Two products from La Masía that, at such a young age, are the solution to the tactical and intensity problems Barça are facing. For the Catalans to win La Liga, many things are needed, but Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig are one of them.
Barcelona has been filled with problems this season. The accumulation of all of them has led to, in the league, being behind leaders Real Madrid. Nevertheless, with both sides tied in points and with Los Blancos holding the head-to-head advantage, there is still hope for culés. In particular, some hope that is brought by the countless stars in such a gifted squad, but also by the promise of several gems that get fans excited. Among others, it is two La Masía youngsters who could turn the title race upside down during these upcoming weeks.
On the one hand, there is 17-year-old Ansu Fati, operating in the winger role. A position that is currently in decline in Barcelona, with Ousmane Dembélé injured. And, although many can play there, few can interpret the spaces properly and stay in such a wide area other than the sensation Ansu himself.
“Ansu and Riqui are increasing the chances of having more minutes in the future”
On the other hand, Riqui Puig adds verticality and energy to the team from midfield. The one similarity between him and Fati is that both offer something that the club is currently lacking: a spark of imagination, personality and intensity. Ansu Fati already showed it against Leganés, where he scored the opener, and as a substitute against Athletic Club. Puig shone in both games as well, but only coming off the bench. If Barça wants to have a better chance of winning the rest of the clashes, though, both Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati must be essential.
Ansu Fati: the only natural winger available
Winger, a position that seems simple but which requires a lot of tactical work and patience. With Ousmane Dembélé’s injury, Barcelona have been left depleted of options in that zone. Players like Martin Braithwaite, Antoine Griezmann or even Arturo Vidal have been utilised in that area, but for more individual quality that they have, it takes something else to be functional in that position. Maybe Braithwaite is more productive there than his other two teammates, but the one winger that is ideal there has name and surname: Anssumane Fati.
The role of the winger is too important for Quique Setién’s tactics. A creative winger, with vision, good with the ball at his feet, with the ability to read and generate spaces, with energetic movements with and without a ball, measuring distances well, and constantly making runs in behind to destabilise the opposing defence and open up gaps. All this while staying close to the touchline. Ansu Fati is the only player in the squad suitable to acting as a winger, given his characteristics as he is capable of fulfilling all these tasks.
Young but ready | Photo by Aitor Alcalde via Getty Images
Against Leganés, he did not participate much in the build-ups because he was always covered by many defenders. Even so, when he had the ball he participated in a positive way and, when he did not have the ball, he positioned himself very well to provide width and stretch the compact defence of Lega. In a complicated duel and without enjoying many opportunities, Fati had his first chance, in which he made a magnificent control surrounded by several defenders and, in a matter of seconds, found the net to open the scoring.
Against Athletic Club, he was subbed on in the second half and gave life to Barça’s attack, as he almost always does. He had a big opportunity in the final minutes, unfortunately hitting the post.
Riqui Puig, the artist that Barça needs to make poetry on the pitch
The blaugranas have several issues in midfield. Frenkie de Jong is injured, Arthur Melo is out of form and focus with the rumours linking him to Juventus, and Arturo Vidal is not at the level that is expected from him. By contrast, Riqui Puig is ready to shine. Intentional, he is always looking for key passes to his partners. Off the ball, he moves very quickly from one side to the other to offer a passing lane and continue circulating the ball. In defence, he presses with great intensity and intelligence, despite not seeming much physical. And, unlike the other midfielders, Puig offers the verticality that no one else is giving at the moment.
A week ago Riqui Puig played 20 minutes against Leganés and was very involved. In spite of the few minutes he enjoyed, he had two dangerous chances in which he almost scored, as well as generating a couple more for his teammates. Against Sevilla, he played roughly eight minutes and logically had no time to demonstrate anything. However, in the last fixture against Athletic Club, Riqui was handed most of the minutes in the second half, being the player who made a difference during the game.
“Im very happy that I’ve gained the confidence of the coach. It was a match in strange conditions; you could hear the firecrackers…It was a good result and I can’t complain”
after the win against Athletic Club
The meeting with Los Leones separated into two. Before Puig and After Puig. Before Puig, the play was slow and conservative, without creativity or much threat. After Puig, it was the opposite. The Catalan has a privileged mind and physique, having an admirable agility and pressing as if it were the 90th minute of the most important final of any player’s career.
Riqui sent lethal passes to his teammates, solving the problems in attack that the team was having. A 20-year-old changed Barcelona’s game in a side with great names such as Arturo Vidal, Antoine Griezmann, Jordi Alba and Luis Suárez, among others. And, although Puig is not better than most of these individuals, he is the one who impacted the match the most.
What do Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig need from Barça?
Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig already offer many things to Barça. But now, what should the blaugranas offer both La Masía products? Simple: minutes and confidence.
We are all aware of what they are capable of. We meaning fans, teammates, the board, Quique Setién and even the two players themselves. There is no doubt that the air breathed when both are playing is full of purity and life. That said, there is always hesitation when it comes to giving them minutes. Why?
The two prospects are already doing their job, and now it is Barcelona that must do its. The problems are multiple: injuries, poor performances at the centre of the pitch, absence of width, problems to deliver the final ball, lack of imagination and vitality…Numerous troubles for the Catalans, yet the two academy graduates can be the key to unlocking the lock that has the club stuck and is preventing it from moving forward.
Quique Setién has to start both Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati in most of the remaining seven games in La Liga. Or, at least, one of them. Not to necessarily win La Liga, as for that to happen Real Madrid has to drop points. Notwithstanding, Barça will definitely have a better chance of lifting the trophy with both gems on the pitch.
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.