After 37 matchdays, the fate of the 2019/20 La Liga goes in favour of Real Madrid after two years of dominance from Barça. Zinedine Zidane’s men are deservedly champions of Spain as they capitalised on the azulgranas’ inconsistency. Yesterday, Madrid’s scrappy 2–1 win over Villarreal and Barcelona’s 1–2 loss to CA Osasuna summed up the story of this season.
A 100% win record since the restart saw Real Madrid take away Barcelona’s hopes of retaining the La Liga title. When compared to their rivals, the Catalans have had a disappointing run of form since football’s return. Three draws and one defeat in ten games saw them fall off from the summit of the table. Zinedine Zidane’s side, on the other hand, made the most of every slip-up from Barça, and have now won the league by seven points.
Los Blancos‘ highly motivated board
Let’s rewind the clock back to the conclusion of last season. Real Madrid ironically lost to Quique Setién’s Real Betis, while Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona was held to a 2–2 draw by Eibar. The blaugranas had won the league weeks before the final matchday and finished nineteen points above Madrid. The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo had hurt them massively. Despite appointing three managers in one season, there were absolutely no signs of revival.
In response to the horrific 2018/19 season, president Florentino Pérez invested massively in the squad. Despite Eden Hazard being the highlighted signing, the best one turned out to be left-back Ferland Mendy. There was a need to address the fact that Marcelo was declining, and their board spent no time in finding a successor. Furthermore, Los Blancos also signed Luka Jović and Eder Militão for hefty fees.
The intent was clear from day one, to eventually replace an ageing squad with youngblood. Even if Jović has had a season to forget, there is little denying that the 22-year-old is one for the future. He has all the time in the world to develop his attacking expertise and take over the mantle from Karim Benzema. On the other hand, Mendy has already made the left-back berth his own. Marcelo is deservedly second-choice, and no one can argue about that.
Despite some bumps in the road, Real Madrid have managed to overcome them by keeping their focus on the pitch | Photo by Daniel González Acuña / Zuma via Imago
While it must be said that Eden Hazard hasn’t had the dream start to his career at Madrid, there’s nothing to worry in particular. Not every high-profile signing becomes an instant hit. Additionally, injuries didn’t help his cause. However, he will be highly motivated to prove his critics wrong next season.
Massive credit should go to Florentino Pérez and the rest of the board members. They were reactive to the failures of Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari. Florentino analysed the negativity looming around the dressing room and chose to bring back Zidane as he is someone the players respect a lot. The Frenchman left along with Ronaldo as he was aware of the board’s plans at the start of the 2018/19 season. They were unambitious and chose to rely on the existing squad quality, which backfired.
But Pérez understood the errors he made and backed Zidane in the 2019 summer transfer window. They spent on the areas where they were massively weak, and have even found long-term replacements to a few players. A combination of fantastic on and off-pitch decisions saw Real Madrid win their 34th league title.
A contrasting situation at Barça
After praising Real Madrid’s administration for its proactive and brave decisions, discussing Barcelona’s board is a mood kill. President Josep Maria Bartomeu has been making destructive decisions from the start of the season. It began with the signing of Antoine Griezmann, that was never going to be a direct match in profile. The sacking of Ernesto Valverde mid-season when they were at the top of the table proves to be the wrong call. Indeed, the Spanish tactician deserved to be shown the door, but it was at the wrong time.
At Barcelona there is a strong division between all parties | Photo by Alberto Estevez via Imago
Bringing in Quique Setién, who knew the Barcelona way, was a decision that initially seemed excellent. The 61-year-old immediately improved the football, but the form has been inconsistent since his arrival. Under Valverde, the style of play wasn’t pretty, but they always managed to grind out results. Overreliance on Lionel Messi is something that was exposed this season. The Argentine’s scoring record against teams in the top half hasn’t been the best this season.
The azulgranas dropped points every time Messi couldn’t give his 100%. Be it Valverde or Setién, Leo’s form was the deciding factor of almost every game. The board’s horrific sporting decisions peaked when they decided to let go of Arthur Melo for Miralem Pjanić. As much as one may try to deny it, the administration just didn’t have its head in the game. Bartomeu was focussed on making selfish calls that suited certain minimalistic administrative agendas.
Comparing the manager’s powers
At any football club, the major talking point will always be: How much of a say does the manager have on the major decisions? At Real Madrid, Zidane’s word is omniscient. Zizou has been given all the freedom to execute whatever tactics he felt was right for the team. About the handling of players, Zinedine was in complete control. The treatment of Gareth Bale is enough to explain how authoritative the 48-year-old was in the dressing room. Even if there was a degree of player power in the dressing room, no individual was greater than the manager.
“We believe in him and in his work. He’s the one who has to make the difference, he’s a person who trusts players, and few do. We hope he stays here for a very long time, he is unique”
on Zinedine Zidane
These words from Sergio Ramos tell you how much the players rate their manager. Notwithstanding, Madrid didn’t have the ideal starts to this season. They were dropping points to mid-table sides, and at one point, there were rumours of Zidane even losing his job. Nonetheless, the players stuck with him throughout the inconsistent period. They put everything into making sure that the situation was overturned.
At Barcelona, the scenario seems to be massively contrasting. There is clear evidence of the fact that neither Valverde nor Setién were given control of the dressing room. The player power is unhealthy, and the board’s toxicity reaks all the way to the pitch. At times, one can even see that Quique Setién isn’t able to pick his starting XI. The decisions seem too questionable for the coach to receive the entirety of the blame. While the lion’s share of the fault goes to the manager, there’s nothing he can do if the players don’t respect him.
Players, coaching staff and board, Real Madrid is a union | Photo by Gabriel Bouys / AFP via Getty Images
There is not one case where we were able to see Setién display control. His press conferences are too passive, and his opinions make him look like a victim of a mismatch in the dressing room powers. Quique might be an excellent tactician, but the truth is that he can’t handle the huge egos in Barcelona’s squad. When players show their backs to the coach, the manager should respond like how Zidane did with Bale. At the Camp Nou, the stance is different, where Setién is easily scapegoated for each and every decision.
From the start of the season, Real Madrid’s focus was entirely on the pitch. At times, the tactics didn’t go as per plan, but Zidane was always in control of every situation. Be it sporting or non-sporting decisions, there was always an amount of clarity displayed by the board. A combination of clever calls and excellent player-management saw the merengues win the Spanish Super Cup and La Liga. The new champions of Spain took advantage of Barça’s off-pitch problems, and are now reaping the benefits of a strong campaign.
“I did not expect Madrid to maintain their high level for this long”
Barcelona are currently in free-fall, partly because of the manager and majorly due to the players. The board should either appoint a coach who can control the dressing room and manage the egos, or instruct the players to respect the current one. With uncertainties looming over Quique Setién’s future, it doesn’t look like the club is mentally ready for the Champions League. When asked about his future, the coach said, “I hope so, but I don’t know”. These shocking quotes from him sum up how uncertain and unfortunate he has been since taking over as coach.
Madrid will be looking to make a comeback against Manchester City in the Champions League. Barcelona, on the other hand, host Napoli in a critical second leg, where they lead on away goals. Judging by their recent performances, one can conclude that they are neither tactically, nor mentally prepared to face the Italian outfit. The azulgranas continue to suffer against teams that opt for the low block, and Gennaro Gattuso seems to be a master in it. The mood around Setién’s camp is massively negative when compared to that of Zidane’s. Real Madrid has deservedly won their 34th La Liga, while Barcelona is a messy work in progress.
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.