If one was to find the one reason Ronald Koeman’s arrival as head coach was a massive event, it was because there finally seemed to be a man coming in with a fixed ideology. A sense of need for personality was felt. After 2 coaches who operated as puppets, one wanted a fresh presence on the sidelines.
Koeman promised all that and more. The Dutchman had an aura of confidence. One could feel the rigid plan he had for the Catalan club was the need of the hour. The ‘straight to business’ attitude was evident right from him catalyzing the departures of Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitic and others.
Yet, almost halfway into the season and the situation is queer indeed. The man who was initially fixed on his ideology of 4-2-3-1 has ended up experimenting with multiple formations. Undoubtedly, injuries did force upon him a lot of the tactical decisions. The problem at centre-back has been a specific thorn in his foot, forcing many decisions of the manager.
Every coach is expected to have an XI of players that he trusts on any night. Any rotations, squad backups and other such clouds are built around this tower.
This forces one to think: “How many players does Koeman trust on any given night?”
At first glance, the only names among outfield players that stand out are those of Ronald Araujo, Jordi Alba, Frenkie de Jong, Pedri and Lionel Messi. This suggests that just 50% of the starting players have a fixed place. This is indeed a worrying sign.
Clement Lenglet has seen an unbelievably steep drop since last season, to a stage where even the La Masia graduate Oscar Mingueza is getting starts over him. The centre-back conundrum, therefore, arises due to not only injuries but also poor form.
Sergino Dest at right-back has been getting back to back starts, but one wonders how long it will last. The return of Seri Roberto in coming weeks will throw the position into a cloud again.
Despite the big money tag, Phillippe Coutinho is undoubtedly one player displaced in priority. Pedri and Frenkie de Jong form the constant core of the midfield. There is however a third place in the new 4-3-3 approach, and though Sergio Busquets is the front runner, one cant writes off Miralem Pjanic.
Any Gala XI across the globe has a fixed front line. Let it be the feared duo of Neymar Jr and Kylian Mbappe, or the trio of Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. In fact, Barcelona themselves boasted of some exemplary frontlines, be it Messi-Villa-Pedri, Messi-Eto’o-Henry, or the glorious MSN.
Barcelona’s forward line is still far from decided. Apart from Lionel Messi, there is no guaranteed starter.
While Antoine Griezmann continues his ups and downs, Martin Braithwaite always makes a case for himself. Ousmane Dembele promises a lot, but his injuries is the one big card against him. Ansu Fati seemed to be the only other constant until his long term injury threw the position in jeopardy again.
The lack of a solid dependable base team is the root problem of all of Barcelona’s troubles. It throws all plans of rotation to the bin because there is no hierarchy of priority. Those who deserve rest like Pedri are thrown to the butcher every game. And those on the bench stay there with bags packed. This is natural when the coach has no idea of whom to prioritise.
The root problem, however, extends beyond the players in the base team. In simple terms, there has been no fixed direction, even in the tactical approach. A defined system with known objectives always helps in creating the required hierarchy. However, this is where Koeman has lacked.
Having been childishly rigid about his 4-2-3-1 approach, The Dutchman failed to see what suited the team as a whole. This was over time exposed and forced him to mend his ways. Since then, he has experimented with formations including three-man defence variations. For the time being, he seems settled on a 4-3-3, the system Barcelona is nostalgically associated with.
Looking forward, what can we expect from Barcelona? Heading into the game against Elche, not a soul can bet his property on a certain system that will start. Simultaneously, one has no clue as to the individuals who will be called up on the night.
It is high time that the Blaugranas find stability. The ride so far has been unpleasantly unpredictable. There needs to be a side that is confident in its ability to grind out wins even with the worst of performances. That is the Gala XI. And that is the need of the hour, urgently.
The psychology at Barcelona: A leaf out of Jurgen Klopp’s book
Guest Contributor: Darren Looney
“When I came here, the size of the club was a burden. Now it’s our safety net, it’s our trampoline, it’s our home, it’s our basis, it’s everything to us. Now we are Liverpool before the club was Liverpool and we were just the guys who were trying to be good enough”.
In Melissa Reddy’s book ‘Believe Us’, Jurgen Klopp, the man who led Liverpool to become champions of England, Europe and the world, details how a change in psychology from having the clubs past success being used as a noose around their necks to becoming fully confident individuals, helped the club end their 30-year wait for a league title.
FC Barcelona has a noose of its own hanging over the Camp Nou at present. It has been placed there by former president Josep Maria Bartomeu, having left the club in a state that is unable to match the success seen over the last two decades.
The incoming president and manager will be the ones left to cut it free, and with limited economic resources to do this, a change in the mindsets of the lads could play a part in helping the club get the most out of what they already have.
Barcelona’s current state
The Josep Maria Bartomeu’s presidency oversaw a circus rather than a football club. In this timeframe, Barcelona lost the respect of its fellow European giants through humiliating performances in the Champions League, selling Neymar Jr. to Paris Saint Germain, poor recruitment, and a squad constantly breaking under pressure.
Players such as Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi, and Ousmane Dembele, of those that started in the latest Champions League match, have all been through the most of these embarrassing moments, which has no doubt left some trauma.
Others in the squad have laid witness to Bartomeu disregarding the club’s motto ‘MÉS QUE UN CLUB’ with his handling of club legends Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi’s transfer situations in the summer. That could not have inspired the non-senior members of the squad with any confidence.
Adding to that, players like Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho, Junior Firpo, and Antoine Griezmann have had their names constantly attached to rumoured player plus cash deals, such as the Neymar offers, which can lead to them questioning if they are good enough. This is the sort of psychology you do not want around a club trying to compete.
When asked about whether a sports psychologist would benefit FC Barcelona back in December, Barça manager Ronald Koeman stated, “I don’t believe in psychologists and mental [issues]. If you play for Barca, pressure exists, you know that, and you have to overcome it”.
This answer shows the Dutchman’s ignorance of the importance of a player’s psychological state. Additionally, it also shows arrogance about the club and the stress that comes binding with it. Ignorance that is evident in the pictures of Lenglet, as he left the Camp Nou after Sunday’s match in tears, most likely due to a lack of support. The kind of lack of support that eventually leads to careers dissolving.
In the same press conference, Koeman stated that “this team has enough personality and experience” to get through bad moments. This “experience” is also susceptible to being psychologically overwhelmed, the dressing room at halftime at Anfield is evidence of this.
Whether it is Koeman or the next president’s manager, one will have to get a hold of this problem. Luckily for them, the blueprint of how much power the manager can have over this can be seen in the place Jordi Alba shed his tears.
The Jurgen Klopp effect
When Jurgen Klopp arrived in Liverpool, one of the first things he addressed was a change in psychology from the supporters. He wanted the fans to believe in the process, and in his first press conference, he enforced this by saying, “we need to feel the confidence and trust of the people”.
In ‘Believe Us’, Klopp speaks about the psychological state he found the players in when he first arrived. He claims that “The players were obviously listening to all the voices saying they are not good enough for the club or that I can’t wait to get rid of them.” A situation some Barca players find themselves in now, as mentioned earlier.
One of the German’s first instructions was for the players to pay no attention to comments outside of him and his coaching staff, a message that took longer than expected to resonate, as the team collapsed in the title race halfway through the next season.
Klopp explains that the collapse was down to the players not complying with this request. The German explained how the players were focused on people saying, “they don’t have a plan B for deep-defending sides, they can only play one way”. A criticism that Cúlers this season know too well.
Klopp emphasises the importance a strong mentality within games had on the Red’s fortunes and claims new players alone would not have been enough. This is a note worth taking for those looking at Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe to change Barcelona’s fortunes.
It took Klopp years to convince some players that they were good enough to play for a club as big as Liverpool. New players added to the quality of the squad but that psychological attitude to keep going for the full 90 minutes, no matter the score, is what led the club to their recent success. This was visible countless times over last season as well, as Pool continued to take hits at teams till the last minute till they eventually broke. Barcelona, too, have been on the receiving end of their incredible mentality.
Koeman might be right in that the players do not need a sports psychologist. However, Lenglet’s incident exhibits that the psychological state of his players is something that he must take control of and not ignore.
Next season has the potential to be an important one for Barcelona’s near future. With a new president at the helm and a potential new manager. The Catalan side needs to banish the psychological doubts leftover by Bartomeu’s reign and move forward as one unit.
The fans and players need to get behind the project put in place, as Jurgen Klopp puts it “when you agree on a common idea and work towards it together, you can create something special”.