After Luis Enrique left back in 2017, Barça went through three seasons of tactical and cultural despair: neither Ernesto Valverde nor Quique Setién were able to bring back the Barcelona all culés know. With the last season of the Josep Maria Bartomeu management approaching to start, what will the Barça line-up actually be under the new Dutch manager Ronald Koeman?
Ronald Koeman‘s blaugrana era already began a couple of weeks ago, but since all the Lionel Messi fuss took approximately ten days to reach its ending, Barça’s world was pretty much occupied within those sort of boundaries. While the Argentinian took the frontline, as always, the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper opened its doors to the first players attending preseason.
It was difficult to actually think about the needs of the team while its greatest legend could have left the club with a court sentence. But while the love for Barcelona finally – but not definitively – prevailed, the new Dutch manager was yet again changing its plan for the new season. Messi in, Messi out, Messi in. The captain, the best player on the roaster, the most important centrepiece around which build a team around, had to stay within the club. And the Barça line-up from Ronald Koeman was certainly going to benefit from the presence of the number ten.
But since Messi decided to stay, a natural question could come to your mind: does this decision affect the manager’s tactical plan for the upcoming season? Maybe, probably, but maybe not so much. There is always space for the greatest of them all. And since president Josep Maria Bartomeu promised to the new boss that he would have had Lionel Messi on the team, it will not be difficult for the same manager to consider a future with a player that, just a few days ago, seemed to belong away from Barcelona.
Despite Messi remains the centre of attention inside Barça’s tactical system, there are a lot more doubts regarding what the evolution from the previous coaching systems will be inside the Barcelona training grounds. It would be too naive from us to just get ahold of the club’s new coach nationality to realise that Barça will be playing under a 4–3–3 formation and with the same high volume of ball possession.
That being said, it will happen, though. The Dutchman will not contradict himself and will opt for an offensive, wide, yet more balanced tactical system for his new job. There wouldn’t be any sense in hearing the name of ‘Wijnaldum’ next to Barcelona’s otherwise. The Oranje international and current Liverpool player has been a Koeman’s pupil ever since the latter coached his national team. And with Liverpool’s extraordinary collective performances over the last couple of years, its pieces could not go unnoticed to the world’s observer. Especially to a selector as an international coach is.
Memphis Depay is a personal request from Ronald Koeman | Photo by Jeff Pachoud / AFP via Getty Images
More verticality will be synonymous to diagonally, though, differently from what we have seen during the latest Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién eras. With the latter two, Barça’s playing style got a complete overhaul towards unnecessary, uncharacteristic levels. Valverde gave the club a sense of over humbleness that contradicted everything Barcelona stand for, while Setién’s mentality tried to exhaustingly reach a standard that he was never being able to actually reach. Under the line of the ball the first, excessive and boring keeping of the ball the latter. Nowhere to go. That will be something that Barcelona’s new manager will have to avoid, in favour of a wider and more vertical type of offensive play.
That is where Memphis Depay, former PSV and Manchester United footballer, currently based in Lyon, comes in place. The class ’94 Dutch player could come as a bargain in Catalan’s territory, as his contract is due to expire in less than twelve months time. Although starting from the left wing, the current Lyon player proved to have increased his scoring numbers consistently from the previous Manchester times.
Last season Depay was able to net 9 goals in the only 13 appearances he had with his club, due to his unfortunate injury to the knee ligament, plus another 6 in Champions League. But what mostly characterises Depay, and makes him the perfect candidate to substitute Luis Suárez in Koeman’s eyes, is perhaps the utility that he could give to the tactician’s ideas. While he would seem to get the spot of Ousmane Dembélé, his diagonals toward the centre of the last third of the pitch could be lethal with the likes of Messi, Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho and Ansu Fati buzzing around him.
All food for thought. But as the transfer reports get increasingly higher on the scale, we are all left in what can actually be Barça’s starting eleven this season. Because on paper, the Catalan’s team is as good as ever – apart from the golden 2009–2011 period. The backbone of the squad, apart from the historic third top goalscorer of the club, Suárez, will all be there on their place. Maybe with a different role, but without too much discontinuity whatsoever.
With Miralem Pjanić‘s signing, the only senior figure in the roaster which could have fewer minutes on his back seems likely to be Sergio Busquets. Barça’s beloved pivot, its most underrated player, yet probably the most important figure in the team regarding the equilibrium he gives to the game, could see his minutes decrease, as Koeman’s idea to rejuvenate the current side could see its spark in that central position area where things are bound to get faster.
Calm reigns on Barça’s camp, apart from the two Dutch figures approached near the club’s name. Only time will tell if the Barcelona will go for more apparent superstars, or if the current new youngsters, such as Francisco Trincão and Pedri, will be enough in the board’s eyes to compete at the highest level this term. Difficult, but strength is in unity, not in names. So, let’s see what could the Barça line-up be with Ronald Koeman.
The Dutch mantra will hardly be broke, as the vintage 4–3–3 formation is the one highly anticipated within the Barça environment. And as Barcelona has not yet moved any pieces amongst its defensive chess, nor it seems to be bound to do in the near future as Eric Garcia will likely honour his last year of contract in Manchester and any Nélson Semedo off links seem distant to reach any practicality yet, the backline is the only certainty the culés can have.
Even if Ter Stegen will need to undergo a physical recovery from his surgery, he will still be Barça’s number one, in attendance to see whether the German goalkeeper will actually renew his contract or not. The defensive line will be, predictably, the same one we saw last season: Semedo, Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet and Jordi Alba. Even though Barça wants to accelerate its rebuilding, Piqué and Lenglet, together with Alba, will most likely defend the team’s goal yet again.
As we go up through the formation, we begin to hit our heads around some uncertainties. Dutch familiarity, youth or experience? With the likes of Ivan Rakitić and Arturo Vidal already gone or, in the case of the Chilean, on the sidelines, Koeman’s plan will eventually revolve around Frenkie de Jong mainly, accompanied by the likes of an eventual Georginio Wijnaldum, but also Pjanić, Riqui Puig and Busquets.
While De Jong seems the only certainty Barça currently has in its midfield, it will be interesting understanding whether the former Ajax midfielder will perform as a left central midfielder as he did last year, or, as the Dutch manager already alluded, he will see his position being adjusted in a central defensive midfielder position. Both are possible in a midfield composed by three or two players.
That will certainly see Barcelona having the option to choose whether to play under a 4–3–3 or perhaps a more offensive, yet balanced according to the player’s characteristics, 4–2–3–1. The addendum of Gini Wijnaldum and Riqui Puig would give the azulgrana midfield that dynamic movement and offensive insertions to cover the pitch from top to bottom.
Finally, Pjanić will likely be used as De Jong’s partner in a two-man midfield or as a central defensive midfielder in a three-man one, while Sergio Busquets will fight for his spot and gain some minutes with the undergoing of the season as a starting substitute, as heavily reported from Koeman’s surroundings. Yet, playing with or without the Spanish international will be a challenge for the Dutch manager.
Koeman will have to find an optimal position for Antoine Griezmann in his Barça line-up | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
At last, the offensive restyling will have its saying in the return of Philippe Coutinho from his loan at Bayern Munich, of Dembélé from his continuing injury spell, of Memphis Depay, eventually, and of the youth of a worldclass wonderkid, Ansu Fati. With Lionel Messi taken as granted in the starting eleven, it will certainly be interesting to see how Koeman’s promise to Griezmann of making him a central player in his project will be kept.
The only way for the French world champion to perform as he wishes would be through a 4–3–3 or a 4–2–3–1 as a central forward, no doubts around that. He was promised to not be played again on the wing, rightly so. But, while it seems practical in both cases, if Koeman keeps his word and Griezmann plays in a front three line-up for Barça, Messi would be moved to a right-wing position which, as the years go by, is slowly getting on his legs, day by day.
As the clock is ticking faster than ever for Messi – as his transfer request suggested even more –, his total involvement for the team would be through the middle, as his vision and creativity, despite a year of an unfortunate finishing, remain the best in the world. It will be the wingers and the offensive midfielders’ job in Coutinho, Dembélé, Trincão, Pedri and Depay to create that space and produce the right vertical and inner movements to facilitate Messi is providing and eventually finishing the job.
The doubts are still many, as we approach Barcelona’s first friendly of the season against Nàstic and the reinstating of Messi around the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper, while also waiting for all the internationals to get back at the club’s headquarters. Koeman will have his fair of effort in trying to find the right line-up to get Barça, a roaster that was recently annihilated by Bayern Munich despite having world-class players on its sheet, on the right path.
The squad is already comprehensive of wonderful players, but the game is not played on sheets, but on the pitch. Only the right mix of dynamism, identity and solidity will give this club the strength to find its path to disguise, yet again, a season full of problems.
The causes and effects of Barcelona’s inability to cope with pressure
On the back of a 1-4 trouncing at home to Paris Saint Germain, Barcelona had the opportunity to extend their 7 game-winning run in the league to a phenomenal eight, and against probably the easiest of competition to do so.
After all, Cádiz were on the back of a four-game losing streak in La Liga, having won a meagre 5 points from a possible 33, and up against a team that had won 31 from their last 33. This was as perfect a game as they came, but, as has been a motif at the Catalan club in recent years, they crumbled under pressure.
Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The defence gave away two big chances, one of which came from a ludicrous and much too easily avoidable penalty two minutes from time. As for the forward line, despite having had eleven and a half chances more than their visitors to hit the back of the net, amassing a whopping 3.56xG, they could settle for only one goal, and this too from a penalty. Ronald Koeman had a mostly tolerable afternoon, but at this point, the complaints about the team make the ever-demanding fans sound like a broken record.
In this article, Barca Universal explores some events that have become all too common when the team faces minimal adversity, stretching from the managers in the dugouts, the pressure the collective falls over for in crucial moments and finally, individual mistakes which, like a bad rash, spread to all corners of the team continue to plague the club.
Managerial incompetence in crucial moments
Barcelona’s last three managers, Ronald Koeman included, have each shown, and on plenty of occasions, certain character traits that, rather than improve the team, contribute to its inevitable downfall. What is most shocking is, despite being akin to water and oil in terms of their tactics, they each have an uncanny ability not only to fail to learn from each other but, more surprisingly, themselves.
Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setién, and Koeman have each shown a palpable level of a lack of tactical ingenuity whenever called upon. In one way or another, each one of them has taken the club farther and farther away from its roots, all while failing to replace them with anything sustainable enough to win points, or at the very least, make games enjoyable.
It comes as a shock that even in-game, whenever their set systems start to show fissures, neither one of them has consistently shown the most basic of requirements in a manager, this coming in their ability to rectify their errors.
In 2019, leading 3-0 against Liverpool, Barcelona needed just but a goal to gain a spot in the UEFA Champions League’s final. Rather than set his side up for an offensive tussle with the Merseyside club — who mind you were bereft of any real attacking talent —, the then manager deployed a controversial and rather defensive 4-4-2 formation, providing little to no width and with a clear disconnect between the midfield and the two up front.
Down by a just goal at half time, Valverde had the chance to add Malcom to attack the right flank given Andy Robertson had been taken off at halftime, but he opted not to. He had a chance to add Arthur Melo to improve ball circulation after conceding two in two minutes to Georginio Wijnaldum but instead decided to go for Nelson Semedo.
The sheer lack of order in the team, and his inability to react to reach the goals they scored, meant Barça would inevitably give up the aggregate lead and the tie as a whole. Impervious to criticism, he would continue to show this very same level of incompetence for the nine months that led up to his sacking.
Quique Setién did much of the same here too. Once admired for his Cruyffist tendencies, he fell apart under the unspoken power dynamics set in place by the heavyweights in the club, leading him to never make changes to his starting elevens regardless of how poorly an individual had played. Even when the game was crying for an intervention via a substitution, he, like Valverde, before him would cower in fear and take refuge in the dugouts, which for much of his tenure remained untouched.
Despite having three years worth of evidence on what not to do at Barça, Ronald Koeman continues to make the same exact mistakes as his predecessors. He at least makes rotations in the starting eleven every once in a while, but unless, of course, the team is in a comfortable winning position, he will wait until at least the 80th minute to effectuate any changes to the team’s shape, tactics, or personnel. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that almost every game that has seen Barca trail this season in La Liga has gone on to end as either a draw or a loss of all three points.
Against Paris, many fans observed the gaping holes left in between the defence at the halfway line and the poorly dispersed midfield and attack. This was at halftime, yet in the second period, he left it as it was rather than change up the team’s shape. The exact same mistakes occurred at home against Cádiz in both the first and second period and was only met with a change in the final minutes of the tie.
In La Liga, where the level is lower, managers can get away with a draw here and there, but in the Champions League, where every mistake is punished, they all falter, and to the surprise of no one. When push comes to shove, they all look clueless, lose their train of thought, and as has been the case in each of the last four years, the Blaugrana have lost and lost heavily to equal opposition.
Players that simply don’t make the cut
It comes to reason that not every defeat is as a result of managerial or tactical mishaps. Sometimes, and as has been the case for many years now, tactical flaws have been compounded with some ghastly individual errors, some of which lead fans to question how it is that these players became professionals in the first place.
There are many games that can illustrate this, but none more so than Barcelona’s almighty collapse against the new sextuple winners, Bayern Munich. It is quite unjust that subsequent to such defeats, only the manager’s contract is cut short. Some of the mistakes made by the entirety of the team in that game were so blatantly unacceptable that at least half the team should’ve been sacked at the end.
A score of 4-1 against Paris, or 3-0 against AS Roma this year and in 2018 respectively could be attributed to a manager’s inability to take a firm hold of the game, but when it goes beyond five, it is imperative that the players, perhaps more than their manager, be put to question.
Despite the average age of the squad on that night being over 30 years of age, everyone on the team, from Lionel Messi upfront to Ter Stegen in goal, made rookie mistakes. Leading from the front, the Argentine couldn’t be bothered to press for the ball, despite his individual mistakes directly leading to a quarter of their goals.
Luis Suárez partnering him, made just eighteen passes, nine of which were from the centre circle at the start of one half and one for each of the eight goals that Ter Stegen, a man whose capacity to play under pressure, is being questioned more and more by the year, conceded.
The entirety of the team has this impeccable ability to collectively fall into pieces, with mentalities that shrink to the sub-atomic level when faced with the slightest of adversity. The usual suspects in defence, these coming in Jordi Alba, who almost singlehandedly won Liverpool the second leg at Anfield, Samuel Umtiti, whose career essentially came to an end after the 2018 world cup, Clément Lenglet, whose in-game reactions can be outpaced by a tortoise, are often the catalysts to the team’s failure.
Football is a team game, but individual errors often do have a profound impact on the collective. How is Barca supposed to be challenging for La Liga when their defence is the one with the most individual errors leading to a goal in the entire division.
How are clean sheets meant to be preserved when individuals like Clément Lenglet concede 3 penalties in the same campaign, each leading to a loss of points. It is borderline impossible to challenge for anything when half the time, in do or die situations, you have defenders that shoot themselves, and thus the team, in the foot.
But it’s not only the defence to be blamed. The attack and midfield, charged with finishing chances and creating an air of stability, respectively, do none of the like when called upon. Against the Bavarians, the midfield was essentially inexistent, with next to no pressing, and even when applied, none of it had any coordination or impact on the much superior German machine. Passing somehow from a trio or quadruple of players whose careers are built on just that, all inexplicably goes awry or loses all meaning at the slightest instance of pressure.
The forward line, as seen on innumerable occasions this campaign and during their European disasters, somehow collectively forgets how to find the back of the net. No one can be spared from this judgment, not even Messi.
Ousmane Dembélé had the chance to kill off the tie against Liverpool, but rather than blast the ball past Alisson in a 1v1 situation, he chipped it into his arms and did basically the same thing against Paris last in midweek when he wasted a chance to take the game to 2-0, only for the visitors to equalise within seconds. The same was the case as recently as yesterday against Cadiz, whereof 23 shots made, only one via a penalty found the back of the net.
Barcelona not only have to contend with managers who show complete ineptitude at understanding or implementing the one style of play asked if them, but also a team that, when needed to perform, has not the slightest idea how.
As Johan Cruyff once famously said, “football is a game of mistakes, and whoever makes the least mistakes wins.” When it comes to Barcelona, winning goes from something that should be a regular, weekly occurrence to a proverbial mountain crafted from the tiniest of anthills.
These errors span all the way from managers in the dugouts who, despite years of experience, keep making the same mistakes to the players on the pitch, who, through a lack of attention to detail, ridiculous mistakes and otherworldly missing, never cease to contribute to the demise of the team.