Rumours of Philippe Coutinho coming back to Barça from his loan at Bayern Munich are strengthening, but Ronald Koeman must know how to use the Brazilian.
With every new era in football come new motives, new styles and new players. Legendary Ronald Koeman‘s appointment at Barça will bring all these unique characteristics to Camp Nou after three years of nonchalance and leniency from Ernesto Valverde and Quiqué Setién on the blaugrana bench.
Under the latter two, the Barcelona players didn’t have challenges, especially the veterans. Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Ivan Rakitić and many more players had their places reserved for the entirety of the season while form, character and intensity did not influence the starting elevens for the biggest games. That meant players would suffer steady declines when playing a handful of games and, for some, playing in the wrong positions.
Barça’s most expensive ever signing did play for a team that plays in red this year as he won the Champions League, but he played in Germany at the Allianz Arena instead of the Camp Nou. Many reasons have led Philippe Coutinho to go on loan to Bayern Munich in the summer of 2019. The first one is that his coach, Ernesto Valverde, misused him as a left winger to the point where he was ineffective and just plain bad in a team that played decently for the entire campaign.
Another one would be the fact Coutinho’s profile looks a lot like Messi’s and the Brazilian couldn’t play with the freedom he had at Liverpool. Due to all these underlying causes, Coutinho completely lost confidence and had 18 nightmarish months in Catalonia. In 2019, after Coutinho’s worst season as a footballer, Bayern Munich was ready to take a bet on a player bereft of any confidence despite not having any injuries. Now, after winning the treble and scoring two goals in the Champions League quarter-finals against Barça, Philippe Coutinho is set to come back to the Catalan capital as a different player under Ronald Koeman. He plans to use his player differently.
The news broke out recently that Ronald Koeman would love to use a 4–2–3–1 as his preferred formation, with Frenkie de Jong in his favoured position and other heavyweights evicted from the first-team plans. With Suárez being kicked out and Coutinho gaining a spot back in the team, one interrogation comes, and that’s if Coutinho will start for the dutchman. And if he starts, will Koeman use him in his favoured position?
Coutinho comes from being crowned European champion with Bayern | Photo by Matt Childs / Pool via Getty Images
If Ronald uses a 4–2–3–1, it means he will have three supporting players in behind one striker. These three supporting players would be made of two wingers and one attacking midfielder, where the former Inter and Liverpool player could get some decent gametime and be effective.
Every culé knows that Coutinho is not a player to run in behind or even an inside forward like Cristiano Ronaldo. He is much more of an attacking midfielder who builds the play in between two wingers, who will act as the solutions of every problem in front of Coutinho. With Ousmane Dembélé finally fit to play, he can offer the width Coutinho demands to flourish, as he is in no way, shape or form pacey enough to distance himself from the full-backs. If Coutinho starts, Koeman might have a plan with him, but it comes with its limitations.
Coutinho will perhaps be given some more gametime, but he has a much more significant problem, and that’s a player who plays like Coutinho and who happens to be the best player in the world. Lionel Messi, while there are still rumours about him leaving, is still Barça’s focal point and the best player in the world, even at 33. Valverde did not use Coutinho well, but that’s on his 4–3–3 system being too stubborn and stuck in its ways. Playing with Messi and Coutinho as false wingers will never work, and Koeman might know that. It might be the reason he will opt for a 4–2–3–1, perhaps to get Philippe in the best conditions possible to get along with Leo Messi.
While there are some reasons for Coutinho’s downfall at Barça, he must not try to find excuses too much as he was still highly underwhelming in the 2018/19 Catalan side. Coming back as a Champions League winner might just have changed Coutinho for the better.
How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona
The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.
El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.
In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.
Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.
Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.
Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.
Madrid’s defensive organization
After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.
The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.
Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.
Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.
What went wrong for Barcelona?
Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.
One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.
The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.
Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.
As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.
With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.
This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.