joining in the summer of 2020, there was always a high likelihood of some systemic tweaks to start the season. As the months progressed, though, Ronald Koeman continued adjusting and experimenting with the squad’s setup, searching for the most effective solution.
Using data, we can examine how fluid Barça actually were with formation changes compared to the rest of the league, which systems brought out the best performance, and what this says about the team going forward.
A season of changes
Given the traditional Barça way of almost complete reliance on the 4-3-3, the shifts of this season definitely felt like a lot for supporters. However, compared to other La Liga clubs, was the variety of systems actually that high? Indeed it was.
In 2020/21, four different formations were utilized for at least 10% of Barça’s league minutes. Only Huesca – five formations – surpassed this tally. Additionally, the rest of the top four – Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid, and Sevilla – each utilized only two formations to this extent.
Clearly, Barça’s frequency of formation changes was very high, especially for a title challenger. For further proof, the Blaugrana joined just Real Sociedad and Athletic Club as the only sides with two formations hitting over 20% usage.
Compared to previous seasons, the unusual level of these numbers is apparent.
Ronald Koeman’s debut campaign has easily seen the most experimentation with formations, as well as the least utilization of the traditional 4-3-3 – even less than in Ernesto Valverde’s first season, in which he leaned heavily on a 4-4-2.
Team performance by system
With all of that in mind, how did the side actually perform when each of the different formations were utilized? Were there some that were clearly more successful than others, or maybe one that was more focused on defense while another was more attacking?
First off, we can get a sense of the side’s creation and prevention of goal scoring chances using expected goals – a measure of the probability of converting a shot. There seems to be an obvious, most effective and least effective formation from this season through this lens.
Barça’s chance creation in the 4-3-3, which was used heavily throughout January and February of 2021, stands out above the other systems. Matches in which the side lined up in the 4-3-3 saw an average of 2.23 non-penalty expected goals created, while none of the other formations eclipsed 1.96.
On top of that, the 4-3-3 was the most effective in terms of preventing the opposition from creating dangerous chances, with an average of just 0.76 non-penalty xG conceded per match. Thus, that traditional Barça formation seems to have put the team in the best position to win matches this season.
On the flip side, the 4-2-3-1 was the least successful system utilized in 2020/21. This was the system Ronald Koeman implemented to start the season, after finding success with it for the Netherlands national team. The start of the campaign seemed to be a generally sluggish and negative period, and the stats reflect this. The 4-2-3-1 averaged the least non-penalty xG created, and the most allowed for the opposition.
Another lens to look through is that of territorial dominance. Here, we can see how the team progressed into threatening positions, even if they maybe did not create scoring chances after the fact.
Based on passes and carries into the attacking third, the 4-3-3 impresses with the best offensive and defensive numbers again. Meanwhile, the 4-2-3-1 continues to look poor, averaging the least final third entries and the most allowed for the opponent.
In terms of getting into the penalty area, things are a bit tighter but generally follow the same trends. The 4-3-3 was the safest defensively and close to the top offensively, and the 4-2-3-1, while better offensively in this metric, was still the leakiest on the defensive side. In general, the 3-4-3 and the 3-5-2 have looked very similar, with the 3-4-3 being slightly more offensive and the 3-5-2 slightly more secure in defense.
Of course, it is also important to take the context of when the different formations were used into account. The level of the opponent can definitely play a big part in these metrics. With that in mind, the average final league position of the opponents Barça faced with each formation was:
- 3-4-3: 14.7
- 3-5-2: 9.1
- 4-2-3-1: 9.2
- 4-3-3: 12.9
So, while the 4-2-3-1 seemed to clearly be the least effective, its numbers were impacted by a pretty strong array of opponents. Then, the 4-3-3, which had the best metrics across the board, was aided by a bit of a weaker strength of schedule.
Ultimately, though, it still appears that some conclusions can be drawn. The 4-2-3-1 that was introduced and scrapped to start the season, while used against some good teams, was too sluggish and left matches open for the opposition. The switch to the 4-3-3 helped inspire more creativity while also improving defensive solidity.
The 3-5-2 helped pick up some solid results against good opponents, looking better statistically than the 4-2-3-1 even with very similar strengths of schedule. Finally, the 3-4-3 was a bit more of an attacking system than the 3-5-2 and was used more against the weakest level of opposition in the latter stages of the season.
The willingness to adapt and strive for improvement are very admirable qualities in a manager. If the team is not performing well enough – not just in terms of results, but structural performance as well – it is crucial to find a solution.
Koeman, for any potential praise or ridicule he may receive, did try to do this throughout the season. Especially after the opening stretch, in which the side often seemed to lack enough dynamism in the 4-2-3-1, new systems certainly brought improved performance and levels of entertainment.
The issue going forward, though, is that none of the systems really stuck in the long term. Changes refreshed the side and brought out positive qualities of different players, but eventually their impact seemed to die off before a new system had to be introduced.
Flexibility is incredibly valuable, but heading into next season, it will be important to nail down a go-to system that will allow the players to develop more comfortability and understanding over a long period of time.