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Analysis

Sergi Roberto: Justifying the selection

How did Sergi Roberto perform against Villarreal and why should he play more in this new role in midfield?

Suhas Achanta

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Header Image by Imago

Barcelona got back to winning ways in a 1–4 thumping of in-form Villarreal. There were many positives to take from the game. But the one person who deserved massive praise for standing out in midfield was Sergi Roberto.


On Sunday, in the visit from Barcelona to Villarreal, when the line-ups for the fixture were announced, culés were left in a confused state. The inclusion of Sergi Roberto in midfield made absolutely no sense to them when youngster Riqui Puig was doing impressively well. However, what followed was 90 minutes of absolutely firm and resolute performance from the Spaniard. It was Sergi’s first start since he suffered a fractured rib against Leganés.

For a long time, the 28-year-old has been lauded for his versatility. Be it right-back or central midfield, Sergi Roberto always puts a shift in that position. Nonetheless, in the fans’ opinions, he is a jack of all trades but a master of none. As Puig has been doing fabulously well since Quique Setién has given him an opportunity, starting Sergi Roberto in midfield ahead of him didn’t go well with the supporters. Notably, while playing a team that’s doing very well, one would expect Setién to go with players who are in form.

Notwithstanding, Villarreal proved to be a less challenging task than expected. The Yellow Submarine is chasing a berth in next year’s Champions League. And so, they were tipped to turn up against the Catalans. But Setién’s men were ready for the match. From the very first whistle, they were in complete control. One of the players who received massive praise for pitching in an excellent and professional display was Roberto.

Sergi Roberto’s role in the game

As we all know, Quique Setién was put under the microscope for his handling of Antoine Griezmann against Atlético de Madrid. To incorporate the Frenchman, the manager went with a 4–4–2 diamond. Sergi was responsible for providing an equalling number at the centre of the pitch. Villarreal went with a 4–4–2 that had a double pivot of two sturdy defensive midfielders. Thus, Sergi Roberto was deployed on the sides of Barça’s diamond midfield to provide stability and control and generate numerical superiorities.

Sergi Roberto midfield Barcelona Villarreal

Sergi Roberto excelled both in midfield and at right-back, where he would have recorded an assist to Lionel Messi had it not been for a previous offside position from Arturo Vidal | Photo by José Jordán / AFP via Getty Images

As expected, he didn’t have the most glittering performances. Instead, he did what he was told to do. With a pass accuracy of 97.7% and a total of 95 touches, Roberto had a calm and controlled impact on the pitch. He carried the ball for a total of 311 yards and was one of the most progressive players on the pitch. Furthermore, in the entirety of the match, he was dispossessed only once.

Defensively, he was more involved in pressing down the middle. The Catalans gave no time for the hosts to build with the ball. Sergi Roberto was crucial in ensuring that Villarreal’s midfield wasn’t given enough space to work its way upwards with the ball. Instead of tracking back and making tackles, the attacking threat was halted at the centre of the pitch.

There’s no way that the diamond would have worked without a player doing the tireless legwork. Even Quique Setién was appreciative of the shift the La Masía graduate put in.

“He was spectacular. He came with positive and renewed energy after that injury. I’ve told him that he has to be versatile. He does it well. He always does it to perfection”

Quique Setién
on Sergi Roberto’s performance versus Villarreal

The fans, the coach, and even Roberto were pleased with the role he was given and the subsequent exhibition. The outing against Villarreal was one of the most satisfactory displays that Barcelona have showed collectively since the restart. Since the dominant performance against RCD Mallorca, this was the first away game where there was control from the start till the end.

Conclusion

The likelihood of Quique continuing with this tactical approach is high. The incorporation of Antoine Griezmann was helped with the settling in of Sergi into the role he was given. The 61-year-old tactician seems to finally be finding the correct combination for his starting XI.

“Tactically, it has been a while since I played there. Sometimes I play central midfield but on the right, and today I was on the left side, where I am most comfortable. It’s where I played for Barça B.

I enjoyed it, I had a lot of fun, with space and focused on the opposition’s defence. It’s a shame I had to go back to right-back [late on] but I am happy to help the team playing wherever”

Sergi Roberto
on his new role

It will be interesting to see if the same approach is applied for the upcoming games. With the blaugranas hosting rock bottom RCD Espanyol on Wednesday, a dominant performance is mandatory. With Sergi Roberto bringing a more calming presence to the midfield, there is no reason why Setién should alter his role. The versatility of Sergi is something that should be appreciated a lot more than it is.

Be it right-back, or central midfield, Sergi Roberto always gives his 100%, shifting from both positions with ease. He might not be the most technically astute player, but he understands the Barcelona way to the fullest. It will be interesting to see what the formation and tactics are when Frenkie de Jong returns from injury. To incorporate Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann, only a diamond-shaped 4–4–2 seems to be the likely solution. But the midfield at the heart of the pitch is critical, and Sergi Roberto appears to have found his best role under Setién.


See more

Editors’ Takes: Debating on the Villarreal 1–4 Barcelona

• Why Xavi Hernández shouldn’t take up the coaching job at Barça yet

• Antoine Griezmann is smiling again in Barcelona

• Lionel Messi: Fed up with Barcelona or with the board?

I started writing so that I could bridge the gap and pass time on days when there were no matches. But little did I know that writing about the beautiful game would amp up my love for it. I've always wanted to learn more, and share whatever insights I have on the game, to anyone, anywhere. The world stops for 90 minutes when your team plays, and that for me is very much true.

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.

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