Plying his trade with the Netherlands national team as their head coach, Ronald Koeman resorted to a safe yet adventurous 4-2-3-1 setup, starring Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay as protagonists. Life with the Oranje was well, but Koeman could not resist the chance to coach Barcelona when the opportunity presented itself through Josep Maria Bartomeu in the summer of 2020.
Long story short, the Dutchman brought his ideas from yesteryears to the Catalan giants. He conceptualised Barça as a highly offensive unit, structuring each player around the 4-2-3-1 with de Jong at the helm of it. That, however, did not work out for too long, with players failing to adapt to the new formation.
Against his own judgement, Koeman re-transitioned the team into a 4-3-3 using his protege de Jong in an attacking box-to-box role. Pedri ultimately took over Philippe Coutinho’s place in the XI as the no. 8, all anchored by the ever-brilliant Sergio Busquets.
The 4-3-3 had an impressive run as well, but the call for a heavy pressing midfield came by to topple down the likes of Sevilla and PSG. Around this time, Koeman changed the setup to a 3-5-2, and then briefly into a 3-4-2-1. As it stands, the former seems to be his go-to choice for the rest of the season as the race for the La Liga throne gets intense.
After losing out on the chance to go on top of the La Liga against Granada, Koeman and his assistant Alfred Schreuder must evaluate and re-evaluate the formation and lineup they will use to make a final push for the league title, as the Spanish league goes into the final five gameweeks.
Over the course of the last several weeks, the three at-the-back has worked wonders for Barcelona, and not only in terms of results. Barça look sharper than ever, starting games on the front foot and playing attractive football. All of this makes it the ideal formation for the final five weeks.
Antoine Griezmann seems to have found his place with the Garnet and the Blue in 2021 and has been playing his best football since the 2018 World Cup. 26 direct goal involvements for the year so far have put him fifth for direct goal involvements in all competitions across players from the top 5 leagues, three clear off the incredible Robert Lewandowski.
More than that, though, the Frenchman is the perfect forward to complement Lionel Messi in Barcelona’s two-striker system without a natural number ‘9’. He is habituated to drop deep to connect the midfield and attack and gives Messi — who roves as deep as the centre circle to collect the ball — an additional passing option annexing the middle and final third.
At 18, Pedri is fatigued beyond measure after having played more than 40 games already. However, he must be the first-choice for Koeman. The Spaniard’s close control and incredible work rate come in handy in tight spaces when encountered with a mid-block. Not to mention his chemistry with Messi allows them to run riot on the edge of the box. The teenager can always rotate with Ilaix Moriba and Riqui Puig when push comes to shove, but both lack the run-in Pedri has received this season.
Given Sergio Busquets’ form, he is a certainty in the defensive midfield. As is Frenkie de Jong, who not only provides incredible mobility, but also an additional goalscoring threat for the team.
Barcelona’s title charge has come crashing since Sergi Roberto has returned from injury, and his performances show that it is not a mere coincidence. The game against Granada proved, once again, that Roberto does not warrant a place in the team, let alone the starting XI. Sergino Dest should be deployed in that capacity, while Jordi Alba has to be the only choice on the opposite side.
The biggest confusion comes in the heart of the central defence. Gerard Pique returned from injury against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final, putting up an absolute show. However, an extended run in the team shows that the veteran is far from top-form. Ronald Araujo has enjoyed a better season, breaking through to the first team, and should be the priority in the centre of the back-three.
Oscar Mingueza boasts of incredible anticipation off the ball, and his mobility on it makes him the perfect player to play the role on the right of the defensive trio. With a player as attacking as Dest infront of him, Mingueza is the only defender in the Barcelona team quick enough to cover for the American on both ends of the pitch.
It is a toss-up between Clement Lenglet and Samuel Umtiti for the left centre-back position. While the former was at the end of a plethora of mistakes for two-thirds of the season, he has enjoyed a fair bit of success recently. Additionally, his ability on the ball has always been unmistaken, making threatening through-balls into the final third.
The perfect alternative: 4-3-3
The 4-3-3 has been synonymous with Barcelona for decades, but modern football requires an ever-changing system that caters to the weaknesses of every opposition. Unlike his predecessors, Ronald Koeman is not at all afraid to experiment with formations, already having used at least five different structures up until now. Criticisms about his lack of stability have been commonplace.
Lately, however, he has taken plenty of steps in the right direction, with his goal remaining the same: to play attractive football, which brings results.
The 4-3-3 brings width on two levels but with less defensive depth. Against the likes of Valencia, however, Barça could be better off in the 4-3-3 as it allows less space on the wing to exploit as opposed to the 3-5-2, which has two high-functioning wingbacks.
In the event that Barcelona are able to achieve the latter, especially with the 3-5-2, Koeman can revert to the 4-3-3. Ousmane Dembele is the first name that comes to mind here. The Frenchman can be deployed in his favoured right-wing capacity, as he has been so often this season. Griezmann can be shifted to the left side of the trio, and while he does not provide a similar level of width as his compatriot, his off the ball movement will be key as the primary threat from inside the box.
The midfield trident remains constant, with the only difference being that Busquets will have to ply his trade deeper than in the 3-5-2. De Jong will have to shoulder more attacking responsibility with the lack of wingbacks, while Pedri will operate in half-spaces outside the box.
The fullbacks do not raise any concerns here, unlike the centre-halves. While the presence of a left-footed CB in Lenglet could always be an option, his defensive instability is not worth the risk. The Frenchman is able to paper of the cracks in the three-man backline, but should not be given the starting pass in the 4-3-3.
Mingueza prowess on the ball is solid enough to warrant him the position on the left, while Araujo’s strength and pace will come in handy, making the two a perfect pair. In many ways, they would resemble the classic pairing of Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol from the club’s golden era.
Speaking of which, Pique could come in to replace Araujo, but that decision will have to be made after careful deliberation, in the event where dropping points becomes improbable.
Formations are nothing but numbers; it is the roles and the system that determines results. However, some evident pros come with using the 3-5-2, especially the high pressing. Additionally, using it in the last few months has meant that the first-choice 11 is most used to it right now, and any lack of chemistry at this stage could cause serious problems. Ronald Koeman should continue to play it safe for the last five games, but with extra care on the player’s performance during games. With all eyes on the prize, proper squad management is the key that will open the door to a 27th La Liga title for the Blaugrana.