With a Sevilla versus Betis marking the restart of La Liga, a question mark has to be put on the performance and form from teams after such a long break.
With La Liga’s restart fast approaching with a Seville Derby on Thursday 11, we all have one question on our minds: how are the players, and ultimately, the teams going to perform after such a long break from training? Long breaks generally affect football drastically. Even missing one month of training greatly increases the chance of players getting injured. Lionel Messi and Nélson Semedo, for instance, both felt minor discomforts on coming back to training and once the season starts, more will be on the way.
With players having to hold back on their efforts to avoid injuries, we must ask ourselves: which team’s playing style is likely to be easiest on the players and will prevail in the title race?
The two main title contenders this season are obviously Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, with Sevilla, Atlético de Madrid, Real Sociedad and Getafe all at least nine points behind. But with the state of things, there is an element of unpredictability added to the factors affecting the outcome.
Barcelona, title favourites
League leaders Barcelona rely mainly on their incredible short distance passing, slowly initiating moves that they put away with deadly accuracy. The players aren’t necessarily well built, but excel on the technical side of things. Barça tend to dominate a match by keeping hold of the ball and makes the opposition do all the running. Over the years, intense pressing, man marking, physical strength and quick counter-attacking have been the club’s weakness.
But current injury fears play into the culés‘ hands perfectly. With opposition players unable to cover as much ground as they used to, the blaugranas can take advantage of the opportunities to gain an early lead on the points table before other teams reach maximum fitness. At the same time, though, Barça’s ageing and injury-prone squad also faces a higher risk of injury, even with a lower work load. Barcelona rely heavily on Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez for goals, and unless the other team members can stand up to the task, they will face trouble with the two players both above 32.
Quique Setién needs to manage player work rates and must handle the squad balance to ensure that no player, especially Messi, gets overworked. On following the same, the Catalans could see the title returning to the Camp Nou for the third time in three years.
Real Madrid, close in behind
Barcelona’s closest rivals are, of course, Los Blancos. Real Madrid are a club with no clearly defined style of play. They always relied on individual brilliance along with the manager’s use of the footballers at hand to win trophies. They approached each game slightly differently and adjusted their team to match rival sides. Be it direct counters or patient build-up play, the sheer quality of Real Madrid’s stars gave them the ability to use a mixture of styles to win trophies.
The likes of Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio will be back from injury for Real Madrid | Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce via Getty Images
But Madrid have only just begun to recover from the loss of their talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo. Karim Benzema has stepped up, but needs support from big name players like Eden Hazard. They use counter-attacks, crosses into the box and shots from outside the box to score the goals, meaning that they have a higher offensive workload, while also feeling comfortable in handling possession. Still, it is their defensive record this year that has kept them in the title fight, with Madrid boasting the least amount of goals conceded in the league: 19. Ultimately, they will provide tough competition to the Barcelona that we have seen all season. But if Quique Setién can unlock the squad’s full potential, Barça might just leave Madrid behind.
The battle for the Champions League
With the two front runners nine points clear, only two Champions League slots are up for grabs with 11 games to go. Just two points separate Sevilla in third and Atlético de Madrid in sixth, while Valencia in seventh are just three points behind Atleti. With all still to play for, the clash for a top four finish is going to be juicy.
Los rojiblancos have been excellent as usual at the back, but need to improve up front. Atlético are a rock at the back and posses exciting talents in all lines such as João Felix, Saúl Ñíguez, Thomas Partey and Renan Lodi. They tend to soak up pressure and kill the game with quick counters. Even though they rely on transitions, their ability to handle pressure means that they can play at a relaxed pace and strike only when they need to, provided that the forwards step up to the challenge.
Julen Loptegui’s Sevilla have a possession-based game, meaning that they too have the advantage of being able to tire out opposition players. They have classy players capable of delivering the final goods whilst playing a beautiful brand of football. If they can hold their nerve and regain the form they had at the beginning of the season, they could be back playing European football next campaign.
Real Sociedad had been a young, fresh, energetic and bold side this season under Imanol Alguacil | Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce via Getty Images
Sevilla’s biggest challengers are Real Sociedad. The Basque side have been in excellent form and are guided by a younger generation of players such as Martin Ødegaard and Mikel Oyarzabal. They have a well-balanced team with the fourth highest ball possession per game in the league. Their midfielders, with Ødegaard, Mikel Merino and Ander Guevara or Igor Zubeldia, are essential to the team and are essential to their recent success. If they could continually finish off the chances created, they could be serious contenders for the top four.
José Bordalás’ Getafe are an interesting team. They are hard-working and outwork opposition sides, defending with all their might. They make the opposition sides pay for the smallest mistakes. Getafe’s players aren’t afraid to commit fouls and their narrow 4–4–2 system allows them to sit back and crowd up their half, forcing opposition teams to move into wider areas. Once La Liga restarts, it will be interesting to see how Bordalás and his men cope with the physical limitations in their style of play. With many of their important footballers above 30, it will truly be a test of the manager’s and the players’ abilities.
Who will return in better shape?
If one thinks about it, it seems that the teams relying more on holding back and keeping the ball will tend to perform better, since rivals can no longer hold enough pressure to retrieve the ball. But on the other side, physical limitations will force teams to tighten up defensively, since they no longer have the ability to maintain pressure. This will make them harder to break down as space is a luxury that attacking teams will not be afforded. As the Bundesliga restart showed, 14 players got injured during the first week across the top two tiers of German football. The speedier, direct players who participate in counters were more prone since their muscles were not ready for the intense activity.
Ultimately, it boils down to a players’ fitness. If a team’s players, like Cristiano Ronaldo, can maintain their level of fitness, then even a team relying heavily on speed and intense running can take the fight to the more possession-heavy teams. But the truth is that not all footballers can sustain that level of fitness and hence sides are going to have to factor in injuries while deciding tactics.
Which style of play will ease the return to action the most? | Photo by Eric Alonso via Getty Images
They will be less deadly than they used to be before the break, but a solid defensive line could help them remain on track. Defensive and physically tougher teams will have to find a better way on the offensive side, but could hold the back line in the same way they used to. The likes of Barcelona have a playing style that will be easier on the players and could wear the opposition down, but it would be difficult to create space with other teams not taking the risk of high pressing.
The ability of managers to manage the five substitutions assigned to them will play a major role in maintaining a high level of performance throughout the game. This will roll into the hands of the traditional favourites like Barça, Madrid and Atleti since they will have more quality to bring on from the bench. More players will receive game time as pressure will slowly be eased onto the team’s best players. Youngsters will also gain more opportunities as some of the veterans will be unable to play the full 90 minutes regularly.
Hidden prospects stored away on the bench will get their chance to shine and revised tactics based on the condition of the squad will test the coaches and players to the limit. It will be the better balanced and level-headed teams that will prevail in the end. Football is finally back after a long while and whichever way the season will go, it promises to be an unpredictable and exciting race for success with everything still to play for.
Ronald Koeman starts to find the pieces to Barça’s jigsaw
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.