A detailed look into the game by numbers and statistics and tactics as FC Barcelona kicked off their UCL 2020-21 campaign in style.
FC Barcelona played the first group stage game of UCL 2020-21 at home against recent Hungarian champions Ferencvarosi Torna Club, also called Ferencvaros. The Budapest outfit were playing against Barcelona in a competitive match for the very first time (previous meetings had all been friendlies), and naturally, Barcelona started cautiously. However, shaking off the rust from the International break and the disappointment of the loss against Getafe in the weekend, Barcelona came up with a dominant display and ran out as winners scoring five and conceding just one.
Barcelona yet again fielded a 4-2-3-1, with an unchanged defence from the game against Getafe. The double-pivot changed slightly, with Miralem Pjanic starting as Frenkie de Jong’s partner. Ansu Fati and Francisco Trincāo started as wingers flanking Philipe Coutinho at attacking midfield, with Lionel Messi starting as the false 9.
The touch-based heatmaps and the pass-map show some interesting tactical changes from the last two league games. First of all, and most importantly, this was the first time this season that both flanks were very well utilised. Having Trincao and Fati, both adept at playing on the wing, greatly helped the team build and attack through both sides.
While Antoine Griezmann added a lot of defensive cover while playing on the right flank in the previous games, Trincao did his share to help out the team, too. He did well in attack while also putting in a brilliant defensive shift – Griezmann’s absence was not felt at all.
Secondly, the positioning of Frenkie de Jong was a lot advanced, bringing the best out of him. Unlike the last two games, where he was placed much deeper and wider on average, last night he had more freedom to venture up and also drift a bit centrally. On average, he took up a higher position than Pjanic and took part in a lot of the attacking moves, while the Bosnian was tasked with the deeper progressions.
Ferencvaros started out in a 4-2-3-1 as well, but soon evolved into a 4-1-4-1/4-5-1 structure and settled into it for the game. Their midfield was very compact, and mostly stayed deep. Their idea was to use counters, with Tokmak Chol Nguen the only player taking up advanced positions to lead their attacks.
Attacks and Buildups
Barcelona posted very impressive attacking stats for the game.
Barcelona dominated possession as usual, but the biggest positive takeaway are the pressing numbers. The Blaugranas posted impressive PPDA (Passes per Defensive Action) numbers as compared to their opposition. It also indicates that a lot of the game was played in the opposition’s half, showing dominance in the game. The shot maps and the xG flowcharts show how imperative Barcelona were throughout the game, and that a lot of the shots were excellent chances to score.
Next we take a look a gallery of all the goals scored by Barcelona, and the lone goal scored by Ferencvaros to discuss the difference in ideologies of the two teams.
While Barcelona’s first goal took a came solely as a result of moments of individual brilliance by Messi, all of the other goals came through wonderful intricate buildup. Both sets of wide players were very well-utilized, who were able to play out through pressure no matter where the buildup started.
The buildup to the second goal culminated in a wonderful lofted pass by Frenkie de Jong to Ansu Fati, who slotted it past Ferencvaros’ hapless goalkeeper with a first-time finish. Fati was involved in the third goal as well. An intricate set up of passes in the final third led to Messi finding Fati with a pass, who back-flicked into the path of Coutinho, who made no mistake slotting it into the bottom corner.
In contrasting fashion, Ferencvaros were very direct. It was very clear that Tokmac Nguen was their main danger-man. Nguen created a couple of really dangerous moments in the first half with his threatening runs across the backline. The first effort was called offside, while the second led to him setting up Isael for a thunderous shot against the post.
He was also at the helm of their sole goal of the game, running at Pique, who was unable to keep up with Nguen and hauled him down into the box, leading to a penalty.
Barcelona’s passing was on point against Ferencvaros, helping the team to cover all zones perfectly, stretching the pitch and making it difficult to defend. Most importantly, there were a lot more passes into the box as well exchanges inside the box than the previous two games. Particularly impressive were the utilization of zone 14 and the half-spaces. Here are the dangerous passes portrayed:
The key passes came from multiple zones as well and from multiple sources. Messi had 4, Roberto, Pjanic, Coutinho, and Fati had 2 each, while de Jong, Trincao and Dembele had 1 each:
Finally, we compare the passes completed in the final third by each team, quantified by field tilt – it’s the number of final third passes completed by a team, divided by the sum of final third passes completed by both teams, expressed as a percentage.
Barcelona completed a much greater number of final third passes almost throughout the game except for a small window when Pique received a red card and sent off for fouling Nguen, and Barcelona had to play with 10 men.
Barcelona’s defence closely resembled a 4-4-2 block with Philippe Coutinho and Lionel Messi high up, and sometimes in 4-5-1 as Messi was the sole player allowed to stay up.
After Pique’s red card, Barcelona took up a fairly compact 4-4-1 shape. Ferencvaros were pushed back into their own half for the bulk of the match as Barcelona won the ball back fairly fast. The only time Ferencvaros managed to peg back Barcelona was after Pique’s dismissal. Here is a glimpse of the defensive activities of the two teams, showing Barça’s high turnover rate:
In fact, the third goal that Barcelona scored early in the second half came from a great bit of pressing. Messi aggressively pressed the central channels into Ferencvaros’ third and the box, so the ball had to be passed out wide, where Trincao led the charge. This led to a misplaced pass that was intercepted by Pjanic, and Trincao recovered the loose ball. A lovely sequence ensued, and Barcelona were up 3-0 in a blink.
Having discussed the defensive structure and the pressing intensity, now it’s time to discuss some of the issues. In this particular game, the issues were entirely in defence. Ferencvaros – Nguen in particular – exposed the problem Barcelona’s centre backs have against quick attackers. The Norwegian’s runs dragged the defenders all over the place, mixed with the high line that Barcelona employs, it resulted in nightmares as it often does.
Whenever the fullbacks were pushed high, and possession was turned over, Ferencvaros directly took on the two defenders left on the pitch. They could not bypass the press by making long passing sequences, so they quickly circulated ball out wide or to the deep half spaces before launching long balls to Nguen, and sending out supporting runners. One such run led to Pique’s red card.
This current batch of Barcelona players seems a tad too card-happy. Lenglet has already seen a red card in the Liga. Roberto, Dest, Pique – all of them have seen yellow cards just 4 games into the season. This is not healthy, especially given the lack of quality depth in defence.
Coutinho has been playing well, to say the least, and there are little to no doubts over his performance. However, his positioning – which surely is a tactical quirk of Ronald Koeman – is very interesting. Instead of the usual central positions a nominal 10 would take up, he is primarily operating in the left half space. There is quite a bit of overlap with Ansu Fati. Its clear that Barcelona are trying to achieve wide overloads on the left side whenever they can.
Coutinho performances are not an issue. His role, on the other hand, might be. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
This system, however, needs a striker and more directness to function. As it stands, the team is deploying two 10s in Messi and Coutinho. While this has worked well against weaker oppositions, it remains to be seen how well the lack of vertical staggering can hold up against stronger opposition.
The story of this game will be incomplete without mentioning the substitutions. Junior Firpo returned from injury and came on along with Pedri and Ousmane Dembele around the 60-minute mark. Ronald Araujo had to come on after Pique’s dismissal, while Sergio Busquets replaced Pjanic later to help see the game off.
While Pedri got his first goal for Barcelona, Dembele’s brilliant dribble and tenacity in the box from where he cut back the ball has to be mentioned. Seven minutes later, the World Cup winner found himself at the receiving end of a pass from Messi and smashed home for the fifth and final goal.
After the drab showing against Getafe, this was a much-needed boost for the team before the El Clasico. Multiple scorers, good buildup plays, high press – pretty much everything except the red card was to the point. Next week’s UCL away game against Juventus will prove a stern test as well, and hopefully, we will see the best of Ronald Araujo in that game.
Detailed Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona
In collaboration with Anurag Agate.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.
A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.
Barcelona structure and formation
Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.
Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.
Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.
Atletico structure and formation
Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.
Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.
The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.
Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.
The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:
Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :
Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.
Buildup to shots and goals
Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.
Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.
Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.
Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.
In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:
Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.
Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.
For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.
Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.
The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:
Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :
Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.
Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.
The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.
Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.