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Analysis

Assessing the managerial situation and candidates of Barça

Nassif Ali

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Header Image by Rafael Marchante / Pool / AFP via Getty Images

After the humiliation against Bayern Munich, the only certainty in the managerial situation of Barça is that Quique Setién will be sacked. Is it the right move? And who should succeed him?


Curtains have fallen on what was a deplorable season of football for Barcelona. The year turned so sour that towards the end, most of those following the club just wanted it to be done and dusted, so as to turn the page over.

The signs were there right from the beginning of the season, whence the board decided to stick with Ernesto Valverde in spite of the poor manner in which the team went out of the Champions league at the hands of Liverpool in the previous season. There were several points dropped in the first half of the season. Early this year they were kicked out of two tournaments, the Supercopa de España and the Copa del Rey. The former led to the sacking of Valverde and the appointment of Quique Setién.

Setién’s fortunes weren’t looking great either, when the global pandemic struck and football was suspended. When the games eventually began under closed doors, Barça looked quite shaky and inconsistent. They coughed up the lead at the top of La Liga and practically handed over the league title to their archrivals, Real Madrid. What was left then was the Champions League, and that as we witnessed recently, ended in a calamity.

Recuperating from such a disappointing year needs a renovation from top to bottom, as has been rightfully pointed out by several players in the squad. Holding the players or the coach exclusively responsible for the debacle would be erroneous.

The calls for the club president Josep Maria Bartomeu to step down and bring forth the elections is nothing new, and as worse as the situation is, it is highly unlikely that this call will be answered. But whether it is the current president or a new one in the office, the task before them is not a simple one.

The man in the dugout

Quique Setién’s tenure at Barça has been nothing rosy, so far. For all the fanfare that was raised while bringing him in, he now strikes a forlorn figure at the end of the tunnel. He has made mistakes during his tenure, yes. But by far, his biggest mistake was taking up this job.

Barça was far from its best while the board were looking for a change at the helm. Half the season was done, and the team had already dropped a lot of points. The injury list was huge as well. It is always difficult for a new manager to step in midseason as it won’t let him dictate his style, nor would it give him a chance to have a preseason to know his ranks or the leeway to tinker with the squad and drop some points earlier in the season. Setién should have known that a few names on the list had already refused the job and with good reason.

Lionel Messi Barça managerial situation

Barcelona’s issues are no one man’s problem | Photo by Manu Fernández / Pool / AFP via Getty Images

It is not really fair to crucify Quique for having inherited such a depleted side, or for the utter lack of planning that the club’s sporting / scouting department exhibited. But that is not to say that he did not make errors. He failed to communicate to his squad and this lack of translation was evident in the side. He could not unite the squad to be a cohesive unit.

But more importantly, he did not learn from the mistakes of his predecessor and repeated those errors. Trying to play safe, many times his strategies looked exactly like those of the man he was supposed to replace. Above and beyond all this, he stood by and watched as his assistant got into a war-of-words with some members of the team.

It is therefore a fact that Quique Setién’s future was already hanging in the balance even before the Champions league resumed. And now, being at the receiving end of a historic humiliation, it is difficult to see him return to the dugout at the Camp Nou. Which brings us to the key question: who should replace him?

1. García Pimienta

It is next to impossible to find a better candidate for the job at the helm of Barca than Barça B manager García Pimienta right now. Pimienta has an experience spanning more than one and a half decades at the club. But unlike some other candidates, his experience is not as a player, but as a coach. As a player, he spent a few years in the academy and represented the senior side only once. But as a coach, he has managed more than six thousand games at various levels with La Masía.

Starting his coaching career as an assistant coach at the Cadet level in 2001, Pimi spent two years in the role. He left in 2003 only to return as the main coach at the same level in 2006. From that point onwards, he has progressed across the different levels. In the 2017/18 season, he took the Juvenil A side of the club to the top of Europe as they won the UEFA Youth League. It was following this success that the club promoted him as the manager of the B team by the end of such campaign.

In short, Pimienta’s coaching career has seen him tutor the seniors at the Barcelona team as well as the juniors. This ideal position enables him to garner the respect of the seniors in the dressing room, whereas his familiarity with the youth makes him the best person to handle the rejuvenation of the team. In addition, the fact that he has renewed his contract at the club very recently, makes him available for the position, and shows his willingness to step up.

2. Pep Guardiola

Has there been any list of possible Barcelona managers in recent times without this name on it? I doubt it. Even so, had it not been for the abrupt and unexpected exit of his current team, Manchester City, from the Champions League, he would not have been included here.

This fact has nothing to do with his capabilities. Pep Guardiola still remains one of the top coaches in the world, despite the fact that he has not won a Champions League trophy since he left Barcelona in 2012. His four-year stint as the Barça manager, during which he won 14 trophies, is regarded as the reference point by much of the team’s fanbase.

Gabriel Jesus Pep Guardiola Manchester City Barça managerial situation

It was heartbreak for Man City against Lyon, but Pep Guardiola will continue at the Etihad | Photo by Miguel A. Lopes / Pool via Getty Images

Nonetheless, he clearly seems committed to the project that he has started in Manchester. He promised to stay with the club in spite of the penalties and ban imposed on them. Whether the recent defeats will encourage him to leave is a different matter. In addition to this, there is also the fact that he is not in great terms with those at the helm of Barcelona right now. Barça president’s remarks applauding UEFA for enforcing Financial Fair Play in the light of the ban on Manchester City was not well received by Guardiola, and the latter warned the former that other clubs too could find themselves in similar situations.

In light of these circumstances, it certainly seems unlikely that Pep would step into the dugout at Camp Nou soon. Even so, if there is a change of guard at the top in Barcelona following an election, things may change.

3. Mauricio Pochettino

Another name that has been making the rounds is that of former Espanyol and Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. Like Guardiola, if it wasn’t for a recent development, his name would not have been on this list. Once again, the reason is not his capabilities as a coach.

For even though Pochettino has not won any remarkable silverware during his stint at Espanyol, Southampton or Tottenham, his style of play and integration of youth in his teams has been acclaimed. He also took all those sides to good positions in his stints there. This in spite of the fact that he had to work with limited resources, especially at Tottenham. He is also rumoured to have offers from various established European sides at the moment.

The reason why his name would not have featured in the list is political in nature. Pochettino, as mentioned before, has coached Espanyol for three years. This was after his two stints there as a player for a total of almost ten years. Now it so happens that Espanyol are Barcelona’s city rivals. There is no love lost between the two clubs.

Mauricio Pochettino Barça managerial situation

Mauricio Pochettino has a relationship with Barça president Josep Maria Bartomeu and sporting director Ramon Planes | Photo by Bryn Lennon via Getty Images

Barcelona giants like Gerard Piqué have taken a dig at Espanyol in the past and the Periquitos haven’t shied away from responding to it either. To put the context straight, it was a loss to Barça that condemned their city rivals to the Second Division towards the end of this season. Until recently, this rivalry was upheld and declared aloud by Pochettino as well. He has stated repeatedly that he will not take up a job at Barcelona or other rival teams. “I would prefer to work on my farm in Argentina than go to work in certain places”, he was reported as saying with reference to Barcelona, Arsenal and Argentine side Rosario.

Why then is he on this list? Well, the man recently went back on his words. “I didn’t want to disrespect Barcelona. You can say things differently”, he said recently. Add to this the recent rumour of him meeting up with president Bartomeu and it looks like an indication. Of course, he is free to make his choices and change them as he wishes. But the question is how the Barça faithful would take to him, if he were to take up this job. There are already rumours of the board being divided with reference to him. There are also reports that this could be the final nail to Bartomeu’s coffin.

Another issue is that the presidential election is charted for the next year and if a new board swears in, they might want to bring in a coach who they believe in. And this may not bode well for Pochettino, for unlike Pimienta and Guardiola, he is not really a fan favourite at the club. Would Pochettino want to step into these uncertain waters in such a scenario?

4. Other candidates

The list doesn’t end with those three. There are several other names that are being brandished and depending on which media outlet you believe, the front runner could be different. Barça legend Xavi Hernández is one such name. This however seems highly unlikely as Xavi has repeatedly expressed that the time is not right yet for him to take up the job at Barcelona. He has extended his contract at the Qatari side Al Sadd. It would actually be wise for him not to take it up just yet and the reasons have been detailed in a previous article.

Former Barcelona player and current manager of the Dutch national team Ronald Koeman is another name that has been doing the rounds. In fact he has been in and out of these lists for quite some time now. But with the Euros being pushed to the next season, and him expressing his determination to fulfil his commitment with the Dutch team till then, he looks unlikely to change ships right now.

“Everyone knows that my dream is to coach Barcelona one day. It always depends on your journey. I know that, as a coach, you have to have lots of experience to coach a team like that. In my contract, I have the possibility to leave the national team after the European Championship, but it’s not the time to think about that because I’m really happy with my job with the Netherlands”

Ronald Koeman
in June

Another name that has been making the rounds is that of Patrick Kluivert, former player and currently the Director of youth football at Barcelona. Apart from his great contributions as a player, Kluivert’s experience as a coach is next to negligible. Notwithstanding, that he has been associating with the club and the board for the past year means that he has been touted as an option, as unlikely as it is. 

Thierry Henry has also been dragged in as an option by a few media outlets. Henry’s coaching experience is slightly better than Kluivert. But frankly speaking, he is yet to achieve something or leave a mark on any of the sides he managed. His stints as a coaching assistant in the Arsenal youth team and Belgium national side was praised and applauded by the players. But his first attempt at managing a team on his own came down crashing at Monaco after his team won a measly four games and lost eleven out of a total twenty. He was sacked within four months. Currently employed at MLS side Montreal Impact, he hardly seems fit to take up a mammoth task like managing Barcelona.

Summing up

There is no dearth of names being listed for what is one of the most challenging jobs in world football right now. Nevertheless, between the complications of politics, elections, availability and suitability, most of these names can easily be struck off. The one name that stands out –– as ironic as it is –– is already on the club’s payroll, in García Pimienta. Whether he is given this opportunity or not is for us to wait and see.


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In my thirty years filled with accidental decisions - that got me as far as a PhD in history - one deliberate constant has been football. I have been an avid fan of the beautiful game since the 1998 world cup. Back then, in India, following football meant reading about it rather than watching it. I owe much of my love of the game and passion for writing about it, to those fantastic sports journalists and writers who could recreate the excitement of the whole game in a few succinct words.

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Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Juventus 0-2 Barcelona

Anurag Agate

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Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

In collaboration with Soumyajit Bose.


A detailed look into the game by numbers, statistics, and tactics as FC Barcelona outplayed Juventus at the Allianz Stadium in the UEFA Champions League.


Initial systems

Koeman’s Barcelona side started out as expected, in a 4-2-3-1. Antoine Griezmann operated as a false 9, with Lionel Messi behind him in a free role. Off-the-ball, Griezmann would have the job of pressing the opposition ball-carriers which resulted in his starting position being relatively deeper.

Barcelona’s formation always have more than a hint of asymmetry due to Messi’s free role. This resulted in different positional play for the wingers as we can see from the pass-map.

Not only did this affect the wingers, but even the full-backs had different degrees of attacking potential. Miralem Pjanic and Frenkie de Jong formed the double pivot, with the latter having the task of being the ball-carrier more often than Pjanic as always.

Juventus lined up in a 4-2-3-1, but it was more of a skewed 4-2-4 as we can see from the pass-map. Paolo Dybala played in the role we’ve seen Ramsey play under Pirlo where he has the license to contribute anywhere in the attack, as well as drop back to facilitate the build-up.

Adrien Rabiot and Rodrigo Bentancur, due to their high-energy play had the job of controlling the midfield. They would switch sides fluidly, looking to drag Barcelona’s midfielders out of position for Dybala to find space and drop back towards.

The skewed formations and the emphasis of play down one wing more than the other resulted in Juan Cuadrado playing in a much higher position than Danilo.

Wing-play

From the start, there was a significantly larger portion of the play on the right-wing from Juventus. Dybala was a major reason for this, as the Argentine prefers to drift wide and drive forwards with the ball. Along with Dejan Kulusevski, both of these left-footed players made it easier for Juventus to attack using the right-wing, which they made the most of as we can see from the touch-based heatmaps.

It’s also important to see how both systems affected each other. Ousmane Dembele, being more of a direct dribbler than Pedri, often received the ball higher up the field to utilize the right-wing. This meant that Sergi Roberto was unable to carry out the same marauding runs which Jordi Alba was down the left.

Pedri would tuck in on the left, which is something he often did at Las Palmas and is comfortable with, while simultaneously allowing Alba the attacking freedom he needs.

This part of Barcelona’s player dynamics meant that Juventus had to be more cautious when defending with Danilo. With Messi favouring to drift towards the right, Dembele was able to move higher- up the field sticking to the touchline.

Though Sergi Roberto was unable to overlap due to this, it brought the best out of Dembele’s penetrative attacking play. As the touch-based heatmap shows, Dembele was able to cut in often, whereas Roberto drifted towards the half-spaces to form triangles with Dembele and a midfielder or with Messi.

The following visualization shows just how much more of a direct threat Barcelona’s right-wing was than the left-wing.

This is also represented through the following visualization, which helps us understand just how much of a benefit Messi drifting towards the right was. There is a much higher number of take-ons down the wings and the half-spaces in the final-third for Barcelona and a much lower number for Juve down their left-wing.

The build-up and transitions

Juventus have adopted a unique approach to building-up which we have seen from Andrea Pirlo’s initial matches, as well as what he stated in his thesis.

Forming rhombuses or diamonds allows the team to progress in units, which maintains positional integrity while forcing the opposition to commit more players to the press. The following visualization shows just that. Barcelona’s pressurizing activities were either through the middle to prevent the midfielders from having too much possession and to force the centre-backs to pass wide.

This is where the wingers, one midfielder, and a full-back would immediately start pressing Juventus. Especially on the near side, it meant a higher concentration of pressurizing defensive activities as we can see, with less focus in the half-spaces.

Juventus would opt to build up from the back, then forming diamonds with one full-back, a centre-back, a midfielder, and one forward or Dybala who had te license to roam.

This asymmetry is something that Juventus could face a problem with in the future. The concentration of play down the right-wing is highlighted through their progressive passes, which we can see were mostly from right-to-left when transitioning from the middle-third.

Once in the final-third, there was relatively more of a balance as the same visualisation shows us.

Barcelona looked to build from the back with centre-backs Clement Lenglet and Ronald Araujo passing to the full-backs, or the pivots. To help in the build-up, Barcelona’s wingers would drop back, while staying wide. This gave the team a free man in the build-up and provide numerical superiority.

Well, that would be the case usually. However, Juventus were man-marking de Jong and Pjanic according to where the build-up was from. Simultaneously, Dybala and a winger pressed the backline while Alvaro Morata tried to aggressively pin the defenders back.

This pressing system forced Barcelona to play long-balls often, which was what Juventus wanted. As we can see from the following visualization, the majority of unsuccessful passes from the defensive third were long passes.

However, this is where Sergi Roberto was able to do his best. Forming triangles on the right with Messi and either Dembele or a midfielder, he was able to frequently dribble progressively inwards.

Game stats

As Ronald Koeman himself said, Barcelona played a very complete match. They dominated almost every phase of the play, in every way possible. A brief glance at the datatable shows just that :

Barcelona were on fire from the very get-go and could have scored within a couple of minutes after a terrible pass by Merih Demiral, which led to a succession of 3 shots by Lionel Messi, Miralem Pjanic, and Antoine Griezmann respectively. Barcelona’s overall shot qualities were better, and they were fully deserving of the scoreline. Here are the shot maps and the xG flow showing the domination :

That Barcelona dominated possession is somewhat of a given, but they dominated possession in the right areas. The following graphic shows the field tilt or territory gained, which is the share of final third passes by either team. As shown, Barcelona dominated territory in every phase of the game.

Lionel Messi had an outstanding day in office, producing several take-ons, an assist, a goal, and 5 key passes. Alba, Pjanic, and Greizmann chipped in with one key pass each.

For Juventus, the biggest threat throughout the game was Alvaro Morata. Notwithstanding the three offside goals, Morata constantly threatened with his pace and was able to find space between the lines. He also had a key pass to his game while Rabiot, Bentancur, Cuadrado, and Kulusevski had a key pass each.

Passing features

Barcelona switched the ball around a lot more than usual. Against Sevilla, Getafe and Real Madrid, Barcelona were perhaps a little bit guilty of not stretching the field more frequently. Against Juventus, the switching worked according to plan.

As usual, the left side was overloaded with Alba, Pedri and de Jong and one of Messi or Griezmann. As the heatmaps show, Barcelona’s captain played mainly centrally or on the right half space. So him moving to the left to combine with Alba and Pedri meant that Juventus’ structure got dragged significantly and often left Dembele in space.

In fact, one such switch of play resulted in Dembele’s opener, which was following a stellar switch of play by Messi.

As shown in the above graphic, the buildup was quite intricate and beautiful. Barcelona built attacks intricately throughout the game and could have scored more, only to be thwarted by some desperate last-ditch defending by Leonardo Bonucci, Demiral and Danilo.

Conclusion

This performance sees Barcelona cement themselves at the top of their group. In what was a very convincing performance, Araujo had to be subbed-off leading to de Jong playing as a defender, as explained above. This injury, if it is long-term, would leave Barcelona with just Pique and Lenglet in defence with Samuel Umtiti already ruled out.

However, the team will be confident of victory in the home fixture on 9th December thanks to the collective fluidity and great performances from veterans and youngsters alike.

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