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FC Barcelona and the case of too many ‘number tens’

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Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

A football game is like a musical performance. The players, whether with a ball at their feet or instrument in their hands, work in unison to create something beautiful.

The key to a masterful performance is having a group of individuals who know their respective roles and can maximize their personal strengths without infringing on others. The violinists know when it’s their turn to take over a piece, just as the cellists or violists.

For a team, this means adopting the appropriate tactical approach and having the right players that fit your system. On the pitch, every player must work to cultivate synergy with their teammates, and hopefully, everyone’s roles complement each other. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for FC Barcelona. In fact, they are currently the antithesis of this synchronicity. Years of poor transfer and squad building have culminated in a mismatched squad full of too many players that fit the same profile.

Ronald Koeman has implemented his favored 4-2-3-1 formation to stabilize the team and bring out the best in particular players, but this season’s performances haven’t reflected that.  

In a 4-2-3-1, the center attacking midfielder, commonly referred to as the “number ten,” is the key to the side’s creativity. Ideally, the number ten is surrounded by players who complement him, but this is far from the case with the Catalans. Barcelona have around six players who can fit into that role, and choosing one results in the others being played out of position, much to the detriment of the team and the individuals’ development.

With so many players fitting the same mold, how should Barça proceed?

Lionel Messi: Number ten for Barça’s Number ten

Throughout his illustrious career, the Argentine’s on-paper positioning has rarely reflected his on-the-field movement. When deployed at right wing, he has a knack for drifting inside and doing most of his damage from there. In recent memory, a lack of creative midfielders have prompted him to spend the entirety of games in central and deeper positions in order to create for his lackluster teams. Unfortunately, this has resulted in defensive problems as there is no balance on the right side. 

Messi is and has been Barça’s creative engine for the past decade, so it only makes sense to play him in the number ten role. It also gives him the freedom to roam within a team structure without compromising their defensive shape.  

Messi’s heatmap for the 20/21 La Liga season, showcasing his average position on the pitch.

Messi has seven goals and four assists so far this season, as well as averaging 3.8 key passes per game, but is still not his typical self. The culprit is either his transfer saga or natural decline with age, or a mix of both. After all, Father Time is undefeated. His shooting has been below par this season, scoring only two goals from open play, underperforming his expected goals metric by three, and having 0.03 goals to shot ratio.

Interestingly, the 33-year-old is averaging 7.48 passes per game into the final one-third of the pitch, 1.65 more than last season. This indicates his tendency of dropping even deeper into the pitch this season. Either way, it’s safe to assume that his underperforming is not attributed to his new position. 

The things Messi brings to the number ten role are too extensive to list, and there’s no one that should be picked ahead of him in that role in the starting eleven. The only concern comes in the form of who will be placed around him. For example, Barça can not play Messi, Antoine Griezmann, and Philippe Coutinho simultaneously without some of them being pushed out of position. Although they have played together in convincing wins this season, the three of them have rarely all performed well in the same match.

The Case for Griezmann

Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

After a season of being played out of position, there was optimism that Koeman’s formation would allow Griezmann to thrive. Most of his career, he’s played either behind or alongside another striker, adapting a more creative role while his partners, conventional number nines, focus on purely finishing.

Griezmann has started ten games this season in either the center forward or number ten role, but he’s been given freedom to roam, not unlike Messi. The Frenchman has scored five goals this season, including an impressive run of three goals in three games, but most of his best performances came without Messi on the pitch.

As aforementioned, Griezmann needs to play alongside a conventional number nine in order to maximize his playmaking ability. When he starts alongside Messi, the two have often both been hampered and it’s typically Griezmann who looks out of place. However, whenever he sharing the field with Martin Braithwraite has allowed him to be his natural self. Braithwraite’s role as a poacher works well in tandem with Griezmann’s creativity.

Griezmann is a natural number ten and does more of his damage closer to goal compared to others in this list, so while it’s not impossible for him to play alongside Messi or Coutinho, it’s still not ideal. He should consistently start in that position whenever Messi is resting. He may not be a natural fit alongside the Argentine but his ability to change the game at any moment and his undoubted skill make it hard to leave him on the bench against stronger teams. Griezmann seems to play best with Braithwraite on the pitch, but the concern is if he should be played against bigger teams. Nonetheless, Messi, Griezmann and Braithwraite seemed to work well for Barça against Osasuna, but Osasuna were clearly sub-par opposition. 

The Case for Coutinho

Philippe Coutinho is undoubtedly Barça’s most archetypal number ten, having played there for most of his career. Like Griezmann, his performances for the Blaugrana have been marred by being played out of position. Under Ernesto Valverde, he played out wide in a 4-4-2, so there was hope that Koeman’s 4-2-3-1 would bring the best out of him. 

Simply put, Coutinho started off the season very well. Initially played in the number ten role, he tallied two goals and two assists in his first six games and it looked like things were finally looking up for him. Unfortunately, he was derailed by a month-long injury and has inexplicably been played out wide on the left for the past few games since his return. Often, Koeman has opted for the youngster Pedri in the number ten role instead of Coutinho. It seems like the Brazillian just can’t catch a break. 

Coutinho deserves another chance in the position to prove himself because things won’t get any better if he’s continued to be played out wide. He’s dynamic, skilled on the ball, and offers a long shot ability unlike anyone else in the squad. His strengths must be harnessed down the middle of the pitch. He’s also increased tremendously in his defensive work rate and overall strength after a spell with Bayern Munich last season. 

If Koeman is sticking with his 4-2-3-1, he should try playing Coutinho down the middle once again to see if he can recreate his magic. Alternatively, the 28 year-old could work in a hybrid role, but we’ll get to that later…

The Case for Pedri

Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images

Pedri has been nothing short of a revelation this season, and Koeman has developed a well-founded affinity for him. The 18-year old plays beyond his years with his technicality, dribbling ability, and creativity, and has already played the ninth most minutes for the team.

He has even edged out Philippe Coutinho in recent matches. He started in left wing against Juventus and in the number ten role against Dynamo Kiev, pushing the Brazillian out wide. He has started nine of 15 games this season but should still not be overworked given he is only 18. 

Pedri brings composure and a keen eye whenever he’s on the pitch, and his strengths aren’t limited to any position in particular. He is versatile and fits in a midfield trio, as a winger, or a number ten. When out wide in a 4–2–3–1, he likes to drift inside, which gives space for Jordi Alba to run down the left flank.

There is no real downside to playing Pedri centrally, rather it’s just to the detriment of Coutinho. Once again, it’s nearly impossible for Barça to accommodate all of these creative players in a 4-2-3-1, but a new tactical approach could help them do so.

The Case for Puig or Aleña

Riqui Puig and Carles Aleña are two players who have been perplexingly left out of the picture by Koeman. The two La Masía graduates have played a total of 229 minutes this season, and Aleña holds the only match start between the two of them.

Photo by David Ramirez via Imago

Puig burst onto the scene last season and has proven himself to be a spark in the midfield with his creativity and eye-opening passes, but Koeman seems to feel differently. On a positive note, Puig came on for a brief appearance against Juventus on Tuesday night.

The 21-year-old can work in a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 and is a harder worker on the pitch than Koeman seems to give him credit for. Also, he can slot in the number ten role and bolster the team’s creativity. Ideally, Puig can play in a number eight role, the most attacking player in a midfield trio, and there’s no doubt he would thrive there, as he showed with nearly every outing he was given last season.

Aleña is a deep-lying playmaker and likes to operate from lower positions. He would be out of position in the attack-minded number ten role but he’s still a promising talent and needs more minutes before being completely written off. Like Puig, he fits perfectly in a midfield trio.

Puig and Aleña offer dynamism and sharp passing whenever they play, and if Koeman is hesitant to play them because they don’t fit his 4-2-3-1 shape, they are another reason for a potential shift in tactical approach.

Viable Solutions? 

While Barça will never be able to field all of these players at the same time, the 4-2-3-1 formation seems to hinder more players than it benefits. Barça have a myriad of talented players who are forced to fit a tactic that is clearly not working, and it is ruining their development and ability to maximize their individual roles. Koeman must convert to a formation that brings the best out of the most players possible, and the only way to find out is to try.

Barça fans were initially open to the idea of a 4-2-3-1 that would bring the best out of De Jong in a double pivot role and others up top, but nothing has come to fruition. A return to a 4-3-3 formation is championed by many fans, and with it, Barça can hope to accommodate more of their creative players. Below is what a potential 4-3-3 formation could look like for the Blaugrana.

The formation is far from perfect, but it would still be worth a shot. Messi would be given a free role on the right to roam as he likes, and Griezmann up top should follow suit. The right center midfielder would play much deeper in order to cover for Messi’s movement and dictate the tempo. Miralem Pjanic, in particular, would work perfectly in that position.

Coutinho or Puig could adopt a hybrid eight-ten role in the midfield trio, wherein they push up the field and cause havoc in the half-spaces. This would maximize both of their creative abilities from central positions, and allow them to drop deeper to help in the build-up phase there too. Also, they both boast understated work rates, Puig in particular, so there is no large concern for them in midfield.

In all, Barça need to get out of this slump having lost three of their last six games, and must do so quickly before La Liga, in particular, gets out of reach. A change in the formation is critical and should at least be attempted for one or two games. Rather than cramming players into ill-fitting positions, Koeman must adopt a new approach.

A football game is like a musical performance, and you need the right performers in the right places.

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Throughout my life of constant change, one thing has never faltered: my love for FC Barcelona. Whether through watching every game, listening to pundits, or playing FIFA and Football Manager, I've always wanted an outlet to express my passion for the team. Barça Universal gives me the perfect opportunity to do so, as I can combine my love of writing with my love of Barça and the sport.