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.
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.
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.
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.
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.