In their 3rd La Liga game of the 2020-21 campaign, FC Barcelona hosted Sevilla FC at the Camp Nou. In the previous season, Barcelona had ran out 4-0 winners at home against Sevilla. However, this was a much-improved Sevilla side that, in recent times, won yet another Europa League title and gave the mighty Bayern Munich a run for their money in a closely contested UEFA Super Cup affair. Despite losing influential LB Sergio Reguilon to Tottenham Hotspurs and the evergreen midfield maestro Ever Banega, Sevilla managed to remain strong. Ivan Rakitic rejoined Sevilla from Barcelona to bolster the midfield, and Sevilla made a strong unbeaten start to the league, winning the first two games, same as Barcelona. The game at Camp Nou was a closely contested 1-1 draw, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Sevilla were marginally the better team all things considered. They showed glimpses of a title-contesting side.
The shape of the team
Owing to Clement Lenglet’s red card against Celta Vigo, the only change that Ronald Koeman rang out in Barcelona’s starting eleven was putting in young Uruguayan centre-back Ronald Araujo. The nominal formation remained the same as before: a 4-2-3-1/4-2-4 hybrid. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution in minute 60:
The touch-based heatmaps of the players tell some interesting story. Sergio Busquets covered a much larger territory on the field compared to his partner Frenkie de Jong. In fact, late in the second half, after the introduction of Miralem Pjanic, de Jong almost exclusively played high up the pitch, frequently making runs into the box and even taking a shot at Sevilla’s goal, which was crucially blocked by the excellent young French defender Jules Kounde. Jordi Alba could not assert himself like in the previous games, and had to spend a fair amount of time in Barcelona’s own half, owing to the constant threat posed by Jesus Navas and Suso. A late injury in the second half forced him off the field, and his place was taken by the new acquisition Sergino Dest from AFC Ajax. The USA wonderkid made a solid cameo, looking extremely tidy and possession and combining well with his teammates in offence while helping out defensively.
Sevilla on the other hand played with a 4-3-3 formation:
Of the two full-backs, Marcos Acuna was the less-adventurous one. Jesus Navas was his usual marauding self, pushing high to attack whenever he could. Ivan Rakitic, while subdued in his return to Camp Nou in possession, covered a lot of territory to support Acuna and Lucas Ocampos down the left flank.
First, let’s have a look at the general game statistics:
This was a cagey game, and while both teams had roughly similar attacking and possession numbers as shown in the data table above, the quality of shots were in general low. Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game:
Apart from the shots shown here, Sevilla almost scored when a dangerous pass from Youssef en-Nesyri was almost deflected into the goal by Ronald Araujo’s foot. The ball cannoned off the cross bar much to Neto’s, and all Barcelona fans’ relief.
As for the goals themselves, a familiar ghost in the form of set-pieces came back to haunt Barcelona. A clever short corner routine from the left saw Suso evade Ansu Fati’s challenge and send in a cross. Although Frenkie de Jong managed to block Jules Kounde’s header in an aerial duel inside the box, the clearance was weak and fell right in the path of the surprisingly unmarked Luuk de Jong, who smashed it in.
However, the joy was short-lived for Sevilla, as Barcelona equalized within minutes. The restart led to a lovely sequence of passes, before Lionel Messi launched one of his trademark ball over the top for Jordi Alba’s extremely well-timed run. Although the ball didn’t reach him as Navas managed to intercept it, his interception fell right in the stride of Philippe Coutinho, who scored with a great finish.
Unlike the previous games, neither Jordi Alba nor Frenkie de Jong managed to provide a ton of successful progressive passes. Ansu Fati really struggled to assert himself as well. Even Phillipe Coutinho wasn’t inspirational with his passing. Sergio Busquets was far more influential with his progressive passing, pulling off a great long pass to Messi that led to a shot eventually. Ronald Araujo produced two moments of magic with astounding long balls, one of which was to Antoine Griezmann’s run from own half, that led to a shot as well.
Next, we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):
Barcelona barely penetrated Sevilla’s box with successful passes. A lot of passes were played out wide, especially to the right, so it’s extremely concerning to not see a proportional amount of dangerous passes from that side into the box. Passes from the half space and zone 14 were always forced wide by the incessant hard work of Kounde, Diego Carlos and Fernando.
In sharp contrast to Barcelona’s style, Sevilla went for a much more direct approach. There were barely any penetrative combination play from the central and half spaces. Long balls were sprayed down wide, and then crossed into the box from out wide. Several of these passes were from set pieces from the right side. Sevilla breached Barcelona’s box way more frequently, and resolute defending by Gerard Pique and Araujo kept Sevilla at bay.
A look at the key passes tell a truly sad story, most of Barcelona’s key passes ended far from the goal, and required a significant amount of ball-carrying before a shot could be taken. In contrast, a bulk of Sevilla’s key passes ended inside Barcelona’s box:
Busquets had 3 key passes, Messi had two, and Fati, Araujo and Dest had one each. For Sevilla, Navas led with 4 key passes. Suso had 3, Joan Jordan had 2, and Nemaja Gudelj and Munir El-Haddadi had a key pass each.
Another defining feature of Sevilla’s playstyle is frequent cross-field switches. It was on ample display in the KO stages of the Europa League, where Sevilla utilized switches of play very frequently to engage Reguilon+Ocampos on one wing, and Suso+Navas on the other to create danger and also make it physically demanding for the defending team to press. Unsurprisingly, against Barcelona too, Sevilla attempted and completed a greater number of switches to the wide areas.
As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, Sevilla recorded a lower PPDA as compared to Barcelona – in other words, they pressed Barcelona with a higher intensity than Barca did to Sevilla. Sevilla allowed Barca to play on average 11 passes in Barca’s own half before applying a defensive activity like tackle or duel or fouling Barcelona’s ball carrier. Barcelona allowed Sevilla to play 16 passes on average before doing the same. Something that was visible, in particular from Frenkie de Jong, was the reluctance to commit tactical fouls up the pitch. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:
As shown, Barcelona didn’t try to press too high, and Jordi Alba had to spend a significant amount of effort dealing with Suso and Navas on the wings. In contrast, Sevilla pressed Barcelona comparatively higher up the pitch. It bore dividends as Barcelona struggled to build out from the back very frequently. Neto does not have Marc Andre Ter Stegen’s distribution skills, and was almost caught napping by Ivan Rakitic in the second half. Lenglet’s ability to produce penetrative and progressive passes down the ground was sorely missed today. While Pique and Araujo were solid defensively, their passes were not too adventurous and frequent back passes and side passes to the full backs invited pressure far too often. Here is a look at the unsuccessful passes by Barcelona while building from the deep:
For the passes originating from the defensive 3rd, the pattern was obvious. Frequent back and side passing would invite pressure and become unsustainable after a while, forcing the back 5 to go long. Barcelona’s midfielders and the forward line didn’t succeed too often in winning the long balls.
The story for the passes originating from the middle 3rd was far more fascinating. To keep it short, Frenkie de Jong had a horrow show on field. Not that his teammates covered themselves in glory when it came to passing, but de Jong was especially poor. He had a record low of 83% passing accuracy. Coutinho had an accuracy of 85%. Barcelona players frequently misplaced simple short passes in the middle of the pitch. Several attempted combination plays were broken up due to passes played with the wrong weight.
The centre-back partnerships on both sides were magnificent. Araujo put in a great defensive shift in perhaps his most significant game so far, and Pique was his usual solid self. For Sevilla, Kounde and Carlos,aided by Fernando, barely let Barcelona create anything inside the box. Fati, who had looked so dangerous in the two previous games, was kept quiet until he got substituted. The only chink in Sevilla’s defensive armor was Acuna. Three memorable attacks that came down his side were: Busquet’s pass to Messi’s run, Araujo’s pass to Messi’s run, and the late attempt by Francisco Trincao. As a testament to Kounde-Carlos’ defensive prowess, here is the take-on map; Kounde and Carlos foiled all but one take-ons inside Sevilla’s box. The only successful one came from Acuna’s side again.
The biggest issue in the game was a discernable lack of finesse in touches and passing. Misplacing so many short passes was almost criminal. There were too frequent attempts at fancy combination plays, and most of them were negated by poor passing. Another issue, particularly concerning de Jong, was holding on to the ball for far too long. De Jong kept doing in hope of winning fouls, but the delay often killed the momentum. Not just de Jong, but Pique too was sometimes guilty of this, although he gave away the ball less frequently. As to why certain players held on to possession instead of quick releases, a possible reason would be lack of sharp movements by other Barcelona players. Sevilla’s press was intelligent and coordinated, and several players failed to get out of the pressing cover shadow in time, hence the delay in ball release. While Koeman’s entry has definitely increased the team’s mobility, it is still a work in progress.
Another big issue is Griezmann’s role in the team. He was yet again barely involved in possession, with just 16 accurate passes and 21 touches. A pretty damning statistic that was shown by BeIn sports broadcast in the first half was that there were zero attacks down the right channel as compared to several down the left and the middle. While Griezmann can make excellent off-the-ball runs – he made two memorable ones today – poor final touches led to taking weak shots. He had an excellent run against Celta Vigo to reach Frenkie de Jong’s exquisite outside-of-the-boot pass but messed it up with a bad touch yet again. However, very often he demands the ball to his feet. This is not particularly useful, as Griezmann is a poor dribbler, and barely exerts any “gravity” – that is, doesn’t make multiple players relocate to tackle him, unlike Messi.
This was partially ameliorated in the second half. Introduction of Francisco Trincao led to a more balanced and spread out attacking variation by Barcelona. While Trincao is still raw and wasn’t particularly impressive on the ball today, his willingness to run down the wing and his ability to take on players meant that he was tracked by two players, clearing space for Sergi Roberto or Messi or sometimes(and rather surprisingly)Busquets to make forays along the right wing. The game ended with almost equal share of attacks coming down the left, center and the right – a stark contrast to the pitiful statistic from the first half. Moving ahead, Koeman needs to decide whether utilizing Griezmann wide is a wise strategy.
Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao, Pedri and Sergino Dest came on as substitutes in the second half. Trincao looked rusty with his touches, but he kept the left back occupied with constant runs and attempts to take on, and had a great opportunity to open his Barcelona account, but saw his shot from a tight angle saved. Pedri mostly kept it simple. He had one little combination with Dest down the left – close to Sevilla’s box – that eventually led to a shot by Messi. Pedri’s most telling contribution was his defensive work yet again. He had two tackles and an interception deep in Barcelona’s half. Pjanic started poorly, getting himself cautioned within minutes of entry. However, his passing was very clean. He played almost like a DLP, and distributed the ball really well in the last 20 minutes of the match.
Dest got a chance to showcase his skills just days after his arrival from Ajax. Although he is expected to play as the right back, an injury to Alba meant he started his Barcelona career filling in as a left back(Junior Firpo unavailable due to injury), and he did so very well. Very composed in possession, he provided a key pass to Lionel Messi following his combination with Pedri. There were no signs of nerve from what appeared to be an extremely confident youngster.
Frankly speaking, while I was hoping for a victory, I realistically expected a draw. Sevilla are a title-challenging team, and along with Barcelona and Real Madrid, are one of the three best Spanish teams currently. A 1-1 draw was a fair result in my opinion. The tactics and the fitness levels Koeman is trying to instill in the team will take some time to be fully reflected. Barcelona has a tough set of matches coming up – Getafe away, El Classico, and then a trip to Turin; Koeman has a big mountain to scale here. However, there are positives already on display – especially the mental fortitude of the team seems to have improved from last season. It was evident against Celta away where Barcelona emphatically broke the Balaidos curse, and it was on display against Sevilla, where Barcelona did not completely capitulate against a well-oiled press. As a fan, I hope to see more and more improvements in the upcoming games.