Ronald Koeman’s 4-2-3-1: How will it work?

15 min read
Koeman as Barca Boss

Former Barcelona legend Ronald Koeman has taken the responsibility of waking up Barcelona, which is sinking in a catastrophic time. The Dutch manager, who has managed several clubs before, knows Barcelona very well. It is now his responsibility to reorganize the squad and to take tactical decisions. Today I will try to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of how Koeman’s favourite 4-2-3-1 formation can work in Barcelona.

As soon as Koeman took charge of Barca, the rumours began to spread about his 4-2-3-1 formation. The former Barca legend used this formation when he was in charge of the Netherlands national team or the Premier League at Everton and Southampton. Using this formation of two defensive midfielders, he has succeeded in the Dutch national team. The use of this formation has also been common in his recent career. For this reason, it can be said with certainty that Koeman will try this idea in Barca as well. Let’s try to anticipate how things can work out this way.

First of all, let’s see how Barca will look like if they use this formation and what options Koeman has in his hands.

Koeman's options

Koeman’s Attacking Unit:

Messi under koeman:

Let’s start with Barca’s attack. This is the most exciting part, ‘ Messi under Koman ‘. How will Koeman use Lionel Messi? To be precise, this formation of Koeman can be very favourable for Messi. Over the last few seasons, Messi now feels more comfortable playing centrally than at the wing. In the starting line-up, Messi is shown at the right-wing, but he moves towards the centre a lot during the game.

There are two reasons behind this. First of all, due to the recent stagnation of Barcelona’s creative department, Messi has to make the play by himself. Messi often comes deep and takes part in the build-up. Secondly, his age; Messi is no longer young. His speed has also decreased than before. That’s why playing in the wing is not appropriate for him now. This is why Messi operates centrally on the field for most of the matches. The statistics also say the same thing.

Lionel Messi's hitmap for 2019-20

From last season’s hit map, it is clear that Messi has operated more from the centre than he did at the right-wing. However, whenever Messi moves towards the centre, an emptiness is created in the right-wing of Barca. On the other hand, Barca lacks a proper left winger, which makes the game very narrow. At this time, when the opponent creates a central block, the attack of Barca falls into a complicated situation.

Messi position switch roam

Barca’s fullbacks are often used to solve this problem. Semedo overlaps to take space in the right-wing which is left empty by Messi and takes position there to widen the opponent’s backline. Alba on the left has to do the same. As a result, they leave a massive space behind which is a big cause of Barca’s headache during counter-attacks. But this time, the space could be well covered by the two pivots. And also fullbacks won’t have to push too high up the pitch as there will be wingers to give Barca width.

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Ronald Koeman’s 4-2-3-1 will help Messi to operate centrally. If Messi plays as a CAM, he will be able to use his play-making ability as well as his goal-scoring ability. The presence of two wings on either side of the CAM in this formation will also give Barca width. This will also reduce the offensive duty of fullbacks.

Options at Barca’s wing include Dembele, Trincao, Fati, Pedri. Almost every one of them can make a run behind the defence with speed. Messi in the centre and the speedy runner in the two wings will give Barca both creativity and speed with which they can use at the wide positions to create spaces and to stretch the opponent’s backline or to create a chance for the wingers by playing through-balls to the halfspaces; Which is exactly the thing that Barca missed so badly last season

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the NO. 9 Dilemma:

Wing problem may have been solved in this formation, but what about Barca’s number nine? According to the current financial situation, Barcelona will not be able to sign anyone unless they sell some players and gain some money. Rumours regarding Memphis Depay or Lautaro Martinez have been heard, but now they have come to a standstill. If it is not possible to sign someone, then Koeman has to work with the resources that he already has in his hands.

Sport reported that Koman would want to use Fati as number nine. Fati has played as a striker in Barca’s youth system, but he played on the main team a lot like an inside forward, from the left. His role might be quite similar to David Villa’s. Frankly speaking, Fati is our most in-form left-winger at the moment. His inside run from the left-wing and the cut-ins before taking a shot is significantly related to the typical Barcelona style.

ansu fati antoine griezmann

Can Griezmann play as a striker?

On the other hand, looking at Griezmann’s profile, it is clear that he is also not a proper nine. He could not succeed in playing as a lone striker under Valverde and Setien, Griezmann is very familiar with the CAM position of 4-2-3-1. However, Lionel Messi can be considered most suitable for this position or even Coutinho. But can Griezmann succeed as a Number Nine?

Here is a lot of work in the hands of Barca boss Ronald Koeman. In no way Griezmann is accustomed to playing as a striker according to his style of play. That’s why he is facing difficulties adjusting to Barca’s style. Comparing the current with the Griezmann for 2018-19 shows that he looks a lot like a second striker in the hit map. He is comfortable to take part in the build-up from behind the striker.

cf heat

Griezmann is in his best when he is the centre of all attention. His attribute is the same as the number ten. But that is not the case in Barcelona. Messi and Griezmann consume each other’s space in the central area of the pitch due to Messi’s presence and massive involvement in playmaking; Which, makes it harder for Griezmann to fit in Barcelona. If we talk about Griezmann’s best performance, we have to talk about the match of 5-2 victory against Real Betis where Griezmann was the centre of attention of Barca’s gameplay.

Barcelona vs Real Betis 2019 08 25 Pass Map

But How can Ronald Koeman fit Messi, Coutinho, Griezmann into the same team? The answer is very difficult. But False Nine could be a good approach.

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maybe false 9?

Pep Guardiola first used it in Barcelona. Although Messi started as a striker on the team sheet, he often came deep during the match and dragged a centre-back with him. To use the space created in the backline by the dislocated CB, Henry and Eto or Villa and Pedro would run made through the halfspaces as an inside forward which would have given Messi or Barca’s midfield an excellent chance to play a killer pass. The same thing can happen if Koeman uses Messi as the False Nine and Dembele, Fati, Griezmann as the inside runners. Thus, in a squad without proper nine, false nine could be the solution to the puzzle.

Pep used to try another thing. That is to widen the opponent’s defence by sending the wingers near the sidelines. That would widen the backline and spaces would be created for Messi at the edge of the box. Pep did this against Manchester United at Wembley and Messi scored from a very similar position. Now Koeman also has Fati, Dembele, Trincao who can cut in from wide to the centre as well as can widen the defence hugging the sideline. So false nine could really be a feasible option for Ronald Koeman.

However, position swapping is going to be the most crucial issue in Koeman’s tactics. In the match against Girona, the practice of position switching was widely seen. Koeman’s starting line-up included Messi, Trincao, Coutinho, and Griezmann. In a word, 3 number tens were included in the same line-up.

swapping

Position swapping may be the best way to get the most out of the offensive line without a proper number nine. In the match against Girona, thanks to this fluid front three, because of whom Barca has been seen to be quite lively.

If you look at the attacking players in the team, it is clear that Barca has outstanding depth, as well as a lot of versatility. Dembele and Trincao can play in both wings, Fati can play even as a striker too, Griezmann and Coutinho can play a free role, and Messi, of course, can do everything. Such versatility and squad depth can inspire Koeman to do more and more position swapping. Moreover, this position switching is a reflection of pure Dutch football. It also has been used in Barcelona for a long time.

All in all, we might see more of such matches as we did see against Girona one and even it could become Koeman’s most significant discovery.

Midfield and Frenkie De Jong:

This is probably going to be Koeman’s favourite part. He is going to apply an idea that has been used rarely in Barcelona, which is Double pivot in 4-2-3-1 formation. When it comes to talking about it, Frenkie de Jong’s name will come up at the beginning. The former Ajax midfielder and Barca were called a “Match made in heaven”. But the story of De Jong in the Blaugrana jersey is very very different. But It obviously has legit reasons.

De Jong played at Ajax as a defensive midfielder. But in Barcelona, he has been used as an advanced midfielder, Especially on the left side of midfield where Iniesta played. De Jong is naturally a deep-lying midfielder. He prefers to operate from the deep. But both Setien and Valverde have used him in a different position. Shortly after taking office, Koeman told the media that he would play Frankie in his preferred position.

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The difference of Frenkie between being an Ajax player and a Barca player is quite clear. The Dutch midfielder had success in Ajax after playing in a double pivot. We can clearly understand it by looking at the statistics.

Frenkie de Jong Pressures La Liga 2019 2020
Frenkie de Jong Pressures Eredivisie 2018 2019

Here it is seen that his tackle, challenge, and interceptions in Ajax are twice as much as in Barca. All of these are defensive attributes, meaning that De Jong’s best attributes were not used by Barca last season.

Speaking of De Jong’s tactical profile, he likes to take part in build-ups from deep. Instead of being advanced off the ball, he feels comfortable moving the ball forward.

fREnkie 2

As you can see here, He provides passing options at the beginning of the build-up when the opposing players are pressing the centre-backs.

After taking the ball, De Jong uses his strongest trait. He is an absolute beast with the ball. However, passing is not his most robust feature which Barca prioritizes. His best attributes are dribbling and turnings. Using that, he can carry the ball in the midfield by dribbling from the defence in an instant. This ability of him will help Barca in the defence-to-attack transition where they were very slow during last season and because of dead players. De Jong can indeed provide an upgrade there. One of the biggest reason why Koeman prefers him.

Frenkie and Busi

Barca has been using Busquets in this position for years with great pride. But we all know Busquets is getting old. He’s not as sharp as he was used to be. His speed has also decreased a lot. This is one of the key reasons for the slow transition of the team. Koeman said soon after his arrival that he would prefer Frenkie over Busquets.

A comparison between the two shows Busquets’ best trait is passing, and De Jong’s is dribbling. Since Koman likes direct football and his 4-2-3-1 is his preferred formation, on the other hand considering De Jong’s mobility, it can be said that De Jong is the best fit in this position. Besides, De Jong can advance to attacking areas with the ball without playing an extra pass. This reduces the time for the opponent team to counter-press or to reorganize in defence.

Also defensively, De Jong is the better fit. Fullbacks always overlap in the typical Barca style. Due to which they have to leave a lot of spaces behind. This space can be a cause of fear for Barca after losing possession. At this time, the responsibility of stopping the counter-attack is given to the defensive midfielder.

Busquets was pretty shaky at his work last season. The reasons can be stated as the same- age and speed decrease. As Frenkie is much younger and sharper, he could be the solution to this problem. He can cover a lot of ground at instance, is also quite skilled at pass interception. During his time at Ajax, his defensive contribution was almost double that of in Barcelona. He has been only dribbled past 0.6 times in every match and has fouled only 1.2 times.

pjanic, the new addition:

Now the question is who will be Frenkie’s partner in the double pivot? The typical answer is Pjanic. But what can Pjanic offer to Barcelona? Pjanic is a central midfielder, having played most of his minutes at defensive midfield for Juventus last season. The most incredible quality of Pjanic is his positioning sense. Among the Juventus midfielders, Pjanic was the deepest one. His sharp positioning sense helped Juventus to break the opponent’s pressing during the build-up.

He doesn’t come in the same line with the back four like De Jong to take the ball. Instead, he offers himself as a passing option by standing right in front of the opponent’s first pressing line. It helped the Italian giants to break the opponent’s first line of press.

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However, the task is not that easy at all. It takes a lot of awareness and positioning sense to do the job against a good pressing unit. And of course, Pjanic has it all. He wants to offer himself a safe passing option by always changing his position according to where the ball is dropping between the pressing line and his own centre backs. This ability can be used in the same way in Barcelona.

The opponent often forces our defenders to play the wrong pass by pressing too high at times to counter Barca’s ‘build from the back’, which we saw a lot in the match against Bayern. Two skilled players in an off-the-ball movement like Pjanic and Frenkie can play a significant role in solving this problem.

Pjanic’s positioning sense is useful even during the build-up. Pjanic spends most of the match, offering himself as a passing option. To save the team from the pressing, he takes a convenient position throughout the midfield to get the ball out of danger.

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Here it is seen that all the passing lanes are closed for the person who has the ball in his feet. But Pjanic is helping him by breaking this block by his movement and positioning sense. Pjanic will feature in the Barca system as a right defensive midfielder accompanied by De Jong at the left.

He will provide fullbacks and wingers passing option on the right side. He is equally adept in absorbing the press which Barcelona have missed from Rakitic-Vidal-Arthur in the last two seasons.

Along with Pjanic’s positioning, his creative ability is also to be appreciated. Pjanic can speed up the build-up with a run through the pockets of spaces. Thanks again to his positioning sense. Besides, he is one of the best in playing long balls. This will help Barca to be direct, precisely what Koeman wants to see.

Again his positioning and awareness can make him a good fit in Barca’s passing football. Here it is seen that Pjanic has taken a position in such a way that there are 4-5 passing options open in front of him.

Pjanic making passing lane

These same traits can come in handy defensively. Pjanic’s anticipation is very good. While defending, he can take a position that will help him win the ball after a while. Pjanic recovered the ball 6.96 times per match last season, compared to Arthur’s 3.40 in Barcelona, which was relatively low according to Barcelona’s need. In that case, Pjanic is a significant upgrade.

However, Pjanic has a weak point defensively. His great weakness is in tackling and aerial duels. The disadvantage of a pivot in tackling in Barca’s game is quite a big drawback. Busquets or Frenkie are both excellent tacklers. There is a lot o improve in this area.

what will happen to puig?

Now let’s come to a pessimistic point. What will be Riqui Puig’s role in the 4-2-3-1 Double Pivot Formation? How will he fit into this system? Puig could be one of the reasons Barca fans are worried about Koman’s 4-2-3-1 midfield. In fact, Puig is an advanced midfielder who feels comfortable operating on the left side of the field. According to the profile, Puig could be Iniesta’s perfect successor. He wants to dominate the area by line-breaking pass, carrying the ball and moving forward, or putting himself in the line between the lines. 1.95 Deep Completion per 90 and 7.26 progressive runs certify his instinct as an advanced profile.

Position

But will this attribute be useful in Pivot? It is clear that he is not a deep-lying playmaker, but a ball carrier and line breaker. Accordingly, it may not be reasonable to use Puig in a double pivot. But in Puig useful in this system? This matter is quite frightening. Barca in no way can let Puig’s potential go in vain. Puig is currently the brightest prospect in Barcelona. There is no way they should let this be another Thiago-Saga. Puig’s energy to counter-press can be of some benefit in a double pivot, but if they misuse his best abilities, Barca will have to pay a hefty price.

One solution would be to play Puig as an attacking midfielder or an interior player on the left. It has been seen at times that there is no Barca player in between the lines.

Capture

Since De Jong stays deeper and there is another DM on the right side, the wingers are closer to the sidelines as well, this time Koeman can use Puig or Coutinho on the left side and use them between the two lines to advance the attack.

Defence:

This time the real scary part comes. In other positions, Koeman has depth, but the story of Barca’s defence is very different. That’s the main reason for Barca’s downfall, and no one would disagree. Pique is 33; Alba is 31, Semedo in right-back is an embarrassment, Sergi Roberto too is not different. Koeman has no chance to change this line of defence. Considering the current financial situation, there is no way for Koman to bring in new reinforcements. This is going to be Koman’s worst-case scenario as a Barca coach. Let’s start with the fullback.

Koeman likes fullbacks who play direct and wide instead of coming to the centre. In other words, Koeman doesn’t like the idea of inverted fullback, which clashes with Alba. Alba played for Barca as an inverted fullback and also operated in wide positions. In the last few seasons, Alba has been at the operating too far up to stretch the opposition defence. He had to do this due to the limitations of wing play in the team. At the same time, he has moved a little towards the centre to give a numerical advantage in the midfield. His hit map says the same thing.

alba

In contrast, in the Koeman system, wide fullbacks are preferred over inverted ones. So Alba may have to adapt to this change. However, the right-back Semedo will be an undisputed starter for the same reason. Since Koeman wants to restrict his fullbacks from being involved in the creation, we might see a better Semedo. Because even though Semedo is fast, he can make runs, but his finishing touch and ball distribution are not up to the mark.

However, without reinforcement, the fullback section of Barca will remain relatively incompetent this season as well.

Honestly, the whole defence is like that. It’s a part where there’s not much to say; there’s not much to do for Koeman. Yet after one month of the Bayern humiliation, there has been no attempt to strengthen Barcelona’s defence, which is never acceptable.

This is it. There is a lot of work to be done by Koeman now. Barca will be very different from last season in the attack, midfield, and hopefully in defence. Koeman has a very versatile midfield and attack. There will be many experiments; different ideas can be tried. Barca fans have a lot to witness, a lot to anticipate. Let the bells ring, 2020-21 is here. Hopefully, these are the final hours before the beautiful dawn.

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