Friday will be a big test for both Barça and Bayern. While we don’t know anything about the line-ups, we could imagine potential rivalries, and one seems very exciting: Ansu Fati against Joshua Kimmich.
Football is a sport of duels. Whether it is two teams, countries or players going head-to-head, the rivalries in football are always fun to watch, as long as the fans don’t spoil it as they did with the eternal Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo debate. This debate has been dragged for long enough, and fanboys of both have used supernatural logic to defend their superstars. While any culé would prefer Messi, they should not take anything away from Cristiano, his longevity and his dedication.
Often, fans think that to settle the debate, there should be an important encounter between the two rivals to see who would win, be more decisive and clinical. As Barça and Bayern have a great history, which revolves around the sport and no animosity between the two giants, they play each other on Friday in the quarter-finals of the new World Cup-like Champions League. One leg, no home advantage or away woes, just football at its purest.
As Manuel Neuer will still try to show Messi who’s boss, many other duels are set to be close encounters, especially given the position of some of the stars that will play on Friday. The duel presented here is between a teenager and someone who can play everywhere.
Ansu Fati is bright, probably the brightest talent in over a decade to emerge from La Masía, but Quique Setién doesn’t start him as often as he should even though he deserves the gametime with his form and Ousmane Dembélé’s repeated injuries.
Ansu Fati is unlikely to start against Bayern, but could wreak havoc if utilised | Photo by Alex Caparrós via Getty Images
On the other hand, Joshua Kimmich came as a midfielder under Pep Guardiola, was trained to be the next Philipp Lahm and excelled at every level of the pitch. As a holding midfielder, a right-back or even a centre-back, the German international has fit like a glove in Hans-Dieter Fick’s system and has had many standout performances, including the one against Borussia Dortmund about a month and a half ago where he scored the winning goal with a chip. However, with Benjamin Pavard absent for the clash, it is likely that Joshua will feature on the right of the defence, and if Ansu Fati starts on the left, the duel will be tasty.
Kimmich isn’t the quickest and Ansu would outrun him as he did against Levante in the 2–1 win a few months ago. Kimmich is intelligent, though, and he would never surrender much space to a player like Fati, who is known for his runs in behind and his unpredictable dribbles and shots such, like the one that went in against Villarreal or against Leganés post-lockdown. Kimmich knows how to position himself to leave Fati with no choice than to face his rival. But if Barça are well-equipped tactically, the Guinea-Bissau native could harm Kimmich in a big way.
Bayern play with a high line, as Barça do. Ansu Fati craves the empty spaces in the back of the full-backs and culés see him do it two to three times a game, even though he is many times ignored. Fati could leave Kimmich dumbfounded as the defender could have to mark Ansu during the whole game, basically as Mateo Kovačić did in Barça’s 3–0 demolition of Real Madrid in El Clásico in 2017. In this game, Zinedine Zidane sent his Croatian midfielder to man-mark Lionel Messi, and that caused the first goal of the game, where Kovačić was left wondering if he should close down Messi or the ball-carrier in a dangerous position. He chose Messi and conceded the first subsequently.
If Ansu starts –– which, nevertheless, seems unlikely now ––, Kimmich could be given the duty to stay next to the La Masía graduate for him not to escape, and that could hurt Bayern a lot. If Ansu plays a free role, Joshua would have to follow him and lose his stamina in the process, while at times he would have to let his right-back duties to counter Fati’s inside runs. As Messi already plays a free role and will attract most defenders towards him, Kimmich will have no choice than counter the other free role in the team, if Ansu starts.
The positional intelligence of Joshua Kimmich up against the trickery of Ansu Fati | Photo by Annegret Hilse / Pool via Getty Images
This battle on Barça’s left flank could open many breaches, especially for Jordi Alba, who hasn’t been given as much space in the past few seasons to play his trademark Messi one-two that worked so well under Ernesto Valverde in the first season.
Besides, Ansu’s role combined to Messi’s could open doors for the striker. If Fati starts, Griezmann could be the lone striker to cover the most distance on the pitch as he always does. Griezmann would also free some space for other attackers, namely Fati who would have acres of space to run into when in behind Kimmich’s back. Nonetheless, Bayern could counter that by choosing to play a zonal defensive shape. By relieving Kimmich and the defence from marking three runners in Messi, Griezmann and Fati, Bayern would save energy for the next phase when they got the ball.
Kimmich is also an attacking full-back, and Ansu will have to be wary of the tricky German, who can hurt both Fati and Jordi Alba while relieving Serge Gnabry or any Bavarian midfielder on the right to distract Alba from the real threat.
The battle will surely be tactical but will rely on the individual prowess of the two gems. First, Kimmich’s intelligence can’t be doubted, and Ansu’s physical prowess neither. If Setién opts to make his winger run in behind, Hansi Flick could try and counter in many ways as the battle would be special between two bright spots in modern football. Whether Ansu or Kimmich lose or whether Bayern or Barça lose with their protégé as the winner, the battle will be worth the wait. Barcelona could surprise a few, and so can Anu Fati.
Ronald Koeman starts to find the pieces to Barça’s jigsaw
While the whole Europe has started or is approaching to start their respective national campaigns, Ronald Koeman is trying to find the right system to display his force as soon as the La Liga season starts for Barça in about a week. But with the Nàstic and Girona friendlies already on the Dutch manager’s stomach, has he already found the right men to do the job?
As Barcelona’s start of the season finally approach, after the team had more rest days due to the late Champions League ending, it is fair to underline how its newest manager, new coach Ronald Koeman is still trying to find the right notes to complete the symphony. A symphony that is yet to be completed and to be refined, but certainly one that has been quickly asserting the right tracks under its belly.
This year’s preseason has been an unknown for all professional sports out there, with many having to occur in faster, soarer training sessions than usual. While the fitness aspect of it all will probably be the main cause of differences this season, as fitness coaches had to reduce the workloads and increase speed sessions to keep the players fresh and ready, the managers’ job will be much harder in terms of creating the right harmony and cohesion in a short period of time. There is no enough time to practice the desired movements, tactical systems and other structural aspects of a team’s in-pitch organisation.
Barça, apart from an athletic routine that hasn’t much been under scrutiny in recent history due to the club’s different values, had a few more problems to cope with. Lionel Messi‘s transfer saga, the motion of no confidence against president Josep Maria Bartomeu, a new manager, a strange signings strategy – both in and out of the club –, and more. In all the chaos that Barcelona is right now, Koeman’s job has been much harder than what it could have been under normal circumstances. Still, the Dutchman is slowly finding his rhythm with the team.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona is taking shape | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
One of the biggest tactical unknowns of Koeman’s appointment was whether he was going to keep Barça’s vintage 4–3–3 system, or if he was going to change it in a 4–2–3–1, due to his own preferences and the team’s characteristics. After very much debating between fans and pundits, the first two friendlies of Barça’s short preseason gave the environment the answer it was looking for: 4–2–3–1.
While the tactical system is different from the culés‘ traditional one, Koeman’s mentality and footballing ideas are far from being the opposite of Barça’s. Offensive, intense and vertical football are a must for Barcelona’s expectations as much as Koeman’s interpretations. There is a perfect binomial conduction between the club and its new employee.
Football in preseason is as much a test for all the players in a team’s roaster as a training to keep the legs rolling and the lungs filling the air. So were the recent friendlies against Nàstic de Tarragona and Girona. As expected, Koeman literally played eleven different players per half in both games, with a few changes in the last one. And as the coach was varying things and changing the pieces of the puzzle, you could already see the ideas, the movements, the principles that he wanted to give to the team.
As many distressed fans have already noticed, the defence that suffered eight goals against Bayern Munich has not changed a bit. While it may seem discouraging for some, having such individual qualities at the back paired with some solid and correct defensive training may end up being the best signing Barça could do to improve its backline.
With Marc-André ter Stegen on its way back to recovery after surgery, Neto will be the only difference in Barcelona’s defence this season, with lack of competition from the bench arising. At least, as long as Manchester City keeps its firm stand on the Eric García situation and Sergiño Dest doesn’t move to the Camp Nou.
With a proven-to-be two-man midfield in Barça’s new squad, a Koeman favourite will certainly find his place game in, game out: Frenkie de Jong. As the same manager told upon his arrival, it is a shame to watch players like De Jong – and Antoine Griezmann – in unusual positions, as they will not perform at the levels they are expected to.
“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 has shown at Ajax and with the Dutch national team which position suits him best and that is where he will be playing at Barcelona as well”Ronald Koeman
With De Jong‘s place not being threatened by anyone else except himself, it is expected from Riqui Puig and Carles Aleñá to provide that support quality and solutions from the bench or, in some cases, to perform in an eventual three-man midfield, with Puig being hierarchically higher than the former Real Betis loanee.
Next to De Jong is a position that is going to be fought for the whole length of the season: Sergio Busquets’ intelligence or Miralem Pjanić‘s quality? With an ageing Busquets, it will be the first time in twelve years that his place will be under severe scrutiny by the club, as years go by and fresher legs come in place. But while the Bosnian’s quality will be very much needed throughout the entire season, Busquets’ tactical awareness is going to be a solid piece of refinery yet again.
Slowly approaching Barça’s biggest guns, it is no secret that the Catalan’s team offensive overbooking is going to keep several doors open throughout the whole season. Having the freedom of two players per position is a manager’s dream, but while it may be a benefit, it is also a challenge to keep the team balanced and the moods paced.
With the signings of two youngsters such as Francisco Trincão and Pedri, both incredibly bright against Nàstic and Girona, Barcelona’s wide game takes a big jump in terms of volume, youth and creativity. But with Luis Suárez’s mysterious future under supervision, the seniority of Barça’s main man upfront will take its advantage overall. At least initially.
“I liked Trincão positionally, sometimes coming inside and sometimes going outside. He has the quality and has to adapt to the speed and rhythm. He’s a great signing”Ronald Koeman, on Francisco Trincão after the 3–1 win over Nàstic last Saturday
Apart from Ansu Fati, who is already considered a senior throughout the whole footballing world, Messi and Antoine Griezmann seem to be Koeman’s main men for the central roles up top: as much as they will both exchange their positions, the Argentinian is destined to take the playmaking role, while the French World Cup winner will move around him and try to create spaces and finish chances for the team.
Besides Barça’s business, Philippe Coutinho is another player to have returned to the blaugrana headquarters. Full of determination, he will look to prove himself once and for all where he wanted to be ever since his Liverpool days. With similar motives to the Brazilian’s, but with different sources, Ousmane Dembélé is approaching the start of a defining season for him: either he proves to be world-class or he goes home. And with the explosion of Ansu Fati and the incredible talent he brings to the field, those three may feature in most of Barça’s games in this start of the season. Ansu Fati’s injury permitting, of course. However, Trincão and Pedri’s talents may change many’s minds, Koeman’s included.
“He [Pedri] is a great talent. He’s 17 and such an important signing for our future. He has trained with us and has the quality to play, so we’ll see how much he can take part”RONALD KOEMAN, AFTER beating NÀSTIC LAST SATURDAY
Ronald Koeman is slowly finding the pieces to solve this incredibly difficult puzzle that Barça appears to be. It is going to take more than just a few friendlies and a few good performances to overturn the season’s predictions around Barcelona’s offices. That is why players are tools for a team to perform. You can have better or worse ones. But the mentality and the identity of a team’s way of playing are principles much more important for a club’s success in the pitch.
It is no surprise that, perhaps, the most positive aspect of the new Barça’s performances over the course of the first two friendlies has not been a single player, a chance created or a defensive movement. Instead, it has been the intensity of the team’s ball movement mixed with those two, maximum three, touches per player.
The path to Barcelona’s native brilliance is long and hard, but having the right mindset to attack this jigsaw is the best strategy that the Dutch manager could employ. One idea, 4–2–3–1, eleven optimal choices and the highest intensity possible. Step by step, game after game, Koeman’s Barça will surface. With patience. And, as in microeconomics when supply meets demand, in football, when principles meet practicality, the puzzle is solved.