Ronald Koeman will have to find the perfect pieces in the attack for Barcelona as they face an unbeaten Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano this weekend.
Matches against Atletico Madrid are never ordinary games for any team visiting or hosting them. No less when it is Barcelona, who have had their fair share of iconic moments against them. The Blaugrana will travel to Madrid to take on Diego Simeone’s men for the first time this season, hoping to build on their pre-international break victory against Real Betis. The hosts are one of the only six teams across the top five leagues that are have registered no losses so far. It is far from surprising, however.
The capital outfit often start the season in blistering form but soon start falling down the ladder as the campaign wears on. More often than now this is a result of the lack of the number of chances they create more than defensive intricacies.
Led by Luis Suarez and a Joao Felix finding his footing in the La Liga, Atletico have not shown signs of stopping this season, though. Even though El Pistolero will miss the outing against Barça, they seem to have found the perfect balance on both ends of the pitch for the first time since 2013/14 when David Villa and Diego Costa starred for Los Rojiblancos. And Culés of everyone, do not need reminding how that season ended for them.
There seems to be little stopping the sensationally talented Joao Felix this season. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)
By this point in the season, it is clear that Barcelona, as rapid and creative as they are in attack, show a less than adequate level of defending. Covering the gaping holes at the back will take time, and the results will become clear over the course of the season.
Right now, what Ronald Koeman can control, however, is selecting the perfect attacking quadrant for the game as his team attempts to outscore them. There is little to no chance that the Dutchman will stray away from his 4-2-3-1, which has been used in every single game this season.
Obviously, the ideal Barcelona attack would constitute of Ansu Fati. The Spaniard suffered a torn internal meniscus against Betis and is out for four months at the bare minimum. The rest of the attackers, while fit, will face the selection wrath of Koeman.
Barça Universal runs the rule over Koeman’s squad, taking a look at the possible options for the manager in each position in order to see which front-four could work – in theory.
The central duo
Koeman has constantly been rotating his options across the attack, either to cater to the needs of what is going to be an exhausting season or in an endeavour to seek his best lineup. One of the major areas of the experiment is the attacking midfield where has used Lionel Messi, Philippe Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann, Pedri, and even Frenkie de Jong in the dying minutes against Deportivo Alaves.
When the season started, Coutinho was his go-to option for this role, but an injury to the Brazilian after the El Clasico forced Koeman into making some fundamental changes. This included shifting Antoine Griezmann in the centre along with Lionel Messi.
Neither of the two players are natural strikers, but have a history as prominent goalscorers. This stems from their immaculate reading of the game and the ability to read each other’s movements. In practice, it works better than having one of Pedri/Coutinho in the AM role with one of Messi and Griezmann uptop, as the former pair is unable to switch positions with one of the latter, often leaving the team with two deep lying forwards in one attack and nobody to play off of.
The Messi-Griezmann connection is the most important one in the Barcelona attack. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)
Moreover, it looks evident that the World Cup winner looks more lively when playing with his captain. Maybe it helps him take some pressure off his back, or maybe the involvement of another experienced player near him aids his attacking prowess.
All said and done; even though Coutinho is back from injury, it would be best if Koeman sticks to the pairing of Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann and let them feed off each other’s genius like they have, multiple times this season. Not to mention, a big performance against his former team may help Griezmann find his long lost confidence.
Starting Griezmann and Messi together will be of little to no surprise, but it is the wings where the former Everton manager needs to earn his bread.
With Fati out for the rest of the year, Ousmane Dembele has earned a pretty straightforward spot into the starting lineup, which can be either on the left or the right. His inclusion in the starting XI against Atletico seems rather predictable, as well.
The Frenchman is remarkably quick, and if he uses that to his advantage, can help catch Atletico on the counter after a turnover. Kieran Trippier, for all his defensive improvements under Cholo, is still their weakest link at the back and is far from immune to positional mess-ups. The same goes for Renan Lodi, who looks far from comfortable against swift-footed wingers and often gives away an easy path on the flank, or several set pieces.
For the opposite side, Koeman has the options of Coutinho and Pedri in the form of first-team options. Despite being natural attacking midfielders, Koeman has used them at least once each out wide, but only Pedri’s performance aginst Juventus while on the LW earned plaudits.
In fact, Coutinho has a rather harrowing history with the left-wing after being deployed their persistently by Ernesto Valverde in the 2018/19 season, which eventually led to a dip in form. It has become increasingly clear that Coutinho is part of the midfield.
While Coutinho is returning from a month-long injury, Pedri picked up a knock against Faroe Island while playing for the U21 Spanish side. It would be unwise to field either of the two in a physically demanding game as more injuries would be another axe to Barça’s trunk.
❗Pedri received a knock in Spain U21s’ first game against Faroe Islands. Barcelona contacted the RFEF, and it was agreed that he wouldn’t participate against Israel to avoid any risks before the Atlético match. [sport] pic.twitter.com/KzdysmGq71— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) November 18, 2020
As a matter of course, Konrad de la Fuente may come up as the option in this position given his experience in it. Konrad will help to stretch an otherwise compact Los Colchoneros defence, and can also help give Mario Hermoso a run for his money thanks to his electric pace.
On the contrary, it might not be the best game to give the American his debut. Simeone’s men go hard on attackers, allowing only one of the ball or defender through. A disappointing performance followed by some harsh words by Koeman in the press-conference will go a long way, hurting the youngster’s morale.
Our pick as Dembele’s partner is Fransisco Trincao. Since arriving from Sporting Braga, Trincao has failed to make a name for himself in Koeman’s team, and his role at the moment looks to be reduced to just cameos. A start against arguably the best team in the league will serve him mentally, eventually, and hopefully en route a successful campaign for both him and the team.
Trincao will round up the Barcelona attack on the right. (Photo via Imago)
It will require Dembele to shift to the left, which he does not prefer, but we can expect him to keep his twinkling form alive solely due to the raging momentum he is carrying, if not anything else.
From a tactical standpoint, placing the 20-year-old on the right means, there will be four players in the attack for Barcelona with expertise in long-range shooting. This skill often comes in handy against Atleti as their low-block allows little to no gaps for attackers to pass through.
Barça Universal’s pick for the Barcelona attack:
A history of crumbling under pressure: The Jordi Alba conundrum in a big game
Claiming Jordi Alba to be one of La Liga’s – if not Europe’s – most improved players from last season would not be a far fetch. While on his best days, his quality has always been evident, and his raiding runs on the left flank tend to give the Blaugranas a huge edge, the Spanish international’s output in the final third has lately begun to revolve around sensible plays, with visible improvements in Alba’s decision making; most notably refraining from relying on the formularized ‘Messi cut-back.’
The marauding speedster has become a crucial cog in Koeman’s side as the newfound 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation arguably seems to extract his best qualities and conceals his most noticeable flaws. The Spaniard is considered lethal, and a vital source of penetration situated higher up the field. With slick spells of possession in the centre, his runs from wide are almost gone unnoticed.
However, in spite of Alba’s achievements thus far and enhancements in his gameplay, issues that have tainted the talented Spaniard’s career still prove to be a thorn in his side, overcoming him in arguably the worst moments. Big games and Jordi Alba appear to have developed an incredibly toxic relationship as the 32-year-old has, on countless occasions, been a victim of his feeble mindset, tarnishing his legacy in the process.
The Copa del Rey final will once more be a huge encounter with a crucial source of silverware on the line for the Blaugranas. A win will undoubtedly elevate their status, uplift the morale of the team and surely prove to be their saving grace this season. Unfortunately, a game of this magnitude is also the perfect breeding ground for Alba’s antics. As promising as his season may have been, he has still proven to be unreliable in pressure situations.
Blitzing forward, he is known to be a menace, but in the defensive third, poor decision making is often visible. In the recent Clásico, Alba’s assist for Mingueza may have overshadowed his lack of focus defensively, but it must not be forgotten that he was a major reason why Fede Valverde was able to comfortably cruise past the Barcelona midfield and provide Benzema with the pre-assist. After enjoying one of the best patches of his career, Alba fell prey to the big game syndrome on the night it mattered most.
While that defeat was not entirely the number 18’s fault, it was a testament to his habitual blunders. In the Spanish Supercup final against Athletic Bilbao, Alba was once again one of the major culprits, proving to be undependable in set pieces and as confused as a lost sailor in defence, suffering at the hands of Iñaki Williams most notably. Scoring an own goal against the very same opposition in the league was another dent on his resumé. The fact that Alba contributed heavily to Valencia’s Copa Del Rey victory in the 18/19 season also devalues his presence in critical games, with both goals from Valencia easily avoidable, had the Spaniard not fumbled cheaply.
For the first goal, Alba came instantly rushing to block the scorer but was sent to the cleaners as he gravely mistimed his run. On the second occasion, the 32-year-old enabled Valencia’s winger to charge past him seamlessly as he went onto assist the final dagger. Admittedly, Culés have done their best to move on from the past in an attempt to forget and forgive. Having made some huge strides this campaign, clinging on to errors that any mere mortal is capable of committing does seem nonsensical.
Even so, despite efforts made to channel more faith in Alba, his recent comments have only made matters worse. As a leaked conversation between Alba and Piqué was made public by the media after the Clásico, concerns are again beginning to mount over his mentality. Even though Piqué appeared to be optimistic regarding Barça’s chances in the Copa Del Rey, all Alba had to offer in response was, “I don’t know.”
Completely ignoring the progression Barcelona made after proceedings, disregarding the fact that a point is the least Barça deserved, and most importantly, forgetting the club’s ability to bounce back this season, a meagre “I don’t know” is all the full-back gave in response. Of course, drawing conclusions based solely on a 10-second clip would be unjust, yet, given Alba’s past of wavering when it matters most, it really does not come as a surprise. The Anfield annihilation still remains fresh in memory, a wound that is yet to heal fully.
To play or not play, that is the question
As the full-back made a mockery of himself under the lights, his breakdown at half-time when the comeback was not even completed simply implies his pessimistic nature. Thus arrives the million-dollar question: do Barcelona run the risk of playing Alba in a game where the stakes are this high?
Considering Alba’s recent comments and reputation in knockout stages, fielding him in a game that holds such value for Barça’s campaign is inarguably a risk. The brand of football Barcelona have been playing comprises of collective strength, which emphasizes on every individual playing a vital role. One loose screw is all it takes to disrupt the team, and it’s fair to say Alba has proven to be that loose screw on several occasions before.
Nonetheless, the Blaugranas are incredibly limited, not yet possessing the privilege to have any firm competition in Alba’s position. As frustrating as his shortcomings may be, there is still no denying that his “good days” earn him the title of one of the best full-backs in the world. An additional factor is that he has, at the very least, not crumbled in any of the previous Copa del Rey knockout stages. Against Granada and Sevilla, his contributions were absolutely vital, particularly his performance against the Nazaríes, where a blistering brace enabled his side to seal qualification.
Barça are certainly running a risk, but this risk could potentially pay dividends if Alba shows a more daring and composed version. Making a sudden change in the final seems unlikely and could potentially hamper the team’s harmony.