To say Ronald Koeman has his work cut out is an understatement. The Dutchman comes into Barça in one of the most tumultuous moments in recent history, and fixing this side is no easy feat. However, any sort of course correction starts with the very basics. The fundamentals, not superstar attack signings.
A possession-heavy system, in today’s game, is reliant on intense counterpressing and zonal superiority. That means no more lopsided pressing, and focusing on first wave pressing, with the attackers bearing the brunt of the load. This is why this season has been a trainwreck. No legs in this side, which means no effective counterpressing. Over and over again, teams have packed the middle with numbers, and have kept runners on the wings, to allow for quick transitions in wide areas, where Barça are often exposed. Due to a lack of front-line pressing, it is all to easy to create 3v2’s vs Barça’s interiors, as Barça often leave the opposition pivot unmarked.
If Koeman wants an overhaul, it has to start with the press. This is non-negotiable. The club is faced with its worst pressing data in years, and the road only gets bumpier. The manner in which the improvement is achieved is irrelevant. It’s more important that it’s done at all.
The other big issue at Barça? It’s the centrality of play. Barça offer no threat out wide, except for stretched full-backs, who in moving up then endanger the centre backs. This is time tested. Because Barça’s attacking avenues are so predictable, teams can plan ahead and can second guess most of their moves. The lack of centrality is what has hastened Barça’s decline into an individualistic nightmare. This too has to be dealt with immediately.
Now, how can this be rectified? A solution was offered by former manager Quique Setién, yet faulty implementation and a lack of necessary personnel ensured that his plans could not come to fruition. A shape to explore is the 3-2-5, which we saw him use in the post-lockdown games vs Atlético Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and more.
This would see a midfielder drop into the left of defence, whilst the full-backs push into zone 15-18/13-16 respectively. This would bode well for Frenkie de Jong. Koeman has indicated that he plans to position the Dutchman closer to defense, and this role would be a natural fit. The two interiors would be tasked with progression and distribution into the box whilst the front three would look to stretch the pitch centrally and out wide. When Setién used this three-man box strategy, he used Messi as a sort of shuttler, alongside the new Juventus acquisition: Arthur. This approach could of course fit Riqui Puig and another ‘8’ (Aleñá perhaps?), With Messi joining the front line through the middle.
The role of the front three would be vital. They’d need to do what Barça cannot do at all; stretch the pitch both ways; laterally and vertically. Dembélé, Griezmann and Ansu Fati are options, alongside Leo Messi of course. With Messi, a more vertical midfielder can be employed to create potential 4v2’s in the box.
The full-backs would also need to be smarter, and supplement the runs of the forwards, especially in the half-spaces. Setién tried this approach, but with Semedo, Alba, Suárez, etc it was never going to work.
It would be prudent to use Puig as a front line presser, and defend in a 4-4-2. This would allow Messi to rest easy without the ball and would ensure that Barça do not lose out in the numbers.
At the end of the day, however, tactics can only get you so far. Barça need an overhaul from the ground up, it’s more than just formations. Koeman has a monumental task ahead of him, and very little time.