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Barcelona tactics: How to overcome a low block

As Barcelona struggle when rivals set up in a low block, what are the solutions?

Lewis Shankie

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Header Image by David Ramos via Getty Images

It is becoming almost standard that teams set up in a low block against Barcelona. Barça’s tactics should allow them to arguably out pass any opponent, so teams set up defensively to counter this. Most have managed to limit the creativity of the Catalans this season, so what are the options in unlocking a deep block?


Overall, it has been a poor season for FC Barcelona for a number of reasons. Behind the scenes drama has often taken the spotlight instead of what is actually happening on the pitch. The general play of the team lacks imagination and inspiration and the ageing squad looks tired. There is still hope in the Champions League, though the chances are slim.

One of the greatest concerns seems to be the squad’s inability to break down the defence of their opponents. Though the tactical set-up and general play of Barcelona has improved under Quique Setién, it seems that the low block is still the Achilles heel of the European giants.

Why is the low block so effective?

Barcelona have always had to face teams that play using a low block, but this season it has been especially effective. Teams are happy to sit back and allow the blaugranas the ball. They know that Barҫa lacks creativity and sometimes pace. This season’s side has often played without true wingers too, so they are forced to play through the middle. The deep block thrives in these situations, as the ten men behind the ball keep a compact formation that allows almost no space in the middle of the pitch.

The other reason the low block is so effective is it makes it difficult for a team like Barcelona to play their football. It limits the Catalans’ strengths such as breaking the lines with passes and dribbling past players in one-on-one situations. It slows up the general play of the team and they can be forced to play sideways or backwards. The azulgranas excel in beating the press, but if there is no press to beat then it is useless.

How do other teams beat the low block?

The low block is not only used against Barcelona, but other teams have to play against it too. Both Liverpool and Manchester City play in similar ways to the Spaniard’s tactics, with some differences. Liverpool rely heavily on their full-backs to offer width and quality crosses into the box. Their full backs offer much of the creativity in the team. Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have provided more assists than the Liverpool midfield combined this season in the Premier League.

They also have pacey wingers that are good at dribbling and are direct. Both Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mané look to cut inside and either shooting or link up with Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian is key as he is either an option for a quick interchange of passes or he drags defenders out of position and creates space. Their movement is constant and they are fluid in attack. It is something Barcelona has been poor at for a while now.

Riyah Mahrez Raheem Sterling Manchester City Barcelona low block

Both Man City and Liverpool make a proper use of their wingers | Photo by Darren Staples / Sportimage via Imago

Manchester City do have strong full-backs but they prefer playing through their progressive, direct and dynamic midfielders. In particular, Kevin de Bruyne constantly progresses the game and can score goals and create them. They have the perfect balance with David Silva, who sets the tempo of the team and keeps the play flowing. They are able to link up well with the forwards and know how to create space in the final third.

City too play with natural wingers most games and this helps to stretch the opposition. They move the ball quickly and like to isolate the wingers against a defender. Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva are good at dribbling past people and can create scoring chances from these positions. The team plays at a very high intensity and this creates problems for the opposition. It is very hard to defend against for a full 90 minutes.

What Barcelona need to improve

Currently, there are a number of aspects that need improvement in Barça’s tactics. The intensity of the team is one of the major issues. Players need to improve the tempo both in pressing and passing the ball. Also, this includes having more pace in the team. Although the squad has many technically good players, there needs to be some pace in the team too.

Playing with natural wingers is key in breaking down a low block. They add width that stretches the team and can make space in the middle for key players like Lionel Messi. At some point, if the defence is constantly getting stretched, there will be half a yard of space that opens up which Messi lives for.

This leads onto getting the Argentine into more threatening areas of the pitch. Since Quique Setién arrived, Leo has been scoring less frequently. He has been assisting more, but this shows he feels he must create chances from deep. Furthermore, the team struggles to find Messi in key areas of the pitch and more responsibility has to be shown by others. Barҫa relies too heavily on Messi having to create and score goals and it is too easy for teams to crowd him out on the pitch.

Ansu Fati Barcelona low block

Wingers are fundamental to stretch the opposition and generate more spaces in the centre | Photo by Imago

The full-backs are also key in breaking down a low block. They need to understand positioning on the pitch well, and attack any spaces out wide left by the oppositions defence. They should look to run in behind from deep and get a cross or cut back put into the box. The timing of these runs is essential.

Lastly, the team needs to increase their movement and stop being so static. Too often there are no options to pass the ball forward between the lines. In particular, the forwards must bring players out of position and out of their comfort zones. Sharp one-touch passes are key to this and can open space for a runner from deep to get in behind. Antoine Griezmann and Lionel Messi, on paper, should be excellent at this together, but so far the chemistry has not been there.

Conclusion

It is unlikely that teams are going to stop playing the low block against Barcelona anytime soon. Therefore, it is the tactical work that needs to be improved by the blaugranas. There is limited movement and pace and it makes it too easy for the defence to close out the attacks.

One part that is needed is high mobility wingers like Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembélé, Carles Pérez and Malcom, who are necessary in the side. Nevertheless, Dembélé is injured for extended periods, Ansu Fati is only used at times, and the other two were prematurely sold by the club. They are also more direct and can take defenders on and disorganise the opposition.

There are going to be times when teams just defend well, but this is not an excuse for the European giants. Sometimes you need a bit of luck to unlock a team that is defending well. In addition, there is also the argument of creating your own luck, and this can be done through taking more risks and applying more pressure. The constant lethargic, uninspired and safe passing is never going to earn the team any goals. It is about finding that goal or two and forcing teams to come out of the low block.


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Football is the greatest sport in the world. There is no sporting event that is watched more and is as passionately followed. Any football fan should try and watch Barcelona to understand how football should be played. At Barcelona, football is all about keeping the ball, movement, passing and playing great football above all else. I am a Barça fan from Scotland and have been following the team for over a decade now. I have been lucky enough to watch possibly the greatest era on football ever, and hope it continues.

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Analysis

Detailed Analysis: Dynamo Kyiv 0-4 FC Barcelona

Anurag Agate

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Photo via Getty Images

In collaboration with Soumyajit Bose.


Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced experienced manager Mircea Lucescu’s Dynamo Kyiv at the Olimpiysky National Sports Complex as the Blaugrana looked to continue their perfect UEFA Champions League campaign.


After a 2-1 victory in the home fixture for Barcelona, they now faced Dynamo Kyiv away from home in the Ukrainian capital. With both sides missing many key players due to injuries, as well as the pandemic in the case of Kyiv, it wasn’t a very promising fixture.

After the first half with some flashes of brilliance from Barcelona, the second half was what made the difference. Find out the tactics used, and the patterns seen throughout the match in this tactical analysis of Dynamo Kyiv vs FC Barcelona.

System: Dynamo Kyiv

Lucescu’s Kyiv side started out in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-4-2. Striker Benjamin Verbic would often be lower down the field than attacking midfielder Buyalskiy, primarily because the former had more defensive duties.

The midfield four was staggered, with Denys Harmash having more of an anchoring job and Shepelev moving up the field to join the attack.  As the pass-map below shows us, the staggered midfield was a characteristic of the Kyiv side.        

There was a clearly better attack down their right wing for Kyiv. The full-back and winger on the left, Karavaev and de Pena respectively, were much more defensive than Kedziora and Sharapenko on the right as we can see from the heatmap below.

This was due to two reasons. Shepeliev, who was one of the two central-midfielders with more attacking duties, was a passing option on the right which was further up the field than the other midfielder, Harmash on the left.

The other reason was that with Pedri and Philippe Coutinho, Barcelona had two players who could play both as attacking midfielders as well as left-wingers. There were many rotations down Barcelona’s left, with a lack of directness a pure left-winger provides that Kyiv were able to use to their advantage to have a higher point to start the attack from.

System: Barcelona

Koeman’s Barcelona has rigidly stuck to a double-pivot system throughout this season. This match was no exception as Carles Alena and Miralem Pjanic started in the centre of the pitch, with Frenki de Jong and Sergio Busquets out of contention. Pedri and Coutinho would switch frequently among themselves, due to them both being able to play through the middle as well as down the left.

Down the right, Fransisco Trincao would look to get further up the field and then come in narrow. This would open up space for Sergino Dest to run into behind him as we can see from the pass-map shown below.

As expected from Barcelona, building-up from the back was a priority. In midfield, Alena and Pjanic would circulate possession, with Pedri or Coutinho playing through the middle and looking for passing lanes. Something that helped Barcelona immensely was Alena’s quick-passing. The La Masia product was on the top of his game, and the directness and more impressively, the consistency he provided with the passing helped Barcelona switch the play quickly.

In the second half, as more and more substitutions were made, Koeman would implement a 4-4-2, with Alena and Matheus Fernandes as the central-midfielders.

There was a clear contrast of duties of the two midfielders, with the Spaniard dropping deep to collect the ball while Matheus stayed up. This was not a particularly effective formation, but with Kyiv drained out and frustrated, Barcelona were able to capitalize.

Buildups and Passing Characteristics

The Barcelona team was clearly skewed in terms of the formation, with the right-side being more attacking than the left. Down the left, in the first half the full-back Firpo would look to underlap rather than overlap, and in the second half, as Alba came on, more overlaps were visible.

This was mostly down to the left-back’s decision making, as Pedri and Coutinho would often switch positions between left-wing and attacking midfield, which is shown in the similar-looking heatmaps in the viz below.

In Koeman’s Barcelona, usually, one pivot is more of an anchor with the other having more attacking duties. However, this time around both pivots would drop deep based on the situation and passing lanes, often moving apart to create new lanes down the middle. This was similar to Koeman’s system at Southampton where he would have the double-pivot acting as more of a reference for the team than it is at Barcelona.

Taking a look at Kyiv, their build-ups were rarely lateral. They looked to play directly in terms of their passing. The two images shown below illustrate the recurring theme we saw from the Ukrainians. They would look to pass vertically, and they had the most chances in the final-third after quick combinations to catch Barcelona flat-footed.

Game Stats

Barcelona produced an excellent second-half display to turn the tides in their favour. Even though the first half was even, Barcelona finished the game very strongly. Here are the game stats at a glance:

Barcelona not only enjoyed a ton of possession, but they also out-shot their opponents by quite a margin. Barcelona’s pressing was also much better comparatively. Barcelona allowed Kyiv to have only 76% passing accuracy and registered a higher pressing intensity (indicated by the lower value of PPDA – a metric to measure pressing).

Next, we take a look at the quality of chances created in the shotmaps and xG flow:

As can be seen, Barcelona fully deserved their victory margin by generating very high-quality chances and converting them extremely efficiently. Interestingly enough, all of the high-quality chances came in the second half.

Barcelona’s territorial superiority is shown in the following figure. Field tilt – a metric to measure final third passing share, and hence territorial dominance –was overwhelmingly in Barcelona’s favor.

However, perhaps a bit more context is required here. Barcelona did spend their lion’s share of possession in opposition territory in the first half but were unable to generate clear-cut chances. There were moments where choosing to shoot would have been a better option, as indecision and a penchant for excessive passing led to nothing.

Buildup to shots and goals

Here we take a look at the goals Barcelona scored. Having been restricted to poor quality shots in the first half, it took some skill to unlock Kyiv’s defence in the second half. A neat interchange of passes involving Dest, Pedri, and Braithwaite led to Dest practically taking the ball away inside the box from Braithwaite’s feet and shooting low past Kyiv’s goalkeeper.

The second goal came soon after. A corner taken by Alena was flicked on Oscar Mingueza. Braithwaite met the flick at the far post to score his first ever Champions League goal. Soon after, Braithwaite doubled his tally from the spot after being fouled inside the box trying to score from a header.

Antoine Griezmann came on as a substitute late in the second half and bolstered his confidence by scoring Barcelona’s fourth and final goal.

Apart from this, Barcelona could have possibly increased their goal tally even further had second-half substitute Riqui Puig not missed a glorious opportunity. Following a wonderfully intricate buildup that stretched and tore Kyiv apart, Puig failed to score from close range. But the buildup itself was testimony that the youngsters of Barcelona can truly play some beautiful football.

Defence

Barcelona had a fairly comfortable day in defence. Their pressing up the field was much more intense compared to the La Liga game against Atletico, as shown by the PPDA time-flow chart here:

 By virtue of fielding a bulk of young, energetic players, Barcelona could actually afford to maintain intensity all game. Here is Barcelona’s defensive heatmap:

Barcelona pressed aggressively through the center higher up the pitch, forching Kyiv to go wide and play long balls to escape pressure. And while Kyiv did that a few times, Lenglet and Mingueza aggressively won the ball back along each flank.

On the few occasions that Kyiv completely evaded pressure and progressed the ball high up, Mingueza showed brilliant skills to block shots or cut out dangerous passes. The following graphics – displaying Kyiv’s unsuccessful passes – clearly show how they had to play long balls from the deep to escape the press, and that they were unsuccessful fairly often.

Kyiv, on the other hand, chose not to press high. As shown, Barcelona had no problem passing out from the back.

Their major pressure areas were the middle and the defensive thirds. They tried their best to stifle all progression in the first half. They dealt with Dest’s crosses fairly well too. However, intricate passing and better movements by Barcelona in the second half unlocked their defence easily.

La Masia and youth to the forefront

Oscar Mingueza deserves a special mention along with Sergino Dest. Both youngsters produced sterling displays. Mingueza was calm and composed in defence, and very tidy in passing bar a couple of mishit long balls. He did not shy away physically from any duel and made some excellent blocks.

Dest used his recovery speed to great effect in sniffing out attacks down his side. But his biggest quality was in the offence. Fearless in taking on multiple players, playing neat passing combos with Trincao and Pedri in particular, he fully deserved his first goal in the Garnet and Blue, or we can say Black and Golden.

Carles Alena also got a rare start and justified his cause with a very assured and composed display. With an astonishing 99.1 % passing accuracy (106 out of 107), he kept the Barcelona midfield ticking. He also had two key passes to his name.

Riqui Puig finally got some minutes to play. He found himself in wide midfield role after Barcelona’s system changed to a 4-4-2 later in the second half. While he was not at his sparkliest best, he could easily have scored a goal had he kept his composure.

Matheus Fernandes and Konrad de la Fuente also made their first-team debuts in this game. Limited game time meant they could not particularly assert themselves.

Conclusion

The previous weekend was harsh for the Blaugrana. They succumbed to the battle on the field to Atletico Madrid and lost two senior members of the squad in Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto to possibly long term injuries. Lionel Messi and Frenkie de Jong were rested for this game, and Sergio Busquets was already ruled out with a previous injury.

Given all these setbacks, it was a wonderful display from the team and the youth in particular to overcome a tricky fixture. This display should also bolster the team’s confidence as they return to La Liga action next weekend against Osasuna.

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