What makes a great team a winning team? A question synonymous to the century-old question; what makes successful people successful? There is no set formula or answer, unfortunately. The closest we can come to answering this might be to look at the factors that we know to increase the likelihood of success. A collection of work ethic and hard work aided by talent and nurture, among other factors, the same applies in football. Simply having the team with the best players is not enough.
If we take a look at the current landscape of football, teams like Sevilla with an average player value less than half of that of Barcelona’s average player values can challenge, if not beat, Barcelona. Elsewhere, Paris Saint-Germain found it almost too easy to come out on top against Barça despite missing Neymar and Angel di Maria.
Among the many factors influencing this, one of the most essential is efficiency. In this article, we take a look at one of the many gears, squad depth, in the giant mechanism that a club is and how Ronald Koeman can best utilize it at Barcelona.
The cogs in the gearwheel
Barcelona have a squad size of 27 players. As they come up against different systems, we can see the way these players perform well against a certain type of team and not so much against others. In a squad full of players with various skillsets, it’s essential as well as beneficial for Ronald Koeman to make the most of the squad depth. This can be done in a few ways.
One way is to use players who are versatile in different positions. Sergi Roberto comes to mind when thinking of this, as he is arguably one of the most versatile players in the world. Another way the squad depth can be used well is by choosing different players to afford more tactical flexibility. Lastly, it can also grant freedom in terms of formation.
This is different from tactical flexibility as it can be considered a macro aspect with tactics as the micro aspect. All these ways can and will coexist. Now, let’s examine what Koeman has at his disposal and how he can utilize it optimally.
There are certain problems which are caused by the opposition’s tactics and are a result of collective as well as individual instructions given to them. In such cases, different player profiles can greatly help Barcelona.
Against teams such as Marcelino’s Athletic Bilbao, the midfielders and full-backs were caught too high up the field at times. This was a recurring issue against many teams that transition fast. Playing players who have more dynamism or are better against counter-attacks is a viable solution. Sergio Busquets though almost unparalleled in pressing compact spaces and intercepting passing lanes struggles when in a lot of space against faster players. He is at the last juncture of his career and calls for replacement.
Playing Frenkie De Jong as the sole pivot would be a suitable solution if not for his exceptional current form as an interior that must be conserved. So instead, Jandro Orellana can be played at the pivot. Yet to make his first-team debut, the Spanish midfielder has been Barcelona B’s best performer this season. His positional sense is aided by athleticism. The first team has a gem in Jandro, and they would do well to give him a chance.
Often, Barcelona come up against opposition that sets up in a low-block. We’ve seen the team lacking incisiveness in such cases despite having the majority of the ball. In such cases, the squad depth in terms of wingers and midfielders can be of great help.
Koeman has been deploying Ousmane Dembele regularly since his return from injury. He is a massive help to the team with his 1v1 skills and directness. In a 4-3-3, Lionel Messi will be deployed down the right or centrally as he has a free role, with Antoine Griezmann, Martin Braithwaite and Dembele contesting for the other three spots. In the 4-2-3-1, Braithwaite has more appearances than Dembele, but in the 4-3-3, which is the preferred formation recently, the Frenchman gets the nod more often.
However, it is not only Dembele who is a great help against low-blocks. Unfortunately, Ansu Fati is injured. But Konrad de la Fuente is someone who can be of massive help in 1v1s. Against low-blocks, the team should try and either stretch the opposition to allow the midfielders more space in the channels or destabilise the opposition through playing the ball around and waiting for an opportunity.
Konrad is a dynamic winger who is rarely wasteful. And unlike Fransisco Trincao, Konrad is someone who thrives in compact spaces. When you have a player like Konrad who can draw more than one player towards him, it creates a chance for superiority elsewhere on the pitch. Do this with enough players, and a low-black can be beaten.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona side are a good example of how effective a change in formation can be. Starting out with a 4-2-3-1, the team played in a 4-3-3, eventually followed by many good results. A suitable combination of the formation and ideal player roles caused this.
Similarly, having good depth in his squad can allow Ronald Koeman to switch and train Barcelona using different formations. Though some managers like Thomas Tuchel are incredibly adaptable according to the situation and training the team in various systems, we haven’t seen the same from Barcelona. The advantages of this are many fold. For example, let’s consider Sergi Roberto. A highly versatile player, he can play at right-back and central midfield naturally and is adept at a few other positions as well.
Starting with a back-four, Roberto can then be shifted to midfield to form a back-three if needed. In an alternate case, he can start in midfield with Sergino Dest as the right back. With Messi on the right on-paper, Dest can be given more freedom down the right-wing while Roberto stays back to cover. In the build-up, however, the Spaniard would be in midfield.
Similarly, players like Dembele can play as the wide midfielder in a 4-4-2 and as the right-winger in a 4-3-3 allowing for formation changes. This has actually been seen this season in a few matches. To make even more use of the squad depth, the Dutch manager will have to focus on the midfield.
With seven midfielders in the squad fighting to start in the 4-3-3, there is a lot of competition. Excluding Matheus Fernandes, who has not shown enough quality to warrant a starting spot, Riqui Puig and Miralem Pjanic are the two players who can shake up things and provide different attributes from the usual midfield three of Sergio Busquets, Pedri Gonzalez and de Jong even if it means changing up the roles every now and then.
The Bosnian midfielder is a player who can be a massive asset once he finds his footing. He provides great passing range, incisiveness in the middle and final third, and reliability in possession. Playing him as an advanced playmaker with Busquets as the pivot in a 4-4-2 diamond will allow the team to play narrow. This is especially useful against low-blocks and teams that transition fast. The 4-4-2 diamond can also transition into a 4-3-3 easily.
As we saw in this article, Barcelona have a strong squad with various player profiles. This can allow for unpredictability as the opposition needs to identify and adapt fast. Not only this, but players might just fit into their new roles better than we expected, such as in the case of Frenkie De Jong.
What separates a good team from a winning team is their ability to make the most of what they have. Squad depth, being essential for this, is something that Ronald Koeman has to make the most out of at Barcelona for a tenure that deserves more than embarrassing exits from all competitions.
How Joan Laporta swayed the Barcelona presidential elections his way
When the race for the presidency of the United States of America was a source of hot debate earlier in 2020, the New York times referred to Joe Biden as a “lurker”. Michelle Cottle wrote that one should never get in the way of an opponent digging his own grave. The lead-up to Joan Laporta winning the Barcelona presidential elections can be considered astonishingly similar in this regard.
The roots of political campaigns seldom change, be it leading a country or running a football club. To win, a candidate must know when to stay silent, when to object, what to promise, what to say and most importantly, what not to say. Appropriately navigating around all of these nuts and bolts is what constitutes the fundamentals of a successful campaign.
Such has been the case for Joan Laporta, who has run the cleverest campaign on his way to the president’s box of Football Club Barcelona. Bearing a remarkable resemblance to a stealthy predator, Laporta was patient and efficient in lethal measure. He chose his moments just right to get the better of his fellow candidates, playing to all his strengths to win over the socis and their votes.
When Laporta announced his candidacy for the upcoming elections in November, it came as a surprise to no one. Up until then, however, there was only one name on everyone’s lips — Victor Font. With his ‘Si Al Futur’ campaign, Font seemed like the ideal president to free the club from its shackles of mismanagement, financial crises as well as failures on and off the football pitch.
But as the race for club presidency unfolded, Laporta came from behind and navigated through the crests and troughs to slowly get the better of his contemporary. It was almost as if he willingly gave him a head start.
And Toni Freixa? In all honesty, he never stood a chance. After barely crossing the threshold of 2,278 signatures for his candidacy to be valid, he was always just the third party making up the numbers. His sympathies towards Josep Maria Bartomeu and Sandro Rosell were going to be major strikes against his name. Considering the downward trajectory the club has followed the past few years, it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out Freixa is the most unsuitable candidate by quite some distance.
Amid Friexa’s rigging of online polls using automated bots, Laporta and Font locked horns in a contest for the presidency. A task that would entail reversing the club’s biggest financial crisis in its 122-year-history, getting their greatest ever player to stay after a near-disastrous end to his time at Barcelona and restore the club’s name to glory after over half a decade of tarnation.
The waning of Victor Font’s promising campaign
Seven years in the plotting, Victor Font had laid out a detailed project, seemingly covering every base from finances, to sporting project, to general management. He had even thought up a few great changes to make to enhance the efficacy of the club’s public ownership model.
Font believed starkly in returning La Masia to its pedestal of prime importance- The youth shaping the future. He advocated for a content-driven business model, an electronic voting system for future elections, and an advisory board of specialists to govern the club so that more members could be involved in the club’s decision-making process.
Then comes the headline of his project — bringing Xavi Hernandez back as manager of the club. The legendary Barcelona midfielder, returning to the dugout, this time as a coach. And back when Xavi just started out his managerial career with Qatari outfit Al-Sadd, he even backed Victor Font, saying that Font was “well prepared and a good candidate.”
Sounds ideal so far. But what went wrong? Amid all of Font’s preparedness, he did not account for possibly his biggest challenge — Joan Laporta. One cannot contest an election without expecting opposition. And when the opposition is as fierce and competent as Laporta, complications are more than obvious.
However, Laporta doesn’t fully come into the picture until much later. Font’s campaign began unravelling slowly but surely due to his own doing. All Laporta had to do was strike when the iron had been heated up for him.
First came his comments on current coach Ronald Koeman. Speaking of the Dutchman, Font said that if he were elected, Koeman would not continue as a coach regardless of his achievements. He faced a fair amount of backlash for these comments, which he later rescinded.
That was the first blemish. It is never a good sign in a campaign when you have to take your word back publicly. What followed was a seemingly flustered attempt to bring his perfect run so far back on track. A string of taunts aimed at Laporta, the over-insistence of Xavi’s involvement in the project, the agreement to postpone the elections and finally the debates drove the final nails into the coffin of what was a very potent campaign.
Font went on the offensive, so far as to say that Joan Laporta has no sporting project. He accused his campaign of being driven by nostalgia. Font stressed that we must look towards the future and the past only serves to teach from the mistakes it holds.
In fact, Font even tweeted his comments on Gerard Pique’s views about members voting for the future, reiterating that the past only serves to learn from mistakes. Pique, however, bluntly asked Font to remove the tweet, wanting nothing to do with the campaign. Font duly obliged, but in hindsight the tweet could be construed as a dig at both Bartomeu and perhaps Laporta.
Pique’s response was another tough pill to swallow. Then came the meeting to postpone the elections in January. At this point, Laporta had well and truly begun implementing his plans, and Font knew that he had stiff competition.
The pandemic has obviously created massive complications, and Font seemed eager to postpone the voting. While his reason that all socis cannot be guaranteed to vote was valid, it was clear that he also needed more time. Laporta had emerged as the favourite and an immediate vote would not have favoured Font. And despite initially pushing for having elections as early as possible, Font had found a way to stall, which once again did not go down well with the fans.
This was then followed by the eventual distancing of Jordi Cruyff and even Xavi himself from Font’s campaign. Jordi Cruyff even said that his father Johan would have himself voted for Laporta. The ultimate dagger that may have tilted the scales for good.
Amid all this chaos, Laporta carefully picked his battles and managed to overpower his opponent. Font has been very unfortunate in many ways, but his lack of experience in a political scenario like this has overshadowed his genuineness and ideologies.
Joan Laporta’s charge to presidency
There was already a lot going on for Joan Laporta as he entered the race for the presidency. After all, being at the helm of Barcelona during its most glorious spell in history has a fair amount of prestige to it. No matter the amount of time that passed, those times will always be looked upon with incredible fondness.
With the unfurling of his banner a mere 100 yards from the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, Laporta made his presence officially felt. “Looking forward to seeing you again”, read the massive banner sending a message to both Barcelona as well as Real Madrid fans.
The first power move of many that helped him leapfrog Victor Font. From competitor to overwhelming favourite, Laporta has provided the perfect example of an ideal campaign. He stayed quiet while Font was the architect of his downfall. But when the time came, he struck just the right chords.
The manner in which Laporta spoke throughout his running was noteworthy. He had the confidence and just the right amount of arrogance in his statements. Laporta knew full well that he is backed by his immensely successful past. His pre-existing relationship with the players, club legends, and superagents in world football were all great weapons to support his candidacy.
He chose to retaliate against Font in very carefully selected moments. He chose to respond to Font’s comments about Koeman separately. He never addressed them directly, but he said he would honour Koeman’s contract and commitment to the club, which was the best answer. That provided the first distinction between the candidates.
During the presidential debates though, is when Laporta took the strongest stance.
“You must have worked a lot with Xavi, Jordi Cruyff and Benaiges, but they have all denied you. You have made a lot of corrections, you have had a lot of denials. Xavi, Xavi, Xavi, Xavi. You keep repeating that. Either you don’t know the reality of Barça or you don’t know these people. You will have worked with them, but they have denied you.”Laporta to Font during the first debate
Laporta reproached Font’s approach to the elections, which seemed to fully hinge on Xavi’s approval and arrival. He then pointed out that Font spent the final months of the campaign just rectifying the mistakes he made.
He was also quick to point out that when he was in charge of the club, eternal rivals Real Madrid did not win a single Champions League title. And in addition, he did not understate his influence among the players.
“One thing is clear: Messi wants to stay and we must make him stay. It is clear that if any of my rivals wins, it will be very difficult for him to stay. He knows me, and that I do what I say. What he wants is someone who appreciates him and he knows I work like this.”Laporta in the final presidential debate
He was also subtle but assertive in his comments about future signings for the club. Laporta said that he is in close contact with many superagents and that with him, Barcelona are capable of attracting any of the biggest superstars in the world.
Every time he spoke, it was as if he knew he had the votes in the bag. A sense of assurance always surrounds him. Even before it was official, he inspired confidence and trust. And somehow, it always felt like there was no better person to convince Lionel Messi to stay at Barcelona. Even though the Argentine’s departure seemed and perhaps still is set in stone. But with Laporta, there is optimism, even though it may be blind.
Laporta has played all his pieces to perfection, drawing out errors and capitalizing on them, much like Barcelona used to do to their adversaries when he was formerly in charge from 2003-2011. He capped off the final debate by saying:
“I showed up because I love Barça. We have to return joy to the Catalans. I know how to do it. Being President was an honour, and being President again will be the biggest challenge of my life.”
Times have drastically changed since then, however. He is now at the helm of a very different club than the one he left behind a decade ago. He has a whole host of challenges to overcome, with severely limited resources to do so. But again, when he took over back in March of 2003, the club were on the brink of relegation after years of mismanagement by Joan Gaspart.
A situation similar in many ways to the one Barcelona are in right now. A fresh-faced Joan Laporta, with the endorsement of Johan Cruyff back then, took charge with over 52% of the votes. The rest is history.