While the offensive game continues to leave much to be desired, the form of the Barcelona defence has been much improved lately with a fifth straight clean sheet.
Barcelona got back to winning ways by beating Athletic Club by a single goal. Although that wasn’t enough to reclaim that top spot as Real Madrid also won their game, there is one aspect that manager Quique Setién will be proud of. The Catalans’ defensive record has been perfect lately with clean sheets in the last five games.
La Liga’s nail-biting title race continues to deliver the thrills, with both Barça and Real Madrid picking up wins on matchday 31. While the azulgranas sit at second place on head-to-head, they won’t be particularly unhappy with the entirety of their performances. Although from an attacking perspective, the movement, build-up play and midfield seem to be a bit static, the defence is resolute. With shutouts in the last five matches, the defending champions have improved massively on the area that required attention.
Unlike previous seasons, Barcelona don’t have the best defensive records. They have been letting in sloppy goals both under former manager Ernesto Valverde and in the early periods under Setién. Lapses of concentration at the back have proven to be costly, with the Catalans conceding 31 goals this season, ten more than Real Madrid.
After being very vulnerable for most of the season, the defence of Barcelona has improved greatly in recent matches | Photo by Alejandro García via Imago
Although 31 seems to be unreasonable to criticise because, in reality, it isn’t that bad, the fans know that the team must do better. In the early stages of the season, centre-back Gerard Piqué was seen to lose focus on football and was involving himself in his off-pitch endeavours. Barça clearly lacked a source of leadership and solidity, with the veteran making errors that cost them points. Furthermore, Samuel Umtiti’s injury troubles continued to hinder the overall defensive options.
It’s during that period that Clément Lenglet stepped up and single-handedly controlled the backline. The Frenchman was covering for the mistakes that the remaining defenders made. He remained focussed throughout every clash and was crucial in helping Barcelona get through that stage alongside Marc-André ter Stegen.
What has improved in the Barcelona defence?
Barcelona seem to have come a long way from those days of defensive anomalies. The current form at the back makes it look like Nélson Semedo’s lapse of concentration in the Clásico happened a long time ago. However, in reality, it has been only five games since they lost to Real Madrid.
The lockdown which brought an unprecedented halt to football has helped Quique Setién in regrouping with the backroom staff. The way things were going before the break, it seemed like there wasn’t going to be an end to Barça’s defensive woes until signings were made.
But Setién has managed to turn things around with the existing personnel. Along with their final game before the lockdown, which was a 1–0 win over then in-form Real Sociedad, Barcelona has shown a defensive resolve for the past five fixtures. They followed it up with clean sheets against RCD Mallorca, CD Leganés, Sevilla and Athletic Club, with the latter two being in decent form.
Gerard Piqué has been in imperious form lately | Photo by AFP7 via Imago
Nevertheless, the question remains unanswered: what has Setién actually improved? For starters, we know that his team has sturdy, intelligent, and capable defenders. They have a proven record of being a steadfast backline and were unbreachable on numerous occasions in the past. Barcelona’s defensive struggles pertained more to the mental perspective rather than technical.
These defenders needed time to regain confidence in themselves. Training sessions that boosted their overall fitness and time to reflect over the season must have helped them massively. And that is why we have been seeing Gerard Piqué pitch in excellent performances at the back since the restart. He seems to have regained his mojo and has received praise from the entirety of the blaugrana fanbase. Semedo, who was tipped to leave at the end of the season, also had a good display against Sevilla.
Since the restart, it is the midfield what has been shaky, which is understandable. It’s not easy to get going after months without football. Still, at this moment, there is a need to get results even if it’s not in the prettiest manners. The Barcelona side that we saw before the lockdown would have faltered against Sevilla, which proves to be the only game they haven’t won since the restart. In an encounter where the midfield was lacklustre, it’s easy to lose focus and throw the game away. Even so, that was not the case, and one can look at the bright side and say that the culés gained a point instead of saying that they dropped two.
Even though Real Madrid have their destiny in their hands, it’s fair to say that, at some point, they will falter. With games coming at a rapid pace, it won’t be easy for both sides to win every match from hereon. Barcelona actually wouldn’t mind being the chasers for a change, as they can put pressure on their rivals instead of facing the stress of holding the top spot. Both Madrid and Barça have challenging fixtures ahead, but what must be noted is that the latter’s defensive organisation is currently much better.
Los Blancos‘ attacking output has been excellent since the restart. That said, they have had shaky moments at the back and can be called as lucky to have only conceded two goals in their last four meetings. For Barcelona, the aim must be to continue to deliver the same defensive displays while simultaneously improving on their overall build-up. They can’t waste time worrying over a mere head-to-head lead and must remain focussed on getting wins and putting the pressure on Madrid.
Opposed to Barcelona, Real Madrid’s attack has improved but their defence has worsened after the break | Photo by Ángel Martínez via Getty Images
At some point, Zinedine Zidane’s side will slip because of their defensive question marks, and Barça must be ready to pounce back to the top. Even if it goes till the final matchday, they must ensure that their backline continues to be at top shape. After all, it only takes one lapse from either side to shift the course of the title. Setién, his backroom staff, and the fans might not entirely be happy with the recent performances. But collectively, everybody must be pleased with the form at the back.
The famous saying “attack wins you games, defence wins you titles” must be recollected at all times. The massive improvement of the backline at this crucial stage of the season is bound to pay the dividends.
How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona
The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.
El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.
In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.
Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.
Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.
Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.
Madrid’s defensive organization
After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.
The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.
Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.
Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.
What went wrong for Barcelona?
Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.
One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.
The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.
Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.
As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.
With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.
This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.