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Ronald Koeman

Barcelona, 2020–

It was a great former player, in Pep Guardiola, Barcelona turned to when appointing a new manager to transform them when last they were at such a low. In that respect, Ronald Koeman’s arrival as the successor to Quique Setién gives them significant reason to be optimistic about their hopes of challenging Real Madrid, who with Zinedine Zidane are also succeeding under one of their greatest former players.

If Koeman is aware of the demands involved in playing for one of the world’s biggest and most successful clubs, he has already proved himself capable of rebuilding a squad that has reached the end of its cycle. At Southampton, he oversaw the arrival of Virgil van Dijk, among others, having arrived at the same time that the influential Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers and Rickie Lambert were being sold, and he then inspired them to qualify for the Europa League. His knowledge of the talented Frenkie de Jong, from their time together with the Netherlands national team, is also expected to prove crucial given it is De Jong who is expected to eventually succeed the great Lionel Messi as the leader of Barça’s team.

Playing style
Koeman has so far proved a particularly flexible manager; his approach is determined by the qualities of the players at his disposal. At Southampton he favoured a 4-3-3 formation that potentially evolved into a 4-2-3-1, depending on their opponents, and occasionally even experimented with a 3-4-1-2. His next position, at Everton, first involved a preference for both a 3-4-3 and a 3-5-2 – both systems featured wing-backs – and later a 4-3-3, with wide attackers, that became a 4-2-3-1 in which the three supporting the lone striker remained in narrow positions.

It was with the Netherlands that he worked with a calibre of player similar to that that he has inherited at Barça. He therefore mostly oversaw a more open and attacking 4-3-3, before relying on the use of three central defenders against the front threes of Portugal and Italy. More than any of the teams he has coached, the Netherlands demonstrated the attacking football principles that most resemble the traditions valued at Barça.

If Koeman‘s teams have rarely prioritised possession of the ball, the Netherlands – largely owing to the talented midfield that often featured De Jong and Donny van de Beek, and therefore had a fine sense of positioning and technical ability that meant that they could often dictate play – proved different. Their goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen contributed to their efforts to build possession, whether with the central defence formed by Van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt, or De Jong from midfield.

Their midfield three was organised into a triangle that featured either a single (below) or a double pivot, depending on the nature of their opponents. A defensive midfielder regardless consistently had an influential role. The full-backs and wide forwards either side of them also rotated positions – Daley Blind and Quincy Promes did so particularly effectively – testing their opponents and therefore contributing to their efforts to free up a passing option. When possession progressed beyond the defensive third, horizontal passes were rare. The ball was instead circulated at speed with the intention of generating positional imbalances within their opponents’ structure, and spaces to advance into, often via triangles.

The Netherlands regularly encountered teams who resisted pressing in favour of holding their positions, so the in-possession central defender was regularly encouraged to carry the ball into midfield, to draw opponents and therefore create space. De Jong was also instructed to be consistently involved; his variety of pass was central to their fluid approach and providing those in wide positions with the time and space required to deliver crosses into the penalty area.

Particularly against those defending with a low block, Koeman instructed his team to prioritise the wide areas of the pitch, often by switching play. Towards the left, where De Jong drifted to support Blind and Promes (below), they offered significant potential; those efforts were complemented by those in the final third adopting positions between the opposing central defenders, to create space. Their wide forwards also attacked infield, or wider, depending on the circumstances – inviting the full-backs behind them to advance and ultimately creating more attacking depth.

Defending and pressing
Koeman most commonly organises his teams to have a defensive approach led by their method of attack, whether that be a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, and to defend with minimal space between the lines. The height of their defensive block was also determined by their opponents’ attacking approach; if they favour a passing game that starts from their goalkeeper, a high press is applied and three advanced players prioritise closing their passing lanes. That coordinated press, discouraging the goalkeeper from playing to the central defenders or defensive midfielder in front of him, starts as soon as the ball begins to move, and also features adjustments that close the relevant spaces, and ultimately limits connections between defence and midfield.

It is when the opponent succeeds in advancing that that press is then adjusted, and a compact shape is adopted in midfield. If using a mid-block, the in-possession player and his nearest passing option is pressured, encouraging him to instead play into areas in which the pressing team is likelier to recover the ball. That desire to retain a compact shape even involves their wide players drifting infield to defend (below).

When working with an inferior quality of player at Everton, and therefore a team less capable of defending with the ball, Koeman favoured defensive strategy was built on either a 5-3-2 or a 3-4-3. Both shapes also involved them defending from close to their penalty.

Their wing-backs in both systems were particularly important. In their 5-3-2 they withdrew into their defensive line while they were defending, and advanced to leave a back three if required further forwards. Their shape therefore often even involved three central defenders, two full-backs, and three defensive midfielders behind the two attackers contributing to the defensive efforts behind them. A change in their pressing approach, particularly in the final third, is among the things Koeman is expected to oversee at Barça.

Ronald Koeman

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