On 13th June, Barcelona faced RCD Mallorca at Son Moix. After 98 days, football had returned. Nobody was sure of what to expect from either team after such a long time. Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona had won 5–2 against Vicente Moreno’s Mallorca earlier in the season. Due to excellent tactics, great match-fitness and above all, much superior talent, Barcelona won by 4–0 this time to maintain their position as the La Liga leaders as a very dense schedule begins. Mallorca now have their task of getting out of the relegation zone, made even tougher with this defeat.
The starting systems
Barcelona started out in Quique Setién’s preferred formation in a 4–3–3. Lionel Messi started out on the right with Antoine Griezmann through the middle and Danish forward Martin Braithwaite on the left. With the midfield of Frenkie de Jong and Arturo Vidal with Sergio Busquets as a pivot, Arthur Melo was not in the starting line-up and even Croatian Iván Rakitić was on the bench. In defence, Barcelona B youngster Ronald Araújo made his first start for the Catalans alongside Gerard Piqué. The chosen full-backs were Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto.
Meanwhile, the hosts started in a 4–4–2 with full-backs Joan Sastre and Alejandro Pozo forming the defence with Martin Valjent and Antonio Raíllo in front of Manolo Reina, the keeper as well as the captain. Dani Rodríguez and ex-La Masía talent Takefusa Kubo were the wide midfielders with veteran Salva Sevilla and Marc Pedraza in midfield. The front two were Cucho Hernández and Ante Budimir.
Barcelona was by far the more proactive team in terms of attacking output. For the planned system to work, the full-backs were given a lot of responsibility. Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto were expected to overlap at every possible chance. For this to work out smoothly, Messi, Vidal and Roberto on the right, and Braithwaite, De Jong and Alba on the left, used numerical superiority to carry about witches. The wingers dropping back was the trigger for the full-backs to go all-out in the attack.
This helped the system as Messi or Braithwaite would pass the ball from between the opposition’s full-back and center-back into the path of the Barcelona full-backs. They would then be able to cross the ball into the box. By then Vidal and De Jong had both advanced into or near the edge of the box. Thanks to this Frenkie played a major part in the second goal with his header. He played a part in the first goal as well by dispossessing Take Kubo near the box. Vidal himself got an assist as well.
A problem this caused was that Braithwaite’s passing ability is not as potent as Leo Messi’s, which meant Jordi Alba would often receive the ball in front of the full-back rather than behind. When he did get the ball behind the lines, it was due to Messi’s perfect lobs and chips. During these attacking sequences Antoine Griezmann kept dropping back and roaming between the lines.
This forced his marker, usually one of the central midfielders to follow him which helped the wingers who dropped back to get relatively more space. Had the marker instead closed in on Messi and Braithwaite, Barcelona could easily create with De Jong and Vidal having the other winger and Griezmann to feed the balls through to.
In the build-up, Marc-André ter Stegen played an important part. He was superb throughout the match. Often, the centre-backs would drift apart and the goalkeeper would almost be in line with them. This took advantage of Mallorca not pressing Barcelona much near the Catalans’ box. Because of this, Barça were able to find passes through to the full-backs and, if not, to Sergio Busquets. In fact, Ter Stegen got 64 passes with a 94% conversion rate, which is the most number of passes by a goalkeeper in La Liga since the 2005/06 season.
Admittedly, Mallorca’s attack was not impressive. They lacked the directness needed, they were unable to maintain possession in Barcelona’s intense pressing, which was one of the reasons Barça had 65% possession. Croatian Mallorca striker Ante Budimir would drop back to make it a 4–4–1–1 with the wide midfielders coming forward.
Takefusa Kubo was the most impressive man in attack for Mallorca. His dribbling and agility caught the Barcelona players out of possession a few times. However, Ronald Araújo was excellent in defence, which resulted in Kubo having zero successful crosses in six attempts. He however got three shots on target, which isn’s too outstanding but we must also consider of the fact Mallorca had a cumulative of three shots on target.
The hosts started attacks from out wide. This was sometimes intentional but sometimes due to Griezmann’s relentless pressing down the middle as well. Nevertheless, the attacks shifted out wide as thy moved further up the pitch. Salva Sevilla and Marc Pedraza had the task of feeding the balls to Kubo and Dani Rodríguez on the wings who would then combine with Budimir and Cucho Hernández. But Barcelona’s ability was clearly superior and hence their pressing often caught Mallorca in possession. Hence, they barely had any productive attacks.
Barcelona’s defence was very solid with Gerard Piqué, Ronald Araújo and Sergio Busquets staying back. The Spanish defensive midfielder actually stopped a few key attacks with excellent tackling in the first half. Araújo did a great job in containing Kubo to an extent. Whenever the winger tried to get space out wide, the Uruguayan would immediately press him. By then the full-backs and midfielders would arrive and form a compact defensive unit.
Araújo was very impressive with four clearances, three aerial duels won and hit the woodwork once as well. Gerard Piqué was defensively strong as well. He was instrumental in moving the ball up the field. Both the central defenders contributed greatly to the build-up.
A very important yet indirect part of their defense was pinning back the wingers to avoid quick counters. Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto moving forward would result in Take Kubo and Dani Rodríguez tracking back to press them. This ensured that there were a minimal number of long balls into the Mallorca attackers’ paths as well. Kubo’s directness and pace was the only way Mallorca could get out of this dilemma, with Dani being unable to get past Roberto before the Catalan midfield reinforcements acted.
In defence, Mallorca relied on their midfielders pressing onto Barcelona’s attackers. Even so, Frenkie de Jong and Arturo Vidal kept moving in between the lines making it harder for the opposition to mark them. Antoine Griezmann’s constant roaming also dragged the central midfielders out of position.
One problem which Mallorca faced very often was the defenders were very poor at pressing. The first goal could have been prevented had De Jong been immediately pressed and similarly the second had he been pressed faster. This confusion may be due to a lack of match-sharpness, but it may even be because of the distracting runs by Griezmann. As mentioned earlier, the midfielders also joined the attack actively, which gave Barcelona more passing options and, after that, all they had to do was pass faster than Mallorca’s pressing.
Barcelona were a very cohesive unit at Son Moix, always one step ahead of the locals. It was a great display by the Catalans. The long hiatus from football did not seem to have caused a detriment in quality for Barcelona. Mallorca, though, have had a rough start with this loss. Barcelona now focus their attention on CD Leganés whereas Mallorca face Villarreal next. The tactics were very well-thought and those combined with the incredible individual talent that they possess, Quique Setién’s side deservedly won the tie.
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.