To say that Ronald Koeman has his work cut out for is an understatement. The Dutchman arrives at Barça in one of the most tumultuous moments in recent history and fixing this team is no easy feat. However, any kind of course correction starts with the basics. The fundamentals, not superstar bindings purchases.
A heavy possession system in today’s game relies on intense counterattack and zonal superiority. This means no more lopsided pressures and focus on the first wave of pressures, with forwards carrying the brunt. This is why this season has been a disaster. No legs on this side, which means no effective counter pressure. Over and over again, the teams filled the center with numbers and kept the runners on the flanks, to allow for quick transitions in large areas, where Barça is often exposed. Due to the lack of frontline pressure, it’s all easy to create 3v2 insides against Barca, as Barca often leave the opposing pivot unmarked.
If Koeman wants a review, he has to start with the press. This is not negotiable. The club faces the worst pressing data of recent years and the road only gets bumpier. How improvement is achieved is irrelevant. It is more important that it be done completely.
Barça’s other big problem? It is the centrality of the game. Barça does not offer any threat from the outside, except for the stretched full-backs, which as they rise endanger the central defenders. This is time tested. Because Barça’s attacking routes are so predictable, teams can plan ahead and can guess most of their moves. The lack of centrality is what accelerated Barça’s decline into an individualistic nightmare. This too needs to be addressed immediately.
Now, how can this be remedied? A solution was offered by former manager Quique Setién, but a flawed implementation and lack of necessary staff ensured that his plans could not be realized. One form to explore is 3-2-5, which we have seen it use in post-lockdown matches against Atlético Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and others.
This would see a midfielder fall to the left of the defense, while the full backs push into the 15-18 / 13-16 zone respectively. This would bode well for Frenkie de Jong. Koeman has indicated that he intends to place the Dutchman closer to defense and this role would be a natural fit. The two interns would have the task of progression and distribution in the box, while the three front ones would have tried to lengthen the field centrally and wide. When Setién used this three-man boxing strategy, he used Messi as a kind of shuttle, alongside the new Juventus acquisition: Arthur. This approach could obviously fit Riqui Puig and another “8” (Aleñá perhaps?), With Messi joining the front line through the center.
The role of the first three would be fundamental. They should do what Barça cannot do at all; stretch the field in both directions; laterally and vertically. Dembélé, Griezmann and Ansu Fati are options, along with Leo Messi of course. With Messi, a more vertical midfielder can be employed to create potential 4v2s in the area.
Full-backs should also be smarter and complete strikers’ races, especially in half spaces. Setién tried this approach, but with Semedo, Alba, Suárez, etc. It would never work.
It would be prudent to use Puig as a frontline presser and defend in a 4-4-2. This would allow Messi to feel comfortable without the ball and ensure that Barça does not lose out in numbers.
At the end of the day, however, the tactic can only get you far. Barça needs a review from scratch, it’s more than just lineups. Koeman has a huge task ahead of him and little time.