Despite an almost unachievable title, Barcelona continues to gain points waiting for Real Madrid to lose or draw. Against Real Valladolid, Barça had a great first half, but the second one was painful to watch. At least Quique Setién’s side got the three points. These are five takeaways from the Real Valladolid 0–1 Barcelona.
There are fewer games left for Real Madrid to be champions, but Barcelona cannot relax at any moment, as they must wait for their eternal rival to drop points. On Saturday against Real Valladolid, the blaugranas knew of the difficulties they would face against a very compact defensive team.
However, Quique Setién found a way to dominate the game with a 3–5–2 formation, although things were more complicated in the second half. Fortunately, a solitary goal by Arturo Vidal, as well as a good performance by the defence, gave Barça the three points. Still, there are many aspects that were not convincing. These are five things we learned from the Real Valladolid 0–1 Barcelona.
1. Gerard Piqué’s job is meritorious
The level that Gerard Piqué is showing this season is undoubtedly wonderful. From being doubted at the beginning of the season to being a defensive leader capable of supporting his team in a large number of games without conceding a goal. There are also commendable performances by the other members of the defensive line, but Piqué’s are simply out of this world. Maturity, intelligence and motivation. Despite not being leading La Liga, he encourages the entire team to continue fighting. Against Valladolid, Gerard delivered an impeccable exhibition.
Despite having to deal with the likes of Sergi Guardiola and Enes Ünal, Gerard Piqué was extraordinary | Photo by Irina R. H / Zuma via Imago
At the José Zorilla stadium, Piqué was a master of positioning, taking the ball from the back, and a defensive monster. Just take a look at his stats: 11 clearances, two interceptions, two tackles, four aerial duels won, 87 completed passes with an almost perfect 97% effectiveness, and only three possessions lost. Gerard is more than a defender.
In the game, his defensive solidity could be greatly appreciated, but at the same time his good anticipation and concentration in both phases stood out through the 90 minutes. The number 3 has been and will continue to be extremely important for Barcelona since the return of La Liga, even though he is playing with too much fatigue. If he can stay this way, but with more rest, in the Champions League Barça will be blessed to have a superb weapon to stop the world’s best attacks.
2. From dominating to being dominated
Barcelona’s difficulties in killing the games have been dramatic throughout the season. Perhaps Quique Setién has improved many aspects in a tactical level for Barça, but the ability to maintain the result through possession and by searching for more goals has disappeared. Against Valladolid, though, Setién had to face one of the teams that usually sit deep and compact, but this time without wingers since Ansu Fati had been sent off against Espanyol.
Fortunately, the coach knew how to adapt and find a scheme that would allow the team to find the spaces. The formation used was a 3–5–2, a system he implemented in his arrival at Catalonia, but which he abandoned after a series of bad results. However, in matchday 36, this structure returned and was a great success. Sergi Roberto, who had a brilliant display, was in charge of forming a back three alongside Clément Lenglet and Gerard Piqué. Meanwhile, Jordi Alba and Nélson Semedo were on both wings, with Riqui Puig, Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal as midfielders to collaborate with Antoine Griezmann and Lionel Messi in attack.
“We were expecting Valladolid to play with five defenders, and we did the same thing to narrow them down”
This formation generated much danger on both sides, especially on the right one, where Semedo did a great job. Despite having several goalscoring chances, the azulgranas only managed to score once through Vidal in the 15th minute. But, even so, the visitors were exhibiting a good football and ended the first half with good sensations.
The problems started in the second half, when Setién replaced Riqui Puig in the 57th minute to introduce Iván Rakitić and transform the scheme to a 4–3–1–2. Later he returned to the 3–5–2 after making the rare substitution of Junior Firpo for Sergio Busquets.
“When you are tired, you lose the ball a lot”
With the passing of minutes, Barça lost control with a team without creativity, much slower and more conservative. As a consequence, the locals began intimidating the visitors’ goal. If it were not for Marc-Andre ter Stegen and the impeccable defence, Valladolid would have certainly got on the scoresheet.
3. Riqui Puig is the energy the team needs
In the blink of an eye Riqui Puig could be seen going from one area of the field to another. If the team’s movement shifted from concentrating on the right flank to the left, Puig immediately moved to the adequate side in a matter of seconds. Furthermore, on the ball he always tried to drive it or pass it vertically.
All fans have realised what Riqui is capable of: generating energy for the rest of the team. Unfortunately, this rhythm that the 20-year-old offered disappeared when he was subbed out in the 57th minute. From that moment, the level of the Catalans was in decline. At least, Puig shone once again and, without a doubt, Setién will need him to increase the chances of progressing in the Champions League.
4. Nélson Semedo did great in a new role
Nélson Semedo had a brilliant match in a new role, playing as a winger or wing-back. Semedo has not changed, but the structure and way of supporting him has. On the right side, accompanied by Sergi Roberto, Vidal and Messi, Semedo could receive the ball with more space because there was support behind. This interesting role brought the best out of the Portuguese in the offensive side.
This attacking structure permitted Semedo’s free forward runs, as he generated multiple goalscoring opportunities such as a cross to Antoine Griezmann or a shot that fell into the hands of Jordi Masip. With a team that often has limited options in different positions, having a player available to play in various roles is valuable. This 3–5–2 was perfect for Nélson, although in a 4–3–3 he could have almost the same impact if he was well supported rather than alone.
5. Lionel Messi equals Xavi’s assist record
Probably the only positive in Lionel Messi’s match against Valladolid was his assist to Arturo Vidal in the opener. Leo did not have a bad game, but he performed below his extraordinarily high standards. He looked extremely tired and ineffective. However, Leo managed to tie Xavi Hernández‘s record of 20 assists in a single season in La Liga. This is what someone like Lionel does: he is not in his best goalscoring streak, but he takes advantage of it to improve his assisting numbers.
“Yes, Messi should rest, but we didn’t have enough of a lead in the game. If the lead was bigger, Messi would have taken some rest”
With this assist, Messi will have two more games to overcome his former teammate and to match or exceed Thomas Müller’s record of 21 assists in one campaign in Europe. In addition, he became the first player since Thierry Henry in 2003 to join the 20 / 20 club. This means to score a minimum of 20 goals and distribute at least 20 assists in a league course. The years go by, but Leo continues to leave his mark on history.
Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal
FC Barcelona kicked off their 2020-21 La Liga campaign at home against Villareal in style. They won by a margin of 4-0, marking a very auspicious and positive start to the Ronald Koeman era.
The shape of the team
The starting eleven was, somewhat expectedly, the same set of players that started against Elche in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Neto started in goal in the absence of Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto started in defence, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong started in a double pivot, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann started as nominal wingers, Philippe Coutinho started as the nominal 10, and Lionel Messi as the nominal 9. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution (minute 70):
As can be seen, Griezmann frequently dropped deep and moved in – and he can be forgiven for that, for he is not a natural right-winger; he is an SS. Messi dropped less deep as compared to the Elche game, but he still had the freedom to roam.
The left side of the team was highly effective. Jordi Alba was a constant menace down the flank and combined wonderfully with Fati. Frenkie and Coutinho lent their support down the left whenever possible. In stark contrast, the right side was not effective at all. Griezmann had the least passes and touches among the outfielders and didn’t combine effectively with Roberto at all. Going ahead, this might be a headache to solve.
Barcelona were devastatingly good in offence in the first half. They scored 4 unanswered goals, had an overall of 17 shots in the game, 9 of which were on target. Here is a small data table compiling some stats at a glance for the game:
Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game; as shown, Villareal never really got a sniff at Barca’s goal and couldn’t assert themselves at any stage of the game.
All of this could’ve been possibly very different, had Paco Alcacer decided to take a first time shot instead of chesting the ball down in the path of his Villareal teammate early in the game. That didn’t result in a shot, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Barcelona’s goals came in all varieties. The first goal was a wonderful long ball over the top from Clement Lenglet to Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Ansu Fati to smash in a great shot.
This was very much reminiscent of how Messi set up Alba for the goal against Elche.
The second goal came from a quick break. Lenglet released Coutinho from deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Coutinho carried the ball upfield quickly, catching Villareal out with a fast break. A simple layoff and Fati took care of the rest with a brilliant near-post finish past Sergio Asenjo.
The third goal came from a penalty, won again by Fati with a burst of speed into the box, and getting fouled. There was a nice bit of buildup to that:
And finally, there was also the return of the own goal – a pass from Messi to the onrushing Busquets – yes, you read that correct – in Villareal’s penalty box led to Pau Torres poking the ball into his own net past Asenjo.
While the tempo dropped a lot in the second half, there were still plenty of shots taken by Barcelona that required Asenjo to pull off some wonderful saves to keep the scoreline down to 4-0. Most notable was the save from Francisco Trincao’s shot late in the second half. On the other end, Neto came up with a calm display to keep Takefusa Kubo’s shot away.
As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the productive buildup happened from the left side. Lenglet made a wonderful pre-assist and was assured in his passing in general. Alba was a threat throughout, with his brilliant off-the-ball runs and cutbacks to Fati, Messi, and Coutinho. Fati was a threat with his direct running and taking on defenders. Coutinho and Frenkie provided good support too. Here is a look at all progressive passes by all the starting outfield players:
Next we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):
The half spaces and the left wing were very well utilized, and there were quite a few passes into the box from zone 14 as well.
Villareal didn’t breach the box as frequently as Barcelona did, thanks to some abysmal crossing by Pervis Estupinan. It was only after Kubo came on that they could get into the box with some regularity from the left. But by then, it was 4-0 late into the second half, and Barcelona had taken the foot of the gear completely.
Something that’s easily noticed in the plots above, and is a definite bit of concern, is Griezmann’s struggles with linkup play. He could not combine effectively with Roberto, and bulk of his passes were back to Busquets or Frenkie or Messi back into the midfield. If he is to continue playing as a winger down the right, he has to strengthen his combination play along the wing a lot more. Being able to take on defenders will be an additional bonus too. Right now, the right side is very limited as compared to the left. It remains to be seen if and when Sergino Dest can change the dynamic there upon arrival.
As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, the PPDA recorded by neither of the teams were particularly impressive. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive actions. From Wyscout, Barca recorded a PPDA of 15 while Villareal had a PPDA of 22. In other words, Barca allowed Villareal to pass around for 15 times on average before trying to win the ball back with some defensive action like tackles or interceptions. Compared to the European pressing elites like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, these numbers are pretty bad. It was evident during the game that Barcelona didn’t go all out trying to press. They picked and chose moments when to. Same goes for Villareal as well. They showed too much respect to Barca, and allowed them to build from the back very comfortably. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:
Its very clear how Barca didn’t try to high-press for bulk of the game, and how Villareal spent of lot time trying to defend against the threat of Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati.
For Barcelona, Gerard Pique was a rock, and so was Lenglet. Neither of them allowed a Villareal forward to run past them, and blocked and cleared all shots and crosses into the box. Pique in particular was called into action many times because Roberto was caught way up the field in transitions. Belying his age, he put forth a magnificent defensive performance in sweeping up everything that came up his way.
Busquets and Frenkie, while mostly assured in passing, had their nervy moments as well. Busquets was particularly awful in the first 20-25 minutes. He repeatedly misplaced his passes and that led to repeated transition attacks against Barcelona. In the same vein, Frenkie, who played really well for the first 70 minutes, lost the ball at least three times in the last 20 minutes. Each of the resulting attacks by Villareal were threatening, and required timely interventions by Lenglet and attentive goalkeeping by Neto to snuff out. Going ahead, this is going to be a concern. Both of them need to clean their games up quite a bit.
Ousmanne Dembele, Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao and Pedri had short cameos in the second half. All of them looked decent. Dembele kept it simple with his passing, and I for one am glad about it. He is returning from a long injury layoff and needs to take it slow and simple. There will be plenty of time to watch his explosive pace and dribbling once he has regained confidence and has stayed fit for a reasonable chunk of time. Pjanic seemed to have shaken off his rust and did pretty well to win the ball back on a couple of occasions, and was very clean with his passes. Pedri was his usual bumbling self. He helped out defensively, connected well with the wingers in passing, and was always a threat with his runs. Trincao looked impressive yet again, and could have scored his maiden goal for Barca but for a magnificent save by Asenjo. He meant business; trying to take on defenders, and trying to shoot whenever he found an opportunity.
There is no denying that Villareal was abjectly poor, especially in the first half (surprising given the players they managed to buy in the transfer window). They left behind lots of space that was ruthlessly exploited by Barcelona. Not all Spanish teams are going to give up similar amounts of space to Barca in the coming games. In fact, it’s probably best to assume that none will. In such tight games, it will be interestingly to see how this fluid 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann as a wide player manage to perform. I was personally happy with the game, and only look forward to more good performances from the team.