Even prior to the official beginning of the 2020/21 season, we knew there would be a lot of changes happening at Barcelona. After all, changes were heavily needed to improve the team and even give them a fighting chance in the first place.
Ronald Koeman seemed like the right person for the job. Even though his managerial CV may not be the most impressive you’ve ever seen, the Dutchman has a history of ruling the locker room and instilling order into chaotic situations, sometimes through rigorous and quite extreme measures.
In Barça’s case, this came in the form of benching certain players and selling others, for better or worse. Tactically, however, there was bound to be a lot of changes as well. The biggest and the most obvious one was the swap from the Catalans’ traditional 4-3-3 system to Koeman’s personal favourite, the 4-2-3-1.
But if the early signs are anything to go by, it seems not all change is good Barça Universal analyses three reasons why Barcelona should abandon the new formation and swap back to one that historically suits them the best.
The Double Pivot
One of the unique characteristics of the 4-2-3-1 formation is the double pivot. On paper, this system is a very balanced one, offering support and options both in attack and defence. However, it also requires a particular set of player profiles to occupy certain positions. The double-pivot role is definitely among those roles.
The two midfielders deployed in the centre of the pitch usually have varying tasks where one is the more aggressive one and the other more defensive. But looking at Barcelona’s squad and their players’ strengths, it does seem the double pivot roles only accommodate to a select few players within the team.
Frenkie de Jong, Sergio Busquets, and Miralem Pjanić are the only clear options Koeman has for those two positions. While others can also play it with success, they have to alter their styles significantly to make the system work, hindering their capabilities.
All of Riqui Puig, Pedri, and Carles Aleñá are skilled enough to perform in that role, but it limits what their profiles can do to such an extent that it would likely do more harm than good. Even de Jong, who is used to playing in a double pivot, has found himself chained with his movement too linear and stifled to show the full array of his abilities.
By deploying a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 system, it seems that Koeman has inadvertently shot himself in the foot by putting some of his most creative players into a small box, limiting what they can offer on the pitch.
The more traditional approach with two number ‘6s’ seems to give the midfielders the freedom to express themselves in the best possible ways.
The attacking midfield conundrum
You may have heard this one before, but the number 10s or the attacking midfielders are a dying breed. The reasons for that are aplenty. It seems the current football era doesn’t really suit them that well as more industrious and hard-working midfielders are preferred to them. It also seems the formations most elite coaches utilise nowadays don’t exactly accommodate a more traditional number 10.
Whatever the real reason is, that specific role is simply not around as much anymore. At Barcelona, however, we have a case of far too many players of that profile being around. You could argue that all of Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho, and Pedri are natural number 10s or at the very least have the predispositions to thrive in that role.
There is only ever enough room for one such player, and it’s likely you won’t really bench Messi, will you? That means Koeman doesn’t exactly have an adequate solution to this problem, seeing how the Argentine will mostly play, which will often affect the other players negatively.
Just to be clear, though, this is not Leo’s fault. The same would happen with any other player occupying the spot, only it’s likely the quality would go down even further. The 4-2-3-1 system can only ever accommodate to a single attacking midfielder, often forcing others to be played out of position if they are to co-exist on the pitch at the same time.
So you either play your best player, ergo Messi, in that role and sacrifice others by playing them out of position or you simply only ever have one number 10 on the pitch at any given time. However, this would mean benching some of the most influential and/or expensive players in the squad. Of course, game-time should be given according to merit and not the price tag but why splash such huge amounts of cash on players you’re not planning to use?
This brings us to a whole different problem, which we’ll save for a different time. But by reverting to the 4-3-3 formation with two number ‘8s’ instead of a single number ’10’, Barcelona could solve this problem altogether.
That way, you can have Messi on the pitch with one or even two of the aforementioned players at the same time without limiting them to the point where they become dysfunctional. Some of these players have the quality to perform the number ‘8’ roles perfectly, and this would indeed mean playing to their strengths; case in point Pedri, Puig, and Aleña.
The 4-2-3-1 offers balance, as we have already said, but it is rigorous in terms of player roles and rigidity.
The proof is in the pudding
Our third and final reason why Barcelona should move away from their current 4-2-3-1 formation is simply the fact that on a few occasions we have actually seen them play in the traditional 4-3-3 system, they have looked far better already.
Of course, we have to remember that formations are just numbers on a piece of paper at the end of the day. And what it says on the team sheet prior or after the game is not as important as the team’s real structure, the players’ roles and the overall tactics of the coach.
That being said, however, Barcelona are once again at a point where they need a change in order to improve, just like they were at the very beginning of the season. Koeman has been quite stubborn with his decisions at times, but upon realising the initial plan is not working, the Dutchman did try to switch things up.
We still don’t know whether the 4-3-3 will make a full comeback or not but it seems like the coach may be open to it. After all, Barcelona have looked more organised, freer and more dangerous in their usual setup as opposed to the newly introduced 4-2-3-1.
But as they say, the proof is in the pudding, and the only way to know for sure is to try it. The Catalans have tried the 4-2-3-1 pudding, and despite some clear positives, it may be time to try a different one once again.
The 4-3-3 has an established track record and suits the team perfectly. Not only that but despite quite a small sample in 2020/21, it’s looking far more promising already.
It will be up to Koeman to decide what’s best for the team, but if he really has the team’s best interests at heart, changing the system would be a healthy first step towards improvement.
Barcelona’s rebirth is inevitable, but it will take time
Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner. In early March, the club will finally get their long-awaited new president following the tyranny that was Josep Maria Bartomeu’s tenure. And perhaps ‘tyranny’ may be a bit too harsh of a verdict, but how else would you call years of systematically destroying the club, consciously or subconsciously, plunging it deeper and deeper into the abyss? On second thoughts, ‘tyranny‘ will just have to do.
But all of that is firmly behind us now. In just weeks’ time, the Catalan giant will rise once more, reborn from the ashes of its fallen self to conquer the world anew. But things in football are never really that easy, are they? Everyone knows you can’t win all the time.
Even the greatest of teams such as Pep Guardiola’s very own Barcelona had their rise, peak and subsequent downfall. And there are not many clubs out there who have faced the harsh reality of building new dynasties from scratch as much as Barcelona have.
So if history is any indication at all, change takes time and the upcoming presidential tenure at the club will be no different. But let’s get one thing clear right away – this is not meant to bash any of the three candidates nor promote them either. All three of Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Antoni Freixa have their own visions of the direction in which to take their beloved club.
However, to think everything will suddenly and immediately change upon their appointment would be foolish. No, in March, we’re not getting the rebirth; we’re only getting the very beginning of one. With a new president sitting in that chair and appointing a new board, Barcelona will once again lay the groundwork for future success.
The immediate appointment of the new upper hierarchy might boost the morale, of course. And that in itself could then translate to a boost on the pitch as well. But a new president can only do as much in such a short amount of time. The real battles are always fought on the pitches and there, Barcelona are still looking like a broken team.
This too, of course, can be fixed over time. With the appropriate staff behind the scenes, a much better scouting department, physios, psychologists and a step-by-step tactical and squad overhaul, we can start hoping for result. But those are all long-term goals that require patience both from us the fans and the team itself.
Unfortunately, years of failure in the market, chasing ghosts of our pasts and blind picks, have resulted in a financially distorted club. Where once was wealth and prosperity now we only have crumbs of former glory. Yes, Barcelona are still a powerful outfit that can and should be aiming to attract only the very best.
But we also have to remember that each of the three candidates is seemingly putting a lot of emphasis on going back to the roots. ‘The roots‘ here mean La Masia, the academy and the youth. But just as is the case with any sporting project, especially the ones founded on the strength coming from within, this takes time to develop. Rome wasn’t built overnight. Nor was La Masia or Barcelona’s legacy, for that matter.
The Azulgranas really do have incredible talent in their youth ranks and this is definitely a pool of players that should be utilised in the future. We shouldn’t, however, expect to find the new Golden Generation right around the corner.
We have been fooled into thinking the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi are the standard and the rule. Unfortunately, as much as we like to keep telling ourselves otherwise, they are very much the exception to the rule; the standout and likely a one-in-a-million crop of players that flourished under a brilliant manager.
So many things had to be in the right place for them to make it, and somehow, the stars had aligned back then to ensure their development into footballing giants. It would be foolish to expect the same thing to happen again, or rather, to happen that quickly.
But with the right foundations, the right personnel, trust and hope, why shouldn’t we believe in it happening once more? After all, we have the secret recipe for success but are too afraid to use it. Why? Well, the times have changed since Barcelona last ruled the world.
Back in 2009, success was not guaranteed nor was is so expected and the fans were nowhere near as spoilt as they are now. Back then, the coach actually had the time to build a squad, groom them and mould them in his image. That’s what Pep did and miraculously enough, it didn’t take him years, not even months, to start making something truly incredible.
And in so many ways, 2021 mirrors that exact same situation. Before Pep’s time, Frank Rijkaard had been struggling for a while and his team, despite having some big names, was in a need of an overhaul. In that regard, Barcelona were entering their transitional period, the same one they are experiencing now.
Rijkaard bowed out from the stage having finished third in La Liga and having exited both Copa del Rey and the Champions League in the semi-finals. It was a valiant effort for a broken team but ultimately, he finished his tenure with a trophyless season. But in so many ways, that 2007/08 campaign was a start of a new story; one that promoted trust in the youth, power from within and confidence in the beginning of a rise to glory.
So what can we learn from that? We must accept that change is sometimes necessary but that it can cost a lot. In football, results and trophies matter, that’s in the nature of the sport. But sometimes you have to take a step back before you jump two steps forward. 2020 wasn’t easy and 2021 is looking equally as exhausting and challenging. But it’s also necessary.
Already, in a season that may seem full of pain, anger and disappointment, we’ve seen glimpses of what’s to come. Players like Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ronald Araújo rising to the occasion to guide us to a better future. That future may also be without Lionel Messi, the one player who embodies this club the most.
But we should also remember Pep had to lose, or rather let go of Ronaldinho to kickstart his great overhaul. Both players were and still are icons of the club but a new era requires new heroes and new leaders. So even if Messi leaves this coming summer, the world won’t suddenly stop, nor should Barcelona’s strive for greatness.
In March, a new president will get elected and the foundation for a better future will finally be set. It will take time and it won’t suddenly solve all of our problems.
But it will give us a push that we oh so need. Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner.
Don’t give up hope in the moment of our greatest triumph.