Even the harshest critics of Ronald Koeman will concede he was dealt a rough hand to start the season with.
The sudden departures of Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann took away the team’s best goalscorers.
Injuries to Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembele, Kun Aguero, and Martin Braithwaite complicated the calculus further.
To the surprise of many, Koeman remains the manager on the premise that when the attackers return the true team will emerge.
The truth is likely in the middle.
Success going forward will require a plan as new players become available over the next few weeks. That plan depends on Koeman.
How will he manage the minutes?
What formation will we see?
Will the tactics change?
Early on, we saw that Koeman wanted to use a 4-3-3, and with Griezmann, Braithwaite, and Memphis Depay, we got a glimpse of its attacking potential.
As players became unavailable, the Dutchman waivered searching for new solutions week by week, vacillating between a 4-3-3, 3-5-2, and 4-2-3-1. For many players, the positioning was a game of musical chairs.
Going forward, with Koeman looking to put out his strongest team, we will likely see the 4-3-3 more consistently.
Ansu Fati is back and will be ready to join Memphis in the regular starting rotation. Between the two of them, one will play in the middle, while the other provides width on the left flank. I’d expect this to be fluid, as the two of them are smart, creative, and hard working enough to play off one another.
Aguero will be a wildcard. I’ve been skeptical that he will be able to contribute at a high level after the lack of minutes the past few seasons, but in the best case scenario we could see him imitate the success of Radamel Falcao with Rayo Vallecano, who has scored three goals and has his side overachieving to start the season.
Once a goalscorer always a goalscorer, and over the past decade Aguero joins Luis Suarez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic as one of the best in the world. We’re starting to see that number nines can stay sharp long into their thirties.
But realistically, Aguero’s impact will come off the bench, and could help his team rescue points late in games. At Manchester City he proved he is a clutch player, and I’m optimistic he’ll have moments like that with Barcelona too.
In Koeman’s mind, however, it’s clear that the true plan relies on Dembele making a comeback and nailing down the spot as the forward on the right side, joining Ansu and Memphis as a potent attacking trio that challenges defensive lines for pace.
Ramping up to this point will take at least a month, and at that point the schedule will be a bit more forgiving. But by then it may be too little too late.
The problem with this plan is that it requires everything to fall in place perfectly. Ronald Araujo just went down with an injury, and other players will too.
There will be no shortage of excuses.
If the team is to have success, Koeman will need to rely on everyone. Koeman can’t forget about the likes of Yusuf Demir and Riqui Puig. Although they have disappointed so far, he has to also find a way to get more out of Philippe Coutinho and Luuk de Jong.
Much of this will depend on tactics, and in game management, two areas where Koeman has struggled.
Can this team develop an identity?
Can it discover its strengths and play to them in a way that puts opponents on their heels?
Koeman will need to reset the mentality of his players, and get them playing positively.
No doubt, Aguero and Dembele will strengthen the team with their quality, but in the end they are still just individuals.
The season is already flying by, and every game counts.
Koeman will have to make good use of every resource at his disposal, and turn them into a collective unit.
The track record isn’t good, but the mission is clear.
Time to make good on his promise.