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The Curious Case of Ronald Koeman and Substitutions

Lewis Shankie




Before the Getafe game, Ronald Koeman had given Culés some hope for the upcoming season, starting the season strongly with the new system flourishing. However, against Marea Azul, Barcelona played poorly, and some tactical decisions and substitutions need to be questioned.

The match at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez was always going to be a tough fixture for Barcelona. Getafe are a physical side and difficult to break down, something Barça have struggled against in recent seasons. Furthermore, most of the first team players had just come back from a busy international break. Therefore, the manager made a couple of changes to the starting eleven, which did not work with only Pedri having an impact on the game. Other players looked fatigued as they have hardly rested since the season began. Koeman will need to make better use of his squad if he hopes to win trophies this season.

The line-up against Getafe

There were two changes in the defence from the game against Sevilla. Clément Lenglet returned from suspension, and Sergiño Dest replaced the injured Jordi Alba at left-back. The double-pivot remained the same with Frenkie De Jong and Sergio Busquets retaining their spots. Once again, this midfield pairing struggled to control the game and had limited influence on helping the attack and yesterday, even the defence.

Ousmane Dembele returned to the starting XI after 325 days, but failed to make a reasonable impact. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images)

Several changes were made in the attacking line-up. Lionel Messi continued in a free role for the Catalan side. Ousmane Dembélé and Pedri found themselves starting with Ansu Fati and Philippe Coutinho given a much-needed rest. Antoine Griezmann was allowed to play centrally as a false-nine but failed to take this chance.

Pedri was the stand-out performer, creating the best opportunity for Barcelona to score in the match. On the other hand, Dembélé looked lively but was wasteful in possession and his runs did not amount to much. Messi did not have his usual say on the game and faded in the second half. The demanding fixture schedule must be tiring him out and it does not get any easier with the Champions League starting.

“Messi has been playing a very tight schedule for many years. I want my line-up to be the best possible in each game. Leo is a player who gets even more tired if he doesn’t play. He is a winner.”

Ronald koeman

The Substitutions

Ronald Koeman did not hesitate to make substitutions in the second half. Philippe Coutinho and Ansu Fati came on for a like-for-like swap for Ousmane Dembélé and Pedri. The formation stayed the same, and the decision to take the Frenchman off was unquestionable.

However, with Barcelona still behind in the 80th minute, Griezmann was replaced by Francisco Trincão and De Jong was swapped for Martin Braithwaite. It was a strange time to give Braithwaite his first appearance of the season and the Dane could only do so much in that situation.

Trincao has the potential to be a future great, but needs better chances – both in terms of quality and quantity. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

Busquets ended up as the only midfielder while Barça overcrowded the final third of the pitch with five attackers. Gerard Piqué was pushed up into a striker role too. It looked like a panic move, and at that moment, Koeman let go of all tactics.

The last of the five substitutions by Koeman was another mystery. Riqui Puig was brought on for Sergi Roberto who was playing at right-back. Puig obviously assumed the midfield role, but this left Barcelona’s defence in disarray. A huge gap was exposed behind the backline, and Cucho Hernandez had several opportunities to finish Barça off. With Piqué pushing forward, Clément Lenglet and Sergiño Dest were the only defenders back, with Busquets sometimes joining them. In Riqui’s short cameo, he was isolated in midfield while Messi and Coutinho were crowded out sharing the attacking midfielder role.

How can Koeman fix this?

The issue of substitutions and team selection seems to have carried on to Ronald Koeman from managers in the past, especially Ernesto Valverde in his last season and Quique Setien. Both failed to use their bench enough, subsequently resulting in burnout for the core players. The team was then left shattered during the important matches in the Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey at the end of the season.

With Koeman, he does seem confident in making use of his bench, but he could be criticised for overusing some players already. The Dutchman has one of the best Barcelona squads in recent years so he must utilise it. This could mean that his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation might not always be the best. The manager needs to be flexible to get the best out of the team.

It is difficult to watch as another coach overlooks talents like Riqui Puig and Carles Aleña. The former did not feature at all in the first three games and was given five minutes in a hapless situation against Getafe, while the latter is yet to make an appearance. Players like Puig are the future of Barcelona and based on merit, should be one of the first names on the team sheet every week. Koeman must use this excellent squad to the best of its heights through rotations and substitutions, if he wants to survive the length of this season and beyond.

“Barça’s future relies on young players who are growing like Ansu, Riqui, Aleñá, Pedri, etc. They are very important to the future of this club.”

ronald koeman


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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  1. Avatar

    dan burcea

    18/10/2020 at 19:55

    “This could mean that his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation might not always be the best. The manager needs to be flexible to get the best out of the team.”
    You have already said everything in this phrase!


Barcelona vs Real Madrid: The Game through Numbers

Soumyajit Bose




A detailed look into the game by numbers, statistics, and tactics as FC Barcelona fell to defeat against Real Madrid in the first El Clasico of the season.

Following a high-flying victory against Ferencvaros in the opening game of the Champions League, FC Barcelona returned to action in La Liga against Real Madrid at Camp Nou. However, the game didn’t go as Ronald Koeman planned, and Barcelona stumbled to defeat in the first El Clasico of 2020-21. This followed a draw against Sevilla and a shock loss to Getafe and left Barcelona midtable 5 games into the season.

Team Structures

Ronald Koeman sprung in several surprises ahead of this fixture. Firstly, Jordi Alba returned from injury to play as left-back, while Sergi Roberto was omitted altogether for Sergiño Dest. Philippe Coutinho played as left-wing. 17-year old Pedri got to start the Classico as a reward for his performances but was fielded on the right-wing. Lionel Messi played as the no. 10 behind Ansu Fati as the striker.

Off the ball, Barcelona defended in a 4-4-2 with Messi and Fati staying and pressing up. From touch-based heatmaps, there are two interesting features.

Firstly, while Frenkie de Jong played in a relatively advanced role, he stayed quite wide. Sergio Busquets occupied the central channels. However, tasking his old legs to guard such a big zone resulted in recurring issues.

Secondly, Pedri is not a natural winger. He loves to play centrally. Having three natural CAMs in Pedri, Coutinho and Messi on-field and forcing two of them to play as wingers was never a good idea, to begin with. Pedri kept drifting inside, as shown in the heatmaps. Both Coutinho and Pedri were limited in their influence. Koeman’s overthinking and tinkering nullified both their strengths.

Real Madrid on the other hand set up in a skewed 4-3-3 as shown. Early injury to Nacho resulted in Lucas Vazquez coming on as the right back for the remainder of the game. Vinicius stayed high and wide, while Marco Asensio drifted in and out, often letting Federico Valverde occupy the wider channels.

Barcelona’s structure after the 81st minute deserves a special mention. Koeman made several offensive subs, bringing on Antoine Greizmann, Ousmane Dembele, Martin Braithwaite and Fransisco Trincáo into the game, in place of Pedri, Fati, Busquets and Alba. To top it all off, Coutinho was slotted as the only pivot in the side, instead of de Jong as the shape devolved into a bizarre 3-1-6.

Attacks and Buildups

This game had a clear moment after which the game changed – minute 62. Until then, Barcelona were evidently the better team starting to dominate a bit as well. Here are the stats from the entire game:

Barcelona were outshot, outscored, and had fewer shots on target – but a lot of that’s skewed from what happened minute 62 onwards. From the PPDA (Passes per Defensive Action) data, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, it’s evident that neither team went for a very high press. Here is the shot map and xG flow:

Minute 62 was when Clement Lenglet fouled by pulling Sergio Ramos’ shirt inside the penalty area while defending a corner. Ramos didn’t need a second invitation to exaggerate the pull. He fell theatrically to the ground, won a penalty, and Barcelona were chasing the game that moment onwards.

The first blood was drawn by Madrid after a moment of disastrous marking by Busquets allowed Federico Valverde to run into Barcelona’s box, unmarked, and smash home from Karim Benzema’s pass.

Thankfully, Barcelona did not take long to reply. A delightful ball over the top from Lionel Messi met Jordi Alba’s well-timed run, and Alba’s square pass was prodded home by Ansu Fati. Here is a little animation of the goal:

As mentioned earlier, Madrid’s second goal came from a penalty, scored by Ramos himself. And Luka Modric capitalized on some terrible defending to make it 3-1 in the 91st minute.


Neither team were truly impressive in passing. Here are the most dangerous passes by both teams:

Passes into the box were few by either team. Barcelona did manage to get into the box from central zone 14 or half-spaces, while Madrid clearly utilised their greatest strength – attacking from wide areas. It’s also shown in the key passes map:

However, in buildup, Madrid were far more expansive. They switched the play a lot as compared to Barcelona.

Comparing the passes completed in the final third by each team, quantified by field tilt – Barcelona completed a greater number of final-third passes. However, the field tilt, or final third territory gained, was being dominated by Madrid in the first half. Barcelona started the second half positively and dominated territory. However, they got scored against the run of play. After that, Madrid were happy to let Barcelona keep possession and attacked the team on the counter.

Defence and Pressing

Both teams exhibited some terrible defending in the first half, to say the very least. Both goals were conceded from such cases.

As mentioned before, there were huge gaps in the midfield, and too much space between the midfield and defence; i.e. poor covering by Busquets and de Jong. Madrid made the best use of this for their first goal, and repeated it several times as the clock ticked ahead.

In the first image, it is evident that too many Barcelona players got sucked in trying to press the Madrid defence, resulting in a huge void in the midfield. Madrid play out of the press with ridiculous ease.

In the second image, the gap between Dest and Pique is appalling. Both centre-backs are engulfed towards Benzema for some reason, and Busquets completely loses track of Valverde’s run. One simple through ball and the job is done.

Almost immediately after that, Vinicius almost scored a second. Quick combination with Benzema in the box, while Busquets is seen jogging outside the box, there is a huge space to attack. Thankfully, Vinicius’ poor decision making and first touch allow Alba to throw him off.

The next example, again in the first half, shows terrible spacing between defenders, and terrible tracking from Busquets. A simple ball behind Dest, who is in isolation with the rest of the backline meets a well-timed run that Busquets can’t keep up with.

The next two examples are from the second half:

In the first one, the “pivot” Coutinho loses track of Toni Kroos’ run. Kroos runs onto Vazquez’s cutback to take a shot that Neto saves marvellously, and denies the German again pouncing perfectly on the rebounded shot.

The second image shows the moment when Vazquez lobs a ball into Ramos’ path, who is completely unmarked on the far post. Thankfully, Neto comes to Barça’s rescue saving the Madrid’s captain volley with his foot.

Madrid didn’t cover themselves in glory either, especially in the first half. Barcelona’s only goal of the game came as a result of terrible tracking from Nacho as Alba found space behind him. There were giveaways in midfield that led to multiple chances as well.

Most notably, Fati’s lofted ball into the path of an unmarked Messi, who eviscerated Ramos with a quick dribble but shot straight into the hands of Thibaut Courtois at the near post. However, they weren’t as often as Barcelona’s, and in general, resulted in lower quality chances.

As mentioned before, neither team went all out to the press. Barcelona’s pressing structure was so poor that Madrid played through it without trouble. They could even manage elaborate buildups, with two examples shown below:


Shambolic would be the right word to define Barcelona’s defending in the game. The lack of speed and the alertness to track runners was exposed yet again. The card-happy centre-backs came to haunt Barcelona again, as Lenglet gave away a poor penalty.

Busquets, on the other hand, looks far from being a starter and should be replaced as soon as possible. And if he somehow manages to retain his spot in the lineup, the midfield structure needs to be fixed so that he doesn’t get tasked with defending such a wide area.

The substitutions and Koeman’s game management made little to no sense. As seen in the Getafe game, in more cases than not, more forwards does not equate to more goals. The midfield was non-existent in the last 10 minutes, and Los Blancos made the best use of this as they scored the third where Luka Modric made the Barcelona defence dance.


The game was pretty even for nearly one hour, with neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid standing out as the better team. Post that, however, the scoreline spoke for itself.

Sergiño Dest made a solid claim for starting as right back in the coming games. He was outstanding in defence and quite courageous and innovative in the offence, with some neat dribbles. Fati kept his goalscoring form alive, becoming the youngest ever scorer in an El Clasico. Neto ended the game as arguably the best player on the pitch, but that is more bad news than good for the Garnet and the Blue.

However, there are defensive, structural, tactical, and personnel problems to be ironed out by Koeman in the future, especially if he wants to retain his job after a change of presidency. Otherwise, this could turn out to be a worse season the previous one for La Liga.

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