In Ronald Koeman’s La Liga debut as manager of Barcelona, he handed Ansu Fati a starting place in the team. It proved to be the correct decision as the youngster stole the show. It was great seeing Barça play with proper wingers again which helped unlock the Villarreal defence.
On Sunday night, Barcelona played a strong Villarreal side. As the Blaugrana kicked off their campaign, the Yellow Submarine had already played two La Liga games. The Barça defence looked shaky at times but in the end, kept a clean sheet. They passed the ball out from the back well with Clément Lenglet breaking the press with a beautiful left-footed pass on several occasions.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets struggled to adapt to the double pivot role and was off the pace with his passing. On the other hand, Frenkie De Jong looked more comfortable in this position. His build-up play was excellent, and he covered a lot of ground. Miralem Pjanić also impressed in his cameo and will be pushing for a starting role.
In attack, the Catalan side went with a front four. Antoine Griezmann was the quietest of the forwards and sometimes found himself too wide again. Philippe Coutinho looks to be regaining some form in his preferred position. He was involved in the build-up plays and gave a great assist to Fati. Lionel Messi put in another impressive performance and seemed to be enjoying himself. The attackers linked well and there was a lot more movement than recent seasons. Their understanding should continue to improve as the season progresses.
Ansu Fati celebrating the opening goal of the match against Villarreal | Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images
However, the real stand out of the game was Ansu Fati. The 17-year-old started on the left-wing and was a constant threat down this channel. Most of Barcelona’s attacks came down the left side with Jordi Alba having one of his best games in a long time. The two players combined well and seemed to effortlessly know where space was. When Alba and Neymar used to play on the wings they would sometimes compete over the same areas. But with Fati and Alba, they looked like a great partnership
On the night, Ansu Fati scored two goals and won a penalty for the team. His first goal came after a beautiful pass from Lenglet over the top of the defence found Alba. The left-back produced one of his classic cutbacks, but this time found Fati instead of Messi. The Spanish international unleashed a confident first-time finish leaving Sergio Asenjo almost static on his line.
Minutes later, Coutinho played the young winger through and again Ansu finished at the near post. Again, Lenglet found the pass through Villarreal’s press that started the move. Fati is proving to be a clinical finisher with 9 goals from just 14 shots in La Liga. Such composure in front of goal is rare for any player let alone a 17-year-old.
“When I am handed a chance to play, I become eager to take it and make the best out of it.”Ansu Fati
The young winger was involved again when he was brought down in the penalty box by Mario Gaspar. Once again, Fati demonstrated his ability to take defenders on and beat them. His pace caused a lot of problems for the opposition’s defence. Ansu showed just how good he is tactically, as he is technically. His positioning and decision making were almost flawless, especially for someone who has had so little minutes in the first team. When he was substituted in the second half, he received a warm embrace from Koeman for his fantastic display.
The performance of Ansu last night also highlighted how important is it for Barcelona to play with wingers. Almost all the attacks came from the left-hand side where Alba and Fati played. However, there was only a handful of attacking plays coming from the right side where Roberto and Griezmann were. Having that width and pace really stretched the Villarreal defence and created space for others to exploit.
Ansu Fati scoring his second goal in the 20th minute against Villarreal | Photo by David Ramirez via Imago
“I criticized Ansu for his performance in pre-season. That’s what gave him a boost. He made a huge impact, especially on the wings.”Ronald Koeman
The second goal of the evening shows how important having that width is. With Coutinho running through the centre, Griezmann was directly ahead of him. Two defenders were then dragged into the area around Antoine which allowed Fati more space to run into. If there was no left-winger, that space could not have been exploited and the goal would not have happened.
With the success down the left-wing, the manager may consider playing with a more natural winger on the right too. The right-wing was almost invisible for Barça over the 90 minutes and this is unsustainable for the full season. The substitutions of Francisco Trincão and Ousmane Dembélé showed how having two natural wingers could work. Dembélé was positioned on the left and Trincão on the right. Both offer width in the team and are can dribble past defenders. It is something to consider when playing against teams that play in the low block.
Overall, Barcelona’s first game of the season looked promising. There was a lot more intensity in the team and plenty of movement. The competition for places should keep players’ levels high and allow for rotations. So far, the 4-2-3-1 formation seems to be working and allows for some to play in their favoured position. Ansu Fati impressed during the game and showed why having pace and width is so important to any Barça team. The performance levels should continue to improve as players get used to the system and get more minutes on the field.
Barcelona vs Real Madrid: The Game through Numbers
A detailed look into the game by numbers, statistics, and tactics as FC Barcelona fell to defeat against Real Madrid in the first El Clasico of the season.
Following a high-flying victory against Ferencvaros in the opening game of the Champions League, FC Barcelona returned to action in La Liga against Real Madrid at Camp Nou. However, the game didn’t go as Ronald Koeman planned, and Barcelona stumbled to defeat in the first El Clasico of 2020-21. This followed a draw against Sevilla and a shock loss to Getafe and left Barcelona midtable 5 games into the season.
Ronald Koeman sprung in several surprises ahead of this fixture. Firstly, Jordi Alba returned from injury to play as left-back, while Sergi Roberto was omitted altogether for Sergiño Dest. Philippe Coutinho played as left-wing. 17-year old Pedri got to start the Classico as a reward for his performances but was fielded on the right-wing. Lionel Messi played as the no. 10 behind Ansu Fati as the striker.
Off the ball, Barcelona defended in a 4-4-2 with Messi and Fati staying and pressing up. From touch-based heatmaps, there are two interesting features.
Firstly, while Frenkie de Jong played in a relatively advanced role, he stayed quite wide. Sergio Busquets occupied the central channels. However, tasking his old legs to guard such a big zone resulted in recurring issues.
Secondly, Pedri is not a natural winger. He loves to play centrally. Having three natural CAMs in Pedri, Coutinho and Messi on-field and forcing two of them to play as wingers was never a good idea, to begin with. Pedri kept drifting inside, as shown in the heatmaps. Both Coutinho and Pedri were limited in their influence. Koeman’s overthinking and tinkering nullified both their strengths.
Real Madrid on the other hand set up in a skewed 4-3-3 as shown. Early injury to Nacho resulted in Lucas Vazquez coming on as the right back for the remainder of the game. Vinicius stayed high and wide, while Marco Asensio drifted in and out, often letting Federico Valverde occupy the wider channels.
Barcelona’s structure after the 81st minute deserves a special mention. Koeman made several offensive subs, bringing on Antoine Greizmann, Ousmane Dembele, Martin Braithwaite and Fransisco Trincáo into the game, in place of Pedri, Fati, Busquets and Alba. To top it all off, Coutinho was slotted as the only pivot in the side, instead of de Jong as the shape devolved into a bizarre 3-1-6.
Attacks and Buildups
This game had a clear moment after which the game changed – minute 62. Until then, Barcelona were evidently the better team starting to dominate a bit as well. Here are the stats from the entire game:
Barcelona were outshot, outscored, and had fewer shots on target – but a lot of that’s skewed from what happened minute 62 onwards. From the PPDA (Passes per Defensive Action) data, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, it’s evident that neither team went for a very high press. Here is the shot map and xG flow:
Minute 62 was when Clement Lenglet fouled by pulling Sergio Ramos’ shirt inside the penalty area while defending a corner. Ramos didn’t need a second invitation to exaggerate the pull. He fell theatrically to the ground, won a penalty, and Barcelona were chasing the game that moment onwards.
The first blood was drawn by Madrid after a moment of disastrous marking by Busquets allowed Federico Valverde to run into Barcelona’s box, unmarked, and smash home from Karim Benzema’s pass.
Thankfully, Barcelona did not take long to reply. A delightful ball over the top from Lionel Messi met Jordi Alba’s well-timed run, and Alba’s square pass was prodded home by Ansu Fati. Here is a little animation of the goal:
As mentioned earlier, Madrid’s second goal came from a penalty, scored by Ramos himself. And Luka Modric capitalized on some terrible defending to make it 3-1 in the 91st minute.
Neither team were truly impressive in passing. Here are the most dangerous passes by both teams:
Passes into the box were few by either team. Barcelona did manage to get into the box from central zone 14 or half-spaces, while Madrid clearly utilised their greatest strength – attacking from wide areas. It’s also shown in the key passes map:
However, in buildup, Madrid were far more expansive. They switched the play a lot as compared to Barcelona.
Comparing the passes completed in the final third by each team, quantified by field tilt – Barcelona completed a greater number of final-third passes. However, the field tilt, or final third territory gained, was being dominated by Madrid in the first half. Barcelona started the second half positively and dominated territory. However, they got scored against the run of play. After that, Madrid were happy to let Barcelona keep possession and attacked the team on the counter.
Defence and Pressing
Both teams exhibited some terrible defending in the first half, to say the very least. Both goals were conceded from such cases.
As mentioned before, there were huge gaps in the midfield, and too much space between the midfield and defence; i.e. poor covering by Busquets and de Jong. Madrid made the best use of this for their first goal, and repeated it several times as the clock ticked ahead.
In the first image, it is evident that too many Barcelona players got sucked in trying to press the Madrid defence, resulting in a huge void in the midfield. Madrid play out of the press with ridiculous ease.
In the second image, the gap between Dest and Pique is appalling. Both centre-backs are engulfed towards Benzema for some reason, and Busquets completely loses track of Valverde’s run. One simple through ball and the job is done.
Almost immediately after that, Vinicius almost scored a second. Quick combination with Benzema in the box, while Busquets is seen jogging outside the box, there is a huge space to attack. Thankfully, Vinicius’ poor decision making and first touch allow Alba to throw him off.
The next example, again in the first half, shows terrible spacing between defenders, and terrible tracking from Busquets. A simple ball behind Dest, who is in isolation with the rest of the backline meets a well-timed run that Busquets can’t keep up with.
The next two examples are from the second half:
In the first one, the “pivot” Coutinho loses track of Toni Kroos’ run. Kroos runs onto Vazquez’s cutback to take a shot that Neto saves marvellously, and denies the German again pouncing perfectly on the rebounded shot.
The second image shows the moment when Vazquez lobs a ball into Ramos’ path, who is completely unmarked on the far post. Thankfully, Neto comes to Barça’s rescue saving the Madrid’s captain volley with his foot.
Madrid didn’t cover themselves in glory either, especially in the first half. Barcelona’s only goal of the game came as a result of terrible tracking from Nacho as Alba found space behind him. There were giveaways in midfield that led to multiple chances as well.
Most notably, Fati’s lofted ball into the path of an unmarked Messi, who eviscerated Ramos with a quick dribble but shot straight into the hands of Thibaut Courtois at the near post. However, they weren’t as often as Barcelona’s, and in general, resulted in lower quality chances.
As mentioned before, neither team went all out to the press. Barcelona’s pressing structure was so poor that Madrid played through it without trouble. They could even manage elaborate buildups, with two examples shown below:
Shambolic would be the right word to define Barcelona’s defending in the game. The lack of speed and the alertness to track runners was exposed yet again. The card-happy centre-backs came to haunt Barcelona again, as Lenglet gave away a poor penalty.
Busquets, on the other hand, looks far from being a starter and should be replaced as soon as possible. And if he somehow manages to retain his spot in the lineup, the midfield structure needs to be fixed so that he doesn’t get tasked with defending such a wide area.
The substitutions and Koeman’s game management made little to no sense. As seen in the Getafe game, in more cases than not, more forwards does not equate to more goals. The midfield was non-existent in the last 10 minutes, and Los Blancos made the best use of this as they scored the third where Luka Modric made the Barcelona defence dance.
The game was pretty even for nearly one hour, with neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid standing out as the better team. Post that, however, the scoreline spoke for itself.
Sergiño Dest made a solid claim for starting as right back in the coming games. He was outstanding in defence and quite courageous and innovative in the offence, with some neat dribbles. Fati kept his goalscoring form alive, becoming the youngest ever scorer in an El Clasico. Neto ended the game as arguably the best player on the pitch, but that is more bad news than good for the Garnet and the Blue.
However, there are defensive, structural, tactical, and personnel problems to be ironed out by Koeman in the future, especially if he wants to retain his job after a change of presidency. Otherwise, this could turn out to be a worse season the previous one for La Liga.