When Ronald Koeman arrived at Barcelona, one of the decisions he made right away was changing the formation from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1.
So far the new system has had mixed results with strong performances in the Champions League, but an inability to produce wins in La Liga, with the loss to Atletico Madrid on Sunday dropping their record to a paltry 3-2-3.
For Barcelona, make no mistake, this defeat was consequential, and it confirmed the need for significant changes going forward. The pressure is on for Koeman to show he can take responsibility for the problems that are the result of decisions he himself has made, and it can start with considering the benefits of a formation change.
Is a return to a 4-3-3 the way to go?
Barcelona has dominated with a 4-3-3 before
Looking back, Barcelona’s use of the 4-3-3 took off with the Messi, Suarez, and Neymar partnership. Under coach Luis Enrique, this system produced one of the most prolific seasons in the history of the club as they won the Treble, and amassed 94 points in a hard-fought La Liga season.
The MSN scored a combined 122 goals in all competitions. In a way, ever since Neymar left for PSG in the summer of 2017, Barcelona has been searching for a way to return to that form, but has never found it, in spite of winning two more titles under Ernesto Valverde.
If Koeman were to return to a 4-3-3 it would not be a small decision. For the forwards and midfielders, their responsibilities would change fundamentally, and it would need to be accompanied by a tactical vision.
So far this season, Koeman has used the formation once, and it was also the one time that Messi was asked to come off the bench. This is not a small detail.
In the first half, when Messi wasn’t playing, Koeman used a front three of Ansu Fati, Antoine Griezmann, and Ousmane Dembele. The midfield three were Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, and Pedri. This formation and combination of players looked formidable from the start.
The forwards came out of the gates firing away. The finishing should have been more clinical, but from a manager’s perspective, the take away from this half should have been how effective the team was at playing with pace and generating quality opportunities on the goal. Dembele opened the scoring in the 21st minute with an eye-popping left-footed laser that almost put a hole in the back of the net.
In a fashion very similar to the Atleti game, Barcelona were exploited on the counter attack right before half-time, giving up an equalizer. In spite of it, the 4-3-3 that we saw was confident and full of life. It didn’t fix the defensive problems, but it did give the team a chance to show off their potential on the offensive end.
During the break, we learned that Ansu Fati suffered a knee injury, and Messi came on to give his best performance of the season, leading the team to an eventual 5-2 victory. Complicating the analysis, the impressive second half was accomplished under a 4-4-2.
If Koeman does choose to change formations, he will certainly look back at this game for insight.
There’s a reason Barca switched away from the 4-3-3
The debate around changing to a 4-3-3 can’t be had without remembering it’s complicated history in recent years.
Valverde, in many ways devoid of original ideas, essentially continued what Luis Enrique started in terms of shape. Quique Setien followed in his footsteps. This time period included two La Liga titles, but it was also marred by stunning embarrassments in the Champions League: Roma, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich.
It also frankly didn’t serve the team’s biggest signings during this time. Coutinho looked like a shell of himself. Dembele showed some promise, but underperformed overall, in combination with injuries that limited his appearances. Griezmann, not surprisingly, actually looked better in this formation than he does currently, but still wasn’t as effective as he was at Atletico Madrid.
Still, that doesn’t mean Barcelona should be afraid to try it again. There is evidence that Dembele and Griezmann could thrive with the spacing it provides. Coutinho and Pedri would be big question marks in terms of where they fit in, but I could see Pedri playing in the midfield, while the Brazilian takes the role on the left wing.
The biggest obstacle would be how to play Messi and Griezmann at the same time. It could be argued that in order to accommodate both of them a 4-4-2 would be required.
Would it be wise for Barcelona to switch between formations from game to game? At this point, I’d say it’s worth a try, because the 4-2-3-1 is now officially not working on a consistent basis, and using different formations would give more players opportunities to play. With the injury list growing, this may be more of a necessity than a choice.
A new formation means Riqui Puig could not only start playing, but could take on a big role. Tactics and shape aside, Riqui brings energy and a high level of motivation. Carles Aleñá could also be given a shot under a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2. Whether they were Ronald Koeman’s first choices is now irrelevant. They are the next men up on the roster, and there is a lot of season to go. Time to see what they can do.
The good news going forward is that the schedule is relatively friendly for the rest of 2020. Barcelona are in a good position in their Champions League group, and the La Liga fixtures are considerably less difficult with Osasuna, Cadiz, and Levante coming up.
Now is the time for Koeman to have an open mind, experiment, and give all the players a fair chance.
Even though it feels like the season is slipping away, Barcelona should recognize that this is one of the most competitive races in a long time. Points will continue to drop at the top of the table. It’s now Barcelona’s job to be ready to take advantage by fighting for all three points, one game at a time, in the weeks to come.