In collaboration with Anurag Agate.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.
A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.
Barcelona structure and formation
Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.
Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.
Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.
Atletico structure and formation
Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.
Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.
The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.
Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.
The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:
Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :
Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.
Buildup to shots and goals
Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.
Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.
Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.
Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.
In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:
Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.
Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.
For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.
Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.
The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:
Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :
Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.
Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.
The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.
Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.
Why the 3-5-2 can never be a long term option for Barcelona
Ronald Koeman’s greatest tactical revelation upon coming to Barcelona has without a shadow of a doubt been the 3-5-2 formation. Fully conscious of the frailties of the team in every department, the Dutch manager crafted out a setup with which the strengths of his players could be amplified, and their weaknesses quickly swept under the rug.
The full capacity of the setup was illustrated in the ties against Sevilla both in the league and the cup, against Paris in the UEFA Champions League, and in its full glory against Real Sociedad in Barcelona’s 1-6 annihilation of them. More than the results, the performances won back the hearts of fans. Barça were, as it seemed, back to their best, and not a single soul could deny this. Not a single soul, except perhaps Zinedine Zidane.
In the recently concluded Clasico, the Catalans endured one of their worst first halves of the season to date. Overrun defensively on every turnover, Barcelona’s seemingly airtight defence was reduced to rubble while their attack could neither get to nor could they make use of the ball. With that, their titles hopes, too, were damaged seriously.
In the second period, however, with the introduction of the 4-3-3, things changed for the better, and if not for some misfortune in the final seconds of the match, the comeback would have been completed. In this article, Barça Universal explores the identity crisis within the club, the setup’s unsustainability and the inevitable complacency that awaits the team should the formation overstay its welcome.
The lack of cohesion with club institutions
Formations are, after all, nothing more than telephone numbers; or at least that is how Pep Guardiola sees it. While this is true in principle, it is a train of logic that only applies to a certain extent.
It certainly makes a difference when one has four midfielders in comparison to when one has three, and the number of centre-backs, while a seemingly irrelevant figure, has a panoply of consequences on the shape of the team long term. The way the first team sets itself up is a reflection of what will trickle down to the academy level, but with a club that seeks a distinguishable identity from the ground up, should it not be the other way around?
Barcelona, as a football club, have the luxury of boasting one of the best academies in world football, La Masia. From the Pre-Benjamín to the Juvenil and all the way to Barça B, the academy players are inculcated with a strict set of values, intricately detailed roles with pertinent information for each position one can take up once they get to the end game, which is, for every academy player, to play for the first team.
The maintenance and furtherance of this school of thought and football ensure ease of integration into the first team, almost indifferent of age. Why so? This is due to the fact that a winger, for instance, at the tender age of 16 — while certainly inexperienced in the highest level — has all the necessary principles of what is expected of them in the big stage deeply rooted in his veins.
With coherence in the running of the club, from the academy level all the way to the first team, players have absolutely no need to be integrated into the first team. Everything that they need to do, they a priori already know, and will lead to them sailing ever so smoothly into a first-team spot. This is why players such as Ansu Fati and Oscar Mingueza have succeeded, where Nelson Semedo and Arda Turan have not.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that every single academy graduate will succeed, but merely that their presence will infinitely be of utmost utility to the club — as long as the happenings in the first team foster an environment for them to succeed in.
Most teams, as part of the La Masia, use the 4-3-3 to integrate players. This simply means that if ever a formation such as the 3-5-2 or the 3-4-3 is to be used at the club, it should not be for extensive periods of time. It renders an entire academy structure useless, and this then translates to club presidents having to spend ludicrous amounts of money to acquire players that will simply not be needed once the team eventually reverts to the core values it upholds.
Unsustainability in the face of change
If at all anyone desires to know to what extent the 3-5-2 — or any of its variants — is sustainable over the long term, one need only ask one question: Should Ronald Koeman be sacked right this instant, what formation is his successor — perhaps García Pimienta, or Xavi — going to implement once he arrives at the club?
A staunch believer in Barcelona’s core values both in style and in ethics, the Spaniard is most certainly going to revert to the 4-3-3. It is what he has known all his life, and also what the youth he trains have been instilled with over the course of their journey into first-team football. Why change what never once needed fixing?
The use of a 3-5-2 needs particular transfers to be made in order for it to be used to its highest level: a pair of strikers, a set of wingbacks, an attacking midfielder, perhaps a libero, an attacking midfielder and a double pivot. While not a complete representation of the needs of the setup — one whose use varies from manager to manager —, this is a general overview of what the 3-5-2 demands and the 4-3-3 does not.
Much like it would have a negative knock-on off on the academy for the fact it does not major in these specific positions, the sheer lack of durability of the setup will be put to show once the reverse is done and the team reverts to a back four. Suddenly the team will be in need of one positional pivot, a single central striker and interiors where the attacking midfielder would be of most use.
Knowing that Barcelona as an entity simply can not keep up with this particular setup for a year, let alone three, then it stands to reason that such a setup be used only for particular circumstances rather than be a regular occurrence at the club.
Ronald Koeman’s adoption of the back three was born out of one desire; to mask the flaws of previous systems. As Barcelona came to learn following Ernesto Valverde’s tenure, putting stop-gap solutions to long-standing problems is anything but desirable, as rather than put an end to a present-day problem, all it does is stall the defence’s eventual downfall by a couple of weeks or months.
The back three masks a panoply of positional issues within the players. As has been the case with both Oscar Mingueza and Frenkie de Jong, the back three system allows one centre-back to make runs into the attacking half of the pitch. This liberty stems from the fact that regardless of what one does upfront, they are going to be covered by the remaining two centre-halves.
Additionally, most modern teams prefer to set up with a single striker. It becomes almost too easy for a backline of three to deal with a single striker pressing them or making runs between the lines. And unless you have a midfield such as Marco Verratti, Idrissa Gana Gueye, Leandro Paredes, the forwards cannot afford to stay up and pin the CBs.
In La Liga, the go-to formation is the 4-4-2. More often than not, the two furthermost players tend to stay at a certain distance from one another, with one fixated on the centre-backs while the other rests deeper in the pitch. Given the relatively low need to stay in one’s own defensive half, one of the players in the defensive trio could easily abandon his post and embark on his own missions in the opposition half. This has happened on more than enough occasions with Mingueza, even with Sergino Dest acting as the wingback.
Thanks to heroics from Marc Andre Ter Stegen, problems pertaining to his centre-backs’ positional negligence has been mitigated, but not for much longer. Relying on the goalkeeper to cover up for their inadequacies is nothing more than a means to an end. It is their job to make saves, however, this should not now become an excuse for future complacency.
For young centre-backs like Ronald Araujo and Mingueza, this is far from ideal. Eventually, they will have to move away from a three-man system which is bound to cause trouble in paradise.
The sages once coined that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and there are several concrete examples to further this theory. One need only look at David Luiz’ career to get a glimpse at the long term negatives of the pursuit of a back three. Throughout his career, the Brazilian has been marred by defensive issues. His overall decision making, positional awareness and his ability to mark attackers have often been permeated with his dreadful inconsistency and woeful uncertainty.
Offensively, Luiz is a sight for sore eyes. His prowess in attack, owing to his pristine ball control, reliability under pressure and impressive passing range are rather impressive for a centre-back. Despite this, the fact that one would constantly need to have two near him for him in order for him to excel speaks volumes about his defensive ability. If anything, it was Arsenal’s 3-0 mauling of Chelsea in the Emirates back in the 2016/17 season that pushed Antonio Conte into making the switch to a back-three.
This example, and many others, illustrate the detrimental effects of a back three to the unit itself. It is a method in which a team can shoot itself in the foot. It fosters complacency in defence, and what for?
Koeman has spoken highly of Jordi Alba in the past, and this season, the Spaniard has been revitalised. This has been one of his individual best offensive seasons in a Barcelona shirt — he has five goals and 13 assists from 40 appearances this season to his name, averaging more or less a goal contribution every two or so games.
The same, however, cannot be said about his defensive abilities. It is his failings in this sector that have meant that rather than be considered the best left-back in all of Europe, he lags behind, and for obvious reasons.
Tasked with defending as well as attacking the left flank in conjunction with his wingers, the Spaniard has shown aptitude in only one of these things. He has, on far too many occasions in this and preceding campaigns, been caught out of position to the detriment of the team. The Blaugranas’ defeat to Athletic Club in the Supercopa final best illustrates his sheer defensive ineptitude. He recorded two assists, which on its own was phenomenal, but on the flip side, he gave away two goals as a result of his complete lack of positional and spatial awareness. He was just about as much a blessing in attack as he was a curse in defence. That is, up until the introduction of the 3-5-2.
Koeman sees Alba as indispensable for the team, and as such, he shaped up the team in such a way that it would accommodate him regardless of how he would perform. Thus far, this ambitious project has borne fruit. The 32-year-old has since scored two goals as well as provided two assists in La Liga, as his newfound offensive privileges have relieved him of all his backbreaking defensive duties.
Much as was the goal with the centre-backs, this new system has been put in place not to remedy previous issues but rather to paper over the cracks. For all the virtues the system has, it has done absolutely nothing to improve Alba’s — or Dest’s — defensive capabilities but rather conceal them by use of the back three.
It should stand to reason that if a manager has to change a system because he is incapable of placing any trust in his full-backs to defend, which is after all the bare minimum they have to offer, then there is a dire need to stir up things. The American has shown on several occasions that he is dextrous enough to alternate between his offensive and defensive responsibilities with relative ease. The Euro winner, however, has not.
More often than not, teams that take up a three/five-man backline use two strikers upfront. There are issues that have a detrimental impact on the 3-5-2 as a general formation and others that affect Barcelona in particular.
Much like the centre-backs and fullbacks have a toxic and symbiotic relationship with one another, the strikers do too. They tend to be excellent when partnered up with one another, but not so much so as sole strikers. Sebastian Haller and Luka Jovic formed a formidable partnership when deployed together in such a system at Eintracht Frankfurt, but once put asunder, they immediately regressed.
The opposition defence has to leak outwards to cope with the wingbacks, and in the process, stretches the centre beyond help. Consequently, with as many as three central midfielders, one of them can afford to rove into the final third, after which it essentially becomes a 3v2 scenario in the centre. The strikers can then exploit this space. Atalanta did this by using Alejandro Gomez as the focal point, while Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan does it by pushing one of Nicolo Barella or Stefan Sensei up.
Moving to a single striker system, then, becomes a lot more complicated because you are not given this kind of space in the attack.
At Barça, there is an entirely different set of issues at hand. To start, the team has no true striker but rather a false 9 and a winger in the form of Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele, respectively. The Frenchman has suffered greatly in the novel setup. While he has been on the receiving end of innumerable crosses from his teammates, his sheer inability to make hay while the golden sun shone brightly upon him has come back to haunt not only him but also his team.
Bar his inability to bury chances presented to him, he is simply incapable of forming partnerships with his teammates. As a result, he oftentimes finds himself isolated, much like an outsider looking in. his decision making is just as woeful as it was before, but this time, as the last man, they perhaps carry more weight.
This setup reduces wingers to ashes. The likes of Alex Collado, Francisco Trincao, could each lose a place in the team if at all this setup is to be used in the long term. No winger has a place in it, which is quite ironic given how much of Barcelona’s history has been shaped by players of that position exactly.
In and of itself, the 3-5-2 is not a horrible formation but simply one that will fail to stand the test of time. It is an excellent formation should one require a dangerous attack and a defence capable of covering up its flaws, but in the long term, it will collapse in on itself. Teams such as Inter Milan, good as they are, are ticking timebombs. A managerial change is always around the corner in this fast-paced footballing world, and should Antonio Conte depart from the Nerazzurri, then the current Italian leaders could see a majority of their squad turn to deadwood in the blink of an eye.
The onus is on Ronald Koeman and the current board to discuss the way forward. The 4-3-3 is, has been, and will continue to be the way that Barcelona will best play their football. The team needs reinforcements and pruning of unwanted players in equal measure wherever necessary.