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A brief review of Barcelona’s 2020/21 preseason

Soumyajit Bose

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Header Image by David Ramos via Getty Images

Barcelona won all three preseason friendlies ahead of the 2020/21 campaign, but what individual and collective conclusions can we draw? Is Ronald Koeman’s new team ready for the new term?


In stark contrast to the International Champions Cup games that we have all become used to watching during preseason in the previous years, this year’s preseason games unfolded quietly, behind closed doors often, for all of the clubs.

FC Barcelona completed their preseason games in the city of Barcelona against Gimnàstic de Tarragona, Girona FC and Elche FC. Successive games against a Segunda B opponent, Segunda opponent and La Liga opponent provided a gentle step up to match fitness for the blaugrana players.

The encounter with Elche was particularly significant, as it was also the Joan Gamper Trophy, which Barcelona won again 1–0 courtesy a goal from Antoine Griezmann. Let’s have a look at some details of each match as it unfolded. The majority of the discussion will be from the perspective of the players, with some tactical discussions from the team point of view as well.

Game against Gimnàstic de Tarragona

The new coach Ronal Koeman’s first game in charge was against Nastic and brought a clear glimpse of the formation that he has amply used when in charge of the Netherlands national team, a 4–2–3–1.

In the first half, the back four was formed by Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet, Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba, with Neto standing in goal for the injured Marc-André ter Stegen. The double pivot comprised of Sergio Busquets and Carles Aleñá. Lionel Messi played as the 10, flanked by Ousmane Dembélé and the new signing Pedri, while Griezmann was the nominal 9.

The first half saw a goal from open play by Dembélé from Sergi Roberto’s pass and a Pedri dummy, and then Gerard Piqué got hauled down inside the box and Griezmann converted the penalty. The rest of the half was really a drab affair, with Nàstic actually pulling back a goal and creating some amount of panic. 

Dembélé’s safe return to game time and Pedri‘s assured performance – although subdued – were really the highlights of the first half. Let’s have a look at the two youngsters’ event data in details:

Dembélé played on the left, was very measured with his ball control and passes, provided ample width, and scored with his only shot. It was a good showing after a long injury disrupted his season.

Pedri played the bulk of the half on the right, which is quite an unfamiliar position for him, but also interchanged positions with Messi in the centre. His passing was conservative, as is understandable in his first game for a new team. But he looked very neat in possession, and also helped out defensively.

Koeman brought on an entire new team in the second half, with Iñaki Peña in goal, Nélson Semedo, Ronald Araújo, Jorge Cuenca and Junior Firpo in defence, a double pivot of Frenkie de Jong – referred to as FdJ in the graphs – and Riqui Puig, Philippe Coutinho as the 10 flanked by Konrad de la Fuente and new signing Francisco Trincão on the wings, and Martin Braithwaite as the 9.

The youthful team brought an uptick in the energy levels and intensity of the play, almost as if someone had pressed the fast forward button on the video. De Jong and Riqui completely dominated the midfield, with brilliant passing and ball-carrying, as shown:

The duo also showed brilliant defensive acumen to completely shut down any Nàstic attack. In fact, De Jong’s lofted pass into the box to Semedo’s well-timed run was what eventually resulted in a penalty, that Coutinho converted. 

Coutinho‘s return from a successful – trophy-wise – loan spell at Bayern Munich went pretty well. He enjoyed dictating the offensive transitions of the team, and in addition to his goal, could have had an assist if Konrad converted his wonderfully weighted key pass into the box:

Trincao also shone on his debut, with some silky ball control, positive ball-carrying, and a wonderful lofted pass to Konrad who was harshly judged offside. In general, he provided both width and cut into the half space whenever needed, showing a good understanding of the tactical side:

The game ended 3–1, and almost everyone who played the second half ended with a positive showing.

Game against Girona

The second preseason game was against a far more difficult opposition, Girona. The Catalan club was a familiar opposition a couple of seasons back in La Liga. Now plying their trades in the Segunda, they are still a dynamic and high-tempo side with a comparatively attractive brand of football.

Ronald Koeman rang in some changes in the first half team from the previous game, with De Jong coming in to partner Busquets as a pivot – probably this will be the starting choice going forward –, Trincão came in for Pedri on right wing, and Coutinho played on the left wing. Messi and Griezmann played as the 10 and the 9, respectively. Ronald Araújo came in to partner Pique as thee centre-back, and the rest of the back five remained unchanged.

The first half went better than the last game, although De Jong started tiring around the 25-minute mark for some reason. He let a couple of runs go by, didn’t close down crosses quickly enough, and lost track of his mark in a corner Barcelona conceded. Thankfully, Girona didn’t score there. There were two high-quality goals scored by Barça, though. The first was a brilliant little build-up, culminating with an amazing through-ball pre-assist by Messi to Trincão, who squared it for Coutinho to tap it in. 

Lionel Messi Francisco Trincão Philippe Coutinho Barcelona 2020/21 preseason

The second was an amazing right footed rocket by Messi after receiving a simple pass from Coutinho outside the box. 

Lionel Messi Barcelona 2020/21 preseason

The second half started disastrously, with De Jong continuing his nightmare game by giving away possession cheaply deep in his own half with a casual pass, leading to Girona scoring. However, Barcelona soon restored their two-goal lead, thanks to Messi. Trincão did good work to take the ball out wide and then pass back to Sergi Roberto. Roberto’s pass was controlled by Messi, who turned and unleashed a characteristic left-footer into the goal. 

Soon, around the 60-minute mark, there was a flurry of substitutions, and all but Araújo and Neto were replaced. Lenglet wore the captain’s armband. Firpo and Semedo came on as the full-backs. Riqui Puig and Aleñá formed the double pivot. Pedri played in a much more comfortable role as the 10, behind Braithwaite. Konrad played as the left winger, and Dembélé on the right.

As in the previous clash, the tempo was raised again, and the kids enjoyed a good game in general. While no more goals were scored, there were lots of encouraging moments and attacks, especially by Konrad and Pedri, and Girona didn’t get even a snuff at Barça’s goal. Here are some of the highlight moments by some of the youngsters; first up, Trincão:

Next up, Pedri:

He had 4 shots and should have at least scored once. He needs to improve his shooting skills a bit, but his cameo was definitely encouraging and positive. Finally, Konrad – the 19-year-old was electric and has rightfully deserved an entire article separately. Here are his activities from the game:

Direct running at the defenders, quick feet to dribble, and a key pass to set Pedri up for a shot – it was an immensely brilliant cameo from Konrad, so much so that Koeman singled him out for praise.

But the second-best player of the match, after Messi, was arguably Ronald Araújo. The Uruguayan youngster was immense as centre-back. He was assured in possession and kept his passing quick and simple to keep the ball moving. Out of possession, he showed great physical strength, speed and defensive intelligence to snuff out almost all danger.

He isolated Girona ball-carriers very effectively to the sidelines and then beat them in speed and physicality to win possession back, was attentive enough to snuff out dangerous attacks all across the backline, and often showed a good reading of the game to step up and intercept or clear the ball before a Girona player could control it.

He was an absolute defensive wall for Barcelona, and will have given Koeman a glint of hope for the coming season. 

Game against Elche – the Joan Gamper Trophy

The final preseason game was against the hardest opposition of all: Elche FC, an opposition from La Liga itself. The game saw the return to action of Ansu Fati, who was suffering from an injury till date. This time, Koeman went in with a very interesting line-up – one that would not surprise me a bit if it became the gala XI for Koeman, not because it is the best, but it involved all senior players or players who had significant minutes last season.

Neto started in goal. Sergi Roberto, Piqué, Lenglet and Jordi Alba formed the back four. Busquets and Frenkie de Jong predictably formed the double pivot. Griezmann started out as the nominal right winger, Ansu Fati on the left, and Coutinho and Messi through the centre as the 10 and the 9.

But the front four, especially Griezmann, Coutinho and Messi, were fluid enough that I wouldn’t necessarily assign them a fixed position. Messi certainly didn’t play like an ordinary 9 – he played with his usual freedom. He dropped deep to facilitate attacks, sometimes as deep as right next to Busquets. He moved out wide interchanging positions with Griezmann. Whenever he dropped deep, either Coutinho or Griezmann pushed up higher to occupy his vacated position. It’s kind of reminiscent of his false 9 days, except he had to do way more ball progression than before.

Coutinho played as slightly left-skewed 10 who often pushed high up and made runs into the box. Griezmann roamed a lot as well but did stay out wide for most of the time. It was a highly fluid front four in short. Here are their average heatmaps in possession:

The game itself started in spectacular fashion. Messi pulled off one of the most outrageous passes from the centre line into the box for Alba, who made a great run to reach it ahead of any Elche defender, and then played a simple square pass for Griezmann to score. Griezmann’s run was equally impressive, ghosting in from the blind side of the Elche centre-backs to score. In fact, Griezmann was quite impressive against Elche, pulling off several good off-the-ball runs, and having around 6 shots. 

Lionel Messi was his usual sublime self – apart from that gorgeous pre-assist, he had 5 shots himself – all blocked or saved, and gave 3 key passes. One of his shots came from a direct free-kick and required a full stretch from the Elche keeper to palm it out.

Coutinho played quite alright as well, with 3 key passes – the turn and scoop pass to Trincão in the second half the best of the lot – and had 3 shots, although only one of them was on target. 

Ansu Fati sparkled on his return as well. He looked composed in possession, generally combined well with Jordi Alba and Coutinho, didn’t lose the ball much, and played a great key pass to release Messi through the centre. He also had 3 shots, all of target. The best of the lot came from an electric dribble and burst into the box, but the left-footed shot was just wide of the far post. 

De Jong had an excellent showing again. He only misplaced two passes all game and had around 70+ accurate passes. His role was adjusted from a nominal pivot. He had a bit more offensive freedom, and made several runs into the box, something that didn’t happen in the previous fixtures.

The best part were his runs to intercept and force a turnover high up the pitch. He alone enforced 3 such dangerous turnovers, and went on to have a shot from one of them – should have really scored had he kept his composure in the final moments.

Francisco Trincão yet again had a good cameo in the second half, for about 30 minutes, and could have scored his first goal from a magical Coutinho key pass. He displayed his usual composure and skill and strength in possession, and easily retained the ball under pressure. It’s honestly a blessing to have such a tactical and physically nuanced youngster for the right wing. 

Also, the second half brought about the highly awaited debut of Miralem Pjanić, the new arrival from Juventus. The veteran midfielder has been brought to shore up the midfield, and he slotted into the double pivot next to De Jong.

He had an interesting cameo: simple quick passes to recycle possession, got tackled in the Elche’s penalty area, which would probably have the VAR intervening had this been a La Liga game, blasted two shots embarrassingly high, and looked a bit rusty and slow – expected – in tracing back. He committed a few fouls while trying to win the ball back, and this week will be crucial for him to get up to speed and full match fitness if he is to pull off cleaner tackles during actual La Liga matches.

Even Ousmane Dembélé had a nice and short outing, displaying his blistering pace and dribbling skills to get ahead of Elche defenders and have cracks at the goal.

There were some nervy moments in the last 10 minutes, when Elche almost pulled a goal back, but overall it was a pretty good game, with many attacking opportunities and great shots that required an inspired goalkeeping performance from the Elche keeper to keep it down to 1–0 only. There was also a spell of about 20 minutes of intense high pressure in the Elche final third. 

Drawbacks of the formation and tactics

The drawbacks of the 4–2–3–1, Koeman’s staple, while not quite on display against weak opposition, still did show at points. The way teams like Bayern Munich pull off their 4–2–3–1 requires immense athleticism and concerted pressing from the entire team. All ten outfield members press like demons, Thiago Alcântara (formerly) and Joshua Kimmich are incredibly versed at winning the ball back and are deceptively quick, and Leon Goretzka is a superb athlete. Their pressing traps are also well coordinated.

None of these is true for Barcelona, at least as of yet. Firstly, Lionel Messi presses very little, which requires the other nine outfield members to offset that by pressing harder than usual. However, only one of the midfielders, Frenkie de Jong is a natural in a double pivot. He has played there at Ajax and for the national team, is highly skilled and athletic and young. His to-be partners Busquets and Pjanić, while elite midfielders in their prime, are at an age where they simply cannot keep up with counter-attacks in transition.

Neither Pjanić nor Busquets were known for their speed. They were known for their cerebral qualities like positioning to win back balls. But this 4–2–3–1 with one less pressing man means opposition teams will often be able to play out of the press and start an attack, which will leave the two midfielders very isolated. De Jong has shown the ability to go to toe-to-toe in speed and physicality while tracking back and win the ball; it remains to be seen how successfully Busquets and Pjanić support him.

Barcelona’s pressing in the final third also had mixed results in the games. Excessive pressing seems to tire out the team quickly, after which the pressing stops working completely. This was particularly on display against Elche. In the last 10–15 minutes, the pressing stopped working completely, even though Barça players tried their best to press high in numbers. Elche in fact almost equalized after playing out of the press, and only Neto’s heroics denied the game from going to extra time or penalties.

“It may be different and somewhat more defensive than what has been seen in recent years, but the objective is to move the ball, hold on to it and find the spaces to play between the lines, and behind rival midfielders. I think this team can do it because we have midfielders to play like that”

Ronald Koeman, after Barcelona’s 3–1 win over Nàstic on the new system and double pivot

Also, the excessive fluidity on display whenever all three of Griezmann, Messi and Coutinho are on the pitch can be of concern. All three of them prefer to move into central zones while attacking. Unless they are asked to stay wide, this often leads to an extremely crammed central zone where progression becomes impossible. Contrastingly, Dembélé, Trincão and Ansu Fati have shown great positional intelligence and discipline in staying to their assigned wings. A lack of width is often a problem for Barcelona, and this should be something to be kept in mind.

Finally, and this again comes back to the issue of double pivot, is the midfield personnel who still remain with Barcelona. Carles Aleñá is not a natural pivot, and Busquets and Pjanić are not fast. This got exposed somewhat against Nàstic, where both Aleñá and Busquets failed to close down on the shot that led to Nàstic’s goal. While the attacks were few in these three preseason games, Barcelona will face far stronger opposition in La Liga and will require their pivots to show great athleticism, positional discipline and proactive defending when out of possession.

Conclusion

The preseason, in my opinion, went well for Barcelona. All the front men are back in good shape and have scored crucial goals to boost their confidence. Koeman has tried out interesting tactics and personnel with different degrees of success. And, thankfully, Messi is still at Barcelona and still a genius of the game and in fine form. Add a couple of defenders to the squad, and Barcelona can do well in the league at least. Setting too high expectations might not be realistic, but as Barcelona fans, let’s go into the season hoping for the best.

Physics PhD student with borderline obsession for the beautiful game. Followed Ronaldinho's footsteps to support the club, and am blessed to have witnessed some of the most glorious football a team can ever play.

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Analysis

Opponent Analysis: Real Madrid; La Liga Matchday 7

Michael Gathige

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Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

The first El Clasico of the 2020/21 La Liga season is upon us and Real Madrid head into the clash just a point behind leaders Real Sociedad with a game in hand. Despite a hat trick of victories just before the international break, Los Blancos now find themselves on the brink of three defeats in seven days. Several reports have emerged that head coach Zinedine Zidane could be facing the sack if his side head home with anything less than a point from this encounter. But, what it is that has gone wrong for the defending champions this season, and how can Barcelona counter these to the best of their ability?

A Dysfunctional Attack

The capital outfit has shown an evident inability to make fair use of the high possession they have in games of late. They’ve been consistent with two formations: a 4-3-3 that morphs into a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 diamond as well. In and of themselves, these tactical setups aren’t by any means inadequate; however, the players deployed in these systems have been unable to make the best use of them thus far.

1. Wasteful strikers

With a striking duo of Luka Jovic and Karim Benzema, Real Madrid reasonably should be able to do more than score just over a goal a game as they have done this season. They’ve thus far scored 6 in five of their outings, with five of those coming against two teams, Real Betis – who were on a red card for around 30 minutes – and Levante away from home.

We are yet to see the best of Luka Jovic in the Spanish capital. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

Taking a look at their xG (expected goals) of 10.29 in all competitions, we see that they also reasonably should have scored four more goals than they actually have – in theory. This kind of underperformance can be attributed to the likes of Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema for their wastefulness in front of goal, both of them underperforming their xG by 0.71 and 1.47 respectively. Additionally, the former has also missed several opportunities to shoot, which cannot be attested to ‘expected goals’.

Specific examples of these are when Vinicius found himself in a one on one situation with the keeper against Real Valladolid and spent a chance worth 0.48xG and Luka Jovic somehow failed to put away one worth 0.66xG against Levante. To put this into context, Opta deems shots over 0.38xG as big chances and for them to have squandered two such significant opportunities and to do it so often that they find themselves four goals behind their expected goals, is worrying.

In their league winning season, Real Madrid scored 70 goals at an xG of 72.93. Of this, 52.83 came from chances they created in open play, while the rest was distributed across corners, direct free kicks, set-piece opportunities and the infamous penalties they scored all across the campaign. For a club the size of Real Madrid, racking up such a relatively low xG from open play should have been big enough a red flag to push Zidane and club President Florentino Perez into investing in some forwards to bolster their attack. The lack of expenditure in this past window meant that Zidane had to tweak his tactics to suit the players he has at his disposal, something we are yet to see consistently this season.

2. Poor Positioning from Forwards

While the forwards can be criticised for their inefficiency in attack from clear cut chances, their positioning to make use of said chances that come to them has been wanting. Karim Benzema isn’t your typical striker. He, in some ways like Messi, is a player that prefers to drop deep to create chances for his teammates and surge forward whenever the opportunity presented itself. Such can be seen in his stats last season: 21.25xG and 8.15xA (expected assists).

Someone needs to shoulder creative responsibilities from Benzema to bring the best out of him in the attack. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

For this to be a successful tactic, he needs players – like Jovic – to occupy the spaces he vacates in attack to be an ever-present threat for when a chance is created. Instead, his teammates find themselves lost amid their oppositions’ backlines and even if a through ball were to be played, there simply wouldn’t be anyone there to cease it.

This dreadful running off the ball leads to many of their attacks breaking down before they even begin. On several occasions, despite finding themselves in some auspicious positions, the attackers, be it from the wings or down centrally, simply don’t place themselves in places that would grant them good enough chances to score regularly. It stands to reason that scoring goals from high-quality opportunities requires players to be active in the penalty box.

3. A Pungent lack of creativity from the Wing

Football in the modern era is dominated by two kinds of fullbacks: inverted and offensive. Real Madrid via Marcelo have spearheaded the revolution of a traditionally defensive position of the pitch and transformed it into yet another offensive outlet to benefit from.

While the fullbacks and central midfielders can make a convincing case against their forwards for their inadequate positioning, they don’t help their cause either with their consistently inaccurate deliveries are.

Mendy and Barcelona need to improve their supply quality. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

As per Whoscored, Real Madrid has attempted a total of 93 crosses into the opposition penalty box in their six games this season. While this is a good aggregate number, only 17 of these have actually met their targets at a measly 18% success rate.

This inefficiency can undoubtedly be blamed on them, given the aforementioned problems when it comes to positioning. Still, the onus is on Dani Carvajal, Ferland Mendy, and Marcelo to do better than just 18%.

A Maladjusted Backline

Last season, in Europe’s top 5 leagues, Real Madrid had the second-best performing defence of teams that had completed their domestic campaigns. While the metric for ‘goals conceded’ places them right at the top, a better representation of their proper defensive rigidity can be evaluated by use of xGA (expected goals against). Despite conceding just six goals in all competitions so far, Real Madrid overperformed by 8.15 goals.

Clearly, such a level of overperformance isn’t by any means sustainable as somewhere down the line; a team is going to pick their pockets and make a mauling out of them. We saw bits of this against Shakhtar Donetsk in midweek and could easily see the same this evening. Thus far in La Liga, despite conceding just three goals, Los Blancos have an xGA of 5.02 and can attribute that majorly to the phenomenal saves made by Thibaut Courtois.

There is only so much that Thibaut Courtois can do alone. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

The positioning of their defenders is as inefficient and as inconsistent as that of their attack. In the build-up leading to Cadiz’s only goal of the game, we saw a pattern that we know all too well from Real Madrid and one that repeated itself on several occasions in that game. They failed to track their markers, left gaping holes in their defence and were punished accordingly.

They can, of course, rely on their Belgian shot-stopper to continue making insane saves – which is precisely why they bought him – but it merely isn’t an expendable tactic. Again, their lack of investment has come to bite them in the back. While the backline consists of dominant individuals, there is a clear communication gap between then, which often leads to poor marking and tracking.

How can Barcelona exploit these Weaknesses

The Catalans can easily counter Real Madrid by adjusting the line up in several ways to hurt their opponents. Firstly, Ronald Koeman could start by playing two pacey fullbacks in Sergino Dest and Jordi Alba; though the fitness level of the latter is still in question.

Why do this? As mentioned before, there’s an apparent problem when it comes to the positioning and movements of the Real Madrid attackers.

Dest’s blistering pace may help combat Madrid’s ability to counter quickly. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Following Luka Jovic’s performance in midweek, there’s a meagre chance of him making it into the starting XI for the El Clasico. Therefore there’s a high chance that Real will deploy a 433 with Vinicius and Rodrygo in the wider areas. To mitigate their impact, Barcelona will need to use two fullbacks that have enough pace to make ball recoveries if ever their visitors are successful in making overlapping runs into the byline. While not an airtight solution, it does substantially aid the Catalans’ case.

What about Benzema himself? Assuming Zidane will grant him the freedom to float around the box rather than stay within it, the best counter to this would be to partner Frenkie de Jong with Sergio Busquets rather than Miralem Pjanic. The Spaniard is far more defensively stable than the Bosnia,n and his interpretation of spaces is a notch higher. His defensive attitude will help him alleviate a large chunk of what the Frenchman has to offer

Moving on to their midfield, Cadiz did an excellent job at shutting their creative players down by use of one block of five in defence layered by a midfield block of four on some occasions.

The beauty of the 4-2-3-1 that Ronald Koeman is keen on using is that it can be switched to cater to several situations. By taking advantage of the fitness levels of most of our squad right now, Koeman could use a 4-5-1 when defending and instantly transition to a 4-3-3 or the 4-4-2 when the team advances.

Here there is one major thing that Barca could do to punish their visitors, and that is by using Francisco Trincao in the wider areas. The Portuguese did an excellent job at two things against Ferencvarosi: staying close to the touchline and taking on opposing defenders. He completed five take ons against the Hungarians, and most inspiringly, most of these were near the touchline.

Starting Trincão over Griezmann will be beneficial for the team tomorrow. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Against Marcelo, a player infamous for his defensive work, having his profile on one end can do wonders for the team. Adding Dembele late on, preferably in the final 30 minutes to take advantage of the waney legs of the Madrid defence, could prove to be a blessing for the hosts.

Should all these come in play, we can expect Barcelona to finish the El Clasico the way they started the new season against Villarreal – with a bang.

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