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How Koeman can turn the Barcelona minefield into a midfield

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Header Image by David Ramos via Getty Images

As new Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman looks to shake up his team tactically and individually, a new midfield set-up could be the key for Barça’s success.


As the years go by, football, like everything else in the world, continues to grow, change, and redevelop. The sport, as it stands, has trickled down from a time when the only method to score was to let the quick chap on the wing cross it to the tall, strong bloke in the centre so he could head it home. Well, now the swift man with a rusty beard and number 10 on his back just dribbles past five and bends it into the corner of the net.

These innovations have not been solely on the style of the game, or the rules, but has also seen the emergence, and modification in positions/roles. For example, ten years back, it would have been hard for you to track the use of ‘inverted fullbacks’ in any team until Pep Guardiola started implementing them in his Bayern Munich and eventually with Manchester City. They were invented to create numerical superiority in midfield when holding possession. Similarly, in recent years we have seen a rise in other hybrid positions, one of them being the hybrid 8/10.


During the 2000s, the 4–2–3–1 gained a lot of popularity with the likes of José Mourinho’s treble-winning Inter Milan to World Cup finalists the Netherlands implementing the same. In this formation, the player in the middle, behind the striker is typically referred to as then no. 10 or the attacking midfielder. Its job – while different in different countries and systems – is to add a surplus attacking threat, which can either come in the form of goals (Frank Lampard at Chelsea), or a more creative presence (Mesut Özil at Real Madrid).

Behind them, lies the 8 – the hardworking player who does everything. He can control the speed of the game, run from box-to-box, and steadies the ship for the team. Xavi Hernández, Gareth Barry, Steven Gerrard among so many others are well-known examples.

While the prominence of the 8 remains quite celebrated till date, the use of a natural 10 may die out now that wingers, central midfielders, and even strikers have started assuming a more creative burden in attack while supplementing the defence. This also helped teams cover more areas on the pitch, including out wide and half-spaces. Therefore, the role of the hybrid 8/10, like all others, was borne from changes to tactical culture.

Cesc Fàbregas Barcelona midfield Koeman

Barcelona need to bring back the Cesc Fàbregas’ style 8/10 role for next course | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images

It is easy to spot its implementation in European football since 2013, with prime example during that time being Cesc Fàbregas in Gerardo Martino‘s Barcelona, Toni Kroos in the initial stages of the 2013/14 season under Pep or Oscar at Chelsea. To take a closer look at the role, let us take Fàbregas as an example.

To cope with the absence of an injury struck Lionel Messi, Tata Martino started to move Andrés Iniesta to the left wing. Subsequently, Fàbregas, who had rich history playing across the midfield, was stationed at the left-of-centre of the midfield trio along with Sergio Busquets and Xavi.

Ideally, in a three-man midfield, one player holds, one changes the tempo, and one has to break forward, and Fàbregas was given the responsibility of carrying the ball and adding innovation from the final third. Of the three, he would be the one closest to the centre, and highest up the pitch, often switching positions with Iniesta or the attacker closest to him giving the team more fluidity. The Spaniard would constantly keep moving horizontally before exfoliating his marker before heading forward. His past, playing as a no. 10 for Arsenal in several games, and even as a false 9 for Spain came in handy during this time.

Barcelona 2013/14 season midfield Koeman

Since then, this type of midfielder has become increasingly popular, primarily because of its utility nature. In recent times, players like Martin Ødegaard, Luka Modrić, Donny van de Beek and Mason Mount have been used in said role. Julian Brandt, however, remains the epitome of this role and has been utilized in that capacity at Bayern Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund.

For example, during this goal against FC Mainz 05, the German international (circled in black) moves from the right-of-centre orientation to take up a more advanced role than has been left empty by opposition defenders. He is quick to spot Kevin Volland (circled in red) and played a one-two with him before slotting it home effortlessly into the bottom corner.

Julian Brandt interpretation of space while playing as a hybrid 8/10.

Additionally, Brendan Rodgers and Peter Bosz have adopted a double 8/10 system in the past where two players are given the hybrid status. The former used James Maddison and Youri Tielemans in a 4–1–4–1 through the course of the last season, while the latter structured Bayer Leverkusen in that arrangement using the services of Kai Havertz and Brandt in 2018/19.


Barcelona have taken a turn for the better after a change of management, relieving Quique Setién of his duties before hiring Ronald Koeman as head coach ahead of next season. The Dutchman has vastly preferred a 4–2–3–1 throughout his coaching career, most recently with the Netherlands national team. And if the preseason friendly against Gimnàstic de Tarragona is any proof, he will continue to use that.

Barcelona midfield Koeman

Barcelona’s possible line-up with a 4–2–3–1 and including the likely signing of Olympique Lyon’s Memphis Depay

That edifice, though, may not be the best for Barça, because very specific players can thrive in it. It requires a natural no. 9 – one that Barcelona do not have barring Luis Suárez at the moment, who is tipped to leave the club. It will also harm the potential playing time of younger players within the squad like Riqui Puig and Álex Collado, who do not necessarily fit anywhere.

With a midfield as stacked as ours, the 4–3–3 remains the only viable option that can both, complement the fullbacks defensively, and add a threat while going forward. Additionally, by using the hybrid 8/10 role, Koeman can blend his version of the current team and what is best for the club.

The only position nailed on at the moment is that of Frenkie de Jong. Koeman has not shied away from praising the 23-year-old from his time with the Dutch national team, and his role was one of the first things he addressed after joining, stating that he will keep him closer to the defenders. Since de Jong is not a natural placeholder in the defensive midfield role, he will have to be accompanied by a player like Miralem Pjanić who has the defensive and passing capabilities along with just the right amount of athleticism. The vacancy on the left can be filled by Philippe Coutinho as the composite midfielder.

For a significant part of his career, Coutinho played a central midfielder, in the Mezzala role, primarily on the left. This allowed him to rove up the pitch through wide spaces before drifting inwards and trying his trademark right-footed curler. During the two seasons, 2016/17 and 2017/18, in which he operated in said role, Coutinho managed 20 goals and 14 assists over 45 games. He also managed to create 14 big chances while averaging 2.5 key passes per game. It clearly brings the best out of him.

Barcelona midfield Koeman

Barcelona’s line-up in a 4–3–3 and with Philippe Coutinho in the hybrid 8/10 role

Over the last two years, Coutinho has drastically improved his work rate to fit into Hansi Flick’s high-pressing Bayern Munich and will be at home in a midfield trio. In fact, going back to a deeper position could help him bring some consistency in his career after being shifted continuously from one zone to another. That said, the Brazilian is unquestionably not a winger, and should not, in any circumstances, be used on the left flank again.

Koeman also has the services of a certain teenager, Pedri, who boasts of the capabilities to walk toe-to-toe with the some of the best in that position, including now teammate Coutinho. While primarily an attacking midfielder, the 17-year-old was used a left-winger for a dominant part of last season with Las Palmas in the second division.

Despite his age, Pedri was the primary creator of this team and would drop off as deep as the defensive midfielder before releasing wingers through sharp long balls. He ended the season with six assists, eight big chances created, and 1.7 key passes per game – highest in the Las Palmas squad. Apart from that, he is also capable of beating defenders with ease while carrying the ball into the final third before playing defence-splitting through ball. The kid resembles Messi-esque maturity on the ball, which can only be a sign of good things to come.

There are little doubts over Pedri’s creativity, but what makes him an even more exciting prospect is his bolstering stamina. Regardless of whichever zone he takes up, he is more than ready to close down the opposition and will go as high as the goalkeeper if necessary. He is also more than prepared to track the player who dispossesses him – something that happens often (14 times per game), given his creative prowess.

Speaking of midfielders who love to press, fan-favourite Riqui Puig is more than competent to take up this task. He finally received his breakthrough last season, courtesy of Quique Setién, who used him as in a free role against Atlético de Madrid, and then Real Valladolid.

Since the first time Puig caught the attention of the fans and the media, he has been applauded for his ability to progress the ball through pressure zones, and over long distances. Last season, for example, he carried the ball for a total of 386 yards per 90, and 173.3 yards per 90 towards the opponent’s goal. These stats, while from a smaller sample, are on par, or better when compared to midfielders well known for this characteristic – Paul Pogba (299; 156), Mateo Kovačić (426; 214), and Luka Modrić (353; 159).

The best thing about Puig’s style, though, is how efficiently he reads the game despite not enjoying a lot of time in the ‘big leagues’. Before controlling any pass, the 21-year-old scans the pitch as thoroughly as he can while moving into an unmarked zone. After receiving the ball, Puig moves the ball through the press or pass to an unconstrained teammate.

Ronald Koeman will have to shed his rigidity now that he is no longer coaching a side that plays football once in six months. As coach of a team as big as ours, he has a responsibility to cater to, including taking care of new signings, while pandering to the best needs of the club on the pitch, which may not come if he chooses to deploy a 4–2–3–1.

Simple guy, who enjoys the simple things in life: music, football, cooking, and dogs. Part-time violinist, full time Barcelona faithful.

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  1. Avatar

    Micah Musa

    16/09/2020 at 14:55

    Good

  2. Avatar

    McLeo007

    17/09/2020 at 08:54

    In Modern football, the 4-3-3 can only work when you have mobile and athletic players in the middle, not slow ballers like Busquets and co. Unless the coach is courageous enough to trust in Puig and other youngsters who have the energy to run anc cover grounds, the 4-2-3-1 is our best bet. More so, Messi leaves the right side badly exposed, as he never stays there. Why then should a coach waste that space when he can keep him in the middle where he trhives?

  3. Avatar

    Steve johnson

    23/09/2020 at 11:24

    Rigid system do not seem to work continously throughout a football game. All systems should be able to transform/adapt during the game to accomondate defensive, attacking or transitional positional gaming and also counteract the oponent formation, all of this subject to the characteristics and ability of the players a team has. So for example 4-3-3 should be comfortable to change to 3-4-3 or 4-2-4 etc adapting according to cicumstances and temporaly during a game. Therefore saying we play 4-2-3-1 (or any other formation) is probably too rigid. Also choosing players just for a single formation seems to be an error and if a player is versatile enough to play good in multiple formations he may be prefered to a player that is excelent in only one or 2 of them and below good in others. How will 4-2-3-1 adapt to oponents formations and how will the players koeman chooses in each position be versatile to function when adapting the system remains to be seen.

Analysis

Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by David Ramirez via Imago

FC Barcelona kicked off their 2020-21 La Liga campaign at home against Villareal in style. They won by a margin of 4-0, marking a very auspicious and positive start to the Ronald Koeman era. 

The shape of the team

The starting eleven was, somewhat expectedly, the same set of players that started against Elche in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Neto started in goal in the absence of Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto started in defence, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong started in a double pivot, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann started as nominal wingers, Philippe Coutinho started as the nominal 10, and Lionel Messi as the nominal 9. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution (minute 70):

As can be seen, Griezmann frequently dropped deep and moved in – and he can be forgiven for that, for he is not a natural right-winger; he is an SS. Messi dropped less deep as compared to the Elche game, but he still had the freedom to roam.

The left side of the team was highly effective. Jordi Alba was a constant menace down the flank and combined wonderfully with Fati. Frenkie and Coutinho lent their support down the left whenever possible. In stark contrast, the right side was not effective at all. Griezmann had the least passes and touches among the outfielders and didn’t combine effectively with Roberto at all. Going ahead, this might be a headache to solve.

Offence

Barcelona were devastatingly good in offence in the first half. They scored 4 unanswered goals, had an overall of 17 shots in the game, 9 of which were on target. Here is a small data table compiling some stats at a glance for the game:

Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game; as shown, Villareal never really got a sniff at Barca’s goal and couldn’t assert themselves at any stage of the game.

All of this could’ve been possibly very different, had Paco Alcacer decided to take a first time shot instead of chesting the ball down in the path of his Villareal teammate early in the game. That didn’t result in a shot, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Barcelona’s goals came in all varieties. The first goal was a wonderful long ball over the top from Clement Lenglet to Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Ansu Fati to smash in a great shot.

This was very much reminiscent of how Messi set up Alba for the goal against Elche.

The second goal came from a quick break. Lenglet released Coutinho from deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Coutinho carried the ball upfield quickly, catching Villareal out with a fast break. A simple layoff and Fati took care of the rest with a brilliant near-post finish past Sergio Asenjo.

The third goal came from a penalty, won again by Fati with a burst of speed into the box, and getting fouled. There was a nice bit of buildup to that:

And finally, there was also the return of the own goal – a pass from Messi to the onrushing Busquets – yes, you read that correct – in Villareal’s penalty box led to Pau Torres poking the ball into his own net past Asenjo.

While the tempo dropped a lot in the second half, there were still plenty of shots taken by Barcelona that required Asenjo to pull off some wonderful saves to keep the scoreline down to 4-0. Most notable was the save from Francisco Trincao’s shot late in the second half. On the other end, Neto came up with a calm display to keep Takefusa Kubo’s shot away.

Passing

As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the productive buildup happened from the left side. Lenglet made a wonderful pre-assist and was assured in his passing in general. Alba was a threat throughout, with his brilliant off-the-ball runs and cutbacks to Fati, Messi, and Coutinho. Fati was a threat with his direct running and taking on defenders. Coutinho and Frenkie provided good support too. Here is a look at all progressive passes by all the starting outfield players:

Next we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):

The half spaces and the left wing were very well utilized, and there were quite a few passes into the box from zone 14 as well.

Villareal didn’t breach the box as frequently as Barcelona did, thanks to some abysmal crossing by Pervis Estupinan. It was only after Kubo came on that they could get into the box with some regularity from the left. But by then, it was 4-0 late into the second half, and Barcelona had taken the foot of the gear completely.

Something that’s easily noticed in the plots above, and is a definite bit of concern, is Griezmann’s struggles with linkup play. He could not combine effectively with Roberto, and bulk of his passes were back to Busquets or Frenkie or Messi back into the midfield. If he is to continue playing as a winger down the right, he has to strengthen his combination play along the wing a lot more. Being able to take on defenders will be an additional bonus too. Right now, the right side is very limited as compared to the left. It remains to be seen if and when Sergino Dest can change the dynamic there upon arrival.

Defence

As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, the PPDA recorded by neither of the teams were particularly impressive. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive actions. From Wyscout, Barca recorded a PPDA of 15 while Villareal had a PPDA of 22. In other words, Barca allowed Villareal to pass around for 15 times on average before trying to win the ball back with some defensive action like tackles or interceptions. Compared to the European pressing elites like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, these numbers are pretty bad. It was evident during the game that Barcelona didn’t go all out trying to press. They picked and chose moments when to. Same goes for Villareal as well. They showed too much respect to Barca, and allowed them to build from the back very comfortably. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:

Its very clear how Barca didn’t try to high-press for bulk of the game, and how Villareal spent of lot time trying to defend against the threat of Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati.

For Barcelona, Gerard Pique was a rock, and so was Lenglet. Neither of them allowed a Villareal forward to run past them, and blocked and cleared all shots and crosses into the box. Pique in particular was called into action many times because Roberto was caught way up the field in transitions. Belying his age, he put forth a magnificent defensive performance in sweeping up everything that came up his way.

Issues

Busquets and Frenkie, while mostly assured in passing, had their nervy moments as well. Busquets was particularly awful in the first 20-25 minutes. He repeatedly misplaced his passes and that led to repeated transition attacks against Barcelona. In the same vein, Frenkie, who played really well for the first 70 minutes, lost the ball at least three times in the last 20 minutes. Each of the resulting attacks by Villareal were threatening, and required timely interventions by Lenglet and attentive goalkeeping by Neto to snuff out. Going ahead, this is going to be a concern. Both of them need to clean their games up quite a bit.

The substitutes

Ousmanne Dembele, Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao and Pedri had short cameos in the second half. All of them looked decent. Dembele kept it simple with his passing, and I for one am glad about it. He is returning from a long injury layoff and needs to take it slow and simple. There will be plenty of time to watch his explosive pace and dribbling once he has regained confidence and has stayed fit for a reasonable chunk of time. Pjanic seemed to have shaken off his rust and did pretty well to win the ball back on a couple of occasions, and was very clean with his passes. Pedri was his usual bumbling self. He helped out defensively, connected well with the wingers in passing, and was always a threat with his runs. Trincao looked impressive yet again, and could have scored his maiden goal for Barca but for a magnificent save by Asenjo. He meant business; trying to take on defenders, and trying to shoot whenever he found an opportunity.

Conclusion

There is no denying that Villareal was abjectly poor, especially in the first half (surprising given the players they managed to buy in the transfer window). They left behind lots of space that was ruthlessly exploited by Barcelona. Not all Spanish teams are going to give up similar amounts of space to Barca in the coming games. In fact, it’s probably best to assume that none will. In such tight games, it will be interestingly to see how this fluid 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann as a wide player manage to perform. I was personally happy with the game, and only look forward to more good performances from the team.

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