Change is the only constant they say. While constancy and consistency are undoubtedly desirable, their extremity — stubbornness often takes things too far.
Ronald Koeman arrived at the Camp Nou with a plan. A well laid out set of ideas that he wanted to implement, at any cost. It was a structure so clear in his mind that he knew exactly which players he wanted out and executed it in no time. Unquestionably, it was a refreshing sight to see a plan in place with a clear target.
Under the umbrella of his plan, the Dutchman had two deeply rooted ideas. First, he was keen on revamping Barcelona’s traditional 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 with the idea to ramp up the attack with renewed width.
The other cornerstone of his ideology was around a player he had already had massive success with- Frenkie de Jong. Koeman was convinced by the idea of playing de Jong in the double pivot. It was understandable, considering the massive success that the Dutch protege has seen for his international side at that position.
Strong theory, poor implementation
Though Koeman’s ideas seemed understandable, there was a basic flaw. Barcelona had played a plethora of formations in the past, including a 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 3-5-2 amongst others. Yet, they all functioned on a basic principle — a solid midfield that dictated the game.
The newly imposed 4-2-3-1 brought in a new philosophy. The midfield was suddenly desolate, forcing Lionel Messi to play deeper than ever. The side did not have wingers of the profile demanded by the new formation. This clumped the attackers into congested central areas. The players pushed to foreign roles were all of a sudden clueless. While Barcelona did pick up the occasional big win, there seemed to be no consistency in performance.
While all this was very evident from the performance on the field, the manager was reluctant to accept it. Every press conference had a statement showing intent to continue the same. Despite all the pressure, Koeman stood stuck, embracing an ideology that did not work.
His reluctance to accept his mistakes was beginning to choke the side. The formation designed to potentiate the attack ended up sucking out its life. With no department able to execute its function efficiently, the team slumped from low to low.
4-3-3 and Barcelona — a relationship like no other
After two games with a three-man backline, Barcelona’s manager decided to go back to the 4-3-3 formation. The formation that the Catalan club has been historically associated with, and has had enormous success in.
It was against Levante that Koeman flaunted his new weapon for the first time, to little impact, though. It was against Huesca, though, when the team looked drilled to perfection in their roles.
Frenkie de Jong was given the liberty to play much higher than the previous formation demanded him to has helped bring the best out of him. Pedri, who already shone, started to shine brighter. Lionel Messi, all of a sudden, returned to his stellar best. The midfield once again seemed in control, defence a lot more sorted out. Moreover, with two midfielders ready to make runs into the box, Barcelona seemed to break down defences with ease.
The 4-2-3-1 may not be a flawed ideology. It is still one of the fastest-growing line-ups in world football, with teams like Bayern Munich and Manchester United using their own variants of the same. Nevertheless, the 4-2-3-1 was not something that suited Barça. A side with players who have played their entire careers in a 4-3-3 would always find it difficult to make a sudden switch. A factor Koeman failed to consider while designing his setup.
The Barcelona manager has truly come a long way. From the narrow-minded closed shell of his stubbornness, he has slowly but steadily understood the importance of flexibility.
As he had stated at the start of his tenure, he initially focussed on playing star players in their best position. However, he has now learnt to prioritize the overall chemistry over an individual’s comfort. It has enabled players like Busquets and Leo to once again play in the positions they call home. And no doubt, this has boosted the team to a new set of highs.
With Koeman’s managerial experience and understanding of the squad growing on a daily basis, positive signs have started to come out. The shift might have been slow, but as they say: better late than never. Barcelona have now picked up nine points from dominating away performances, and this has to be the highest point of the season. Maybe the season cannot be written off after all!
Can the ban to Messi turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Barcelona?
Though the ban to Lionel Messi does seem terrifying news, a deeper thought suggests that it could be a blessing in disguise for Barcelona, opening up several avenues for Ronald Koeman to experiment.
Lionel Messi has made a name for breaking records for fun. Be it goals or assists or dribbles, he has the accolades decorating the walls of his quiet haven in Barcelona. On Sunday the Argentine found himself breaking yet another record, however, not one he would have relished too much.
The six-time Ballon d’Or award winner was sent off for the very first time in Barcelona’s famous Garnet and Blue. An unarguable offence involving a violent swing of the arm at Asier Villalibre was the incident that saw him earn the same. Consequently, a ban awarded will see Messi missing action in the upcoming two fixtures – namely against UE Cornella and Elche.
Though it does seem terrifying news, to begin with, a deeper thought suggests that it could indeed be a blessing in disguise for Ronald Koeman’s side. Temporarily so, though. Moreover, it could benefit both parties involved: the player and the team.
Sparing a scenario where he participates in Barcelona’s second-round fixture in the Copa del Rey, Leo will return to action once again against the side he received his marching orders against. The speculated return date is the 31st of January against Athletic Bilbao.
Having just come back from a muscle injury he picked up against Granada, the Argentine was far from his best in the Super Cup final. A red card was a miserable end to a painful night for him. It was evident that he was not ready to play. He pulled on through the night, almost till the very end before his patience caved in.
A fit and ready Lionel Messi is one of the key cogs in Barcelona’s engine. Rushing the captain back from injury would not be wise either for the team or the player. Messi, at 33, needs to be managed efficiently yet cautiously. This includes embracing the fact that regaining rhythm after injuries will require a longer window. Bearing that in mind, a forced two-game hiatus could be exactly what he requires to return raging.
However, the absence of the La Liga top scorer will put more burden on the shoulders of €100 million club players Antoine Greizmann and Ousmane Dembele. The French duo can see this as the perfect opportunity to step up. It is the perfect chance to prove why exactly they do have a bright future at the club. The talisman’s absence provides Griezmann with exactly the position he considers his own, and enable him to take up the baton of scoring. It will be the ideal stage for him to dictate the play between the lines and orchestrate the proceedings.
Meanwhile, for a certain Dembele, it almost guarantees successive starts. The youngster is just beginning to find his rhythm at Catalonia, and he will be looking forward to making up for the absence of his captain.
The games Leo is set to miss are relatively low-pressure on paper. This could now tempt Koeman to push in youngsters and experiment with the forward line. The Copa del Rey fixture against Cornella could well see young Alex Collado and Konrad get deserved minutes.
While Collado has constantly been superb for the B team, Konrad has been patient on the bench for many games. The La Masia graduates deserve a chance in the top flight, and Messi’s suspension could give them a chance. Either way, both have made it to the squad list for the Kings’ Cup fixture.
Similarly, the opening up of a spot on the right-wing, an infrequent occurrence, could see chances given to Fransisco Trincao. The youngster has hardly got a sniff of a start so far, and the opening up of a spot in his natural position could be what it takes for him to earn a start.
Moreover, there is a certain aspect of this on the team as a whole. Coming back after a defeat poses its own range of challenges. Nonetheless, bouncing back after a defeat in the final of an event requires suturing of a much deeper and painful wound. Having Leo on the side is always a reassurance to his teammates on the field. However, his absence following a major defeat will be a real test of the sides resilience.
An individual effort will not suffice in the coming games. With the captain on the sidelines and the hounds of the traumatizing defeat set loose on them, the players will have to be on their toes. It will be a test for the coach, and one that examines the drive in the players. What could that be in the eyes of a true fan, if not a blessing in disguise.
The team is in dire need for motivation, and for a sense of confidence. Victories in two games without their talisman can provide the biggest boost in morale for all the players alike. As for his return, Messi will be looking to come back with a bang against Bilbao next week once his ban calls curtains
It is no secret that the club-captain’s presence would lift the spirits and confidence of all personnel involved. However, the ban to Messi benefits multiple parties in the given situation, himself included. It also provides the chance for the likes of other players to step up and take responsibility on the pitch when, namely the likes of Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, among others. Alternatively, an empty spot in the team might force Ronald Koeman’s hand to give minutes to Konrad de la Fuente, Fransisco Trincao, and even Alex Collado. Will the side be able to cross the line? One really hopes so.