Barcelona’s 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich on Tuesday’s Champions League opener was yet another painful reminder of how far they have fallen. But it was also a clear indication that they will continue to fall if Joan Laporta doesn’t make a drastic decision soon. Barça’s loss was not just about the difference in quality between the two teams. In fact, it might not have been about that at all.
As is often the case with Ronald Koeman, you can see the idea. He has a plan coming into big games, and the plan sometimes looks promising. Against Bayern, two things must be accomplished: not give Joshua Kimmich space to operate, and control the threat of Alphonso Davies on the left wing, especially when he’s partnered by Leroy Sané on that side.
Koeman’s plan was clear: man-to-man marking on all three players. A different Barça midfielder took the responsibility on Kimmich depending on where he was on the pitch, but Davies and Sané had designated markers: Sergi Roberto and Ronald Araujo.
As you can see above, it didn’t matter where Sané and Davies happened to be: their markers had to chase them around and give them no space, and a pass to Kimmich should not happen under any circumstance.
Because of the individual marking, Barça’s shape was never the expected 5-3-2 without the ball, which was actually a good thing. It kept the one-on-one matchups simple, and it allowed Barça to defend higher up the pitch with more players.
The plan worked in the first 10 minutes, and Bayern were somewhat stuck in possession. They never needed to go long because every time they didn’t have an outlet, the ball went back to Manuel Neuer who is about as calm and effective in possession as any player in the world — goalkeeper or otherwise.
But Koeman’s objective was achieved: there were no easy passing lanes, the center-back passes between the lines weren’t happening, and Bayern were largely ineffective on the ball.
In possession, Barça’s plan was also clear: if Bayern pressed high, which they did, the ball would go directly to Luuk De Jong who would try and hold on to it until the rest of the team caught up. Once they did, Barça’s attack would shape up in a 3-1-4-2 with almost the entire team overloading the left wing, leaving Roberto all alone on the right against Davies.
Roberto was Koeman’s big hope for the night: the player capable of keeping up with Davies at the back and also offer a threat on the counter-attack as an outlet on the right wing.
You don’t need me to tell you that Bayern didn’t feel remotely threatened by Roberto. The pictures do, loud and clear. Look how they leave him alone and ignore him completely. Bayern wanted Barça to feature Sergi Roberto. The whole idea was to shut down everybody else, especially Memphis Depay, Pedri and Frenkie De Jong — which Bayern accomplished by defending in a narrow 4-2-3-1 shape that surrounded the Barça trio at all times — and force Barça to find Roberto on the right wing, completely isolated against the one of the quickest, most effective one-on-one defensive players in Europe.
It’s hilariously naive. Koeman is asking Roberto to be Ousmane Dembélé or Ansu Fati, and that is how Sergi ended up being booed out of the stadium by his own fans. Again, you can see the idea, but when you don’t have the players to execute it, do something else. Or show some bravery and pick Yusuf Demir. Is it too much pressure on a young kid? Maybe, but at least the chances of your plan working are higher with a player who is better suited for that position and at least has the skillset to try and pose a threat to Davies.
But if he wasn’t effective in attack, at least Roberto would keep defending Davies well, right? Wrong. And that’s where the coaching gap was clear. Julian Nagelsmann saw that Barça denied the things he wanted to do, so he adapted by moving his pieces around.
Robert Lewandowski moves to the left wing, the front two is Sané and Leon Goretzka, and the two central midfielders are Thomas Müller and Davies. Gerard Piqué is in no man’s land, Araujo is still trying to defend Sané even though he’s supposed to take the left winger, and Roberto is no longer marking Davies because he’s worried about Lewandowski.
Bayern did this time and time again, with different players moving into different positions to confuse Barça’s man-to-man marking, and that’s how the Bavarians established full dominance in the game, starting in the 20th minute and never looking back. To be perfectly clear, Bayern were far from their best. Players were hesitant to shoot, finishing was poor and the passing in the final third could have been much better, but they were still far and away the better team.
There were plenty of loud voices everywhere on Tuesday saying that Barça’s team is not good enough to compete with Bayern, that the gulf in quality is the reason why no matter who the coach was, Barça wouldn’t have a chance. I strongly disagree. Not with the talent part. Trying to argue that Barça’s current squad, especially with the injuries in attack, is anywhere near Bayern’s in terms of individual talent is stupid.
But you will not convince me that Barça’s squad is still not good enough to be much better than this, and you will definitely never convince me that Barça players are as well-coached as they could be. And there is a clear example from the aspect of football that is least reliant on individual talent: pressing.
Pressing is about scheme: the coach designs a system to defend higher up the pitch in an effective way, with the goal of stopping the opposition from building up from the back comfortably and the hope of forcing them into a mistake close to their goal that will create an easy scoring chance.
Almost every team in Europe does it, regardless of how good the players are or how defensive-minded the coach is. Football has evolved to a place where not pressing effectively is detrimental, hurting your team’s chances to win.
Here is Bayern’s press from Tuesday:
Look how designed and organized it is. Nagelsmann wants one-on-one pressing, and it is done to perfection: no easy passing options, and every player knows exactly who to mark and does with maximum effort. Not surprisingly, Barça are forced to play long in both of the plays highlighted above.
It doesn’t matter here how well Sané can excute a nutmeg, or how great of a finisher Lewandowski is. Their job is to stop the other team, and it’s about effort, communication and clear instructions from their coach. It does help that Bayern were already the best pressing team in the world under Hansi Flick, but Nagelsmann has clearly kept up their level in that part of the game.
Now let’s look at Barça’s press. Remember, Ronald Koeman has been coaching this team for 15 months now:
It starts well. Koeman also likes man-to-man pressing, and Barça do it well. Every passing option on Bayern’s left side is closed, and the primary goal is achieved: force the ball back to Neuer. Niklas Süle is ready to do that, and Memphis on the left side is already running at full speed to not only stop an easy pass to Dayot Upamecano but also to force Neuer into a long ball. Phase One is a success.
But please pay attention to Sergio Busquets, circled in the midfield line. He is covering for Ronald Araujo, who has followed Leroy Sané all the way into Bayern’s half. Araujo, because he is a defender, does the natural, smart thing and starts to retreat once the ball gets to Neuer. His job is done. Busquets, seeing this, should either communicate with Araujo and tell him to stay with Sané or sprint to the Bayern player while Araujo returns to his original position.
Busquets does neither, Araujo runs back, and Sané is all alone. Barça wanted Neuer to go long, and every other player is perfectly positioned to stop every short option.
Neuer plays a calm, perfect pass with his weaker left foot to a wide-open Sané and Bayern are off and running. Busquets never makes the read, and poor Frenkie De Jong has his hands up in the air asking just what the hell happened behind him:
Now, to be fair, Busquets and Araujo are also to blame. It’s ultimately up to the players, and Busquets is experienced and smart enough to make the read. But it’s so clear here that they haven’t been properly coached to communicate in that situation. Communication is crucial to pressing, and Barça were bad at it time and time again on Tuesday.
That play isn’t an isolated accident, and this wasn’t a tight game that finished 1-0 because Busquets and Araujo failed to communicate in that moment, Sané had a free run and eventually assisted a Lewandowski winner. This was a random moment in the 15th minute that perfectly exemplified the problems in Barça’s coaching.
I can accept the offensive shortcomings with a squad short in attackers. I can accept slow defenders who aren’t good enough to stop world-class attackers. That is not on Koeman.
Designing an attacking plan entirely predicated on Sergi Roberto beating Alphonso Davies is on Koeman. A pressing scheme that constantly fails due to poor communication is on Koeman. A lack of halftime adjustments and a pathetic second half in which Barça parked the bus to not lose by a lot is on Koeman. Zero shots on target is on Koeman.
This goes beyond lack of talent and no money to sign world-class players. You can’t watch Young Boys beat Manchester United with a bold, attacking strategy and say they have better players than Barça. You can’t watch Erik ten Hag’s Ajax wipe the floor with Sporting Lisbon on the road and say they have better players than Barça.
“No coach would beat Bayern with this squad” is a lazy argument. It’s not about beating Bayern. Very few Barça fans went into that game thinking it would happen. But they could and should have competed better, and the coach should have gone into it with a solid plan and think on his feet to make changes to that plan.
He didn’t. Again.