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.
Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.