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Analysis

Koeman and De Jong: The new Dutch connection at Barça

Nassif Ali

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Header Image by Dean Mouhtaropoulos via Getty Images

The appointment of Ronald Koeman as Barça manager will see him reunite with Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong, who could return to a deep midfield role with the new coach.


FC Barcelona’s roots and heritage are set in Catalonia and the Catalan movement for freedom. However, there is another connection that it has imbibed over time. A relation that has grown to be a part of its culture and tradition: the Dutch connection.

One doesn’t have to look far to see how it has influenced this club and its team. Out of the five managers that oversaw the Barcelona side into the most number of La Liga games, four are Dutch: the legendary Johan Cruyff, Rinus Michels, Frank Rijkaard and Louis van Gaal. Not to mention the Dutch geniuses that adorned the blaugrana shirt, including the aforementioned Cruyff as well as the newly appointed manager Ronald Koeman.

This connection has been missing for some time. Maybe it is telling then, that the Barcelona squad has also been drifting further from their tradition for some time now. This was one of the reasons the club and its followers were excited when they brought in one of the brightest talents of the current Dutch team in the shape of Frenkie de Jong. The lad had been creating magic in the middle of the pitch for Ajax as well as his national team.

Ronald Koeman

Ronald Koeman will coach Frenkie de Jong once again | Photo by Jerry Lampen / ANP / AFP via Getty Images

It would have been hugely inappropriate and unfair towards the youngster to expect him to have the exact effect in his first year at Camp Nou. But expectations were high, owing largely to the lack of any kind of creativity in this side, apart from Lionel Messi. That he wouldn’t live up to it in his first season was a given as Barcelona is not the easiest side in the world to get adapted to. The fact that he was often played out of his favored position did not help either.

The presence of a stalwart like Sergio Busquets in the position and the lack of creative ball players up ahead meant that rather than his natural defensive midfield position, Frenkie was pushed ahead or to the flanks. It is to his credit that he still did a decent job. 

The 23-year-old is not willing to go complacent, though. He is convinced that his performances weren’t particularly bad. But he is quick to add that he is not satisfied, as he hasn’t had a good run of games either. This willingness to critique oneself is lacking in the current Barça squad, and that sets De Jong apart. 

“If I speak about my performances, I could have done much better this year. I don’t think I have played many bad games, but I haven’t been able to have a run of really good games, either. I think I have been OK, but not good enough”

Frenkie de Jong

Things, however, may be going for a toss and rightfully so. After the drubbing Barcelona received at the hands of Bayern Munich, there is a lot of cleaning up to do. The axe has already been wielded twice, striking the manager Quique Setién and sporting director Éric Abidal. The former has been replaced by Ronald Koeman, former Barça player and Dutch national team manager.

Koeman has barely settled in his new office and hence, to ask whether he will be able to turn around the fortunes of a dilapidated side at Barça is premature. But if there is a player who is looking forward to playing under his instructions it must be the young Dutchman mentioned earlier. Frenkie de Jong has been a regular in the defensive midfield for the Netherlands under Koeman. He has been the reference point for the team that kept getting better and better and were looking confident for the upcoming Euros. It will therefore help him a lot to know that the man who knows his strengths and where he fits, will be in charge of the club.

“De Jong has not been played in his favoured position. With me, he will be played nearer to the defence”

Ronald Koeman in his presentation as a Barça manager

Koeman’s acknowledgement that the first year is difficult for any player that comes to Barça, is telling. He also pointed out that Frenkie has been playing out of position, before stressing that the best way to ensure great performances was to find the positions where the players fit comfortably. This, along with the fact that he warned the squad to show their commitment for the team or step aside, sends a good message for the youngsters and especially for Frenkie de Jong.

As shattering as the loss against Bayern was, this might be a blessing in disguise for Barcelona. For a long time, this team and its board have tried to cover up its cracks under the star-dust that Lionel Messi provided. This meant that a lot of deadweight has been lugging around, weighing the squad down. A shock treatment was necessary to wake them up and that has happened. The club has finally awakened to the fact that the team has to be recycled and renewed. Koeman himself underlined the point by saying that it is time to give younger players opportunities. Let us hope he sticks to his ideal and gets this team up and running once again.

In my thirty years filled with accidental decisions - that got me as far as a PhD in history - one deliberate constant has been football. I have been an avid fan of the beautiful game since the 1998 world cup. Back then, in India, following football meant reading about it rather than watching it. I owe much of my love of the game and passion for writing about it, to those fantastic sports journalists and writers who could recreate the excitement of the whole game in a few succinct words.

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Analysis

Barcelona vs Real Madrid: The Game through Numbers

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP

A detailed look into the game by numbers, statistics, and tactics as FC Barcelona fell to defeat against Real Madrid in the first El Clasico of the season.


Following a high-flying victory against Ferencvaros in the opening game of the Champions League, FC Barcelona returned to action in La Liga against Real Madrid at Camp Nou. However, the game didn’t go as Ronald Koeman planned, and Barcelona stumbled to defeat in the first El Clasico of 2020-21. This followed a draw against Sevilla and a shock loss to Getafe and left Barcelona midtable 5 games into the season.

Team Structures

Ronald Koeman sprung in several surprises ahead of this fixture. Firstly, Jordi Alba returned from injury to play as left-back, while Sergi Roberto was omitted altogether for Sergiño Dest. Philippe Coutinho played as left-wing. 17-year old Pedri got to start the Classico as a reward for his performances but was fielded on the right-wing. Lionel Messi played as the no. 10 behind Ansu Fati as the striker.

Off the ball, Barcelona defended in a 4-4-2 with Messi and Fati staying and pressing up. From touch-based heatmaps, there are two interesting features.

Firstly, while Frenkie de Jong played in a relatively advanced role, he stayed quite wide. Sergio Busquets occupied the central channels. However, tasking his old legs to guard such a big zone resulted in recurring issues.

Secondly, Pedri is not a natural winger. He loves to play centrally. Having three natural CAMs in Pedri, Coutinho and Messi on-field and forcing two of them to play as wingers was never a good idea, to begin with. Pedri kept drifting inside, as shown in the heatmaps. Both Coutinho and Pedri were limited in their influence. Koeman’s overthinking and tinkering nullified both their strengths.

Real Madrid on the other hand set up in a skewed 4-3-3 as shown. Early injury to Nacho resulted in Lucas Vazquez coming on as the right back for the remainder of the game. Vinicius stayed high and wide, while Marco Asensio drifted in and out, often letting Federico Valverde occupy the wider channels.

Barcelona’s structure after the 81st minute deserves a special mention. Koeman made several offensive subs, bringing on Antoine Greizmann, Ousmane Dembele, Martin Braithwaite and Fransisco Trincáo into the game, in place of Pedri, Fati, Busquets and Alba. To top it all off, Coutinho was slotted as the only pivot in the side, instead of de Jong as the shape devolved into a bizarre 3-1-6.

Attacks and Buildups

This game had a clear moment after which the game changed – minute 62. Until then, Barcelona were evidently the better team starting to dominate a bit as well. Here are the stats from the entire game:

Barcelona were outshot, outscored, and had fewer shots on target – but a lot of that’s skewed from what happened minute 62 onwards. From the PPDA (Passes per Defensive Action) data, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, it’s evident that neither team went for a very high press. Here is the shot map and xG flow:

Minute 62 was when Clement Lenglet fouled by pulling Sergio Ramos’ shirt inside the penalty area while defending a corner. Ramos didn’t need a second invitation to exaggerate the pull. He fell theatrically to the ground, won a penalty, and Barcelona were chasing the game that moment onwards.

The first blood was drawn by Madrid after a moment of disastrous marking by Busquets allowed Federico Valverde to run into Barcelona’s box, unmarked, and smash home from Karim Benzema’s pass.

Thankfully, Barcelona did not take long to reply. A delightful ball over the top from Lionel Messi met Jordi Alba’s well-timed run, and Alba’s square pass was prodded home by Ansu Fati. Here is a little animation of the goal:

As mentioned earlier, Madrid’s second goal came from a penalty, scored by Ramos himself. And Luka Modric capitalized on some terrible defending to make it 3-1 in the 91st minute.

Passing

Neither team were truly impressive in passing. Here are the most dangerous passes by both teams:

Passes into the box were few by either team. Barcelona did manage to get into the box from central zone 14 or half-spaces, while Madrid clearly utilised their greatest strength – attacking from wide areas. It’s also shown in the key passes map:

However, in buildup, Madrid were far more expansive. They switched the play a lot as compared to Barcelona.

Comparing the passes completed in the final third by each team, quantified by field tilt – Barcelona completed a greater number of final-third passes. However, the field tilt, or final third territory gained, was being dominated by Madrid in the first half. Barcelona started the second half positively and dominated territory. However, they got scored against the run of play. After that, Madrid were happy to let Barcelona keep possession and attacked the team on the counter.

Defence and Pressing

Both teams exhibited some terrible defending in the first half, to say the very least. Both goals were conceded from such cases.

As mentioned before, there were huge gaps in the midfield, and too much space between the midfield and defence; i.e. poor covering by Busquets and de Jong. Madrid made the best use of this for their first goal, and repeated it several times as the clock ticked ahead.

In the first image, it is evident that too many Barcelona players got sucked in trying to press the Madrid defence, resulting in a huge void in the midfield. Madrid play out of the press with ridiculous ease.

In the second image, the gap between Dest and Pique is appalling. Both centre-backs are engulfed towards Benzema for some reason, and Busquets completely loses track of Valverde’s run. One simple through ball and the job is done.

Almost immediately after that, Vinicius almost scored a second. Quick combination with Benzema in the box, while Busquets is seen jogging outside the box, there is a huge space to attack. Thankfully, Vinicius’ poor decision making and first touch allow Alba to throw him off.

The next example, again in the first half, shows terrible spacing between defenders, and terrible tracking from Busquets. A simple ball behind Dest, who is in isolation with the rest of the backline meets a well-timed run that Busquets can’t keep up with.

The next two examples are from the second half:

In the first one, the “pivot” Coutinho loses track of Toni Kroos’ run. Kroos runs onto Vazquez’s cutback to take a shot that Neto saves marvellously, and denies the German again pouncing perfectly on the rebounded shot.

The second image shows the moment when Vazquez lobs a ball into Ramos’ path, who is completely unmarked on the far post. Thankfully, Neto comes to Barça’s rescue saving the Madrid’s captain volley with his foot.

Madrid didn’t cover themselves in glory either, especially in the first half. Barcelona’s only goal of the game came as a result of terrible tracking from Nacho as Alba found space behind him. There were giveaways in midfield that led to multiple chances as well.

Most notably, Fati’s lofted ball into the path of an unmarked Messi, who eviscerated Ramos with a quick dribble but shot straight into the hands of Thibaut Courtois at the near post. However, they weren’t as often as Barcelona’s, and in general, resulted in lower quality chances.

As mentioned before, neither team went all out to the press. Barcelona’s pressing structure was so poor that Madrid played through it without trouble. They could even manage elaborate buildups, with two examples shown below:

Issues

Shambolic would be the right word to define Barcelona’s defending in the game. The lack of speed and the alertness to track runners was exposed yet again. The card-happy centre-backs came to haunt Barcelona again, as Lenglet gave away a poor penalty.

Busquets, on the other hand, looks far from being a starter and should be replaced as soon as possible. And if he somehow manages to retain his spot in the lineup, the midfield structure needs to be fixed so that he doesn’t get tasked with defending such a wide area.

The substitutions and Koeman’s game management made little to no sense. As seen in the Getafe game, in more cases than not, more forwards does not equate to more goals. The midfield was non-existent in the last 10 minutes, and Los Blancos made the best use of this as they scored the third where Luka Modric made the Barcelona defence dance.

Conclusion

The game was pretty even for nearly one hour, with neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid standing out as the better team. Post that, however, the scoreline spoke for itself.

Sergiño Dest made a solid claim for starting as right back in the coming games. He was outstanding in defence and quite courageous and innovative in the offence, with some neat dribbles. Fati kept his goalscoring form alive, becoming the youngest ever scorer in an El Clasico. Neto ended the game as arguably the best player on the pitch, but that is more bad news than good for the Garnet and the Blue.

However, there are defensive, structural, tactical, and personnel problems to be ironed out by Koeman in the future, especially if he wants to retain his job after a change of presidency. Otherwise, this could turn out to be a worse season the previous one for La Liga.

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