Unfortunately, this season has been yet another underwhelming one for the Catalans, Barcelona participated in this season’s editions of the Copa Del Rey and they were the champions of it, the Supercopa de España, and the UEFA Champions League. The season covered the period from 12 September 2020 to 23 May 2021, with the late start to the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Barcelona were third in La Liga, while Atletico Madrid were the champions of the 2020/21 LaLiga Santander. This is the 11th league title that Atletico have won, and the second under Diego Simeone. Barcelona were also eliminated from the 16th round of the Champions League at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain.
Marc Andre Ter Stegen was the Barcelona goalkeeper, he is one of the best goalkeepers in the world and he is getting even better by the day and will soon by Germany’s permanent number one replacing the legendary Manuel Neuer in goal. Ahead of him, they have problems at right back with Dest, he has still yet to adjust to the Barcelona game holistically. They keep playing Sergi Roberto as a makeshift right back. They have Gerard Pique who is getting old in defence and his partners – both Samuel Umtiti and Clement Lenglet have not looked like leaders at the back, So Koeman was forced to rely on young players like Ronald Araújo and Oscar Mingueza. The left-back Jordi Alba is again one of the best in the world but he has no understudy.
The Barcelona midfielders were Philippe Coutinho, Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, Pedri Gonzalez and Riqui Puig, They are now trying to replace the ageing Sergio Busquets with the Liverpool star Georginio Wijnaldum. The attackers were Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, Ansu Fati, Trincão, and Martin Braithwaite. Riqui Puig, Miralem Pjanic, and Junior Firpo have been severely underused.
Does Koeman deserve a long-term project at Barcelona?
For all A-class managers, a long-term project revolves around trust. These managers are fully backed by the board and ownership groups through thick and thin, whether trophyless or with second-place finishes. This trust either comes from past success with other teams or is earned through promising results, like Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola’s first seasons with Liverpool and Manchester City, but Koeman’s long-term project at Barcelona means Laporta should judge him with a bigger picture in mind, giving him full freedom in the transfer market and the Boards undivided trust for years to come.
Koeman’s first season’s tactics
One of Koeman’s shortcomings as Barcelona manager this season was a lack of tactical rigidity, fluidity, curious squad management, and ill-planned substitutions. He has however shown formations’ fluidity throughout the season, when his favored 4-2-3-1 was not working, he eventually embraced the 4-3-3, and when that stagnated, he switched to a 3-5-2. The 3-5-2 formation has provided stability and gotten the best out of Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, and when Barcelona needed a new approach to counter their opponents, Koeman choose to stick with the 3-5-2 formation, which was never going to be a permanent solution, but playing with a 3-5-2 formation at least gave Busquets coverage while receiving and passing the ball in the build-up phase, as shown in the picture below in their match against Getafe in matchweek 31 of La Liga 2020/21.
Jordi Alba’s output in the final third has lately begun to revolve around changing the formation to 3-5-2, with visible improvements in Alba’s decision making, he has become one of the key players as the new 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation arguably seems to extract his best qualities and conceals his most noticeable flaws. Alba is considered lethal, and a vital source of penetration when in advanced positions. With slick spells of possession in the centre, Koeman’s formation 3-5-2 gave Alba defensive coverage in the left flank, which he suffered a lot from, and also gave him the freedom to penetrate higher up the pitch as the image below shows in their match against Real Betis in matchweek 9 of La Liga 2020/21.
Barcelona’s defensive performances have been sub-par and the pressing left a lot to be desired. This was a huge issue because Barcelona always relied on an aggressive approach to suffocate the opposition and recover possession high up the pitch, but this style of pressing with a disconnected structure, both on and off the ball, it was often easy for their opponents to play through them and through the gaps between their lines.
We saw a much different approach altogether as Barcelona swapped between their usual 4-4-2 structure and the newly-introduced 5-3-2 formation with two wing-backs Dest and Alba but those same wing-backs would push higher when Barcelona tried to press. In such scenarios, we saw a very man-marking heavy approach from Barcelona’s players that aimed to shut down passing channels and mark the opponent’s main progressors out of the game.
Defensive issues under Koeman
Barcelona’s defensive tactics were a big part of their season’s bad results; it was how well they managed to play to their forwards’ strengths that ultimately won them the games. In attack, Barcelona Players were deployed in a 3-5-2 formation as Dest and Alba had joined the midfield trident to completely overload the opponents midfielders. Barcelona’s defensive shape under Koeman depends on the midfielders. As always, Busquets takes the central spot, whereas the inclusion of De Jong makes it a three-man defence, with a mobile full-back and shielded by two deep-lying midfielders. This is done in an attempt to use either of the full-backs in the press and the two mid-fielders to maintain the shield for the back three, also, the use of full-backs to attain numerical advantage on the opposition half makes it difficult for them to transit back and defend.
Before the 3-5-2 formation when Barcelona line-up was with a four-man defensive, allowing the full-backs to make runs to maintain numerical superiority in the forward set-up, Barcelona were vulnerable when they were caught in possession from the wide areas of the pitch because the advanced full-backs look to be ineffective defensively, due to their inability to cope with teams that rely on their pacey wingers as shown below in their match against Eibar.
But the 3-5-2 formation can never be a long term option for Barcelona for many reasons, Barcelona, as a football club, have the luxury of boasting one of the best academies in world football, La Masia. The players are inculcated with a strict set of values, intricately detailed roles with pertinent information for each position one can take up once they get to the end game, which is, for every academy player, to play for the first team. All teams, as part of the La Masia, use the 4-3-3 with their players. This simply means that if ever a formation such as the 3-5-2 is to be used at the club, it should not be for extensive periods of time. It renders an entire academy structure useless, and this then translates to club presidents having to spend ludicrous amounts of money to acquire players that will simply not be needed once the team eventually reverts to the core values it upholds.
2020/21 season has been yet another underwhelming one for Barcelona; they had only one trophy (Copa Del Rey). Koeman always adapted his formations during the season, depending on the opposition he faced. He turned to Barcelona’s traditional 4-3-3 attacking formation and three-men defence in 3-5-2 formation in specific matches, depending on the opposition and the players available. The only difference in this formation is that there is a single pivot and no AM. So, De Jong is the sole DM, Coutinho plays as a CM instead of an AM, and Puig replaces Pjanic as the second CM, Overall, he was happy with the 3-5-2 formation. It maximizes the quality of the lineup and puts most players in their best positions. There were many issues that Koeman had to resolve, mainly the defence.