While the whole Europe has started or is approaching to start their respective national campaigns, Ronald Koeman is trying to find the right system to display his force as soon as the La Liga season starts for Barça in about a week. But with the Nàstic and Girona friendlies already on the Dutch manager’s stomach, has he already found the right men to do the job?
As Barcelona’s start of the season finally approach, after the team had more rest days due to the late Champions League ending, it is fair to underline how its newest manager, new coach Ronald Koeman is still trying to find the right notes to complete the symphony. A symphony that is yet to be completed and to be refined, but certainly one that has been quickly asserting the right tracks under its belly.
This year’s preseason has been an unknown for all professional sports out there, with many having to occur in faster, soarer training sessions than usual. While the fitness aspect of it all will probably be the main cause of differences this season, as fitness coaches had to reduce the workloads and increase speed sessions to keep the players fresh and ready, the managers’ job will be much harder in terms of creating the right harmony and cohesion in a short period of time. There is no enough time to practice the desired movements, tactical systems and other structural aspects of a team’s in-pitch organisation.
Barça, apart from an athletic routine that hasn’t much been under scrutiny in recent history due to the club’s different values, had a few more problems to cope with. Lionel Messi‘s transfer saga, the motion of no confidence against president Josep Maria Bartomeu, a new manager, a strange signings strategy – both in and out of the club –, and more. In all the chaos that Barcelona is right now, Koeman’s job has been much harder than what it could have been under normal circumstances. Still, the Dutchman is slowly finding his rhythm with the team.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona is taking shape | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
One of the biggest tactical unknowns of Koeman’s appointment was whether he was going to keep Barça’s vintage 4–3–3 system, or if he was going to change it in a 4–2–3–1, due to his own preferences and the team’s characteristics. After very much debating between fans and pundits, the first two friendlies of Barça’s short preseason gave the environment the answer it was looking for: 4–2–3–1.
While the tactical system is different from the culés‘ traditional one, Koeman’s mentality and footballing ideas are far from being the opposite of Barça’s. Offensive, intense and vertical football are a must for Barcelona’s expectations as much as Koeman’s interpretations. There is a perfect binomial conduction between the club and its new employee.
Football in preseason is as much a test for all the players in a team’s roaster as a training to keep the legs rolling and the lungs filling the air. So were the recent friendlies against Nàstic de Tarragona and Girona. As expected, Koeman literally played eleven different players per half in both games, with a few changes in the last one. And as the coach was varying things and changing the pieces of the puzzle, you could already see the ideas, the movements, the principles that he wanted to give to the team.
As many distressed fans have already noticed, the defence that suffered eight goals against Bayern Munich has not changed a bit. While it may seem discouraging for some, having such individual qualities at the back paired with some solid and correct defensive training may end up being the best signing Barça could do to improve its backline.
With Marc-André ter Stegen on its way back to recovery after surgery, Neto will be the only difference in Barcelona’s defence this season, with lack of competition from the bench arising. At least, as long as Manchester City keeps its firm stand on the Eric García situation and Sergiño Dest doesn’t move to the Camp Nou.
With a proven-to-be two-man midfield in Barça’s new squad, a Koeman favourite will certainly find his place game in, game out: Frenkie de Jong. As the same manager told upon his arrival, it is a shame to watch players like De Jong – and Antoine Griezmann – in unusual positions, as they will not perform at the levels they are expected to.
“The plan is to start playing Frenkie de Jong in the position that he plays with the national team as well. I remember attending a Barcelona game and I saw him play a position where I wouldn’t play him as a coach. You’ve spent a lot of money on a young player. You should then play him in his own position, where he can perform in a way you’d expect from him. He has shown at Ajax and with the Dutch national team which position suits him best and that is where he will be playing at Barcelona as well”Ronald Koeman
With De Jong‘s place not being threatened by anyone else except himself, it is expected from Riqui Puig and Carles Aleñá to provide that support quality and solutions from the bench or, in some cases, to perform in an eventual three-man midfield, with Puig being hierarchically higher than the former Real Betis loanee.
Next to De Jong is a position that is going to be fought for the whole length of the season: Sergio Busquets’ intelligence or Miralem Pjanić‘s quality? With an ageing Busquets, it will be the first time in twelve years that his place will be under severe scrutiny by the club, as years go by and fresher legs come in place. But while the Bosnian’s quality will be very much needed throughout the entire season, Busquets’ tactical awareness is going to be a solid piece of refinery yet again.
Slowly approaching Barça’s biggest guns, it is no secret that the Catalan’s team offensive overbooking is going to keep several doors open throughout the whole season. Having the freedom of two players per position is a manager’s dream, but while it may be a benefit, it is also a challenge to keep the team balanced and the moods paced.
With the signings of two youngsters such as Francisco Trincão and Pedri, both incredibly bright against Nàstic and Girona, Barcelona’s wide game takes a big jump in terms of volume, youth and creativity. But with Luis Suárez’s mysterious future under supervision, the seniority of Barça’s main man upfront will take its advantage overall. At least initially.
“I liked Trincão positionally, sometimes coming inside and sometimes going outside. He has the quality and has to adapt to the speed and rhythm. He’s a great signing”Ronald Koeman, on Francisco Trincão after the 3–1 win over Nàstic last Saturday
Apart from Ansu Fati, who is already considered a senior throughout the whole footballing world, Messi and Antoine Griezmann seem to be Koeman’s main men for the central roles up top: as much as they will both exchange their positions, the Argentinian is destined to take the playmaking role, while the French World Cup winner will move around him and try to create spaces and finish chances for the team.
Besides Barça’s business, Philippe Coutinho is another player to have returned to the blaugrana headquarters. Full of determination, he will look to prove himself once and for all where he wanted to be ever since his Liverpool days. With similar motives to the Brazilian’s, but with different sources, Ousmane Dembélé is approaching the start of a defining season for him: either he proves to be world-class or he goes home. And with the explosion of Ansu Fati and the incredible talent he brings to the field, those three may feature in most of Barça’s games in this start of the season. Ansu Fati’s injury permitting, of course. However, Trincão and Pedri’s talents may change many’s minds, Koeman’s included.
“He [Pedri] is a great talent. He’s 17 and such an important signing for our future. He has trained with us and has the quality to play, so we’ll see how much he can take part”RONALD KOEMAN, AFTER beating NÀSTIC LAST SATURDAY
Ronald Koeman is slowly finding the pieces to solve this incredibly difficult puzzle that Barça appears to be. It is going to take more than just a few friendlies and a few good performances to overturn the season’s predictions around Barcelona’s offices. That is why players are tools for a team to perform. You can have better or worse ones. But the mentality and the identity of a team’s way of playing are principles much more important for a club’s success in the pitch.
It is no surprise that, perhaps, the most positive aspect of the new Barça’s performances over the course of the first two friendlies has not been a single player, a chance created or a defensive movement. Instead, it has been the intensity of the team’s ball movement mixed with those two, maximum three, touches per player.
The path to Barcelona’s native brilliance is long and hard, but having the right mindset to attack this jigsaw is the best strategy that the Dutch manager could employ. One idea, 4–2–3–1, eleven optimal choices and the highest intensity possible. Step by step, game after game, Koeman’s Barça will surface. With patience. And, as in microeconomics when supply meets demand, in football, when principles meet practicality, the puzzle is solved.
Antoine Griezmann’s chance is now, or possibly never
With an injury to Philippe Coutinho, there is now a place available in the starting eleven, which also coincidentally happens to be Antoine Griezmann’s preferred position. If he is to succeed at Barcelona, now might be his chance.
Philippe Coutinho returned from his loan spell at Bayern Munich and was reassured of his importance to the team by Ronald Koeman. The manager promised to play him through the middle, where he is most comfortable, and the results were clear. The same cannot be said for Antoine Griezmann.
The Frenchman has been made to play out of position on the right and is to establish himself in his best role, in behind the striker. However, with the injury to Coutinho, this could be his chance to prove his worth in Catalonia. There is no doubting the 29-year-old’s quality, but he faces strong competition from others in the squad for a starting place in the team.
Will Griezmann get his chance?
Antoine Griezmann has found himself in an unfamiliar position both on and off the field recently. On the pitch, Griezmann has been played on the right-wing, and it has not suited him. Off the field, he has started from the bench in the last two matches. The World Cup winner is used to being one of the most important players in the squad and a guaranteed starter. However, his form has been poor this season, and his confidence plummeted.
“Griezmann no longer knows how to play football with the Barça jersey. He no longer finds his place. It’s been eighteen months, so it’s impacting his head, and the situation is really critical for him.”Lizarazu (ex-France international) | Goal
The key to getting the best out of the World Cup winner is by playing him centrally. In fact, he has gone on to publicly say that he prefers playing centrally and that Didier Deschamps knows where to play him.
He prefers the ball at feet and being able to link with others around him. Griezmann loves creating chances and can also score goals. The forward wants to be involved in the plays and dictate the game constantly. Therefore, he must convince his the manager that he is the man for the attacking midfielder position, where he can function as a second striker.
Antoine Griezmann is one of the best players in the world; but is not being treated like one. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)
The former Atletico Madrid star needs to recover his form if he wishes to regain a starting position. On his day, the World Cup winner unplayable and amongst the best in the world. He could be influential in helping Barcelona win trophies this season. Furthermore, having such an expensive price tag and a huge salary means it is difficult to leave him on the bench. Therefore, it is likely that Koeman will give him opportunities to convince himself, especially against Juventus, as he is yet to find the right balance within the team.
Competiton for Griezmann
Barcelona are absolutely stacked both in the forward and midfield areas. Against Real Madrid, Koeman opted to play Lionel Messi as the attacking midfielder, after five games of being used as a false nine, previously so it will be interesting to see where he plays against Juventus on Wednesday night.
Another player that can play as in that role is Pedri. The 17-year-old already looks to be a perfect match for the Blaugranas and should be considered for the game against the Old Lady.
The former Las Palmas player has already shown positive signs and was Barcelona’s only bright spark in the 1-0 defeat to Getafe. Pedri is an all-round AM and has amazing positioning and awareness. Additionally, he boasts of some impeccable footwork, vision and is creative in the final third. Most importantly, at the age of 17, he has displayed immense confidence and is slowly becoming Koeman’s favourites, so it is likely he features in some capacity.
One player that culés have been crying out for this season is Riqui Puig. It has been disappointing to see one of Barça’s best talents accumulate just five minutes as a substitute this season. This is not a way to treat or develop such a talent. In fact, when the Spaniard has played, he has consistently been one of the Catalan side’s best performers and deserves more game time based on merit.
Options, options, options. (Photo by David Ramirez via Imago)
Finally, another La Masia graduate that has been overlooked this season in Carles Aleñá. He possesses all the right attributes to play as an attacking midfielder. Aleñá is energetic, quick at moving the ball, and can play in tight areas. As part of the La Masia for several years, he also has adept positional play, and the ability to pick out a pass. The 22-year-old is too good to remain on the bench all season and should get opportunities to prove himself on the pitch.
The injury to Philippe Coutinho is unfortunate and comes at a horrible time for the club. However, this does leave the door open for others to fight for a starting role, and impress Ronald Koeman in his absence.
Leading this competition is Antoine Griezmann, who is looking to capitalise on his favoured position becoming available. He needs to take his chance quickly, though if he is to secure it for himself. There are young talents that are desperate to play and show the manager why they should be starting. Whoever does start, the competition for places should be a strong incentive for the players to give their all.