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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.

Football is the greatest sport in the world. There is no sporting event that is watched more and is as passionately followed. Any football fan should try and watch Barcelona to understand how football should be played. At Barcelona, football is all about keeping the ball, movement, passing and playing great football above all else. I am a Barça fan from Scotland and have been following the team for over a decade now. I have been lucky enough to watch possibly the greatest era on football ever, and hope it continues.

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Analysis

Antoine Griezmann’s chance is now, or possibly never

Lewis Shankie

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Photo by Perez Meca via Imago

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.

Conclusion

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.

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