As football slowly resumes from the wrath of the coronavirus pandemic, we look at the objectives for Quique Setién towards the rest of the season.
After two months without football, it returned this weekend in the form of the Bundesliga. Most of the leagues have started their training sessions, and La Liga has permitted the clubs to conduct group training with ten players as the limit. The footballers have to live by some intense medical precautions and rules to help the cause. While it has been hard on a lot of people, the whole footballing industry rests on the game resuming as soon as possible, considering the money and labour involved.
❛ Maybe this break will
end up benefiting us ❜
With the potential restart date of La Liga being on June 12 or 19, teams are now in full preparation mode. Barcelona have successfully tested all the players and staff, and everyone has turned out to be negative. Naturally, the season objectives have changed or modified over the coronavirus break. So, what has changed and what should Quique Setién do to make of this a successful campaign after the restart?
Maintain the players’ fitness
As Bundesliga reopened, fans witnessed many of their stars getting injured mid-game or even before the game during warm-up. When footballers return to high-intense action after a two-month break without a proper preseason, injuries are imminent. And with the games scheduled very close to each other to complete the season as soon as possible, it is profoundly important to keep the players fit and ready.
Once La Liga resumes, the players will have spent almost three months without competitive action | Photo by FC Barcelona / Handout via Getty Images
UEFA to its credit has allowed up to five substitutions in a match. Managers can make substitutions on three different occasions during these, excluding the half-time break. With the extra substitutes and an increased matchday squad size of 23, it is the responsibility of the managers to make use of this.
Barça’s average age is very high when compared to other teams, with a lot of crucial players over their thirties. Given the age and the poor injury record of the club this season, Setién has to be very careful with the players. The likes of Suárez, Umtiti and Dembélé, when they return from their setbacks, must be threaded carefully with the next season also in mind. Rotation is now not an option, but a necessity.
Utilise the La Masía prospects
One of Quique Setién’s early criticisms was that he did not live up to the promise of utilising La Masía. The B-team players have hardly made an appearance in the first team except for Ansu Fati. Despite making the matchday squad on many occasions, Riqui Puig and Álex Collado have rarely featured in the games.
Fortunately for him, this might be the right time to get back at those criticisms. With the squad stretched pretty thin and with a risk of a potential injury crisis, this might be the perfect occasion for young stars to get their minutes. Barcelona might have to play more than once every week due to the packed schedule, and the highly capable Barça B youngsters should get their chances.
UEFA wants to finish their Champions League campaign by August. Therefore, the Catalan side must retain their stars to play in the tournament to win their most craved trophy. La Liga race is as tight as it gets, but believing in the homegrown talent in the time of crisis would show the trust the club has on them. Additionally, it would get them ready for next term, where Barcelona cannot make big signings and must rely on the players in hand.
Finally, the trophies
Barcelona, like any top club, would love to compete in all competitions and try to win every single one. But, sadly, they have been knocked out of their ever-reliable Copa del Rey by now. The only two contests remaining are La Liga and the Champions League. The Catalans are ahead in the table by a meagre three points to rivals Real Madrid, with crucial fixtures forthcoming. Barcelona have already played the first leg of the Round of 16, coming out with an away goal advantage.
The blaugranas have been far from convincing when it comes to winning games by domination. In spite of owning possession for large parts of the clashes, the creative spark and the finishing touch have been missing. The forwards have struggled in front of goal much to the disappointment of the fans. With Suárez’s return from injury, there is a hope of revitalizing the attack.
❛ Perhaps Setién misunderstood or explained it wrong, but we cannot win the Champions League by playing like we did before the break ❜
While finishing the created chances is the responsibility of the attackers, Quique Setién must work towards generating more of them. Barcelona have been struggling against breaking low blocks or teams which press them high. With two months behind the scenes, the Cantabrian must have arranged a way past this. Once the team starts working together in both offence and defence, results could follow shortly.
The COVID–19 break has been hard on all of the footballing community. Nevertheless, winning after football resumes will make it at least a little bit better. Ultimately, the main goal of Setién and his men should be to make culés vibrate with their football again during such hard times.
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.