There’s a problem brewing in Barcelona.
On the face of it, things are going nicely in the early days of the Ronald Koeman era. The Blaugrana won their opening two games of the season and then in their first real test, they played out a tight and tense draw against high-flying Sevilla.
For a club who were in complete disarray just a month ago – with their best player asking to leave, a new manager coming in, their third-highest goalscorer of all time getting released, having very little pre-season with basically no money to rebuild their squad – they’ve done very well.
But beneath their impressive start is a major problem brewing in attack.
Releasing Luis Suárez was never a problem for Barcelona given his physical decline. But it has left them without a No.9 when they have three No.10s on massive wages and just three wingers, only one of which (Ansu Fati) has the full trust of the coach to start.
Squeezing three No.10s into Koeman’s 4-2-3-1 shape isn’t impossible, but the problem is the specific No.10s Barcelona have don’t really mesh well together. Obviously Lionel Messi is the best player on the planet and can play false nine to help get the others into the side, but he has absolutely zero chemistry with the other No.10, Antoine Griezmann.
The Frenchman is the second-highest-paid player at the club after Messi but the problem is that at his best he plays the exact same position as the Argentine. And he’s fantastic in that position. He won the World Cup in that position. But if he’s not in that position he doesn’t really know how to have an impact in games.
La Liga title odds with William Hill:
- Real Madrid: 11/10
- Barcelona: 6/5
- Atletico Madrid: 7/1
- Sevilla: 16/1
- Villarreal: 50/1
*You have to be 18+ to gamble. All odds and offers within this article are accurate at the time of publication (15:30, 06/10/2020). BeGambleAware.
Against Sevilla, Griezmann played right-wing and as a result touched the ball 21 times and attempted just 16 passes. The only Barcelona players who managed fewer were Pedri and Dest, both of whom only came on in the second half.
What’s worse is both made a bigger and better attacking impression than Griezmann, who wasted his two chances (bad enough to be called out by Koeman post-match) and did little else besides that. His use of the ball was shockingly unambitious.
Messi playing false nine and dropping deep should be the catalyst for Griezmann to blitz diagonally into that space, but he just didn’t make those runs enough or else did so when the possibility for a pass simply wasn’t there. The chemistry was, and is, non-existent.Then there’s Coutinho. The former Liverpool playmaker is doing well at No.10 but when moved to the left in the second half against Sevilla, he vanished from the game after a promising first-half.
The current set-up of Messi at false nine, Coutinho as the No.10 and Griezmann at right-wing does not work. And if it’s allowed to persist then Barcelona will become more and more prosaic as time passes, they will start to drop points in games they shouldn’t, and they will fall further and further behind in the title race.
So how do you solve that problem? The solution is simple but unpalatable: you drop Antoine Griezmann for an actual right-winger.
This has happened as a substitution in every game so far, with Francisco Trincao coming on and impressing by sheer dint of having the pace to make searing runs in behind (one such run led to a great chance he should have scored). Ousmane Dembélé is also staying at the club, and should now be given a chance to show what he can do on the wings with Ansu Fati and the Portuguese.
By surrounding Messi and Coutinho with actual wingers with true pace, Barcelona would become a more dynamic side with more passing options and vertical penetration. Messi as a false nine would become a thousand times more potent as a result, and Coutinho could focus solely on playing through the middle and rediscovering his confidence while the promising Pedri can continue to cameo from the bench.
The main victim here is obviously Griezmann. And it is a shame because he is world-class, but he is also completely incompatible with Leo Messi and his fate this season was sealed when the Argentine announced he was staying at the club.
In truth, a well-run organisation would have, upon seeing Messi’s decision to stay, tried to parlay Griezmann in a swap deal to acquire a world-class winger or striker, perhaps Lautaro Martinez or Jadon Sancho.
But Barcelona did not, and so if Ronald Koeman is going to guide Barcelona back to the top of world football he’ll have to put a forward earning €17m a year on the bench to do it.
It’s an ugly solution to an ugly problem, but sometimes that’s what you have to do in order to unleash your best self and find great success.