By Saul Garcia.
Barcelona are a wayward club. The 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid in El Clásico showed us that.
Koeman’s plan has not worked.
Since joining and changing the traditional 4-3-3, a Barcelona staple, to a more pragmatic 4-2-3-1, it has not worked.
If we begin to analyze why, it becomes clear.
From playing players out of position and making Lionel Messi just another guy; to benching two of his most dynamic players in Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé.
So what does Koeman do now?
It has to start in the midfield. Specifically, the two pivots he uses. The time has come for Sergio Busquets to make way and exit the starting lineup. He has become a liability. From speed to positional awareness, with the latter exposed in Real Madrid’s first goal on Saturday where he was many meters behind Fede Valverde who breezed by him to score.
The solution is putting in two players who can do many things — Frenkie de Jong and Miralem Pjanić. Two traditional number eights, they can pass, open passing lanes, and most importantly press. Barcelona, if they are committed to the new formation, pressing is a must. Start here.
Koeman also has to decide what exactly he is doing with his front four. In the game on Saturday, the formation seemed to mold into a 4-4-2 when attacking as Messi joined Ansu Fati up front. While not traditional strikers, both players were physically kept at bay most of the game by the Real Madrid centre-backs.
Then, the substitutions, made late, did not help. Adding Trincao and Dembélé only muddied the waters further. Koeman seemed to just be throwing players at the problem and see what stuck. None did.
The lack of a real plan for the forwards is obvious, and Koeman has been criticized in the past for being tactically naive. With no balance, depth or real tactical plan, Koeman will never work at Barcelona.
He needs to simplify. Literally. Make it really easy for the players to know what to do. If he’s set on that 4-2-3-1 he should make his wingers stay there, no pinching in, so they can expose that width. And the players used out wide should actually be wingers — so Fati and Dembélé fit the bill.
Pedri lacks pace and was sent out wide in El Clásico which seemed to overwhelm him. With no real out and out striker, Koeman should play Messi there. Griezmann would have to be sacrificed and be essentially a super-sub, but clearer directions and balance will instantly help.
Messi there can pull payers in or out of the 18-yard box and help the wingers and Phillipe Coutinho make plays in combination with him. Think Sergio Agüero with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.
Lastly, the defence has been a shambles. An older less mobile Pique, and Clement Lenglet who is as erratic as ever, have not made a good pairing.
The bigger problem is they have no real alternative. Ronald Araujo is not ready for this stage neither is a perennially injured Samuel Umtiti. One of the few bright spots has been Sergiño Dest and Jordi Alba, who have shown good flashes.
So there is the solution. Play Alba at centre-back. Have him help Pique clean up the side as a leader who does not bomb forward. For fullbacks, keep Dest at right-back and help Junior Firpo realize his potential on the other side. With simple directions and leadership from Alba and Pique, he can.
Against Juventus, they face another big team undergoing struggles. This would be a perfect time to simplify objectives and play it simple. Will Koeman do that? He should.