Many changes have already been seen at Barça since Ronald Koeman was appointed manager. Several senior players have now departed and there are a few new faces at the Camp Nou. The system is different and there seems to be an improvement generally so far.
Five days after the humiliation caused by Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Ronald Koeman became the new coach of FC Barcelona on August 19th. In this short time, the Dutchman has already implemented his style and given the blaugranas a fresh look. Two strong displays in the opening rounds of La Liga highlighted a number of improvements in the team.
However, Sunday’s game against Sevilla proved to be a tougher test with a 1–1 draw being a fair result. It seems that Koeman is on the right path but with so little time in charge, and a short pre-season, he is still learning.
What has improved?
Several key improvements have already been made since the former Barça defender took over. The first noticeable one is there is less of a dependency on Lionel Messi. For years now, Messi has been the only consistent creator and goalscorer in the side. Though the Argentine has been sensational in this role, it is unsustainable. Others have already been stepping up this season, most notably Ansu Fati and Philippe Coutinho. This does not mean Messi’s importance has diminished. Instead, it means others share the responsibility more.
Additionally, the defence has only let in one goal in the first three matches under Koeman. Though it is not flawless, the group seems more compact. Much of this is due to the double pivot which offers more solidarity in the centre of the pitch. Moreover, there is a much better press from the team. The Catalans are pressing higher up the pitch and with more intensity. This allows them to win the ball back quicker and restricts opponents counter-attacks.
Barcelona seem to be on the right track, but there is still a lot of work to do | Photo by David Ramírez / Zuma via Imago
Another positive from the first three fixtures is the attacking football. The team has looked more fluid in attack and created more chances. One of the reasons for this is the additional width in the team. This has come from the left side with Ansu Fati and Jordi Alba making good attacking runs in behind the rivals’ defence. Furthermore, Koeman has played Coutinho centrally and this has worked well. He has been more involved in the games and already contributed two assists and a goal. Eight goals in three games is a fantastic start for the team.
The game against Sevilla
The Camp Nou hosted a strong Sevilla side, who set up in a compact manner. They pressed and defended deep in the match and Barcelona struggled to deal with these tactics. When the Andalusians pressed high, Barcelona struggled to break through at times. This led to some misplaced passes as Barça were poor in possession. Against the low block, the players found it difficult to create chances. Notwithstanding, there were enough chances to win the clash and the signs are still positive.
“Our passing accuracy wasn’t good today. But it’s also our third game in a week time and we’ve noticed fatigue against a very physically demanding team”Ronald Koeman
Unlike the previous two managers, Koeman was not afraid to make substitutions early into the second half. The youngsters, Francisco Trincão and Pedri, were introduced into a tight game against one of the best teams in the league. It shows that the Dutchman is not afraid to make substitutions and trusts some of the younger players. Again, these were positive signs as the manager looked to introduce new players to influence the match.
One of the issues that was clear in the game was the ineffectiveness on the right-hand side of the pitch. Antoine Griezmann and Sergi Roberto offered very little going forward on this flank. Barcelona had zero attacks down the right wing in the first half. In the first two La Liga fixtures this was not such an issue, but against a tougher opponent, it limits the azulgranas. When Trincão was introduced, the attacks became more evenly spread out and the former SC Braga man almost won the game late on. Koeman may consider using a more natural winger in games as playing Antoine out wide has not worked.
What Koeman must improve
One of the weaknesses under the new system has been the double pivot. Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets have been less than impressive. Culés know how good they are on their day, but with three games already played, it is becoming worrying. Both have been poor in possession and caught out of position on occasions. There seems to be a lack of understanding between the pair. It could be they need time to adapt to the new role. However, with so many talented midfielders on the bench, Koeman must consider if this partnership is working.
Griezmann’s form should also be of concern to the manager. The Frenchman is world class but seems to be lacking confidence. It is almost certainly his role in the team that is causing this. Again, the same mistakes are being made with one of Barça’s most expensive signings. Though he contributes to the defence, it is not why the club paid €120 million for him. Griezmann needs to return to the centre of the pitch, where his best position is. Having him out on the wing does not play to his strengths. He prefers the ball to feet and to play off others. Though he still makes intelligent runs in behind, it is not his preferred style.
“For me, Griezmann is still more effective when he is in the heart of the game, when he is able to touch the ball a lot. In that position, he has the possibility to come and help the midfield too.”Didier deschamps
Finally, Koeman needs to improve the squad depth in certain areas. This is more on the board as the economic situation they have created has stopped them signing certain players. Barcelona are desperately short of first-team centre-backs and a natural number nine. Koeman will have to make the best out of this situation until at least January and hope there are no injuries in these positions.
Barcelona vs Ferencvaros: The Game through Numbers
A detailed look into the game by numbers and statistics and tactics as FC Barcelona kicked off their UCL 2020-21 campaign in style.
FC Barcelona played the first group stage game of UCL 2020-21 at home against recent Hungarian champions Ferencvarosi Torna Club, also called Ferencvaros. The Budapest outfit were playing against Barcelona in a competitive match for the very first time (previous meetings had all been friendlies), and naturally, Barcelona started cautiously. However, shaking off the rust from the International break and the disappointment of the loss against Getafe in the weekend, Barcelona came up with a dominant display and ran out as winners scoring five and conceding just one.
Barcelona yet again fielded a 4-2-3-1, with an unchanged defence from the game against Getafe. The double-pivot changed slightly, with Miralem Pjanic starting as Frenkie de Jong’s partner. Ansu Fati and Francisco Trincāo started as wingers flanking Philipe Coutinho at attacking midfield, with Lionel Messi starting as the false 9.
The touch-based heatmaps and the pass-map show some interesting tactical changes from the last two league games. First of all, and most importantly, this was the first time this season that both flanks were very well utilised. Having Trincao and Fati, both adept at playing on the wing, greatly helped the team build and attack through both sides.
While Antoine Griezmann added a lot of defensive cover while playing on the right flank in the previous games, Trincao did his share to help out the team, too. He did well in attack while also putting in a brilliant defensive shift – Griezmann’s absence was not felt at all.
Secondly, the positioning of Frenkie de Jong was a lot advanced, bringing the best out of him. Unlike the last two games, where he was placed much deeper and wider on average, last night he had more freedom to venture up and also drift a bit centrally. On average, he took up a higher position than Pjanic and took part in a lot of the attacking moves, while the Bosnian was tasked with the deeper progressions.
Ferencvaros started out in a 4-2-3-1 as well, but soon evolved into a 4-1-4-1/4-5-1 structure and settled into it for the game. Their midfield was very compact, and mostly stayed deep. Their idea was to use counters, with Tokmak Chol Nguen the only player taking up advanced positions to lead their attacks.
Attacks and Buildups
Barcelona posted very impressive attacking stats for the game.
Barcelona dominated possession as usual, but the biggest positive takeaway are the pressing numbers. The Blaugranas posted impressive PPDA (Passes per Defensive Action) numbers as compared to their opposition. It also indicates that a lot of the game was played in the opposition’s half, showing dominance in the game. The shot maps and the xG flowcharts show how imperative Barcelona were throughout the game, and that a lot of the shots were excellent chances to score.
Next we take a look a gallery of all the goals scored by Barcelona, and the lone goal scored by Ferencvaros to discuss the difference in ideologies of the two teams.
While Barcelona’s first goal took a came solely as a result of moments of individual brilliance by Messi, all of the other goals came through wonderful intricate buildup. Both sets of wide players were very well-utilized, who were able to play out through pressure no matter where the buildup started.
The buildup to the second goal culminated in a wonderful lofted pass by Frenkie de Jong to Ansu Fati, who slotted it past Ferencvaros’ hapless goalkeeper with a first-time finish. Fati was involved in the third goal as well. An intricate set up of passes in the final third led to Messi finding Fati with a pass, who back-flicked into the path of Coutinho, who made no mistake slotting it into the bottom corner.
In contrasting fashion, Ferencvaros were very direct. It was very clear that Tokmac Nguen was their main danger-man. Nguen created a couple of really dangerous moments in the first half with his threatening runs across the backline. The first effort was called offside, while the second led to him setting up Isael for a thunderous shot against the post.
He was also at the helm of their sole goal of the game, running at Pique, who was unable to keep up with Nguen and hauled him down into the box, leading to a penalty.
Barcelona’s passing was on point against Ferencvaros, helping the team to cover all zones perfectly, stretching the pitch and making it difficult to defend. Most importantly, there were a lot more passes into the box as well exchanges inside the box than the previous two games. Particularly impressive were the utilization of zone 14 and the half-spaces. Here are the dangerous passes portrayed:
The key passes came from multiple zones as well and from multiple sources. Messi had 4, Roberto, Pjanic, Coutinho, and Fati had 2 each, while de Jong, Trincao and Dembele had 1 each:
Finally, we compare the passes completed in the final third by each team, quantified by field tilt – it’s the number of final third passes completed by a team, divided by the sum of final third passes completed by both teams, expressed as a percentage.
Barcelona completed a much greater number of final third passes almost throughout the game except for a small window when Pique received a red card and sent off for fouling Nguen, and Barcelona had to play with 10 men.
Barcelona’s defence closely resembled a 4-4-2 block with Philippe Coutinho and Lionel Messi high up, and sometimes in 4-5-1 as Messi was the sole player allowed to stay up.
After Pique’s red card, Barcelona took up a fairly compact 4-4-1 shape. Ferencvaros were pushed back into their own half for the bulk of the match as Barcelona won the ball back fairly fast. The only time Ferencvaros managed to peg back Barcelona was after Pique’s dismissal. Here is a glimpse of the defensive activities of the two teams, showing Barça’s high turnover rate:
In fact, the third goal that Barcelona scored early in the second half came from a great bit of pressing. Messi aggressively pressed the central channels into Ferencvaros’ third and the box, so the ball had to be passed out wide, where Trincao led the charge. This led to a misplaced pass that was intercepted by Pjanic, and Trincao recovered the loose ball. A lovely sequence ensued, and Barcelona were up 3-0 in a blink.
Having discussed the defensive structure and the pressing intensity, now it’s time to discuss some of the issues. In this particular game, the issues were entirely in defence. Ferencvaros – Nguen in particular – exposed the problem Barcelona’s centre backs have against quick attackers. The Norwegian’s runs dragged the defenders all over the place, mixed with the high line that Barcelona employs, it resulted in nightmares as it often does.
Whenever the fullbacks were pushed high, and possession was turned over, Ferencvaros directly took on the two defenders left on the pitch. They could not bypass the press by making long passing sequences, so they quickly circulated ball out wide or to the deep half spaces before launching long balls to Nguen, and sending out supporting runners. One such run led to Pique’s red card.
This current batch of Barcelona players seems a tad too card-happy. Lenglet has already seen a red card in the Liga. Roberto, Dest, Pique – all of them have seen yellow cards just 4 games into the season. This is not healthy, especially given the lack of quality depth in defence.
Coutinho has been playing well, to say the least, and there are little to no doubts over his performance. However, his positioning – which surely is a tactical quirk of Ronald Koeman – is very interesting. Instead of the usual central positions a nominal 10 would take up, he is primarily operating in the left half space. There is quite a bit of overlap with Ansu Fati. Its clear that Barcelona are trying to achieve wide overloads on the left side whenever they can.
Coutinho performances are not an issue. His role, on the other hand, might be. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
This system, however, needs a striker and more directness to function. As it stands, the team is deploying two 10s in Messi and Coutinho. While this has worked well against weaker oppositions, it remains to be seen how well the lack of vertical staggering can hold up against stronger opposition.
The story of this game will be incomplete without mentioning the substitutions. Junior Firpo returned from injury and came on along with Pedri and Ousmane Dembele around the 60-minute mark. Ronald Araujo had to come on after Pique’s dismissal, while Sergio Busquets replaced Pjanic later to help see the game off.
While Pedri got his first goal for Barcelona, Dembele’s brilliant dribble and tenacity in the box from where he cut back the ball has to be mentioned. Seven minutes later, the World Cup winner found himself at the receiving end of a pass from Messi and smashed home for the fifth and final goal.
After the drab showing against Getafe, this was a much-needed boost for the team before the El Clasico. Multiple scorers, good buildup plays, high press – pretty much everything except the red card was to the point. Next week’s UCL away game against Juventus will prove a stern test as well, and hopefully, we will see the best of Ronald Araujo in that game.