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Ronald Koeman and a case of poor game-management

Michael Gathige

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Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP

Ronald Koeman has had a rollercoaster of a start to life as Barcelona manager. He had an excellent opening week, claiming a thumping 4-0 home win against Villarreal as well as a 3-0 away victory at Celta Vigo, but since then, things have started derailed.

From no goal against and seven for in his first two to six apiece over his last four matches, the Catalan side seems to be crumbling under the immense pressure being placed on their shoulders. The cherry on this miserable cake was his poor game-management against Real Madrid as Barcelona chased the game for the last 30 minutes, eventually succumbing to a 3-1 loss.

The starting line up

Formation: 4-2-3-1

Neto
Dest – Pique – Lenglet – Jordi Alba
Busquets – F. De Jong
Pedri – Lionel Messi – Coutinho
Ansu Fati

On paper, this is one of the best starting line ups that Koeman could have played against Real Madrid. Sergiño Dest was finally playing in his rightful position, Jordi Alba was back from injury, Sergio Busquets was there to provide defensive aid to de Jong and Pedri, a 17-year-old in phenomenal form was deservedly called up to play. Normally, this should have been a good game given the perfect blend of the zeal and zest that comes with youth and the calmness and composure that comes from the experience; however, it was anything but.

Busquets has seen far better nights in his time as a Blaugrana. In the game, he was often poorly positioned, lost possession countless times and was simply incapable of playing through the pressure imposed on him by the defending champions.

Pedri meanwhile made little to no impact. This was to be expected given the fact that he is most influential when playing down the middle but Koeman decided to use him as an out and out winger instead with no explanation.

Pedri was no by means poor; but was a lot less influential than what he can be. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Perhaps due to his injury, and the fact that he was completely out of position, Philippe Coutinho wasn’t as effective as he has or could have been. Jordi Alba had a rather good first half and easily could have had two assists, but his influence decreased as both the game and his legs wore on.

The substitutions

Real Madrid were forced into making their first change early on, but unlike his counterpart, Zinedine Zidane made a tactical change at a time when the player in question had adequate time to make an impact. Given the fact that Pedri, Coutinho, Busquets and Alba simply weren’t having their day, and that Koeman had five substitutions at his disposal, he should have taken them off well before the 82nd minute, when his first change was made.

Keeping in mind the strength in depth that the hosts had on the bench, Koeman should have made like for like changes in the team to both add some of the much-needed dynamism in play as well as maintain a structured shape when in possession of the ball. Instead, he opted for the following:

  • Antoine Griezmann for Fati
  • Ousmane Dembele for Busquets
  • Fransisco Trincão for Pedri
  • Martin Braithwaite for Alba

These substitutes served to worsen the team’s functionality in possession, as no one was anywhere where they could actually make an impact on proceedings. The formation essentially went from what was a fairly balanced 4-2-3-1 to a 3-1-6 and with no clear plan for how the six forward players were to position themselves.

Subbing off Alba for a striker seemed like a bizarre decision. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Even with Junior Firpo and Miralem Pjanic at his disposal, players who would help in ball circulation while maintaining a reasonable offensive shape, Koeman decided to patch up the holes he saw in the team by adding more attacking players but this inadvertently made them bigger.

The Dutchman made the same mistakes against Getafe, bringing on Riqui Puig for Sergi Roberto in the dying minutes of the game. Not to mention he subbed on Braithwaite for Frenkie de Jong which crumbled the team structure.

What does this tell us about Koeman?

Sergio Ramos scored the penalty that put the visitors in the lead in the 64th minute. There was more than enough time, for Koeman to think of the changes that he could make which would — at the very least — last 25 minutes.

While the sample size is rather small, thus far we could say that he doesn’t seem to have a plan B whenever the team is in a losing position and that his fear of defeat impedes his judgment. Koeman had an abundance of quality on the bench but has made deplorable use of it. This stems from either out of a complete lack of trust in his players’ suitability in the team or distrust in his own tactics.

As a result, the players on the pitch, such as Griezmann – who made just a single touch in his short cameo role – were just as clueless, if not more than their manager.

Where do the improvements lie?

There is obviously an improvement in the football that the team is playing thus far in La Liga. As Jose Bordalas said, Barcelona is more direct than they were in previous seasons but this exuberance can only last so long, especially with players like Busquets who are on the wrong end of thirty. In games like this or the one against Getafe, the manager needs to have a clear and concise plan in mind on what to do whenever the team is trailing.

Bartomeu is gone, and Koeman’s fate lies in the hand of the new president. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

While he could be forgiven for a shaky start to the campaign, he will not be given a lot of time, not as much as Ernesto Valverde got, especially given a change in administration due very soon. Xavi is a clear target for most of the presidential candidates and if Koeman wants to keep his job beyond this season, then he needs to work on his squad management. This can come by shaking up the setup from time to time and showing some more faith in what is one of the best, most complete squads Barcelona has had in years.

The beautiful game brings to all who enjoy it a plethora of emotions and my way of giving back to it is through my writing. I am here not only to share my insight on the club I hold closest to my heart but also to gain knowledge from my fellow writers.

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Opinions

Glass half empty: Is the season already over for Barcelona?

Michael Gathige

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Photo by Cesar Manso / AFP

If the objective for Barcelona for the present season was to make up for what was lost in its predecessor, then they have gotten off to the possible start. In nine matchdays in the current campaign, the Catalans have garnered up a measly eleven points from a possible 24, and even with 30 matchdays yet to play, doubts have been cast over their title credentials.


Leagues are lost in the first eight games

In his book Pep Confidential, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola said that leagues are lost in the first eight and won in the last eight games of any given campaign. One need only look at the Barcelona and tumultuous end to the 2019/20 season for evidence of the same.

Despite heading into the lockdown holding a two-point advantage over nearest challengers Real Madrid, Barcelona proved to be the perfect test subject for what Pep Guardiola’s experiment. In the final eight games of the season, Los Blancos won 22 points while the men in Garnet and Blue garnered up just seventeen. Why so?

Well, a panoply of systemic issues ranging from the incompetent management of Quique Setién to the atrocious defending from the back four as well as unexpected injuries were enough for the Blaugrana to concede the title.

A pattern all too similar — if not worse — is repeating itself in the current campaign. As mentioned before, the former champions have won just eleven points from a possible 24 and are on their worst start to a season since 1991-92 under Johan Cruyff. Some conspiracy theorists would argue that because it happened then, history might repeat itself, however, the context today is significantly different from that of the 90s.

With 23 points and sitting atop of the pile is Real Sociedad and they show no intention of slowing down. Not right now, anyway. Ten games into the season, the Txuri-Urdin have emerged victorious seven times, drawn twice and conceded defeat just once. They have hit the back of the net 21 times (best in the league), and have picked the ball from theirs on just four occasions.

Barcelona meanwhile are on one of their worst scoring seasons in recent history, averaging just below two a game while conceding just over one in each. To put into perspective just how disastrous a campaign this is turning out to be, the Catalans would need to taste defeat just once more to equal their record from the 2014-15 treble-winning season.

Much from this point on will depend on La Erreala’s form in the future. Based on expected goals and points, a dip might be on the cards, however, how drastic it will be, or if it will even come around in the first place, is uncertain.

A lack of tactical ingenuity

Ronald Koeman barcelona

Koeman’s stubbornness has left the season in the dust for Barcelona. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

 A handful of the matches played during the Ronald Koeman era that have shown glimpses of how his ideal Barça side should play, however, these sorts of performances have often been sandwiched between games that were, to say it lightly, deplorable to watch.

The Dutch manager does not seem to have a set plan of action for whenever the team finds itself a goal down. In moments where his critical thinking ability is put to the test, he seldom passes. Rather than insist on maintaining control of the ball by adding a midfielder or two, he completely drains the team of them, perhaps believing in the logical fallacy that more attacking players equal to a higher chance of winning.

Not only is he inept at making proper changes to the side when in a losing position, but his willful ignorance at the failures of his favoured 4-2-3-1 also massively contribute to the team’s inability to win.

Riqui Puig should be the symbol of everything Barcelona should strive to be, however, due to his preference of one formation and one only, arguably the Catalans’ best midfielder finds himself cast into the shadows.

messi Riqui Puig 2019/20 barcelona season

Everyone loves Riqui Puig…everyone but Koeman apparently. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

If a system in which the midfielder that embodies the Barça way of playing is not playing, and the arrangement itself is barely living up to its expectations, then a continuation of the same will serve not only to widen the gap between the Blaugrana and the rest of Europe’s elites but also stray further and further away from what made them great, to begin with.

A crisis in the clinic

As if it were an epidemic within the dressing room, injuries have once again proven to be the incurable seasonal plague that Barcelona simply can not find a way around.

It would by no means be logical to place blame on the manager for these unforeseen and uncontrollable happenings, however in light of their title challenge, the more injuries come, the slimmer Barça’s chances are of surmounting a challenge worthy of being crowned the best in Spain, let alone Europe.

In attack, the Blaugrana are just one injury away from being forced into playing with three attackers upfront. It might force Barcelona to go back to using the 4-3-3, but it will stem from a position of compulsion rather than by design.

On the contrary, given the fact that Ansu Fati will be out for another three months, any lesion on either one of Ousmane Dembélé or Lionel Messi, the two most productive members of the current attack, could signal the end of any title challenge the Catalans, if there is one to begin with.

Ansu Fati Gerard Pique

The absence of Fati and Pique will hurt Barcelona massively this season. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

In defence, following the long term injuries sustained by Gerard Piqué and Sergi Roberto, the same horrid storyline repeats itself. The two-time treble winners find themselves just two injuries away from having just neither a centre-back nor a left-back. The shallowness the defence faces today, in comparison to the depth it nearly boasted just two months ago shows to what extent football’s hand can be as unpredictable as it is cruel.

Given the trend, Barcelona have found themselves victim to over the past two seasons, another wound might be somewhere around the corner. Of course, no one in the Barça camp wishes this upon their players, however, the odds seem firmly stacked against their favour.

Any scope left for Barcelona in this season?

Barcelona is by no means a club known to surrender, in any season — in the La Liga at least —, but finding themselves a whopping twelve points behind this early on makes the task seem almost unsurmountable. As unlikely as it sounds, the Blaugrana still do have a chance to clinch the title for the 27th time.

For this to happen, however, Barcelona will not only have to weed out some of its core systemic problems but also pray that fate’s cruel hand will not strike them another blow. The problems Barcelona face are not set in stone, fortunately. They will need plenty of mental strength, tactical ingenuity and luck to go the extra mile and do the impossible.

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