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Analysis

La Liga over? Analysing the chances of Barça turning the lead around

With four points and five games remaining, can Barça make a comeback and retain the La Liga title?

Suhas Achanta

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Header Image by Enric Fontcuberta via Imago

Real Madrid’s 1–0 win over Getafe put a massive gap between the top two. Heading into matchday 34, what are the chances of Quique Setién’s Barça closing the lead and winning La Liga?


The nail-biting La Liga title race that the whole world has been watching seems to be edging in one direction, and it’s not Barcelona. Throughout this season, the top spot saw a massive flip flop and it was hard to decide who would end as the champions of Spain. However, the inconsistency displayed by the blaugranas saw them fall far behind. The standings and results since the restart speak for themselves. The Catalan outfit hasn’t exhibited the form worthy of winning the title.

With several pundits and fans beginning to feel that the title will be heading to Madrid, Barça manager Quique Setién has a massive challenge ahead. To close down a gap of four points within five games especially when Los Blancos don’t look likely to slip up is a huge ask for the azulgranas. But if there’s anybody who can do it, it’s Barcelona. The manager, players, and fans still haven’t given up on the challenge and will look to give their best shot.

Nevertheless, if they are to push Real Madrid to the limit, they must improve on a lot of things. It’s worth noting that Setién should be more worried about his side winning their games rather than hoping the leaders to slip. Right now, nobody can confidently say that Barcelona are fine-tuned to go on a streak of wins. With a trip to an in-form Villarreal, which is pushing for Champions League football next, the fans fear that more points could be dropped.

What has to change?

As stated on numerous occasions, Barcelona just doesn’t seem to have its head in the game. With more off-pitch issues on Antoine Griezmann‘s situation emerging, Setién is being pummeled from all directions. Unfortunately for the tactician, he is in a place where he can’t guarantee 100% focus from the players. With massive uncertainties looming over the camp’s overall obedience to the coach’s instructions, Barça could be in free fall.

Even if the players consider themselves as eligible enough to make whatever decision that pleases them, the ego should be tossed aside. One can surely question the coach on his inability to control the dressing room. Still, we have already seen the ravages of an unhealthy amount of player power even under former manager Ernesto Valverde. The senior footballers continue to hurt the club’s overall development both on and off the pitch.

Gerard Piqué Barça Karim Benzema Real Madrid La Liga chances

As Barcelona continue to drop points and Real Madrid to get victories, the chances of the latter winning La Liga increase | Photo by Imago

At the moment, it’s clear that the mishaps in the structure are visible to the fans. The azulgrana loyalists have seen too much of the board and squad’s catastrophes. With the supporters making their dissent loud and clear, the players should understand that this is not a time to fight for power. The challenge that they have ahead is to go toe-to-toe with a highly focussed Real Madrid. The bare minimum that’s needed to compete with Zinedine Zidane’s men is a complete commitment to the cause.

The football hasn’t been poor under Setién. But unfortunately, the fanbase and media outlets seem to be too reactionary to see that. Despite being let down by poor officiating against Atlético de Madrid, the entire blame appears to be on the manager‘s head. As much as one may deny it, the Spaniard’s job is undeservedly on the line. There’s a lack of understanding from a few sections of the club that he was appointed midseason. Some people conveniently forgot the situation the club was in when Quique was hired.

“These are decisions I make and they are technical decisions. They’re not made rashly, and they are done with the best of intentions for the team”

Quique Setién
on leaving Antoine Griezmann on the bench against Atlético until the 91st minute

The onus is on the players to respond to the criticism that they are being subjected to. Scapegoating the manager is only a short term fix as their inconsistency is bound to be exposed under any coach. For now, they should look to bounce back against the Yellow Submarines, with the entire focus on getting all three points.

Why is Real Madrid at the top?

One can say for sure that Zinedine Zidane’s determination to win La Liga is what has helped put Barcelona and Quique Setién in danger, as he has turned things around pretty well. The likes of Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos have been stepping up to lead the team too. Even though Real Madrid’s football hasn’t been dominant, ideal, and flawless, they have managed to get the results needed to stay on top.

Against both RCD Espanyol and Getafe, the defence was wavery, and the attack was below par. Despite them not being in full-throttle, their game-management skills helped them to pick up two 1–0 wins from both games. The players, the coach, and the fans are aware of the fact that in a neck-to-neck title race, nobody sees the style of play. Notably, towards the end of the season, the only thing that the fans would be looking for is their team winning every game.

Zinedine Zidane Real Madrid Barça La Liga chances

While the latest wins have not been the flashiest, Real Madrid keep achieving the three points week in and week out | Photo by Gabriel Bouys / AFP via Getty Images

Furthermore, Zidane’s men have taken advantage of Barça’s half-hearted approach to games. They’ve made use of their rival’s off-pitch misfortunes and have ensured that they only remain focussed on the pitch. The numerous problems at the Camp Nou seem to have rattled the entire structure and squad. But at Madrid, there appears to be clarity in the division of labour.

The board works on the administrative proceedings, and the players work on the pitch. There is no mixture of both, and even if there is an amount of player power at Real Madrid, the ultimate control is in Zidane’s hands. Barça should look to emulate this at least till the season ends. They can’t make a comeback if the players keep involving in issues that don’t ease the manager’s work.

Conclusion

Is La Liga over? Mathemetically it isn’t. But emotionally, the people associated with Barcelona are aware that their club isn’t entirely focussed. The performances on the pitch have been inconsistent and unpredictable. So, the judgement based on what’s going on at Barça currently would favour Real Madrid to win the league.

Nonetheless, football continues to be an unpredictable sport. There is a chance for the players to up their game for the coming weeks. Putting pressure on Real is mandatory. The destiny of the title is no longer in their hands, but they can pressure Real Madrid into slipping up by winning their games. For now, Zidane’s men will be watching the situation at Barça and head confidently into their games. So, even if the league isn’t over yet, it could end in Real Madrid’s favour if Barça fails to beat Villarreal.

With five games remaining, Quique Setién should try his best to unite the dressing room and push for a positive finish. Not winning the league might not be the end of the world. A string of good results could boost the team’s confidence before they head for the Champions League in August.


See more

Iván Rakitić: Why is he always so valued by managers?

• Starting Luis Suárez: Do the negatives outweigh the positives?

• Tactical analysis: Barcelona 2–2 Atlético de Madrid

• Editors’ Takes: Debating on the Barcelona 2–2 Atlético de Madrid

I started writing so that I could bridge the gap and pass time on days when there were no matches. But little did I know that writing about the beautiful game would amp up my love for it. I've always wanted to learn more, and share whatever insights I have on the game, to anyone, anywhere. The world stops for 90 minutes when your team plays, and that for me is very much true.

Analysis

Ronald Koeman and the 4–2–3–1: A new system at Barcelona

Lewis Shankie

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Header Image by Pau Barrena / AFP via Getty Images

During the three preseason games, Ronald Koeman has opted for a change in formation at Barcelona, as a 4–2–3–1 line-up has been implemented by the Dutch coach. This article looks at some of the strengths and weaknesses of the formation so far.


The 4–2–3–1 formation has been used by many top teams around the world. It offers a defensively strong set-up as well as providing good width. In the first three games since his appointment, Ronald Koeman has chosen this set-up. This is a change for Barcelona, who usually play in a 4–3–3 formation.

Thus far, players seem to be adapting to the change, but the first real test for Koeman will be on Sunday 27th September against Villareal. During the pre-season friendlies, there was a lot of rotations, so it is not clear who the favoured starting eleven is yet. However, it looks as though the manager has found his formation for the season, unless something major changes.

The strengths

The new change in the system could have several benefits for the current team. One of the positives to the new formation is that it allows players to be played in their favoured positions. Frenkie de Jong is one player that could excel in the double pivot role.

After a mediocre season, De Jong will now be moved to his best position. At Ajax, and for the Netherlands, the barça midfielder produced his best performances when given a free-roaming role as a double pivot. He is most comfortable in this position as the Dutchman thrives in the defensive and middle areas of the pitch, but not so much in the final third.

Two other players that could improve under the new formation are Philippe Coutinho and Antione Griezmann. The 4–2–3–1 formation plays with an attacking midfield or second striker. This is Coutinho’s and Griezmann’s best position. Under the 4–3–3 formation, they were forced to play out wide, and it did not suit either of them. Playing them centrally will be key in helping them find their best form again this campaign.

Philippe Coutinho Ronald Koeman 4–2–3–1 Barcelona

Philippe Coutinho, named Man of the match in the Trofeu Joan Gamper game against Elche, could be one of the most benefitted players by Koeman’s change of formation | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images

The set-up of the formation also provides more defensive stability than the usual 4–3–3. Having two holding midfielders helps to limit teams counter attacks. It strengthens the centre of the pitch too.  The two midfielders in front of the centre-backs make it difficult for the opposition to break through this area.

In an attacking sense, the full-backs can be more confident in pushing forward. There will be an extra midfielder available in defence if they get caught out positionally. Furthermore, a more dynamic attack can be formed with players like Lionel Messi, Griezmann and Coutinho all being interchangeable. Having that extra attacker should allow Ronald Koeman to play with a pacey winger such as Ansu Fati or Ousmane Dembélé. The Catalan side’s lack of pace in attack has been an issue for several seasons now.

The weaknesses

Though there are positives, there could also be some downsides to the change in formation. Most notably, a lack of opportunities for Barça’s young and talented midfielders. Riqui Puig, Carles Aleñá and Pedri may have less minutes, according to the manager. This is due to their natural position, as interiors in midfield, no longer being used.

“Him [Riqui Puig], [Carles] Aleñá, Pedri…I have told them that it’s difficult for them and there’s lots of competition. At 20 years of age, the young players have to play”

Ronald Koeman, after leaving Riqui Puig out of the squad for Saturday’s Trofeu Joan Gamper against elche

Though they could adapt to the pivot role or the number 10 role, it seems Koeman would prefer others who are natural to these positions. Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanić and De Jong will play most of the minutes as the defensive midfielders. Additionally, Griezmann, Coutinho and Messi are likely to occupy most of the minutes in the attacking midfield role. This is a huge blow for the Barcelona youngsters who deserve first-team minutes.  

Another issue that has already highlighted itself is the removal of a midfielder for an extra attacker. This can leave large pockets of space in the middle section of the pitch. This can either be exploited by the opposition to attack into or limit the options for the blaugranas in the build-up play. For example, if the two pivots get dragged over to one area of the pitch, this can leave large gaps on the other side.

This could cause problems if Barça want to transition the ball quickly to open the game up. What Koeman has essentially done is to take one of the links in the deeper build-up play and move it into the final third instead. Only time will tell if this pays off as Barcelona start the new campaign soon.

Conclusion

The new formation implemented by Ronald Koeman will shake things up at Barcelona. Though the main principles will likely remain the same, such as high pressing and dominating the ball, some parts will change. The formation helps some players find their best positions in the team while also sacrificing others. Defensively, it should help Barça become less open to counter attacks.

Going forward, the team looks more fluid and comfortable. Although, players will need to be spatially aware. Large areas of space have already emerged in the middle of the pitch during preseason and could cause issues for the team later on.

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