With the Bundesliga returning this weekend, let’s take a look at the current culé stars that have played in the German league. Arturo Vidal had two spells there, including one in Guardiola’s Bayern, and it is worth reviewing them.
Pep Guardiola is a football genius. Every culé has fond memories of the current Manchester City manager, as a player for the oldest fans or as a head coach for younger ones. His squad always tends to play some intricate football that he hates to call Tiki-Taka. That said, a common misconception would be that Pep always plays the same kind of midfielders: small and agile players that have an eye for a pass. In short, Xavi and Iniesta type of players.
When Arturo Vidal signed for Barça, there were some murmurs of discontent because the Chilean is more of a killer in the midfield and some felt he was going to eat up the youngsters’ minutes. What they ignored is the fact Arturo is a warrior, and even Pep valued him as an essential part of his squad in Germany. Of course, the beautiful game is played with the brain most of the time, but let’s not forget that football rewards the most passionate individuals. Vidal has been ever-present for both club and country for a decade now, and his two spells in Germany have been the pick of the bunch in terms of displays.
Vidal enjoyed four good years at Bayer Leverkusen between 2007 and 2011 | Photo by Stuart Franklin / Bongarts via Getty Images
Arturo began at Chile’s Colo-Colo before Leverkusen snapped him up. In his first spell in the Bundesliga, the enthusiastic midfielder followed up from his excellent displays at the 2007 under–20 World Cup. However, his best stint in Germany was at Bayern, under the one and only Pep Guardiola and another sublime coach in Carlo Ancelotti. After another Scudetto clinched with Juventus, Arturo decided to pack his bags to go to the Allianz Arena. A world-class midfielder for 37 million euros was a steal at the time, and the return the Chilean had for the Bavarians was considerable, regardless of injuries.
In his solitary season under Pep, Arturo was a regular and a bully in midfield. Bayern were a fierce rival that 2015/16 season, as the Bavarians steam-rolled the Bundesliga, obliterated the German Cup and had memorable performances in the Champions League. Their European campaign was one of Bayern’s best under Pep and Vidal played a vital role in a dominant side. Games that had to be won by the players’ head and not their feet were made easier just with the addition of Vidal. That’s why Pep decided to play Arturo Vidal against Juventus in that thrilling 4–2 victory for the München side.
After a hard-fought 2–2 draw in Turin, Pep decided to go with a side that was ready for a comeback, if they needed to complete one. At 2–0 down, it looked like Juve were going to coast past Die Roten, but Arturo and his teammates lifted their game to come back. Pep instilled this mentality, and having determined players like Vidal on the pitch helps everyone when things are going wrong. The Chilean then assisted Thiago for the fourth and final goal of the game to settle it. He, just like the entire collective, was sensational on that night and he proved to everyone that Guardiola doesn’t exclusively play Xavi and Iniesta type of players.
While his looks and style didn’t make him Guardiola’s prototype midfielder, Vidal did perform really well under Pep | Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Bongarts via Getty Images
After the Catalan left, Vidal kept his place in the team and had more impressive performances, even though his enthusiasm got the better of him and he was sent off in the quarter-finals against Real Madrid. His stint at Bayern was great, but ultimately fitness problems got the better of him and his game time started decreasing because of a recurring knee injury. Now at Barcelona, Arturo Vidal has shown everyone that he deserves to be part of that squad, and his determination is appreciated at the Camp Nou.
To make it under Pep is no insignificant feat, but Vidal played football at an insane level for about two years in Munich and deserved to be picked week in week out. Also, his 2016 was more than complete when he won the Copa América at Leo Messi’s Argentina’s expense, and he played a significant role for Chile in their title win. All in all, Arturo Vidal’s career is littered with success. His trophy cabinet knew its first trophy in 2006 at Colo-Colo, and the last time he did not win silverware in a season was with Leverkusen in 2011. Since then, he has won every single league title in Italy, Germany and Spain and has played in a Champions League final, coming agonisingly close to his first big European title in 2015. An all-time Bundesliga great, Vidal’s name will be anchored in the history books for many years to come.
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.