The Barcelona and Athletic head to heads have been insightful encounters over the past year.
Ronald Koeman and Marcelino are in their second seasons with their respective clubs, and both are trying to find a way forward having inherited challenging circumstances.
Regardless, the expectation at both storied clubs is to achieve results and respect in front of proud supporters who have little patience for rebuilding. So far, neither has been truly convincing, but the methods have been interesting to observe.
Last season, when trophies were on the line, Athletic first beat Barcelona 3-2 in the Supercopa in one of Marcelino’s first games with the club, with a game plan that was similar to what we saw in the 1-1 draw on Saturday.
A few months later, the two sides met again, and this time it was Koeman who got the upper hand, winning the Copa del Rey 4-0, in what was probably his team’s best performance of the season.
With a new season beginning, one thing was clear when the two teams met at San Mames on Saturday, Marcelino knew exactly what he wanted his team to do. Koeman seemed to just throw his guys out there.
Tactically, Athletic go after Barcelona in predictable ways, and are essentially looking to catch them unprepared for a fight. It works, because Barcelona is also predictable.
This time around, Marcelino had his team set the tone by pressing high and aggressively from the start, knowing that Barcelona will stubbornly play out from the back, even when the logical and obvious thing to do is play it up the field where there is space.
Athletic won three corners in the first three minutes, and put the game plan into motion. Beat Barca on a set piece.
By the end of the game, they had 13 corners. Barca surprisingly defended them well, except for one, when Eric Garcia was beaten by a bigger and faster Inigo Martinez.
On the bright side, Barca’s defense looked more confident defending set pieces, but statistically at that rate you’re going to lose one eventually.
On the other hand, Inaki Williams caused problems as he always does, and was unlucky to not to put a goal away after out racing the Barca defense on several occasions.
As it happens so often, eventually Athletic got tired, and Barca found their way back into the game behind a fantastic individual effort from Memphis Depay.
Ronald Koeman can not rely on the spectacular as a method for winning games. He needs to have a plan.
Even when Marcelino and Athletic fail, you can see what they’re trying to do.
They have personality. They have a style of play, whether you think it’s attractive or not.
Going forward, without Messi guiding the way, what image will this Barcelona team have?
Does Koeman have a vision in his mind? Watching them on Saturday, it didn’t look like it.
The low hanging fruit is to motivate and make sure the team has energy to start the game. Without that, we’ll never know for sure which team we’re getting.
And going down 1-0 has spelled trouble against most teams who are happy to defend a lead.
The second area of concern with Koeman is the lack of rotating players at the right times. He needs to keep the players fresh and ready to give their all every minute of the game.
Is a dog tired Pedri better than Riqui Puig?
Should Eric Garcia have played on the day his grandfather died instead of Ronald Araujo?
What about Gerard Pique who was nursing an injury coming into the game?
The manager is accountable for these decisions.
If things aren’t going well while the game is on, do something about it.
Koeman is going to need everyone this season, even the players who aren’t his personal favorites.
Against Athletic, an argument could be made that adjustments were needed at half-time. The Dutchman’s indecisiveness, and overall conservative game management limits the team’s options, and will surely cause his side to drop points in the future.
Marcelino doesn’t have a deep roster, and he sticks with his starters when they’re doing the job, but the second Barca equalized, he had an offensive adjustment ready to go with Nico Williams, who almost won the game in the dying minutes.
This season could go a lot of different ways.
Even now, with many players injured and unavailable, Koeman has plenty of resources if he’s willing to show confidence in them.
This is still Barcelona.
Have a plan, have pride, and be courageous.
This team needs leaders. It starts with the manager.
Koeman can do better. Learn the lessons now while there’s time.