Barcelona’s 2-0 loss to Atlético Madrid last Saturday was the team’s first in La Liga, but the third in the last four games. Ronald Koeman was not on the sidelines but was a very active voice from his box high up in the Wanda Metropolitano, with a great view of the action and the opportunity to instruct positive changes to his team.
Instead, as is often the case with the Dutchman, he was outcoached by his counterpart as Diego Simone made one big tactical adjustment that changed the game and led to one of the most 5-0 looking two-goal wins we’ll ever see.
Barça started the game in the same 4-2-3-1 formation that they used against Levante, with five midfielders in behind Memphis Depay with the same general idea as last weekend: absolutely overload and overwhelm the midfield with a narrow formation designed to put Atlético in tough situations defensively.
Perhaps the formation caught Diego Simeone by surprise, because his initial idea was to have Thomas Lemar, usually a midfielder in his 3-5-2 system, play almost as a third striker in a 3-4-3. Lemar’s responsibility was to shadow Sergio Busquets and stop Barça from building from the back through their most trusted source.
With Lemar so close to Busquets and four other players in midfield, Barça got what they wanted early on: numerical superiority in the center of the pitch with Frenkie De Jong and Gavi playing very narrow from their starting wing positions and both Memphis and Philippe Coutinho moving away from the center-backs to overload the space between them and the midfield.
That left Rodrigo De Paul and Koke alone against the entire Barça midfield, and that caused problems early on for the Colchoneros because those two were hesitant to press the ball in fear of leaving gaps in behind. Because Simeone doesn’t encourage his center-backs to chase forwards around, Barça constantly had people in between the lines ready to receive the ball and create danger.
But pay attention to the time on the clock in the picture above: 9 minutes, 22 seconds. That’s important, because that’s all it took for Simeone to spot the problem and adjust on the fly. He didn’t wait until halftime with his team potentially behind because Barça’s midfield was so overwhelming that it created chance after chance that led to goals, like we saw in the game against Levante.
No, not with Cholo: one minute later, a change in formation brought Lemar back into the midfield and put Atleti in a 5-3-2 shape.
More importantly, Lemar’s responsibility was no longer Busquets. Now the Frenchman’s job was to shadow Frenkie De Jong, protecting the center-backs and allowing Atleti’s other two midfielders to be more aggressive in pursuit of the ball without the fear of opening up gaps. João Félix and Luis Suárez abandoned the two center-backs and dropped deeper to defend against the Nico González-Busquets double-pivot, which gave De Paul and Koke freedom to chase Coutinho and Gavi around.
That one change threw a wrench in Barça’s plan, and the Blaugrana’s attack was dead from that moment on. They no longer had the numbers edge in the middle, so the only solution was to pass it to the wings where Óscar Mingueza and Sergiño Dest were. Those are definitely not the most dangerous players in Barça’s attack, so the visitors were completely stuck and sterile in possession.
With their attack no longer working, it was imperative that Barça’s defense did its job right. But they didn’t, and the reason they didn’t is not the players despite what the coach will try to tell you. Ronald Koeman put the blame on poor Nico González for Atleti’s opening goal, but it is quite clear that Koeman’s ridiculous individual marking scheme should be at fault for the home team going ahead in the 23rd minute.
The picture above from the 9th minute shows that Nico González is supposed to take Lemar. Barça went one-on-one accross the pitch as usual, and Nico’s job was to mark the Frenchman. That continued to be the case even when Lemar switched back to the midfield, which very quickly became a problem.
Now to the goal: it starts with Atleti building from the back. Barça have all of their individual matchups set, but Busquets is marking no-one. There is no evidence from 15 months of Koeman’s coaching that they defend one-on-one with a spare man in the same way Marcelo Bielsa does at Leeds, so I will not give him the benefit of the doubt. Busquets, who is supposed to be defending Koke in that picture above, is already in no man’s land here.
The very obvious problem with individual marking is that it only takes one moment of magic from the opposition to destroy the entire system and send your defense into chaos. That happened when João Félix lost Ronald Araujo when he received a pass from Yannick Carrasco, and that started the sequence that led to Lemar’s opener.
Now here is where the problems in coaching come: Nico González, the man blamed for the goal, is a Barça B player, and Barça B DO NOT USE A MAN-MARKING SCHEME. Nico is taught at the lower level to cover for his teammates, and that is exactly what he does here as he lets Thomas Lemar go to try and stop João Félix. That is a mistake in Koeman’s scheme, but he is far from the only one acting as a zone defender in this play.
Gerard Piqué, who has been playing a zone scheme his entire career until Koeman came, reads the situation well and does what he’s supposed to do as a zone defender as he starts to sprint towards Lemar to cut off the opportunity for an easy through ball by Félix. Luis Suárez, smart as he is, drops off and offers a secondary passing option to Félix.
And that is where the bigger mistake comes: Busquets, who continues to be in no man’s land throughout the play, should sprint towards Suárez and cut off that pass while Dest should cover Piqué’s original position in case Suárez receives the ball and starts running towards goal. But not only is Busquets incredibly slow these days, he never makes the read, and neither does Dest.
We’re not done with the errors, though: Piqué all of a sudden, for some reason, realizes he is the designated Luis Suárez defender for this game and stops to take the Uruguayan even though he has no shot at stopping him, and that leaves Atlético’s number 11 wide open as Piqué is pointing to Nico González telling him to take Lemar, the man Piqué himself decided to take and then gave up on. As you can see below, Busquets, Piqué and Nico all fail together, and Barça somehow concede a goal in which they had SIX DEFENDERS against THREE Atlético attackers.
I hope it’s pretty evident at this point that Nico González is not the only one at fault. In fact, I would argue his is the smallest of all mistakes, and the bigger mistake of all is Koeman’s scheme. The number one key for a man-marking defense is communication, and that has to be taught by the coach. The communication has been quite simply horrible for 15 months, and Koeman insists on a defensive scheme that breaks down every single time.
Yes, the players are clearly in the wrong here too, but why would you make Piqué and Busquets defend in a completely different way at this stage of their careers? Why would you tell Nico González, a slow zone defender, to take on a fast Thomas Lemar all by himself and expect him to come out of it looking good in any way, and then publicly blame a 19-year-old kid after already taking him off at halftime?
Why are Diego Simeone’s defenses always so good? Is it about the quality of the players? No, not even close. Stefan Savic, José Giménez and Mario Hermoso are not the first three names on anybody’s list of the best defenders in the world, but they are always well-protected so their strenghts are highlighted and their weaknesses hidden. That is the coach’s job: offer solutions and make players better. Ronald Koeman creates problems and makes players worse.
But apparently everything will be fine once Sergio Agüero and Ousmane Dembélé come back from injury. Sure, man. Whatever.