Carles Aleñá returned to Barcelona from his loan spell at Real Betis, but not much has been said about the talented midfielder. The La Masía graduate has all the right attributes to succeed at the club. However, with a new system implemented by Ronald Koeman and competition for minutes, Carles Aleñá will have to adapt his game.
Whenever Carles Aleñá has been given a chance in the first team, he has performed well. It is always difficult for a player to break into the team when they are given limited opportunities. Consistent game time is key in helping them grow and develop.
As an academy graduate, Aleñá has an excellent football brain and understands the system at Barça. This is crucial for any player wishing to succeed at the club. The 22-year-old has the ability to perform well and it would be wrong for the club to ignore another one of La Masía’s brightest talents.
Nonetheless, this new season could present him with new challenges.
There is no doubting the potential that Carles Aleñá has. The only issue is if he is given enough opportunities and whether he can convince the manager. Naturally an interior, the Catalan is technically very good. He has an excellent passing ability and can pass both in tight areas and through the lines of the opposition. Aleñá always looks to find progressive passes that help the team move higher up the pitch. It is something the Barça midfielders have been lacking in recent campaigns.
With great vision and awareness, Aleñá understands positioning and can find clever through balls to the attackers. He is effective in the final third of the pitch and offers more of an attacking threat than most of the other midfielders at the club. The Spaniard thrives in exploiting areas of space and gaps in the opposition defence.
A natural central or advanced midfielder, Carles Aleñá will have to display all his positional intelligence and versatility | Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce via Getty Images
Like Riqui Puig, Aleñá is energetic and can lift the tempo of the team. Both players work hard in the press and are effective in doing so. However, it is their sharpness in passing and constant movement into space that helps Barça play at a higher tempo. For any successful Barcelona side, it is vital to have midfielders like this in their squad.
What his role could be
With the 4–2–3–1 formation looking like Ronald Koeman’s preferred system, Aleñá’s natural position is not available. The double pivot and number 10 roles could be options. Though not renowned as a ball-winning midfielder, the youngster could adapt to the pivot role if necessary. His intelligent positioning, good range of passing and dribbling ability are all important factors to succeed in that area. It would be a slight change, but he could adapt to this position if needed.
A more natural or comfortable position might be as an attacking midfielder or the number 10 role. Aleñá’s best positions are in the centre of the pitch and slightly further forward. Playing in behind the striker could be his best position in the new formation. Giving him a free-roaming role there could benefit the team. He can link well with those around him and has the attacking attributes to excel in this area.
Furthermore, Koeman may change the formation throughout the season. A return of the natural 4–3–3 is always a possibility and players like Riqui Puig, Aleñá and Pedri could get opportunities to shine in their favoured positions. Whatever the case, the talented midfielder should be given time and regular opportunities to improve and establish himself.
What to expect this season
Ronald Koeman has already warned several of the younger players than first-team minutes could be limited this season. This might be a mental game from the manager to get more out of them. Additionally, going by the number of injuries the club suffered last season, there could be more minutes available than expected.
“The young players have to play. They can’t not play. That’s for Riqui [Puig], for Aleñá, for Pedri…They have to play. I told Riqui that he has a future here but it’s going to be tough at the moment because of competition in his position. I recommended that he goes on loan. At 20, the young players need to play”Ronald Koeman, on Riqui Puig and the other young midfielders in the squad
In the double pivot role, there are only three senior players: Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanić and Frenkie De Jong. Rotations will be key if Barça wish to compete in all competitions and Aleñá could be given game time here. Moreover, nobody has cemented their place in the attacking midfielder position and Carles Aleñá should look to capitalise on this. Realistically though, it is hard to see Koeman giving these younger players a consistent run in the team, unless due to injuries.
Barcelona vs Real Madrid: The Game through Numbers
A detailed look into the game by numbers, statistics, and tactics as FC Barcelona fell to defeat against Real Madrid in the first El Clasico of the season.
Following a high-flying victory against Ferencvaros in the opening game of the Champions League, FC Barcelona returned to action in La Liga against Real Madrid at Camp Nou. However, the game didn’t go as Ronald Koeman planned, and Barcelona stumbled to defeat in the first El Clasico of 2020-21. This followed a draw against Sevilla and a shock loss to Getafe and left Barcelona midtable 5 games into the season.
Ronald Koeman sprung in several surprises ahead of this fixture. Firstly, Jordi Alba returned from injury to play as left-back, while Sergi Roberto was omitted altogether for Sergiño Dest. Philippe Coutinho played as left-wing. 17-year old Pedri got to start the Classico as a reward for his performances but was fielded on the right-wing. Lionel Messi played as the no. 10 behind Ansu Fati as the striker.
Off the ball, Barcelona defended in a 4-4-2 with Messi and Fati staying and pressing up. From touch-based heatmaps, there are two interesting features.
Firstly, while Frenkie de Jong played in a relatively advanced role, he stayed quite wide. Sergio Busquets occupied the central channels. However, tasking his old legs to guard such a big zone resulted in recurring issues.
Secondly, Pedri is not a natural winger. He loves to play centrally. Having three natural CAMs in Pedri, Coutinho and Messi on-field and forcing two of them to play as wingers was never a good idea, to begin with. Pedri kept drifting inside, as shown in the heatmaps. Both Coutinho and Pedri were limited in their influence. Koeman’s overthinking and tinkering nullified both their strengths.
Real Madrid on the other hand set up in a skewed 4-3-3 as shown. Early injury to Nacho resulted in Lucas Vazquez coming on as the right back for the remainder of the game. Vinicius stayed high and wide, while Marco Asensio drifted in and out, often letting Federico Valverde occupy the wider channels.
Barcelona’s structure after the 81st minute deserves a special mention. Koeman made several offensive subs, bringing on Antoine Greizmann, Ousmane Dembele, Martin Braithwaite and Fransisco Trincáo into the game, in place of Pedri, Fati, Busquets and Alba. To top it all off, Coutinho was slotted as the only pivot in the side, instead of de Jong as the shape devolved into a bizarre 3-1-6.
Attacks and Buildups
This game had a clear moment after which the game changed – minute 62. Until then, Barcelona were evidently the better team starting to dominate a bit as well. Here are the stats from the entire game:
Barcelona were outshot, outscored, and had fewer shots on target – but a lot of that’s skewed from what happened minute 62 onwards. From the PPDA (Passes per Defensive Action) data, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, it’s evident that neither team went for a very high press. Here is the shot map and xG flow:
Minute 62 was when Clement Lenglet fouled by pulling Sergio Ramos’ shirt inside the penalty area while defending a corner. Ramos didn’t need a second invitation to exaggerate the pull. He fell theatrically to the ground, won a penalty, and Barcelona were chasing the game that moment onwards.
The first blood was drawn by Madrid after a moment of disastrous marking by Busquets allowed Federico Valverde to run into Barcelona’s box, unmarked, and smash home from Karim Benzema’s pass.
Thankfully, Barcelona did not take long to reply. A delightful ball over the top from Lionel Messi met Jordi Alba’s well-timed run, and Alba’s square pass was prodded home by Ansu Fati. Here is a little animation of the goal:
As mentioned earlier, Madrid’s second goal came from a penalty, scored by Ramos himself. And Luka Modric capitalized on some terrible defending to make it 3-1 in the 91st minute.
Neither team were truly impressive in passing. Here are the most dangerous passes by both teams:
Passes into the box were few by either team. Barcelona did manage to get into the box from central zone 14 or half-spaces, while Madrid clearly utilised their greatest strength – attacking from wide areas. It’s also shown in the key passes map:
However, in buildup, Madrid were far more expansive. They switched the play a lot as compared to Barcelona.
Comparing the passes completed in the final third by each team, quantified by field tilt – Barcelona completed a greater number of final-third passes. However, the field tilt, or final third territory gained, was being dominated by Madrid in the first half. Barcelona started the second half positively and dominated territory. However, they got scored against the run of play. After that, Madrid were happy to let Barcelona keep possession and attacked the team on the counter.
Defence and Pressing
Both teams exhibited some terrible defending in the first half, to say the very least. Both goals were conceded from such cases.
As mentioned before, there were huge gaps in the midfield, and too much space between the midfield and defence; i.e. poor covering by Busquets and de Jong. Madrid made the best use of this for their first goal, and repeated it several times as the clock ticked ahead.
In the first image, it is evident that too many Barcelona players got sucked in trying to press the Madrid defence, resulting in a huge void in the midfield. Madrid play out of the press with ridiculous ease.
In the second image, the gap between Dest and Pique is appalling. Both centre-backs are engulfed towards Benzema for some reason, and Busquets completely loses track of Valverde’s run. One simple through ball and the job is done.
Almost immediately after that, Vinicius almost scored a second. Quick combination with Benzema in the box, while Busquets is seen jogging outside the box, there is a huge space to attack. Thankfully, Vinicius’ poor decision making and first touch allow Alba to throw him off.
The next example, again in the first half, shows terrible spacing between defenders, and terrible tracking from Busquets. A simple ball behind Dest, who is in isolation with the rest of the backline meets a well-timed run that Busquets can’t keep up with.
The next two examples are from the second half:
In the first one, the “pivot” Coutinho loses track of Toni Kroos’ run. Kroos runs onto Vazquez’s cutback to take a shot that Neto saves marvellously, and denies the German again pouncing perfectly on the rebounded shot.
The second image shows the moment when Vazquez lobs a ball into Ramos’ path, who is completely unmarked on the far post. Thankfully, Neto comes to Barça’s rescue saving the Madrid’s captain volley with his foot.
Madrid didn’t cover themselves in glory either, especially in the first half. Barcelona’s only goal of the game came as a result of terrible tracking from Nacho as Alba found space behind him. There were giveaways in midfield that led to multiple chances as well.
Most notably, Fati’s lofted ball into the path of an unmarked Messi, who eviscerated Ramos with a quick dribble but shot straight into the hands of Thibaut Courtois at the near post. However, they weren’t as often as Barcelona’s, and in general, resulted in lower quality chances.
As mentioned before, neither team went all out to the press. Barcelona’s pressing structure was so poor that Madrid played through it without trouble. They could even manage elaborate buildups, with two examples shown below:
Shambolic would be the right word to define Barcelona’s defending in the game. The lack of speed and the alertness to track runners was exposed yet again. The card-happy centre-backs came to haunt Barcelona again, as Lenglet gave away a poor penalty.
Busquets, on the other hand, looks far from being a starter and should be replaced as soon as possible. And if he somehow manages to retain his spot in the lineup, the midfield structure needs to be fixed so that he doesn’t get tasked with defending such a wide area.
The substitutions and Koeman’s game management made little to no sense. As seen in the Getafe game, in more cases than not, more forwards does not equate to more goals. The midfield was non-existent in the last 10 minutes, and Los Blancos made the best use of this as they scored the third where Luka Modric made the Barcelona defence dance.
The game was pretty even for nearly one hour, with neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid standing out as the better team. Post that, however, the scoreline spoke for itself.
Sergiño Dest made a solid claim for starting as right back in the coming games. He was outstanding in defence and quite courageous and innovative in the offence, with some neat dribbles. Fati kept his goalscoring form alive, becoming the youngest ever scorer in an El Clasico. Neto ended the game as arguably the best player on the pitch, but that is more bad news than good for the Garnet and the Blue.
However, there are defensive, structural, tactical, and personnel problems to be ironed out by Koeman in the future, especially if he wants to retain his job after a change of presidency. Otherwise, this could turn out to be a worse season the previous one for La Liga.