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Analysis

Ronald Koeman’s first month compared to Barcelona managers of the recent past

Jan-Michael Marshall

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Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Managing FC Barcelona is unlike any other job in the world. Between the towering expectations, ruthless media, and passionate fanbase, there is no room for error. Each manager brings with them a unique set of questions and expectations that they must answer as quickly and assuredly as possible. 

Ronald Koeman — who came in with questions about tactics, integrating new players, and how he would bring stability to a disarrayed team — is a little over 2 months into his reign, and one month since his first game, but has already begun to offer answers.

Barça Universal attempts to look back at how well each of the last five Blaugrana managers — including Koeman himself — have met the problems and expectations asked of them during their first few months in charge. 

Gerardo “Tata” Martino (2013-14)

Tata Martino’s appointment came at a tumultuous time for the club. Whilst Barcelona achieved domestic success the prior season – winning the league with a record amount of points – they suffered a humiliating 7-0 defeat (across two legs) to Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi finals.

Unfortunately, head coach Tito Villanova announced in June that he would step aside from his role due to a bout with cancer. On the pitch, it seemed like the end of Tiki-Taka, and off of it, the void left by Villanova was impossible to fill. 

Tata was a relatively unknown hire at the time, heralded for his successful spell at Newell’s Old Boys and impressive quarterfinal run with Paraguay in the 2010 World Cup. He was hailed as a discipline of Marcelo Bielsa, and his style focused on pragmatic solutions.

Tata was known for his extremely pragmatic Paraguayan side. (Photo by MAURICIO DUENAS/AFP via Getty Images)

His Paraguay side was ultra-defensive, but Old Boys were more expansive and attacking. Naturally, there were questions about what style he would implement and whether he was fit for the role. Above all, results weren’t the only criteria; Barcelona fans wanted to look at the way they were achieved.

His reign got off to a hot start. Barça won their opening match 7–0 and then the Spanish Supercup the following week. They ended up winning their first seven La Liga matches. Although the results were more than encouraging, there were still concerns about the new tactical approach.  

During his first few months, Martino introduced more variation to the system. They were counter-attacking more than usual and would even rely on the long-balls. For many, this was unacceptable. They weren’t satisfied with just winning, but rather sticking true to the Barça-identity. Players supported him, however, including Messi.

“The more variations we have, the better. There will be days when it’s better to have the ball and move it around the park, and others when it will be better to park the bus and play for the counter-attack.”

Lionel Messi

Nonetheless, things didn’t change. On September 21st, Barcelona beat Rayo Vallecano 4–0, but all anyone cared about was that it was the first time since 2008 that Barca had less possession than their opponents. They finished the match with only 49%. It also ended a streak of 316 consecutive games of out-possessing their opponents.

“If Barça had played their own style but not won the title, it wouldn’t have been a failure. But we didn’t win and we didn’t play well either.” 

Tata Martino summing up his time at the club

Expectations were monstrous as Martino was required to not only get results but play well in the process. In his first few months, it was clear that he could not meet these expectations. 

It never looked like it would last. (Photo by Miquel Benitez/Getty Images

Eventually, the Catalan Giants were eliminated by Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarter finals and lost the league to the same team on the final matchday. They also lost in the final of the Copa del Rey against Real Madrid.

Martino left the club when the season ended and is a case study of how for Barcelona, winning is not, or at least was not everything. However, it would be fair to say that his dismissal was a direct consequence of the trophyless season the club endured.

Luis Enrique (2014-2017)

Luis Enrique is remembered as one of Barcelona’s most successful coaches, but it certainly didn’t look that way from the start. While his first few months were fairly successful with results, off the pitch issues dominated the headlines. 

The summer of 2014 brought a lot of changes to the club. Amongst new signings Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, captain Carles Puyol retired, and veteran goalie Victor Valdes left the club.

Enrique was a welcomed hire having been a rather iconic former player and coach of Barca B. There was hope that he would revive Barça after a disappointing season. 

They did get off to another good start, conceding zero goals in their first seven games, setting a La Liga record. The revamped squad looked encouraging.

Lucho used different lineups almost every game, rotating key players to give them necessary rest. To add, his “vertical tiki-taka” was a lot closer to old Barca than what Tata offered. It seemed that expectations and questions were well met. 

This is how Lucho’s first year ended. An icon. (Photo by QUIQUE GARCIA/AFP via Getty Images)

The tide turned in October when Barca went on to lose three out of six games. The first was against PSG in the Champions League. They then lost 3–1 in the El Clasico when Suarez made his club debut, looking unconvincing in the process.

These results had Luis Enrique facing new questions of whether Barca could beat bigger teams. Six days later, Barca lost 1–0 to Celta Vigo, a match in which Enrique continued his rotation policy, resting key players like Gerard Pique and Xavi. These back-to-back losses spelt distress for the club. To make matters worse, there was locker room strife and drama that would continue escalating until January. 

All hope was lost but eventually, all the pieces fell into place and Barca went on to have one of their most successful seasons ever. Enrique’s reign ended after a lacklustre 2016-17 season, but his initial slip-ups are minuscule compared to his success. 

Ernesto Valverde (2017-2020)

Ernesto Valverde’s hire was surprising, to say the least. Though he had a successful stint with Athletic Bilbao, his tactics and lack of Champions League experience did not fit the Barca mould. To make things tougher, he inherited a notably weak squad and also had to ensure the team stayed afloat after Neymar’s departure to PSG. 

The first of the nails came when Barça started the season with a 5–1 defeat across two legs to Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercup, in what was Valverde’s first official match as manager of the club.

“This is a long process and there is room for improvement, but in the nine years that I have been here, it is the first time that I feel inferior to Madrid.” 

Gerard Pique after the defeat in the Spanish Supercup

Nonetheless, they picked themselves up and dusted the defeat off. By the end of October, the Spanish manager amassed ten wins and one draw in their next eleven matches.

From his first few months, it was clear he brought a new identity to the squad. Barca played more pragmatic than ever, taking into account an ageing core, and so often utilized a 4–4–2 formation for defensive stability. Furthermore, gone was the dressing room drama and bouts with the press that Enrique was notorious for. 

Valverde’s tenure was defined by pragmatic football, European mega-defeats, and an impressing crouch on the sidelines. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Valverde didn’t initially have to face the monumental expectations of Tata Martino and Luis Enrique, but many supporters were still disappointed with his tactical decision making. Questions about his fit for a team of Barça’s stature were at first relaxed, but big losses on the European stage would eventually stain his Barcelona career. 

Quique Setién (January 2020-August 2020)

Ronald Koeman’s predecessor came in at yet another rough juncture for the club. Valverde was fired halfway through the season, and Barca scrambled for a new head coach. The board’s first choices of Xavi, Ronald Koeman, and Mauricio Pochettino all rejected their offer, so Barça opted for former Real Betis manager Quique Setién. 

He was an unknown hire, his most notable result being a win with Betis at the Camp Nou the year before. After a disappointing two seasons with Valverde, Culés’ expectations weren’t high, but heads turned after Setién’s first conference. 

He made headlines in his first press conference when he proclaimed his admiration for Johann Cruyff and promised to bring back Barca’s style which was lacking for previous seasons. He also promised an emphasis on youth which was welcomed by all. 

After his first match in charge, things looked great — the Catalans played well against Granada. With the team making over 1,000 passes, they operated with an expansive brand of football, and all looked splendid. To add, he brought on youth starlet Riqui Puig for his debut, who was integral in setting up the winning goal in the said fixture.

It seemed like Setién could answer all questions and expectations after his first match, but unfortunately, things went downhill from there. In his first few months, it became evident that Setién would not make the necessary decisions with the squad. There was not enough emphasis on youth over worn-out players and not enough rotation, to name a few. To make matters worse, he was not respected in the locker room

From grazing cows on the field to grazing his legacy with Barcelona; Setien’s tenure was a horror show. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

After his first match, Setién built great expectations for a deprived team, and his illustration is a clear one on careful expectations. 

Closing Thoughts and Comparison

Ronald Koeman’s reign has been hard to define. He is coming off yet another week with mixed results, including a 3-1 loss to Real Madrid and a 2-0 victory against Juventus.

Heading into November, Barca have four wins, one draw, and two losses, and sit 12th in the La Liga table. His tactics have been more or less welcomed by the Camp Nou faithful, though, as they know a change in formation will help bring the best out of their players.

That said, the main drawbacks include problems with game management, especially in crunch-time. In his wins, the crew look fresh and lively, but in his losses, problems of past teams – lack of effort and intensity – creep back in.

In terms of pure results, Tata Martino edges him out; but Koeman hasn’t had to deal with a fanbase with sky-high expectations or one that will harp on him for diverging from the Barça style. He also exactly hasn’t inherited a world-beating squad, but it sure has depth.

Both Koeman and Luis Enrique lost their first Clasicos and have tried to implement squad rotation, although not always to great effect. Also, both managers had to play through institutional crises, albeit at different times in their stints.

One could argue that Lucho’s losses were more attributed to off the field problems, more specifically pertaining to the dressing room, whereas Koeman’s have a lot more to do with overall team makeup.

Ernesto Valverde got off to a great start, but his style eventually wore down the club and supporters alike. Koeman’s style is similarly pragmatic with the 4–2–3–1 shape, however, it’s been somewhat accepted by supporters – probably due to manageable expectations of the squad he’s dealing with. 

Compared to those before him, Quique Setién clearly had a rougher start in terms of results and could never get the squad on the same page. In his defence, he arrived in January and had to deal with a worldwide pandemic.

Koeman is dealing with a similar squad as Setién, but he hasn’t had great results yet either. Although, the Dutchman hasn’t made promises he can’t keep. So far, he’s succeeded in integrating more youth players, something he promised when he was hired. 

In all, it’s clear that the former Everton manager is dealing with things not all past managers have: a change in administration midway into the season, the Coronavirus inspired schedule, a disjointed squad, and a fanbase with much lower expectations.

Koeman has not yet managed as many games as the sample sizes explored in this piece, so it’s hard to compare them on fair terms, but it’s clear that he’s already answered some of the questions asked of him. He has solidly implemented a new style, given the youth more chances, and injected a bit more life into the team.

This is just the start – how far will Koeman go from here? (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

On the contrary, Koeman’s job is made easier by Barca’s past shortcomings, as expectations are lower than ever. Audacious wins and bitter losses have defined his start, but hopefully, the team can find their footing under him. In the end, that’s all we can ask for. 

Throughout my life of constant change, one thing has never faltered: my love for FC Barcelona. Whether through watching every game, listening to pundits, or playing FIFA and Football Manager, I've always wanted an outlet to express my passion for the team. Barça Universal gives me the perfect opportunity to do so, as I can combine my love of writing with my love of Barça and the sport.

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Analysis

Detailed Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

In collaboration with Anurag Agate.


Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.


A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.

Barcelona structure and formation

Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.

Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.

Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.

Atletico structure and formation

Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.

Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.

The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.

Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.

Game Stats

The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:

Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :

Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.

Buildup to shots and goals

Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.

Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.

Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.

Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.

In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:

Passing Characteristics

Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.

Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.

For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.

Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.

Defence

The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:

Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :

Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.

Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.

Conclusion

The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.

Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.

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