First Impressions of Koeman’s Barça

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Camp Nou via Jose Luis Hidalgo R, CC BY 2.0

Barcelona kicked off their season in impressive fashion by scoring four 1st Half goals to ease past a disappointing Villarreal side on Sunday. Here’s Robert Barter with reaction to their first competitive game under Ronald Koeman.

5 Talking Points from Koeman’s Debut

Defensive Improvements

With this being Barcelona’s first competitive game since the 8-2 thrashing at the hands of Bayern Munich in Lisbon, all eyes were bound to be on the defensive partnership of Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet, and it must be said that they coped excellently.

While the Summer exodus planned after the aforementioned thumping saw the likes of Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitić, Luis Suárez and Nélson Semedo all shipped on, it was surprising to see Piqué not only still at the club, but as the preferred defensive partner to Lenglet.

With the club still bargaining with Manchester City over the signing of Eric García and with young Uruguayan centre-half Ronald Araujo enjoying an impressive pre-season, Piqué, now 33 and at the club over 12 years, did little harm to his chances with doubts still lingering over his ability to continue at this level.

Over 90 minutes Villarreal were restricted to just five shots, only one of which would test Barcelona’s capable Neto, the Brazilian putting to rest any worry over the injury sustained to Marc-André ter Stegen. The German shot-stopper is expected to miss at least another three weeks of action.

Sluggish double Pivot

What was painfully obvious under Ernesto Valverde, Philippe Coutinho is not a winger, nor an outside-forward. During his spell as Liverpool’s chief protagonist and under Tite at Brazil his brightest moments arose when playing as a playmaker, as the number 10 behind the centre-forward. More on his mercurial performance later, but to accommodate this Koeman deployed a two-man midfield, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong in a double pivot and in what was an otherwise superb night for the club, the two-man performance must have caused Koeman some worry.

Although Busquets registered the highest pass completion rate of any Barcelona player on the pitch, it was apparent early on that the attacking phases in this formation rendered him and the defence exposed. Several times Busquets squandered possession in the final third, exposing the team on each instance to a counter-attack, an issue Koeman must rectify quickly as more clinical teams may not have squandered such opportunities.

With new signing Miralem Pjanić on the bench, as well as starlets Riqui Puig and Carles Aleñá, it would not be a surprise to see Busquets start from the bench when they play Celta Vigo this Thursday. Now 32, 12 years playing as the sole holding midfielder may be taking its toll on Busquets, the tally of twelve seasons at the top perhaps beginning to register.

A new Coutinho

Continuing with Koeman’s midfield conundrum, Coutinho’s performance differed greatly with that of the deepest pair, his performance widely lauded following a summer of uncertainty with regards to his future.

Despite scoring twice against the club mere weeks ago and having gotten his career back on track with the Bavarians, they opted against making his loan move permanent. With no transfer then viable in the current climate, Koeman entrusted him with the playmaking duty, playing just behind the striker in the exact position which he excels, and the results were immediate.

He controlled the game from start to finish with the majority of Barcelona’s attacking play focused through the Brazilian. His withdrawal on 70 minutes to facilitate the introduction of Pedri would surely have been met with applause had the stadium been full, an outstanding performance and exactly what he would have dreamed of to reignite his Barcelona career.

With the main criticism aimed at Barça for the better part of a decade being their over-reliance on Messi, a world class playmaker will take a lot of the creative burden off his shoulders, early indications being that Koeman prefers to play the Argentine as the central striker.

Here to stay

Despite the humiliation in Rome, in Liverpool and the slow and uninspired football, fans of Football Club Barcelona will remain forever indebted to Ernesto Valverde for the emergence of Ansu Fati.

At the beginning of last season and with Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Ousmane Dembélé all injured, the coach, still reeling from the 4-0 defeat at Anfield months prior, could have erred on the side of caution. He could have reverted to the 4-4-2 we witnessed during his first campaign. He could have placed established first-team players such as Rafinha or Vidal on the wing. Instead he looked to the Cantera, a decision from which Fati, nor the club, has looked back.

His two wonderfully taken goals in the First Half set the ball in motion for the eventual 4-0 success, a winger both quick and clinical who has now found the net nine times from 25 appearances in La Liga. The 17-year-old is also off the mark for Spain, netting the third in their 4-0 triumph over Ukraine earlier this month.

Thanks to the career of Lionel Messi, every prodigious attacking footballer that emerges from La Masia is seemingly subjected to unfair comparisons. From Bojan to Tello and then to Deulofeu not all succeed. However, with Fati something feels different. With Fati the talent may live up to the hype.

Goalless Griezmann

At what point do Barcelona begin to worry over Griezmann? At 4-0 up and coasting to success some might have pondered if this was the opportune time for Griezmann to strike, to show why Barcelona coveted his signature so desperately. Yet no moments of magic or inspiration ever surfaced.

With Messi on the scoresheet, Fati bagging a brilliant brace and Coutinho dazzling the opposition for 70 minutes, Griezmann yet again seemed the odd one out, almost like an outcast in an otherwise fluid and deadly Barcelona attack.

Some suggested he struggled last season as he was used as a left-winger, yet if Koeman continues with Messi down the centre, it is difficult to envisage any improvements with the use of the Frenchman on the right. His movement off the ball was second to none, yet with the 120-million-euro price tag the club will come to expect more.

In his debut season he managed just nine league goals, an average of one in four. Compare that with Fati who scored eight in 24, or his time at Atlético Madrid, where he was averaging one in two. In this his second season, Griezmann is running out of time to impress.

Featured Image of Camp Nou via Jose Luis Hidalgo, CC BY 2.0

About Robert Barter 11 Articles
Football writer for LaLiga Expert & Zicoball.