Koeman’s double pivot system, Will it work?

7 min read
Koeman at Barcelona

The new Dutch manager, Ronald Koeman, has seemingly done what most of the hierarchy haven’t been able to do; clean-up the squad of all the deadwood and try to reinstate priorities to the remaining members. This has led to him rightly considering repositioning some important signings including dutch midfielder de Jong and marquee signing Antoine Griezmann, the former whom he considers as the cornerstone of the rebuilding project.

This means that the 23-year-old will be moved into the left of a more familiar double pivot role which suits his abilities better. Before going into depth of a double pivot system, let’s take a brief digression…

Build-up

Unlike against Napoli, where Setien seemed well equipped to deal tactically as discussed in the preview, against Bayern Munich he seemed unforeseen tactically what most fans and pundits alike felt extremely questionable. And among the plethora of problems that the Blaugrana faced, let’s focus for a bit on the build-up.

Although it can certainly be said that Setien has improved the Blaugrana build-up from the ground up, the quick flurry of matches and overall lack of time seems to have minimized the number of patterns that would be crucial in case one of the plans failed. As pointed out in the problems of the season, Setien’s build-up was very one dimensional and central, also forming large spaces for 1v1 dribbling.

The central prominence of the routine (usually 3rd man passes to the CB) led Bayern to press centrally, with high pressure on the pivot (Busquets) and the CMs man-marked aggressively by their opposite numbers. To prevent wide play, the winger would move inwards and make a curved run (very similar to Origi last year for Liverpool) to prevent Semedo from getting the ball.

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You can see the central overload from the opposition players, with a curved run from the LW preventing the switch to Semedo while Lenglet was free (and capable) to make that, so was Alba on the left.

The situation could have been solved by playing the ball to the ball sided FB who moves deeper to receive wide, with the ball sided midfielder in support with the CBs keen to receive much deeper (almost touching the horizontal touchline). With the current formula of two players occupying the #6 space, this could system could well be bolstered. The usual second route that Barcelona follow is a long ball from Ter Stegen to the forwards. Unfortunately for the goalkeeper, this routine was well thwarted by the Barbarians who’s physical CBs dominated aerially in the centre.

This has to an extent shown the profusion of errors both tactically and decision-making that Setien had to fix. This could be, for an instance, the midfielders playing a few meters further than they were playing to create difficulties for the defending team (by creating superiorities) or in decision making with positional advantage or passing lanes to cover in mind. A big problem that they usually have in the final third especially is the slow vertical ball speed. This is disadvantageous as it restricts the amount of time that the receiver has to turn and scan for a pass.

Added to this is the dip in reaction time that the slightly older players have suffered. This makes the passes played, perception of space/player’s movements a fraction of a second slower which seems to take a toll.

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The advanced average age was clearly evident in the fatigue in most performances

Koeman and The double pivot

While many teams in the current generation use double pivots, most of them with common grounds being the protection of the defence while allowing various other players to progress (could be CBs for Bielsa/Gasperini’s teams or the FBs for Bayern). The most common practice is to involve a deep-lying playmaker along with a box-box midfielder who will bring the ball out to the attacking players cleanly without extra players dropping deep.

Koeman in an interview with the Dutch television ‘US’, clearly elucidated the reasons which led to off-colour performances from both big-money signings. Frenkie’s diagonal dribbling, ball protection and vertical/diagonal passing had wrongly placed him as an Iniesta replacement much higher than he’s used to (and even moving wide on the right at times).

On the other hand, Griezmann was thrust on the left despite continuous pleas from the Frenchman (even publicly) claiming his poor dribbling skills and overall unsuitability from what Barcelona are expecting in their traditional winger’s role. The duo would be delighted by the manager’s initial statements in reinstating them in their more favourable positions.

The flexibility of a 4-2-3-1 allows more players to join the attack without worrying much about the defensive phase. This also creates almost two distinct parts, which can help to seamlessly transition from one phase to another. Frenkie’s partner on the pivot is being seriously courted with options being Alena, Riqui Puig and Pjanic. Busquets, however, seemed off-colour in the preseason game in that position.

During the build-up, one of the pivots moves into the defensive line to form a back three with the other centre-backs, while the FBs offer width. The advantage of a double pivot is observed here as the second one occupies the #6 space with another player (either the inverted FB or CAM) dropping to fill the space. For example, in the second half of the friendly, Coutinho dropped in the left pivot space to facilitate build-up while in other occasions Trincao (a wide player) dropped in the right half-space.

Koeman's possible lineup for Barcelona
The expected line-ups when 4-2-3-1 is lined up

Higher-up the pitch, the four attacking players usually occupy the four important zones of the pitch matching up 1v1 with the backline, this is sometimes aided with the advancing fullback in the side on an inverted winger or runs deep from one of the CMs into the box to form a 2-3-5esque formation. This not only requires good understanding between the wide players (FBs and wingers) to alternate but also between the attacking midfielder and striker as both of them enjoy playing in between the lines.

The flexibility of the formation with two high and wide wingers also aids the striker (in this case Griezmann) to drop in between the lines (as he’s not suitable to pin the defensive line and two players are sufficient to pin a back 4)along with the CAM to form a double #10 role. This can form the famed box midfield. But this also requires selfless wingers staying wide enough to stretch the backline (or in some cases in the half-spaces) to pin the backline. The opposition CBs straying forward can mean a through ball in the gap for either the wide forwards or the striker to latch onto for a 1v1 with the keeper.

koeman barcelona
The double pivot can create such structures with the #10s dropping in between the lines to pick up. The main advantage lies in the direct passing lanes to the #10s that are opened up by the double pivot. Against a two man opposition forward line, a three at the back can be formed.

Though it is expected that Koeman would start with a double pivot, it could well be achieved with in-game flexibility allowing more attacking players to feature higher up the field. This could be either in the form of an inverting FB in a back four or an inverting CB in a back three (which Roberto successfully accomplished in both the Napoli and Real Valladolid games). This way width could be provided by the wide players instead of the FBs while Barcelona could cover good ground in the half-spaces and the centre of the pitch. This is especially necessary as much of the wide duties in a 4-2-3-1 are performed by the FBs.

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This is very ideal, with a 3 at the back and the RCB inverting to form a double pivot with Frenkie de Jong

Just like the attacking flexibility, the defensive phase also allows great flexibility in positioning structures which can be opposition dependent as it has a strong emphasis on central occupation while can be flexible to allow pressing traps wide. In general, if Koeman offers to press higher up the field, many lines of pressure can be created that could also help in countering when necessary.

The defensive implications provoked earlier managers like Pep Guardiola against the double pivot as this system requires a good amount of understanding to succeed. This system needs pendulum-like movement from the two pivots to cover spaces and offer spatial staggering and avoid ending up flatfooted in the same line leaving lots of space. Furthermore, the wingers in the system have to track back to cover the space in front of the full-backs efficiently (in a 4-4-2) with the two forwards on top to press the back-line and prevent easy passes between the lines.

double pivot
The problem with a double pivot arrises whn there is lack of understanding between them, this can lead to players popping in between the lines and the two pivots to recieve in space.

Conclusion

If Koeman does continue with a fixed double pivot system and a 4-2-3-1 system, most players will have to adapt to the change in the system as it requires many players to start and arrive in different positions. This is not considered a bad thing as it would mean more familiarity to the central engine i.e. Frenkie de Jong while also providing defensive stability.

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