The world of sport is fascinating for many reasons. One of them is that no team can afford to carry on bad feelings of a campaign into the next one. Every year, the reset button is pushed and everything starts from scratch once again. A new season is not just another start, but a new opportunity to make amends for the past and to build promise for the future. And on Sunday night, Barcelona prepares to turn the page again. They find themselves with a different squad, younger and more committed. Additionally, there is a change of face on the side-lines too, with Koeman bringing with him a new set of ideologies and plans.
The 2020/21 campaign kicks off at the Camp Nou against Villareal, a club in quite a similar situation as the Catalans. The yellow submarines have seen player changes in wholesale, with big names including Dani Parejo, Francis Coquelin, and La Masia starlets Takefusa Kuba and Jorge Cuenca arriving at the club. However, they also bid farewell to many names including Santi Cazorla, Toko Ekambi, and Bruno Soriano. At the helm, a rather surprising move saw Javi Calleja sacked, and Unai Emery take his place.
The Blaugranas do however have a tough start to the season, and Villareal is no easy fish either. Barcelona heads into the clash with just 3 preseason games under the belt, and it is indeed the first time Koeman’s system will be tested on the bog stage. Villareal on the other hand has secured 4 points out of a possible 6 so far. Unai Emery has taken over the reins of the club, and he too has had some positive stints in La Liga in the past. Nevertheless, Villareal might just be the team that fits into his managerial style the best.
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El Subamarino Amarilla are a team that love to keep control of the game. Though many sides prefer to wield a deep block against the big sharks, Villareal is not one of them. As seen in previous encounters, they are a team that prefers to build through the centre with short passes. Nevertheless, they often use the width of the pitch in entirety, with Samuel Chukwueze and Moi Gomez aiding the fullbacks in deploying an intense pressure when off the ball.
In the first 2 games of the season, Emery has opted for a 4-2-3-1, similar to what Koeman plans. Defensively it has been a double pivot of Parejo and Coquelin that kept the formation sturdy. In attack, however, there is a fluid transition to a 4-4-1-1 OR 4-4-2 with Parejo and Moreno running the show in the halfspace.
In the last encounter between the 2 sides, the fullbacks of Barcelona gave the Catalans the cutting edge. An advanced role for Nelson Semedo and Jordi alba saw the wings being utilised effectively, often stretching the centrebacks away. Moreover, this in turn created space for a central Lionel Messi to create to his best ability. Therefore Koeman must get his Line-up right to inflict maximum damage.
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Villareal loves to capitalise on high defensive lines, justified by their 9 offside calls against Eibar. To counter this, Koeman will prefer a double pivot and stick to his 4-2-3-1 gameplan like in pre-season. Frenkie de Jong provides a double benefit, given that he can contribute in attack too in a slightly advanced role. Moreover, with Pjanic still relatively new, Busquets will seemingly get the call up to fill in the second CDM role.
The double-pivot provides more freedom to both Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto who will be the fullbacks on the night. Along with the wingers, one would expect that their role would be to use every inch of Camp Nou’s width. Expect a night filled with lethal counters and close offside calls. It will be essential for Pique and Lenglet to hold their line with great care.
Koeman’s philosophy is known to be one where the team utilises width. He will be looking to do the same against Villareal, looking at the most recent encounter. Additionally, the yellow submarine often tasks their fullbacks to generate maximum pressure and win back the ball. Playing true wingers will not only help Koeman impose his style but also generate a numerical advantage in the wings, with the fullbacks also being in advanced positions. One would expect Fransico Trincao and Ansu Fati to get the call up to play on the wings. Their pace and dribbling skills serve as assets against a compact defence.
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The departure of Luis Suarez now means that the team does not have a natural no.9. To make up for that loss, Koeman could opt for Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann to play as no.9 and attacking midfield interchangeably. In the preseason, the Frenchman played a free-floating role behind the central striker. Therefore, this could imply Messi sees more time playing as the lone striker.
Barcelona expected line-up vs Villareal:
Alba – Lenglet – Pique – Roberto
De Jong – Busquets
Fati – Griezmann – Trincao
How should Barcelona line-up against Deportivo Alavés?
After an emphatic victory in Turin, Barcelona return to Spain to take on Deportivo Alavés with their heads held high. A complete performance could bring nothing but optimism to each of the players.
The Catalans have enjoyed an impressive start to their Champions League campaign, having dominated both their oppositions so far. The story in the League, however, has not been as sweet. Heading into their sixth clash, Barcelona languishes at 12th on the table. With only two victories to show for, it is a cause of mild fear.
The Blaugranas now head into their final three clashes before the international break, all of which fall within just 8 days. The tight schedule leading up to this will be a factor that may force rotations. Concurrently, however, Barcelona cannot afford to drop more points in the League. Undoubtedly, man-management is crucial at such a stage when the only accepted results are victories.
The first of the three upcoming clashes comes tomorrow at the Estadio de Mendizorroza. Alavés are always a tricky side to play, however, there is also a Champions League clash just around the corner. Which means it will be crucial for Koeman to find the perfect XI that can capture the best of both worlds.
What to expect from Alaves?
The Vitoria-Gasteiz based side currently find themselves at the wrong half of the table. They had a dismal start to the new season just salvaging the one point from their opening four clashes. Overall, they have emerged on top in just two of their seven games, losing four games in the process. It has been a rough start for the Basque side under new coach Pablo Machin.
Alaves have predominantly played with a back three over the season, though on some occasions they have gone back to a defensive four. The trusted backline for Machin has been the pairing of Victor Laguardia and Florian Lejuene. Machin has complemented them with Ximo Navarro or Rodrigo Ely when in a back three.
The potent attacking side has been the left-wing with Ruben Duarte being a merciless force on the flank. He has started on occasions as the third central defender but has predominantly acted as a fullback for the side.
Ruben Duarte will be Alaves’ biggest threat. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
Rodrigo Battaglia has been crucial to the side with his defensive midfield duties, especially when the fullbacks push in the attack. Irrespective of the system, the side have pushed men into the midfield to gain a numerical superiority. Additionally, overlapping runs have often combined with wider players like Duarte to create openings.
The left-wing has been the more active wing by far, with Pere Pons and Joselu upping the intensity. In attack, Alaves finds itself with an abundance of resources with the likes of Joselu, Lucas Perez and Devyson on its ranks.
Very much like Machin’s Sevilla, this Alaves side has morphed into a 3-5-2 in many games. In defence, the wingbacks drop deep to form a compact five-person back-line. The centre-backs are crucial in the buildup and often invite the high press from oppositions, trying to create holes in the enemy’s formation.
How should Barcelona Line-up?
Barcelona this season have been rejuvenated, especially in pressurising the opposition. This has been primarily because of the addition of young legs in the form of Ansu Fati and Pedri. This was seen once again against Juventus, where the Italian Champions were barely given and space to breathe. With Alaves trying to open up spaces by inviting press, Koeman must choose his front four wisely.
After starting back-to-back high profile clashes, one would expect young Pedri to start this game on the bench. This again opens up space for Antoine Greizmann to start alongside Lionel Messi. While the Frenchman will start as the striker on paper, he will have a fluid role constantly dropping deeper to join the press. Lionel Messi will be starting as the attacking midfielder and will be the focal point of every attack.
After a well-deserved rest in the last game, Ansu Fati will jump back into the starting lineup as the left-winger. On the right side, Ousmane Dembele could get a second successive start. With the Alavés left side being heavily involved in the attack, it is an ideal scenario for Dembele to strike on the counter.
Ansu Fati and Jordi Alba will be a duel threat for Barça on the left. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
The midfield is where there have been a lot of doubts as to working combinations. Starting Sergio Busquets alongside Frenkie de Jong has clearly not worked out for the Catalans. Hence, Miralem Pjanic could find himself a starting position alongside the Dutch midfielder at the Mendizorozza. The Bosnian had a rocky start against his former side on Wednesday; however, he finished the game with a sound performance. Furthermore, his ability to break the lines could prove invaluable against a compact five-man defence.
At left-back, there are hardly any doubts as to who will start. Jordi Alba as always will provide a constant source of worry to the likes of Edgar Mendez whose advanced position could be exploited. It is the right-back position though that is crucial.
Indeed, the Blaugranas will need someone who can quickly recover to his position and mask the potent left-side attack of Alaves. Looking at Sergino Dest’s masterclass against Real Madrid, he would be the ideal man to start at the crucial position.
Ronald Araujo has been ruled out through injury for close to a month. Samuel Umtiti too, has just returned to training. With that in mind, Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet are the only two options to start at central defence. It will be a risky move, but there are no other options for Koeman. One injury or suspension and Barcelona will find themselves at a lack of personnel.
Marc Andre ter Stegen has just returned to training, yet will not be completely fit to start. Undoubtedly, Neto will continue to don the gloves in the German shot-stoppers absence.