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An old head alongside De Jong shoulders: The Busquets – Pjanić conundrum

Sudarshan Gopal

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Header Image by David Ramos via Getty Images

Frenkie de Jong seems to have a definite spot in the starting XI under new Barcelona coach and fellow Dutchman Ronald Koeman, but who will partner him in the double pivot: Sergio Busquets or Miralem Pjanić?


In the small town of Buitenpost, a young Dutch boy would wear the blaugrana colours for the first time. In what was his first match for Barcelona, albeit in a friendly, the Dutchman would go on to score a hat-trick: two goals from outside the box and a penalty, all in a mere 45 minutes. That was the beginning of an illustrious Barcelona career for Ronald Koeman. He went on to become one of the key figures of the Dream Team, scoring an astonishing 106 goals in 350 games played, including the winner that won Barcelona their first European Cup in 1992.

Fast forward, post-retirement, he always spoke fondly of the club, the fans and the city and the love was mutual. However, now he returns as the manager, hoping to continue where he left off as a player. He has a massive responsibility on his shoulders: to guide the Catalans back to the top while there’s a messy and chaotic revamp imminent at the club. All this, while the fans and the Barcelona board keep a close eye on the performances; a small mistake and his garnet and blue dream could be over within months.

Ronald Koeman returns to the club after a successful managerial stint with the Dutch national team. After the failed terms of Dick Advocaat, it was clear that the team needed a new spark and a change in pace. It was at this point that the KNVB looked towards Koeman, who quickly began the revival, introducing a new generation of players to the national team and bringing about a shift in tactics. The focus of which was a move towards a more possession-oriented style. The cornerstone of this team, of course, was the midfield, wherein his lynchpin became young Frenkie de Jong.

The youngster got his debut in 2018 and made an immediate impact. He had a calm head and looked ever so assured on the ball, illustrating maturity well beyond his years. Add to this, his work rate and athletic ability, and Koeman had the perfect solution to the problems he wanted to address.

De Jong’s meteoric progress did not go overlooked by Barcelona, who were searching for the perfect long-term replacement for Sergio Busquets. The Spanish club kept a close eye on him, and it was during the 2018/19 season in which Ajax reached the Champions League semi-finals, it became clear: it was time to make a move.

The Dutchman dominated every rival midfield with such ease and poise that it left Ajax fans purring and Barcelona fans wanting. It was thus, in January that Barcelona decided to move to buy de Jong, and the youngster decided that the Spanish club would be the best choice for him, rejecting the approaches made by Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in the process.

Frenkie de Jong Sergio Busquets Miralem Pjanić Barcelona

De Jong’s involvement in goals with Ajax was phenomenal | Graph from Statsbomb

The year to follow must have been tough to swallow for De Jong. Ernesto Valverde chose to operate the Dutchman in a rather absurd role, where he was assigned ball progression duties but little else. All creative tasks thus lay with the Argentinian great on the right flank, since the other Barcelona midfielders offered little to no verticality or imagination in the final third.

When Quique Setién arrived in January, it was hoped that he would see the light, but it wasn’t to be – De Jong continued in a limited role under him as well. It is thus not a surprise that De Jong’s xG build-up numbers are severely lacking, contrasting to his previous season with Ajax.

Frenkie de Jong Sergio Busquets Miralem Pjanić Barcelona

FdJ’s involvement in goals was severely hampered by Ernesto Valverde | Graph from Understat

Now that Koeman has joined Barcelona in a managerial outfit, it is hoped that De Jong is given the role he so desires. The 23-year-old has the potential to be the keystone of the Barcelona midfield – the player around whom the team can revolve. Koeman knows how to get the best out of de Jong, and has not been shied away from speaking about it even before joining the club. Thus, it is only a matter of who partners the Dutch midfielder in a new-look Barcelona.

Koeman played a 4–2–3–1 shape with the Dutch national team. The number 10 spot was often occupied by the versatile Georginio Wijnaldum. Behind him, Koeman played Martin de Roon and de Jong together, with the latter operating in a deeper role. He was the one who looked to bring out the ball from defence towards the attack, acting as more or less the engine in the centre of the park.

“The plan is to start playing Frenkie de Jong in the position that he plays with the national team as well. I remember attending a Barcelona game and I saw him play a position where I wouldn’t play him as a coach. You’ve spent a lot of money on a young player. You should then play him in his own position, where he can perform in a way you’d expect from him. He’s shown at Ajax and with the Dutch national team which position suits him best and that’s where he will be playing at Barcelona as well”

Ronald Koeman, speaking to NOS after his appointment as the Barcelona coach

At Barcelona, Koeman looks to continue in the same vein. With big-buck signings Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann set to occupy the number 10 role for Barcelona this season, and De Jong set to become the star in the midfield, the only spot open is as part of the double pivot. With the likes of Riqui Puig, Carles Aleñá and Pedri listed on loan, the team will be left with two experienced heads to complete the tandem with Frenkie de Jong: Sergio Busquets and new signing Miralem Pjanić.

Option Busquets

32-year-old Sergio Busquets has established himself as one of the best defensive midfielders of our generation, and while he might be on the wrong side of the age spectrum, he still has a lot left in the tank. This was proven last season as he resurrected his career after a disastrous 2018/19, playing closer to the defence.

Busquets, even with his old legs, has the defensive ability to dominate in this role. A quick comparison with De Jong’s Dutch partner Marten de Roon shows Busquets commands or is at least comparable in every category barring successful pressures, which is understandable since at his age he’s more reliant on positioning than pressures to win defensive battles.

Marten de Roon Sergio Busquets Miralem Pjanić Frenkie de Jong Barcelona

Graph by Football Slices, data by FBref and StatsBomb

The issue with pairing Busquets alongside De Jong is that it still does not give the latter the ideal role he needs. Koeman has explicitly mentioned that he intends to provide him with a role similar to the one he has with the national team, and that would mean Busquets would need to play further up the pitch, as he did in some games the previous season.

While this does give a chance for Busquets to display his creativity and vision to break the lines, it has a significant flaw: Busquets no longer has the stamina, or speed to revert back from further up the pitch to make interceptions, therein creating a defensive hole.

Option Pjanić

Miralem Pjanić is a new arrival at the Camp Nou and comes off another Serie A title with Juventus. The Bosnian is a more creative option compared to Busquets, as can be seen by his 2.76 shot-creating actions per 90 as compared to Busquets 1.81 in the previous season.

Moreover, Pjanić positions himself further up the pitch as compared to Busquets. Although he did play the role of the deepest midfielder in Juventus, he wasn’t the one who carried the ball out from there. In fact, he positioned himself just behind the opposition’s first press and tried to give the centre-backs a passing option behind those lines instead of progressing with the ball himself through the opposition’s first line of defence.

This is suitable for the role De Jong intends to carry out as Pjanić can provide a passing option to De Jong further up the pitch, as he brings the ball out. Furthermore, he is more than capable of breaking lines through long balls and defence-splitting passes. Simultaneously, this can also address the issue of lack of verticality at the club. He also has a long shot in him, which can be useful to break teams that sit back deep against Barcelona.

Miralem Pjanić Sergio Busquets Frenkie de Jong Barcelona

In terms of defensive actions, Pjanić does stand behind Busquets, but Frenkie de Jong looks set to be the all-rounder in the pivot, which includes his defensive ability and ability to win the ball, as he does often showcase for the Netherlands. If De Jong is set to be the engine, Miralem Pjanić should be the one paired with him, although if the need arises for a more defensive half of the pivot, Koeman can always look towards Busquets.

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Analysis

Barcelona vs Real Madrid: The Game through Numbers

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP

A detailed look into the game by numbers, statistics, and tactics as FC Barcelona fell to defeat against Real Madrid in the first El Clasico of the season.


Following a high-flying victory against Ferencvaros in the opening game of the Champions League, FC Barcelona returned to action in La Liga against Real Madrid at Camp Nou. However, the game didn’t go as Ronald Koeman planned, and Barcelona stumbled to defeat in the first El Clasico of 2020-21. This followed a draw against Sevilla and a shock loss to Getafe and left Barcelona midtable 5 games into the season.

Team Structures

Ronald Koeman sprung in several surprises ahead of this fixture. Firstly, Jordi Alba returned from injury to play as left-back, while Sergi Roberto was omitted altogether for Sergiño Dest. Philippe Coutinho played as left-wing. 17-year old Pedri got to start the Classico as a reward for his performances but was fielded on the right-wing. Lionel Messi played as the no. 10 behind Ansu Fati as the striker.

Off the ball, Barcelona defended in a 4-4-2 with Messi and Fati staying and pressing up. From touch-based heatmaps, there are two interesting features.

Firstly, while Frenkie de Jong played in a relatively advanced role, he stayed quite wide. Sergio Busquets occupied the central channels. However, tasking his old legs to guard such a big zone resulted in recurring issues.

Secondly, Pedri is not a natural winger. He loves to play centrally. Having three natural CAMs in Pedri, Coutinho and Messi on-field and forcing two of them to play as wingers was never a good idea, to begin with. Pedri kept drifting inside, as shown in the heatmaps. Both Coutinho and Pedri were limited in their influence. Koeman’s overthinking and tinkering nullified both their strengths.

Real Madrid on the other hand set up in a skewed 4-3-3 as shown. Early injury to Nacho resulted in Lucas Vazquez coming on as the right back for the remainder of the game. Vinicius stayed high and wide, while Marco Asensio drifted in and out, often letting Federico Valverde occupy the wider channels.

Barcelona’s structure after the 81st minute deserves a special mention. Koeman made several offensive subs, bringing on Antoine Greizmann, Ousmane Dembele, Martin Braithwaite and Fransisco Trincáo into the game, in place of Pedri, Fati, Busquets and Alba. To top it all off, Coutinho was slotted as the only pivot in the side, instead of de Jong as the shape devolved into a bizarre 3-1-6.

Attacks and Buildups

This game had a clear moment after which the game changed – minute 62. Until then, Barcelona were evidently the better team starting to dominate a bit as well. Here are the stats from the entire game:

Barcelona were outshot, outscored, and had fewer shots on target – but a lot of that’s skewed from what happened minute 62 onwards. From the PPDA (Passes per Defensive Action) data, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, it’s evident that neither team went for a very high press. Here is the shot map and xG flow:

Minute 62 was when Clement Lenglet fouled by pulling Sergio Ramos’ shirt inside the penalty area while defending a corner. Ramos didn’t need a second invitation to exaggerate the pull. He fell theatrically to the ground, won a penalty, and Barcelona were chasing the game that moment onwards.

The first blood was drawn by Madrid after a moment of disastrous marking by Busquets allowed Federico Valverde to run into Barcelona’s box, unmarked, and smash home from Karim Benzema’s pass.

Thankfully, Barcelona did not take long to reply. A delightful ball over the top from Lionel Messi met Jordi Alba’s well-timed run, and Alba’s square pass was prodded home by Ansu Fati. Here is a little animation of the goal:

As mentioned earlier, Madrid’s second goal came from a penalty, scored by Ramos himself. And Luka Modric capitalized on some terrible defending to make it 3-1 in the 91st minute.

Passing

Neither team were truly impressive in passing. Here are the most dangerous passes by both teams:

Passes into the box were few by either team. Barcelona did manage to get into the box from central zone 14 or half-spaces, while Madrid clearly utilised their greatest strength – attacking from wide areas. It’s also shown in the key passes map:

However, in buildup, Madrid were far more expansive. They switched the play a lot as compared to Barcelona.

Comparing the passes completed in the final third by each team, quantified by field tilt – Barcelona completed a greater number of final-third passes. However, the field tilt, or final third territory gained, was being dominated by Madrid in the first half. Barcelona started the second half positively and dominated territory. However, they got scored against the run of play. After that, Madrid were happy to let Barcelona keep possession and attacked the team on the counter.

Defence and Pressing

Both teams exhibited some terrible defending in the first half, to say the very least. Both goals were conceded from such cases.

As mentioned before, there were huge gaps in the midfield, and too much space between the midfield and defence; i.e. poor covering by Busquets and de Jong. Madrid made the best use of this for their first goal, and repeated it several times as the clock ticked ahead.

In the first image, it is evident that too many Barcelona players got sucked in trying to press the Madrid defence, resulting in a huge void in the midfield. Madrid play out of the press with ridiculous ease.

In the second image, the gap between Dest and Pique is appalling. Both centre-backs are engulfed towards Benzema for some reason, and Busquets completely loses track of Valverde’s run. One simple through ball and the job is done.

Almost immediately after that, Vinicius almost scored a second. Quick combination with Benzema in the box, while Busquets is seen jogging outside the box, there is a huge space to attack. Thankfully, Vinicius’ poor decision making and first touch allow Alba to throw him off.

The next example, again in the first half, shows terrible spacing between defenders, and terrible tracking from Busquets. A simple ball behind Dest, who is in isolation with the rest of the backline meets a well-timed run that Busquets can’t keep up with.

The next two examples are from the second half:

In the first one, the “pivot” Coutinho loses track of Toni Kroos’ run. Kroos runs onto Vazquez’s cutback to take a shot that Neto saves marvellously, and denies the German again pouncing perfectly on the rebounded shot.

The second image shows the moment when Vazquez lobs a ball into Ramos’ path, who is completely unmarked on the far post. Thankfully, Neto comes to Barça’s rescue saving the Madrid’s captain volley with his foot.

Madrid didn’t cover themselves in glory either, especially in the first half. Barcelona’s only goal of the game came as a result of terrible tracking from Nacho as Alba found space behind him. There were giveaways in midfield that led to multiple chances as well.

Most notably, Fati’s lofted ball into the path of an unmarked Messi, who eviscerated Ramos with a quick dribble but shot straight into the hands of Thibaut Courtois at the near post. However, they weren’t as often as Barcelona’s, and in general, resulted in lower quality chances.

As mentioned before, neither team went all out to the press. Barcelona’s pressing structure was so poor that Madrid played through it without trouble. They could even manage elaborate buildups, with two examples shown below:

Issues

Shambolic would be the right word to define Barcelona’s defending in the game. The lack of speed and the alertness to track runners was exposed yet again. The card-happy centre-backs came to haunt Barcelona again, as Lenglet gave away a poor penalty.

Busquets, on the other hand, looks far from being a starter and should be replaced as soon as possible. And if he somehow manages to retain his spot in the lineup, the midfield structure needs to be fixed so that he doesn’t get tasked with defending such a wide area.

The substitutions and Koeman’s game management made little to no sense. As seen in the Getafe game, in more cases than not, more forwards does not equate to more goals. The midfield was non-existent in the last 10 minutes, and Los Blancos made the best use of this as they scored the third where Luka Modric made the Barcelona defence dance.

Conclusion

The game was pretty even for nearly one hour, with neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid standing out as the better team. Post that, however, the scoreline spoke for itself.

Sergiño Dest made a solid claim for starting as right back in the coming games. He was outstanding in defence and quite courageous and innovative in the offence, with some neat dribbles. Fati kept his goalscoring form alive, becoming the youngest ever scorer in an El Clasico. Neto ended the game as arguably the best player on the pitch, but that is more bad news than good for the Garnet and the Blue.

However, there are defensive, structural, tactical, and personnel problems to be ironed out by Koeman in the future, especially if he wants to retain his job after a change of presidency. Otherwise, this could turn out to be a worse season the previous one for La Liga.

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