After a disappointing couple of years, FC Barcelona are making active strides in the transfer market to turn their fortunes around. The signings of Memphis Depay, Eric Garcia and Sergio Aguero signal their intent to be the best team in Spain again, and end their two season run without a La Liga title. Here is a tactical analysis of how FC Barcelona may set up under the influence of Ronald Koeman next season.
system of play: 4-3-3 (?)
Ronald Koeman shifted away from the Barcelona way on more than one occasion last season, opting for an unorthodox 3-1-4-2 in the second half of the season, and shifting between a 3-4-2-1, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 in other moments. Traditionally, Barcelona teams have played a 4-3-3, focused on intelligent movement and complete dominance over the ball, also known as tiki taka. Koeman’s constant formation changes in 2020-21 potentially did not help to keep the harmony between the team as they lost the title to Atletico, and also now make them more difficult to nail down as we head into 2021-22.
One of the possible reasons why Koeman adopted a back-three in 2020-21 could have been an attempt to cope with his stop and start defense. The Dutch manager inherited an unfortunate mix of players lacking genuine top flight, title winning experience, and others at the end of their careers, who lack the speed and intensity to keep up with the pace of the modern game. The signing of Eric Garcia should help to an extent with this, as should the stunning form of Pedri, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong ahead of them, who were all excellent at Euro 2020. Now with Depay added to the mix, Koeman should make attempts to get all of his best players on the field at once, and that would be by playing in some sort of back-four formation, rather than adding another defender to the team.Embed from Getty Images
So with all of that in mind, we have decided to suggest Ronald Koeman stay true to a 4-3-3, like many of his predecessors. Memphis Depay’s inclusion in the team could push Antoine Griezmann to the right of the attack as he played for France at the Euros, while Sergio Aguero would be unlikely to start in this shape. The Argentinean could start alongside his Copa America winning compatriot Lionel Messi in a 4-2-3-1, or so too could Ousmane Dembele or Ansu Fati as the team shuffles around. But the likeliest scenario is that Barcelona are strongest in a midfield three, particularly with the box-to-box mobility of de Jong and Pedri most useful with a more defensive presence alongside them.
Alba and Dest look likeliest to start as the fullbacks, despite the positive form of Junior Firpo and the addition of Brazilian defender Emerson, returning from a two year loan spell at Real Betis. Who starts alongside Eric Garcia at the back will certainly be up for debate, and Barcelona are probably still another top quality centre-back away from having a title winning squad. But with Messi leading the charge, they will have every chance. The fact that Messi is now backed up by Memphis Depay, and a top quality 18-year-old who now has one full season of professional football under his belt, makes Barcelona all the more intriguing in 2021-22.
midfield balanceEmbed from Getty Images
One of the keys in getting the best out of Barcelona this season will likely be in deploying a midfield three. As the link between attack and defense, and important to virtually every aspect of the game, central midfielders are integral to the set-up of any team. Having three in midfield can, in and of itself, allow for more dominance and control, particularly in possession. What Barcelona have to offer is potentially one of the best midfield triads in the world. Frenkie de Jong oozes class in possession and is fantastic at playing out from the back. He also recognizes cues of when to push forward and press higher up, as he showed for Netherlands at Euro 2020. Pedri also impressed at this summer’s Euros, as part of a possession-based Spain side where he was given freedom to find pockets of space and roam up the pitch as he pleased. Sergio Busquets, despite his age, should still be the best option to anchor the midfield in between them. He too impressed with his overall defensive output and contributions to Spain’s semi-final performance.Embed from Getty Images
Busquets’ inclusion in the team naturally allows for greater flexibility and adaptability for Spain, as they can form a midfield two in specific moments with one pushing up, or they can even advance de Jong and Pedri at the same time. With both players being excellent on the ball and holding the ability to make line-breaking passes and dribbles, this ability should be extremely valuable to them. You might ask why they could not do the same thing in a midfield two or without Busquets. They really might be able to. But it takes a quality player, who is incredibly positionally sound, to get the best outcomes out of players like de Jong and Pedri. Busquets may lack the mobility to cover enormous amounts of ground in a short amount of time, but he knows where to be to best support those around him. This is where that midfield balance should pay dividends in 2021-22, and allow Barcelona to be one of the top sides in the world again. Now when you add Memphis Depay to the mix, things get even more fun.
to press, or not to pressEmbed from Getty Images
While FC Barcelona have always been a possession-based side, they have not always been a “press and possess” side. Adding Memphis Depay to the attack now potentially adds more dynamism in the press, if Koeman wants to take advantage of that. By having a player with a slightly greater understanding of how to press, this should allow Barcelona to continue with their high-line and high possession, without necessarily adopting the most aggressive pressing structures in the world. Lionel Messi is a near perfect player, but he is not the most aggressive from a defensive perspective and Barcelona have lacked a genuine leader of the “defend from the front” mentality over the course of his tenure at Barcelona. Depay could potentially be the man to change that. If Barcelona were to find ways to press higher and more aggressively, it could allow them even greater control and dominance. For example, it would mean pushing de Jong and Pedri higher up the field, where they would be closer to their attack-minded friends and able to work their magic instantly after winning possession. Busquets will always anchor in behind in case anything goes wrong and their pressure is broken, which is just one more reason why it would likely be a positive change if Barcelona were to pressure more aggressively. It would also allow Alba and Dest to play as auxiliary wing-backs, as they did in a 3-1-4-2. The shape could essentially look very similar in their 4-3-3, with Sergio Busquets dropping alongside the defenders and the wing-backs pushing up both when building out from the back and pressing high.
As Koeman adopted in 2021-22, Barcelona could continue to play in a 3-1-4-2 or 3-4-2-1 formation. Memphis Depay is a dangerous wide player, but he, like Griezmann, Messi and Dembele, likes to cut inside, play in vertical channels and occupy “forward” like positions rather than play out wide. One of the reasons we know Koeman used the 3-1-4-2 and 3-4-2-1 in 2020-21 was because he felt he had no natural wide players. Possession is all good and fun, but if it’s too narrow and vertical, it can become very easy for the opposition to compact their shape and shut down the space. Playing a back-three means that width can come from wing-backs like Alba and Dest, and then allow Barcelona’s danger men to operate in central channels. Eric Garcia would be comfortable with the changing systems and flexibility of a back-three having spent time under the influence of Pep Guardiola, while the others have already become accustomed to changing tactics under Koeman last year. The same things we spoke about with midfield balance and pressing from the front could also remain true, although Barcelona would probably sit off a bit more in this shape. Messi often starts from a very low position, as he’s always looking to pick up possession from deep and then drive his team on. So with now only one player acting as a forward, it becomes a bit more difficult to press. When that player could be Antoine Griezmann or Sergio Aguero, who are not necessarily known for pressing, it becomes even more difficult. While the 3-1-4-2 became one of Koeman’s top choices in 2020-21, it might not be the case for 2021-22 following Depay’s transfer.
In order to accommodate Griezmann and Depay into the same team without sacrificing the midfield three, we believe a 4-3-3 will be the best fit. However, a 3-1-4-2 or even a 3-4-2-1 could be secondary options that Koeman uses to achieve different results with his team.
For the first summer in a few years, FC Barcelona look settled, and ready to turn up the heat in their quest to win La Liga again. Tactically, the signings of Memphis Depay and Sergio Aguero only further complicate an already complicated mix of personnel. Koeman changed formation throughout 2020-21 in order to find the best, and we likely will see the exact same thing again this year with their new players added to the mix. Whatever happens this year at FC Barcelona, it should be another interesting year for Ronald Koeman’s team.
So there it is! A quick look at how FC Barcelona might set up in 2021-22, and the tactics they could deploy. Be sure to check out more of our latest Tactical Analyses and follow on Twitter @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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