Ronald Koeman had started with the same front four in the first three La Liga games. It worked well as the Catalan side seemed to have found their goal-scoring touch again. However, changes in the line-up against Getafe did not improve the side.
One of the main issues that Barcelona faced under the previous manager, Quique Setién, was a lack of creativity going forward. Setién’s side struggled to unlock several opponents and score goals frequently and were often the victim of a lack of responsibility.
Now, under new management, the system has changed. Barcelona’s front four now play with more width, and there is more advancing up the pitch. There is also much more competition for places on the wings and the attacking midfielder role. However, the issue for the club is the lack of a natural number 9, and this will be the case until at least January.
A settled front four?
One of the standout performers in this new system is Philippe Coutinho. He has been reintegrated into the starting eleven, playing in his favoured position. With two assists and a goal, Coutinho is thriving in Barcelona’s front-four.
In contrast, Antoine Griezmann has struggled in the new formation as he finds himself on the right side of the pitch. The Frenchman has not been as involved in matches as he should be. His return to the centre against Getafe as a false 9 did not work out as he probably though it would. Griezmann look uninvolved in the buildup and lacked confidence in front of goal.
“The coach knows where to play me. I take advantage of this situation, this place, the confidence that the coach gives me and my teammates.”Antoine Griezmann (during the post-match press conference with his national team)
Lionel Messi has played in a free-roaming role, and some of the reliance on him is now being shared across the front four. Ansu Fati has also had a great start to the campaign, playing on the left-wing. The 17-year-old has impressed in his appearances and is proving to be clinical in front of goal, capping off September with a Player of the Month.
There are many benefits to having a settled front four. It builds chemistry between the players and helps them understand each other’s game. Furthermore, it keeps them match fit, as playing consistently is important for any football player. On the other hand, the games against Sevilla and Getafe highlighted that playing fixtures to a tight schedule causes fatigue. There need to be rotations throughout the season to counter this.
What are the other options?
Barcelona have several other options that could be key during the season. Francisco Trincão has looked promising when coming on from the bench. The Portuguese talent offers a lot down the right-hand side and is more suited to that position than Antoine Griezmann. The 20-year-old will likely feature regularly for the Catalan side and could even push for a starting role in the team.
Another option is Ousmane Dembélé. Dembele has hardly featured for the Blaugrana in the last year due to injuries. The Frenchman posses so much natural talent but is rarely able to show it. If he can stay fit, Koeman should give him chances to prove he can be a key addition to this team. Recovering the winger’s form could be a huge boost for the season. His first start of the season did not go well as he could not find his rhythm, but it was all anyone could have expected from the 23-year-old after 325 days.
Three other options that can play centrally are Pedri, Riqui Puig and Carles Aleñá. Pedri was Barça’s bright spot in an underwhelming performance against Getafe, while both Puig and Aleñá have yet to get a fair chance in the first team this season. They should be utilised more as they can add that energy to the team that is sometimes lacking.
“Everyone is working hard and everyone will get opportunities.”Ronald Koeman (pre-match press conference)
Barcelona’s front four for the season
Overall, Barcelona’s front four have worked well together so far, but there are still parts that need to be improved. Koeman has said that everyone should get game time, so players must take their chances.
One player that will feature in most games will be Messi. La Pulga is still the focal point of the team and adds much more than depth in the form of quality. As the captain, his presence on pitch serves as a boost for others. Even Leo will need to rest, though, especially after travelling for international duty. Other players can fill the role of the six-time Ballon d’Or winner, and these players should be used so Messi can rest.
Coutinho is another that looks like he has won the trust of the manager. His start to the season has been brilliant, and he fits in like a new signing for the club. The Brazilian has cemented his place in the centre of the field and should continue there until need be.
It is the wide areas that are the most contested positions for a starting role. So far, Griezmann has not worked out on the right. With other talented and more natural wingers on the bench, Koeman will have to seriously weigh up his options.
Though Fati has had a fantastic start to the campaign, he is still young and must be managed carefully. It is important to continue to give him regular minutes, but he needs to work hard for time on the pitch. More importantly, it is key to integrate him slowly and not build pressure on him. Dembélé and Trincão should get opportunities to showcase their talents and fight for a starting position.
Koeman, while having both quality and quantity on his bench, needs to manage the squad carefully, especially under a robust schedule. In recent seasons, the core members have grown to be fatigued as the season has gone on due to poor shift in the side, often coming at the cost of trophies. Rotations will be important, and the manager must find the right times to rest key players.
Barcelona vs Real Madrid: The Game through Numbers
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.
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.