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Ronald Koeman’s 3-4-3 formation and the dilemma it poses for Barcelona

Domagoj Kostanjšak

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Photo via Imago

Even though the 3-4-3 system is not exactly a revelation to the Barcelona faithful, it still feels like a step away from tradition. For the majority of their history, especially the modern one, we were used to seeing them in a 4-3-3 structure.

Of course, at the end of the day, formations are nothing more than just numbers on a sheet of paper or, as Pep Guardiola used to say, ‘nothing more than telephone numbers.’ And that’s certainly true. After all, it’s not really about those numbers; it’s about the roles, responsibilities and interactions the players have on the pitch.

A team sheet before the match could say someone is playing in a 4-4-2 system, but that may very well change depending on the situation on the pitch and individual decisions each of the players take in certain moments of the game. But even with that being said, formations, or rather structures, can inevitably have a clear impact on a team’s performance.

Case in point – Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona. At the very beginning of his tenure in Catalonia, the Dutchman was adamant about introducing his signature 4-2-3-1 formation, which, as we now know, was not that effective. The results, or rather lack thereof, forced his hand, and he quickly swapped back to the more traditional 4-3-3.

However, that didn’t really solve many of their issues either. In fact, at times, it seemed to have caused even more. The 4-3-3 has many advantages due to the sheer flexibility it offers, but Barcelona were looking for something entirely different. We mentioned something about roles being important within a system, but formations and structures influence or even dictate those roles.

Take the newly introduced 3-4-3/ 3-5-2 system the Catalans are using at the moment. Once Barcelona are in the final third and attacking through all five main channels in the opposition’s half, you can’t exactly tell it’s a 3-4-3, can you? But that doesn’t mean the responsibilities of the players have not changed.

Both on and off the ball, it really does seem they are more organised as the new system helps enhance their strengths and cover up their weaknesses. When defending, Barcelona are pressing well in a man-oriented way, suffocating the opposition and collapsing well. This helps them both win the ball higher up the pitch and disrupt the opposition’s build-up play to the point of no return.

The idea is to not allow the opposition any space off the ball. (Photo via Imago)

In attack, the introduction of wingbacks and a back three has eased their progression and freed up the midfielders, who suddenly have more space to advance the ball. But this is by no means a flawless system. Koeman probably explained it best himself.

When speaking to Marca recently, the gaffer mentioned this is a high-risk, high-reward system, saying: “We played man-to-man today and, if it goes wrong, it can cost goals. Pressing like that is risky. Sometimes it’s dangerous, but the team is confident.”

Another drawback is that playing so aggressively all the time, focusing on closing down the man and not space, can be extremely tiring. Barcelona’s squad is getting much younger, granted, but even the players in their youth and prime years might struggle to keep it up across a full season.

That’s where squad depth comes into play, and unfortunately, especially with all the recent injuries, this has been the Catalans’ bane as of late. And it’s also the dilemma it represents for Koeman and the club – is the new system a long-term plan or a very situational solution that’s applicable right here and right now but may not be in the future? The answer, as ever, is not that straightforward.

However, isn’t the latter option always true? Shouldn’t every system be dependable on the personnel and how much it actually fits the players you have at your disposal? We’ve seen first hand that sticking to systems like the 4-2-3-1 or even the 4-3-3 didn’t work despite some obvious advantages they both offered.

The answer to the question ‘why’ requires a more complex answer but at the gist of it is the sheer (un)suitability to the players Koeman has in his squad. At the moment, the 3-4-3/ 3-5-2 is ensuring we see Sergio Busquets in all his glory week in, week out while also getting the best out of Sergiño Dest, Jordi Alba, and even Ousmane Dembélé by limiting their defensive responsibilities with an added layer of protection behind.

Jordi Alba has been unplayable as of late. (Photo via Imago)

However, all of that is a passing thing. What happens if and when Barcelona start introducing new players? In fact, how do returning players like Ronald Araújo, Gerard Piqué, Philippe Coutinho and Ansu Fati fit into that picture? How can Barcelona lineup with new signings post the summer?

For some, the transition into a new system could be easy, while others might struggle to get going. Take both centre-backs as an example. The three-in-the-back structure requires the backline to be extremely good on the ball, putting a lot of emphasis on them to find the free men in the middle or even the final third by constantly breaking the lines.

However, Araújo, and even Piqué to some extent as of late, has been struggling in this regard. The Uruguayan, in particular, is a rock in defence but not as progressive on the ball, which could limit Barcelona greatly if he’s not paired up with at least one other highly technical centre-back in the future.

Fati’s return, on the other hand, poses a different question. Theoretically, the youngster should slot right in, but in that case, it’s likely Dembélé’s game time might decrease. The same is true for Fati if the Frenchman is chosen instead. So again, while the 3-4-3 offers so many advantages at this particular moment, just like the 4-3-3 did in the past, it’s still highly situational, just like every other system.

Its effectiveness in the long-run will therefore depend on whether or not it suits the players. If so, there is no reason to abandon it as long as the result, and the general performances are up to par.

However, all of that can change really quickly, and that’s why there are no guarantees in football and also why there is no perfect be-all-end-all formation in this sport.

Today it’s the 3-4-3, but tomorrow or the day after, it might be something entirely different. And there is nothing wrong with that, as long as it works.

So for now, if it ain’t broke…

I’ve been a Barcelona fan for more than half of my life. What started as blind love is slowly turning into professional writing. Now, I get to write about Barca, analyse them, and voice my opinions on them across platforms. I’m happy to be a part of this big project.

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Opinions

Copa Del Rey final: Forgetting El Clasico, Supercopa Final and more

Darren Looney

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Photo via Imago

What seemed very unlikely at one stage in Barcelona’s season is now just one game away from a trophy. Saturday sees Ronald Koeman’s men contest this season’s Copa del Rey final against a familiar foe in Marcelino and his Athletic Club side at the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville, the scene of the Athletics’ manager’s most recent cup final triumph over the Catalan side. 

The pair met in the Supercopa de España final back in January, with Athletic Club coming away from the tie as 3-2 winners after extra time. The defeat was a demoralising moment for Barça, as the Catalan side were just a minute away from victory until Asier Villalibre equalised.  

Going into the final, Barcelona find themselves in another disheartening moment of the season after coming up short to bitter rivals Real Madrid in a 2-1 defeat in El Clasico, a result that could prove crucial in this season’s title race

Barcelona were unable to cope with Madrid’s counter attacking display. (Photo via Imago)

The potential of the season collapsing looms over the Catalan side, with doubt creeping into some of the players’ minds, with Jordi Alba being the first to express it. 

Marcelino could not have asked for a better result to face Barcelona off the back of, as the Spaniard has a history of punishing dejected Barça sides. For Koeman’s men, the Clasico result must be swept aside because the manager in opposition dugout on Saturday provides a subtle reminder of what can happen if they fail to do so, the 18/19 season. 

Forgetting El Clasico 

“I don’t know, eh,” Jordi Alba’s words to Gerard Pique after Barcelona’s defeat to Real Madrid are simple, but those that know the place they are coming from know that they have the weight of fear and trauma behind them. 

The conversation between the pair started with Pique stating “Relax, we will win [the cup final]” with the fullback replying “I don’t know, eh.” Unable to hear the centre back responds with “What?” before Barça’s fullback states again, “I don’t know [if we will win it].” 

Alba is known to crumble in big games, under pressure. (Photo via Imago)

Alba’s doubt most likely casts back to the defeat in the Supercopa final, but in those words, “I don’t know” are the results of Anfield, the Valencia cup final, Bayern Munich and all the other setbacks the club have experienced in the last few seasons.

The 32-year-old knows the importance of El Clasico and the knock-on effect defeat can have in the weeks after, especially considering the importance of the latest chapter of the fixture. 

Ronald Koeman cannot allow this psychological doubt to creep back into his team after doing phenomenally well to banish it over the last four months. There are positives to take from the weekend’s events, and it is here where the Dutchman can start to reaffirm the confidence shown throughout the Blaugranas’ 19 games unbeaten run. 

Although the defeat was a setback in Barcelona’s pursuit of La Liga, focussing on the game itself, the difference between the sides was not that great. 

It was a classic tale of two halves, with Real dominating the first with their counter attacks and Barça the second with their high positioning and possession. Koeman should find solace in the second-half performance, as his team came within the width of the crossbar of rescuing a point despite the added battle of monsoon-like conditions. 

The match was somewhat ideal preparation for the final, as Athletic Club are also fantastic in transitions and are specifically very effective on both flanks of the pitch, areas of space that were exploited by Real. However, they are themselves in a sour spot, having already lost the Copa del Rey final 2020, against Real Sociedad, which was played no more than 2 weeks back.

Bilbao will be hoping to win at least one of the Copa del Reys. (Photo via Imago)

Koeman will need to address this throughout the week, and it would not be a surprise if the Dutchman opted for four at the back for the cup final.  

Another positive for Koeman is the timing of this cup final, as a result on each side of the coin could have an enormous effect on Barça’s season. Although defeat has the potential to ruin the Catalan sides season, there is no better way to bounce back from a defeat to Real Madrid than lifting a trophy, and it could be a springboard towards doing the double. 

The problem for Koeman with addressing the doubts of Alba and others is not only the uncertainty left by the Clasico but the final of the Supercopa de España as well. 

Expelling the Memories of the Supercopa Final

January seems a lifetime ago in terms of how Ronald Koeman’s team has developed over the months since. The formation has changed, Barcelona started winning big games, and a winning mentality has been firmly instilled in the squad. The Catalan club as a whole are moving in the right direction, and winning a trophy will somewhat symbolise this.   

The Copa del Rey final will be the fourth time this season Barca have faced Athletic Club, winning two out of the three previous meetings. 

Despite this, it is that single loss that has the potential to cause problems in the minds of the players on Saturday. The final of the Supercopa de España was the match that got away and reminded everyone in the squad of the embarrassing moments the club has experienced over the last three seasons. 

Barça were one minute away from securing their first trophy since lifting La Liga in May 2019 until Asier Villalibre equalised to take the final to extra time. Iñaki William put Athletic Club’s name on the trophy with a wonderful strike leaving Koeman’s men dejected. 

Inaki splashed water on Barcelona’s dreams. (Photo via Imago)

Jordi Alba’s doubts regarding this season’s Copa del Rey final most likely stems from this game, and if the full-back is thinking this way, there could be others as well. 

Going into the final, Koeman must focus on the two wins the Catalan side have had over Marcelino’s men. The last time the sides met, Barcelona won the match 2-1 at the Camp Nou and performed brilliantly with the scoreline flattering the Basque side. Barca exploited Athletic Club on the wings and created multiple chances to score goals, with the winner coming from an Oscar Mingueza cross down the right. 

Koeman can also turn to Athletic Club’s form for inspiration, with the Basque side winning only 4 of their last 14 matches. Within this run was a defeat in last years edition of the Copa del Rey final, in which Marcelino’s side lost to local rivals Real Sociedad 1-0.

At present, Barcelona are a much better side than Athletic Club. Form, head-to-head meetings, and the quality of players all fall in the favour of the Catalan side but having mentioned all this doubt, and how Koeman can address it, the fact is that there might still be some thanks to a recent encounter with the Basque side’s manager Marcelino. 

The Ghost of the 2019 Final

In the 18/19 season, a Lionel Messi inspired Barca side were charging towards an unexpected treble at the start of May. With the league already wrapped up, two fixtures stood out within the final month of the season, a trip to Liverpool and the Copa del Rey final.

The result away to Liverpool left Barcelona dejected. (Photo via Imago)

On the 7th of May, the infamous night at Anfield occurred, where Barcelona let a 3-0 lead from the first leg slip and failed to reach the Champions League final. The experience was confidence shattering and was not ideal with the cup final around the corner. 

The 2019 Copa del Rey final was contested between Barcelona, and a Marcelino led Valencia. The Southeastern outfit won the tie 2-1 thanks to two first-half goals from Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo. As a stand only fixture, there is nothing special about this tie. However, the significance of this final to current events lies in the weeks that lead up to the final. 

In the 17 days between Anfield and Andalucía, that one match would consistently nag away at the Barca players. Gerard Pique recently called that night the worst defeat of his career and previously stated that he believed that if they won that night, they would have claimed the Copa del Rey as well. 

Fast forward to now, and the similarities are present. Barça go into a cup final against a Marcelino led side after a disheartening defeat in an important El Clasico

Luckily for Ronald Koeman, things are much different. The Dutchman’s team is certainly a better one who have been in fantastic form of late, the defeat in El Clasico did not end Barca’s hopes of winning La Liga, and despite Jordi Alba’s doubts, the player’s confidence will not have taken the same level of a confidence hit the Anfield defeat brought.  

However, it is still a memory that remains and Marcelino will only remind them of that.

Ruining Barcelona’s party. (Photo via Imago)

The 2021 Copa del Rey final is nicely poised for fans of Spanish football. For Barca fans, it will ultimately show whether this team has overcome their psychological traumas of the past. The signs in the previous rounds seem to suggest that they have, but with Barcelona, you never know. 

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