These are difficult times for Barça and fans. An, at best, stuttering start to the season, culminating in an unexpected 3-0 loss at home to Juventus in the Champions League. What has gone wrong? Let’s look at some of the possible explanations.
At the institutional level there has been turmoil, uncertainty and much criticism for some time. President Bartomeu had been under pretty much incessant attack for over a year or more. He finally succumbed to this pressure and resigned. The club is now under an interim junta, unable to take long term or costly measures. At least seven candidates are planning to stand for election which will be early in January.
Until then no-one really knows what the immediate, let alone, long term future of the club will be. This uncertainty at boardroom level may have negatively impacted on some players and even on the current coach, Ronald Koeman. Clearly he does not know how long he will be in charge of the team.
I don’t think this is a major factor in the team’s erratic performances. All are professionals and their own future is also at stake. Not giving 100% not only damages the team, but would also decrease a player’s chances of securing an enhanced deal, either at Barça or another club. So, I think we need to look elsewhere for explanations of these poor performances.
To some extent the poor results, as opposed to performances, are more to do with individual errors. These can happen to any team, but there have been too many recently and they have cost the club dearly in terms of lost points. Difficult to know why this is happening. This is not mainly about a collective defensive failure, as many of the most costly errors have been individual.
Injuries to key players have undoubtedly had a detrimental effect on the team’s performances. The long term loss of Piqué and Ansu Fati in particular has been significant. Injuries to other key players have come at inopportune moments, Dembélé the latest. Still a club as big as Barça should not be so badly affected by these injuries.
A number of commentators have insisted that the team’s new formation – 4-2-3-1 is at the root of the problems. The argument is that the more traditional 4-3-3 formation is better suited and more effective for the team. I have to disagree with this view. Firstly there is actually very little difference between the two systems. In the case of Barça and all attack minded teams, both formations rely on two wide players and a centre forward. The wide players are either wingers, think of Neymar, Dembélé or Ronaldinho, or forwards who can play on the wing, think of David Villa, Henry or Fati. A top class centre forward completes the attacking trio, think of Suárez or Etoo.
The only difference lies in midfield. With 4-3-3, there is one central/holding/defensive player, think of Busquets, with two creative, attacking players, think of Xavi and Iniesta. With 4-2-3-1, there are two central players, think of Busquets, De Jong, and only one attacking, link player, think of Griezman, Coutinho.
The difficulty for the coach, whoever he is, is that the current squad has too many players whose preferred and best position is more or less the same. This is as the attacking/link player in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Griezman, Coutinho, Pedri and Messi, all prefer to play in this role. And of course, only one can do so. There is only one genuine centre forward – Braithwaite, who good though he is, is perhaps not quite the top class striker needed for this position with Barça.
As regards wingers/genuine wide players, the club started the season with three contenders – Fati, Dembélé and new signing Trincâo. Fati is out long term, Dembélé is still injury prone, while Trincâo has not been used regularly. Faced with this prospect of only one genuine winger, Koeman has regular played one of Griezman, Coutinho, Pedri and Messi as a nominal wide player. Sometimes two of them play wide. I say nominal, because none of them stay wide very much. They all tend to come inside. This can, and often does, lead to a great deal of overcrowding in the centre of the attack. Lots of attempts at intricate passing, but little in the way of goal scoring chances.
What all this means is that to play players in their preferred, most effective positions, a good number of very good players have to be left on the bench. If Braithwaite plays as the centre forward and Dembélé and Trincâo play on the wings, there is space for only one of Griezman, Coutinho, Pedri and Messi. So, it is easy to understand why Koeman has to try and juggle his players into an effective attacking unit.
Messi, it will be noticed, doesn’t for me easily fit into a 4-2-3-1 formation. He is not disciplined enough for me to be played either wide right or as the attacking link player. He doesn’t fully defend and is a bit too self indulgent in possession. The one place where he can still use his brilliance is in the centre forward role, or false nine, as it is sometimes known. He has successfully played there before. It would give him lots of freedom for movement and to link with Griezman.
When it comes to a 4-3-3 formation, the above comments on the front three still stand. You play two wingers and either Messi or Braithwaite in the centre. With two creative, attacking midfielders, you now have more options there. For these positions the club has Coutinho, Pedri, Aleñá, Puig, De Jong andSergi Roberto. For the one central midfield role, the coach has Busquets, De Jong and Pjaniç. De Jong as noted can also play as an attacking midfielder.
The big loser with this formation is Griezman, as his preferred role has disappeared. There is the same problem with the other formation, namely that the squad has only two genuine wide players, Dembélé and Trincâo. One of whom is injury prone and the other is still adapting to playing for Barça.
To sum all this up, I do not think the main issue for the club is the formation. The root problem is that Koeman has inherited an unbalanced squad, which has been made worse by serious injuries to key players. Looking ahead, there are a number of decisions the new board and coach really need to take. Depending on which formation they want they need to sell either Coutinho or Griezman. They don’t play well together, and Griezman is much the better player in a 4-2-3-1 formation. If they opt for a 4-3-3 system then Griezman doesn’t fit in at all.
Whichever formation they plump for, Barça are traditionally most effective when playing with two genuine wide players. Hopefully Fati will return fully recovered and Trincâo will have started to fulfil his potential. If Dembélé can remain fully fit, he could become a star for the team. Can the club rely on his fitness though? Konrad de la Fuente from the B team may be another star in the making. If not, the club should sign a top class wide player.
As regards the centre forward position, the club do need a top class, reliable goal scorer. Braithwaite is a very good reserve, but the team needs someone else as first choice. Messi can play there, but he probably doesn’t want to and is unlikely to be a long term solution. Perish the thought, but I tend to agree with those who think it would have been better for all concerned if the club had kept Luis Suárez and sold Messi in the summer. The squad would be slightly better balanced and the club would be in a bit less of financial trouble.