Ronald Koeman arrived at Barcelona intending to shake things up, right down from the personnel to the structure of the team. He had already researched the players he had in the roster and stemming from that decided that the 4-2-3-1 was the best formation he could use. Given the particular players he had at his disposal, he already knew which ones he would use.
So, while advising Riqui Puig to go out on loan was received by a blasphemous reaction from fans, it was a decision that he had taken beforehand – one he was going to stick by.
However, over the course of the season, as Barcelona continued to plummet down the La Liga table, Ronald Koeman has been forced to change his ways. In the last five games in the league, Koeman has used three different formations to varying impact.
He continued with the 4-2-3-1 against Cadiz, albeit with no success as they fell to a 1-0 defeat. But immediately after insisting that that is the only formation possible for the squad, Koeman deployed a 4-3-3 against Levante and Real Sociedad, winning both games. The switch to the 4-1-4-1 against Valencia, though, failed to pay dividends as Philippe Coutinho and Pedri found it challenging to co-exist, especially with Lionel Messi alongside.
The most interesting and final one of these changes came against Real Valladolid, where to the shock of everyone, the Dutchman went with a previously less-heard of 3-4-2-1. Lionel Messi took up the slot on the right of Martin Braithwaite, while Pedri was placed on the left. And boy did it work wonders.
Barcelona looked exceptionally fluid on the ball, consistently progressing up the pitch with crystal-clear intention. Off it, the three-man backline did a lot to add stability against a Valladolid team that does not shy away from attacking.
It may not have worked wonders against Eibar, but that boils down to a rookie tactical decision, where it seems like Koeman and his backroom were not informed about the opponent’s tendency to overload the left-wing, often leaving Dest isolated.
A performance like the one against Real Valladolid begs the question – should Barcelona continue with the 3-4-2-1 — a formation previously seen only once — under Luis Enrique — in the numerous season, and bin the 4-3-3 and more importantly the 4-2-3-1? In short, yes, and Barça Universal takes the onus to explain why.
1. Accommodation and Fluidity
The transfer market was a tumultuous time for Barcelona, and especially Ronald Koeman. The Dutchman had Memphis Depay, Georginio Wijnaldum, Eric Garcia and Sergio Dest on his wishlist, but could only attain the 20-year-old American in that window.
Stemming from the same, he was forced to make do with the players he had, desperately trying to fit them in his 4-2-3-1. Philippe Coutinho received early success, but on the contrary, Messi looked like a liability as the striker, while playing Antoine Griezmann out on the right turned out to be incredibly unsuccessful. Nothing unpredictable.
While Koeman resorted to a change in personnel in some particular positions, like juggling between Griezmann and Messi centrally for a few games or fielding Martin Braithwaite as the front-man in the formation, he was still left with Pedri and Coutinho as collateral damage, with the latter especially looking less than half the player he can be.
At the end of the day, whenever Koeman tries to field a 4-2-3-1, or even a 4-3-3, it will leave a few players out of position, or even on the bench. In fact, an attempt to fit in all pieces of the puzzle forcefully leaves a lot of gaping holes on the pitch, like without anyone to fill out wide.
Moreover, as much as fans hate it, the ‘big-money signings’ will be given priority over the likes of Francisco Trincao and Konrad de la Fuente, so might as well allow them to function in a formation that brings the best out of them. Griezmann’s display against Eibar counters this point to the wire, but as long as he is at the club, there should be little to no reason to at least attempt to get the best out of him.
The 3-4-2-1 holds two attacking midfielders, one of which will almost always be occupied by club-captain Lionel Messi. Martin Braithwaite will get the chance to lead the line, while Pedri, Griezmann and Coutinho can be interchanged.
This is perfect for Griezmann in more than one way. Playing off the striker means he will be fielded in his fundamental position, which will — hopefully — extract all he can offer going forward. His marvellous work-rate also means that Barcelona will constantly have an extra player in the midfield who will do more than what’s required of him, which was more than visible in midweek.
Additionally, the World Cup winner can also work as a central striker in this formation and will be a lot more serviceable than in a 4-3-3 given the narrow front-three. There is a lot more scope for him to stay central and rove as he chooses, while someone like Messi can easily cover for him.
2. Natural width
The status report on Barcelona wingers seems a bit sketchy right now. The two ‘big guns’, Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembele, are struggling with injuries at different levels, while Francisco Trincao, for all his potential, looks a long way from his ceiling. This leaves the squad with Konrad de la Fuente, who is not getting a run in the setup anytime soon.
Naturally, the baton falls to the full-backs – Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest. While both of them are exceptional in their own right, the 4-2-3-1 hardly does their attacking prowess justice. Their defensive duties ring them up a little too often, which means maintaining constant width throughout the game is far from possible.
In a 3-4-2-1, however, Dest and Alba will be able to start in a much more advanced role, thereby allowing them more room for vertical movement. Given their more attacking positions, the no. 10s in the setup will not have to stray outwards. Their responsibility will reside in the half-spaces, primarily, where cutting in will be a lot easier. Overlapping runs from the wing-backs will also become more unpredictable, creating numerical superiority in the final third.
Griezmann’s industrious nature also means that he can slot in seamlessly to cover for either of the two wing-backs when Barcelona are hit on the counter.
3. Freedom in the centre, stability at the back
Before even being employed as head coach at Barcelona, Ronald Koeman had spoken about Frenkie de Jong’s inadequate utilisation in his first season in the Catalan capital. Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien hardly had a choice, though. Sergio Busquets seemed to be having a redemption season, and Barcelona lacked creative players who could make a difference in the final third.
The 4-2-3-1 key was key to Koeman because it was the structure in which de Jong had some of his best games, for both Ajax and the Netherlands national team. Unfortunately for Koeman, his draft backfired pretty incredibly as de Jong became the centre of criticism.
The man who only thought there was one way to deploy his star midfielder soon changed his tracks as he sent out a 4-3-3 against Levante. De Jong bossed the midfield starting in the right-of-centre slot alongside Sergio Busquets, making five key passes and registering the assist for the solitary goal of the game.
The Dutchman’s impressive string of performances continues against Eibar as well, as he rampaged up and down the pitch, contributing in each department.
Playing de Jong as an interior in the 4-3-3 certainly makes sense, but it also paves the way for a poorer defensive structure as the only other player — Busquets — who can play as the anchor looks like a far cry from his best self. Miralem Pjanic should be the mature ahead alongside de Jong shoulders.
The double-pivot in the 3-4-2-1 is different from the 4-2-3-1, though, as it boasts three central defenders behind the midfield instead of two, sometimes even one. Additionally, having Pjanic alongside the 23-year-old places a mobile midfielder in the middle, one who is more than capable of covering when de Jong meanders up the pitch.
While de Jong is more than capable of dropping back to retain his spot, if ever he is caught out up the pitch, it will leave the team in a 5-1-3-1 shape, or at the very least as a 3-3-3-1, with the wing-backs wide and tracking, while Pjanic holds the fort from the centre.
When out of possession, it gives one of the central defenders the scope to attack the ball-holder more aggressively when he nears the final third, while the rest of the defence, along with the oh-so-mobile de Jong, can cope with runners.
Playing in this system requires a lot of hard work from the wide defenders. However, given the electric pace of both Alba and Dest, and the work-ethic of Griezmann and Pedri, Barcelona will not be too worried about getting hit on the counter or compromising the midfield.
Finally, if necessary, it can easily fit Riqui Puig and Carles Alena into the team if Koeman comes around either of them; far fetched right now, but given Busquet’s rapid decline, not entirely improbable.
4. The ability to transition
At this point in the season, it is not difficult to see that Koeman is a man who likes routine. He has shown minimal growth through his tenure, sticking to his ways for as long as humanly possible. The double-pivot, the reluctance to play Puig, fielding multiple 10s together is part of this, but so is the powerlessness he feels when the team is losing.
Cadiz, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Getafe, among others stand as examples where Koeman has tried to win the game from behind simply by subbing on more attackers for midfielders or defenders. This leaves the field hollow in the centre, with Coutinho, Pedri, or even Sergi Roberto trying to maintain balance as the pivot.
Having more forwards at once on the pitch does more to damage the game, leaving the defenders more vulnerable at the back. But it seems like the former-Everton manager is not ready to change this part of his tactics anytime soon. This is where the 3-4-2-1 comes in.
With three central defenders on the field at once, Koeman can always sub one of them off to bring on an attacker without doing too much to damage the structure. The team will be less secure than before, but will still field a functional unit, as seen vs Eibar, where subbing on Dembele for Dest did not particularly turn the structure incomprehensible.
In fact, the switch to the 4-2-3-1 helped Barcelona’s movement on the ball, as they were no longer stuck out wide against intense opposition.
On the contrary, having the base of a defensive triumvirate also means that if need-be, the likes of Trincao, Dembele and Fati can seamlessly fit into the setup. The 3-4-2-1 will become a more direct 3-4-3, or an asymmetrical 3-4-1-2 with one of the front-men wider than the other. This improves the range of the attack and provides depth on the flanks.
While the contemporaneous game does not and cannot function on a single formation throughout the length of the tenure or season, as modern-day great Julian Nagelsmann will tell you, one thing has become clear; that Barcelona are not built for a 4-2-3-1.
It can be exploited by using high-pressing wingers who do not allow the centre-backs any space to build from the back, but that can be countered if the double pivot has mobile players who progress the ball by making triangles on either side of the pitch. Pjanic may not cut the role every time, but Riqui Puig can serve as a more than able deputy to him for some scenarios.
As for the 4-3-3, it can be used more often than the aforementioned structure, but there are certainly better options available. It may leave Martin Braithwaite isolated at times, and on others with the entire burden to score on him, for example for the game against Eibar where Barcelona were without Lionel Messi, but it is a risk worth taking given where the season might be headed.