By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Aug 12, 2019) US Soccer Players – Preseason friendlies are a time to test new players and tactics. For the many European clubs that spent the past few weeks training and playing games on American soil, it was a chance for managers to do just that against other high-caliber opponents. While most teams featured incomplete rosters after National Team tournaments delayed the arrival of a host of star players, there were some interesting tactical tests to emerge.
We may not see these formations or lineups again, but it gives teams options. That's important given roster depth, the large quantity of matches on various domestic and continental fronts, as well as the possibility of injury in the next nine months. Breaking down a team tactically can be easy, agreeing on how they should play isn’t. It’s what fuels arguments during the Premier League’s opening weekend.
There’s lots to digest here. Case in point: Barcelona. The club has been without Lionel Messi since the end of last season. He didn’t travel to the United States last week for the team’s two-match series against Italian side Napoli. It’s hard to learn anything about the preseason Barca if the Argentine superstar isn’t even dressed for the game, although it doesn’t mean we won’t try.
With Europe’s five major domestic competitions all getting underway at various times this month, the big clubs will finally stop retooling. They'll focus on the players and lineups the managers believe can win them trophies. We'll see whether any of these summer tactics spill over into the games that count.
In this tactical preview of the European season, here are five questions to emerge from this summer’s cavalcade of matches.
Will Barcelona stick with its traditional 4-3-3?
The tiki-taka days of Pep Guardiola are long gone. Barca coach Ernesto Valverde has fluctuated between the 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, which Barca teams have employed since the Johann Cryuff era. Messi has mostly played in the middle as playmaker, but has drifted to the right in support of fellow striker Luis Suarez. Valverde, for example, went with his preferred 4-2-2 when Barcelona lost 4-0 to eventual European champions Liverpool in the return leg of the Champions League semifinals.
By contrast, Valverde went with a 4-3-3 in the Copa del Rey final, another high-stakes contest that Barca lost to 2-1 to Valencia. Barcelona’s attacking trio for that match included Messi in the middle flanked by Phillipe Coutinho on the left and Sergi Roberto on the right. An injured Suarez missed the game after undergoing knee surgery.
For most of the summer, the La Liga champions have been without Messi. Valverde has alternated between the two formations. Riqui Pulig has played as a central midfielder and as a striker. The ability of the 19-year-old Spaniard to play a variety of roles is one of those summer experiments that may come in handy this season. In an effort to avoid the pitfalls of last season, Valverde will need to decide on a lineup and formation. He will only settle on one once Messi rejoins the team.
Can Real Madrid shore up its poor defending?
From Barcelona to their rivals Real Madrid. The Spanish giants had a horrible season last year. It doesn’t help that they are also having one of the worst preseasons in recent memory. In the International Champions Cup, Real Madrid kicked off with a 3-1 defeat to Bayern Munich, followed by a 2-2 draw in regulation against Arsenal, and a lopsided 7-3 loss to city rivals Atletico Madrid.
Zinedine Zidane returned last season to try and fix the situation. After guiding the club to three straight Champions League titles, the team has fallen on hard times. Zidane has used a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-3, and a 4-4-2. Nothing has really worked as Zidane looks to fix the problem of bad defending that has plagued the team since the start of last season. At this point, the issues appear more psychological than tactical.
In preseason, Zidane has relied primarily on a combination of Raphael Varane, Nacho, and the veteran Sergio Ramos in the role of center back. The defense isn’t the whole story. The midfield has also been considerably weaker than in past years with Luka Modric, for example, struggling to find the form that helped Croatia reach the World Cup final last summer. Zidane may have to endure another bad season before things get better with a roster that just isn’t able to win games anymore.
What will Manchester United do with Pogba?
Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba's troubled relationship last season spoke to larger problems at the club. The outspoken manager didn’t spare criticizing the French midfielder in public. Mourinho’s departure allowed Pogba greater freedom in the midfield, mostly to play in a more advanced position and a better environment to succeed. Nonetheless, it seems as if Manchester United, in their first full season under former club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and Pogba have become increasingly at odds.
The Frenchman has been eyeing a move to another club with rumors of either Real Madrid or a return to Juventus. Manchester United is both trying to be a title contender while very much still a team that’s rebuilding. A top four finish is not at all guaranteed given the quality of clubs in the Premier League.
In their final preseason match, the World Cup winner was absent as Man United defeated AC Milan on penalties after the game ended 2-2. Pogba was not there due to back spasms. Solskjaer went with a 4-3-1-2 with Juan Mata as the primary midfield maestro. This past Sunday, Man United played with a 4-2-3-1 with Pogba in the lineup. They defeated Chelsea 4-0 to open the Premier League season. He did not take the penalty kick even though he was the designated taker last season). Still, Pogba was a key contributor. It should be another interesting season again at Old Trafford.
Can Napoli’s lineup compete for the league title?
The Serie A season doesn’t start until the final weekend of the month, meaning there is still some time for Napoli to hit the transfer market and reinforce its roster. The club has played second fiddle to Juventus for much of this decade. Juve won the last eight league titles.
In order to break Juventus’ lock on Serie A, Napoli manager Carlo Ancelotti needs more offensive players to bolster his lively 4-4-3 lineup. It's still very similar to the possession-style of former manager Maurizio Sarri. Ancelotti needs to ensure he can utilize the turnover given the busy schedule. The team could also use another winger to support striker Arkadiusz Milik. Maybe they keep pursuing an attacking midfielder like Colombian international James Rodriguez, although Real Madrid has yet to make a deal.
Whether Napoli can remain competitive and consistent enough to win their first league title in 30 years is the question. Wins in preseason against Liverpool and Olympique Marseille are promising. This is a team that needs more offensive depth. At the moment, it has showed signs of great play, but they’ll need more talent in order for Ancelotti’s project to work. If reinforcements don’t come, he may need to rethink his formation.
What tactics will Bayern Munich settle on?
It’s been a tale of two Bayern’s this summer. One used the 4-3-3, the other a 4-1-4-1. Which will we see this season? Like Juventus, Bayern has dominated their domestic league but found little success in the Champions League.
In order to conquer Europe, the Bundesliga champions will need to play smart and to their strengths. Tactically, this is a side that plays its best soccer when utilizing the 4-3-3. That manager Niko Kovac went with a 4-2-3-1 and failed against rivals Borussia Dortmund in the recent Supercup should come as little surprise. The departures of aging wingers Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben means Kovac needs to focus on the players he has.
What Kovac has at his disposal following the transfer season is a very strong midfielder in Lucas Hernandez and budding center forward Jann-Fiete Arp. Hernandez could easily play in the middle of a three-man midfield with proven scorer Robert Lewandowski in attack while using Thomas Muller and Kingsley Coman as wingers. Arp, who is only 19, would work as a second-half sub. It’s a potentially winning combination for a club looking to remain successful in Germany and once again be the best in Europe.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- 5 Americans to watch in Europe in 2019-20
- Orlando City focuses on youth development
- The Leagues Cup matters for MLS and Liga MX
- The early MLS Rookie of the Year candidates
Logo courtesy of FC Barcelona