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Comparing the attacks of Barcelona and Manchester City

Samuel Gustafson



Photo by David Blunsden via Imago

With the arrival of Pep Guardiola in 2016, Manchester City began to adapt to the style of positional play and attacks once used by Barcelona to dominate Europe. Now, many would say that the Citizens have overtaken Barça in terms of style and quality, and the stats seem to back it up.

Undoubtedly, Manchester City have a had a bit of a drop off in the Premier League this season. However, they have still managed to pick up just one point less than Barcelona, although they have played an additional match. It can also not be denied that the Manchester club are still among the favorites to win the Champions League. Overall, both teams are well-known for their dominance in possession, but in recent years one would have to say that Pep Guardiola’s side have been more ambitious and dynamic. With that in mind, today we will be analysing the league goals scored by both clubs this campaign to see what conclusions can be drawn.

Where do the attacks begin?

It is no secret that Barcelona’s pressing intensity has dropped in recent years. With an ageing forward line and a more pragmatic approach taken during Ernesto Valverde’s reign, Manchester City would be expected to have the advantage in terms of pressing. Almost all stats and metrics back this up.

Sergio Kün Agüero Raheem Sterling Manchester City Barcelona attacks

While neither Barcelona nor Manchester City have been at their best this season, stats show some revealing tendencies | Photo by Shaun Botterill via Getty Images

To start, 30.36% of the Citizens’ sequences of possession leading up to open-play goals this season have begun in the attacking third. In comparison, 24.49% of Barça’s open-play goals have come from sequences beginning in the attacking third. While both sides are known for building from the back, this figure shows that Manchester City can also win the ball more often in advanced positions.

Further supporting the superiority of City’s pressing is the number of tackles they make in the attacking third. Statsbomb has City making 3 tackles in the attacking third per match, and the blaugranas making 2.37. This may not seem like a drastic difference, but it means City have made 20 more attacking third tackles over the course of the season. This gives Pep’s team more opportunities to attack from a position in which they are already high up the pitch, and don’t have to break the opposition down as much.

How do the teams compare in building up in possession?

Undeniably, for their approach and philosophy, Barcelona and Manchester City would rather string together long sequences of passes as opposed to more direct long balls. Both teams lead their respective leagues in average possession and number of completed passes. The stats show that City take this mentality a step further than the Catalans, though.

In their open-play goal sequences – the uninterrupted time of possession leading up to a goal – Barça averaged 6.02 passes this season. This is almost a whole pass less than the Sky Blues’ average of 6.95 passes. Additionally, the City’s average goal sequence involved 5.39 players, greater than the tally of 5.14 achieved by Barca.

A further metric that compares how the two sides play in possession is OPPDA – Opponent Passes allowed per Defensive Action. In the league this season, Manchester City have an OPPDA of 22.23, according to Understat. This means that, on average, City complete 22.23 passes before an opposition player makes a defensive action – tackle, interception, etc. Barcelona’s number is significantly lower, at 14.49. In other words, City’s average string of passes is almost 8 passes longer than the azulgranas.

Where do the teams create their chances?

Barcelona’s lack of dynamism out wide has been an issue this term, and once again the stats reflect that. Only 23.4% of Barcelona’s open play assists have come from the left or right thirds this season. In contrast, City has a rate of 42.3%. While both sides play a majority of their assists from the centre third, the reigning English champions are clearly more adept at utilising the wide areas. A contributing factor to this is City’s willingness and ability to cross the ball. This season, Pep’s side have completed 2.71 crosses into the box per match, almost double Barça’s average of 1.37, per Statsbomb.

❛ In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak ❜

Pep Guardiola

The use of wide areas by the Citizens is also shown when analysing their secondary assists. A secondary assist is the completed pass to a player who then assists a goal. Man City have played 58.7% of their open-play secondary assists from the wide thirds. Once again Barcelona fall behind, with just 46.5% of their secondary assists from the wide thirds. It should be known that City do not play the ball out wide just for the sake of it, but in order to unbalance the opposition.

How does the scoring of the two teams compare?

In terms of the statistics for the goals themselves, Barcelona and Manchester City are very comparable. Both clubs have scored a similar percentage of their goals from open play this season. For the Catalan club this has been 77.8%, and for the Manchester club it is 82.4%.

In addition, the goals of both sides have been distributed similarly throughout the match. The Catalans have scored 32 first-half goals and 31 second-half goals. City have scored 31 in the first halves and a slightly higher 37 in the second periods.

It should also be noted that Manchester City’s goals are more evenly distributed throughout their squad. In the league, the Citizens have three players who have scored double-digit goals this season, and six who have scored five or more. Barça, on the other hand, have just two double-digit scorers, and four players with five or more.

When looking at each of these stats individually, not many conclusions can be drawn. For instance, connecting more passes per goal does not mean that a team is automatically better. It is not one stat that should worry culés, but rather the stats together as a collective. It is worrying that Manchester City have the advantage in terms of pressing and then connect more passes. Also, that City connect more passes, showing their use of combination play, but are still able to use the wide areas much more. On top of all this, it has been a down-year for Guardiola and his team. In the end, though, City appear the much more complete side when going forward, and it would be hard for anyone to deny this.

See also

Comparing the attacks of Barcelona and Liverpool

Analysis of the Barcelona goals in the 2019/20 season

Eric García returning to Barça: A possible scenario?

• Sergio Busquets, the embodiment of football simplicity

“Més que un club” is the saying that everyone knows, and for me it’s 100% accurate. Barça have given me so much over the years. Through all the highs, lows, triumphs, and heartbreaks, nothing can take away from the joy and entertainment I’ve received through watching this club play. Now, I hope that I can help spread these emotions with other supporters like me around the world.



Koeman’s system in the Barcelona 4-0 Villareal

Anurag Agate



Photo by David Ramirez via Imago

With a 4-0 victory at the Camp Nou, Koeman’s side has started the season on a positive note. Find out more about the tactical aspect of the match in this tactical analysis of Barcelona’s match against Villareal.

La Liga is finally back, and it’s back in full swing. We saw many high-scoring matches, with even Atleti scoring 6 goals against Granada. A very entertaining start to La Liga was capped off by Barcelona’s 4-0 Victory over Villareal. Koeman’s first La Liga game in-charge of Barcelona was a resounding success. The mindset of the players involved was clearly different from the mindset under Setien. With many players looking rejuvenated, Barcelona put in a performance which was desperately needed considering the fact that the wounds from Lisbon haven’t yet healed. Find out just how Barcelona managed to dominate a strong Villareal side in this tactical analysis.

Initial systems

Barcelona started out in a 4-2-3-1 as expected. The only surprise was that Messi’s starting position was more central than usual and Griezmann occupied the right-wing. Messi does eventually drift towards the centre anyway but the starting position is usually wider.

Villareal were in a 4-4-2 which later transitioned into a 4-4-2 diamond in the second half after the substitutions. Right from the start, Villareal looked to press from the front, with Chukwueze and Moi Gomez cutting out passing lanes to the full-backs and the two Villareal strikers pressing Barcelona’s center-backs. Here, an advantage of the 4-2-3-1 Koeman deployed was immediately visible. De Jong would drop back to receive the ball and then play it forward to Busquets, who was the other pivot. Had Barcelona played a 4-3-3, the pivot would have dropped back to receive the ball and build-up from the back in this case. But the midfield would be stretched vertically which we saw many times last season.

In midfield, Barcelona were prevented from playing through the centre by Parejo and Coquelin. The distance between Villareal’s midfield and defense lines was not much which forced Barcelona towards the wings. This strategy came back to bite Villareal in the form of Ansu Fati. The 17-year-old left-winger was unplayable against Villareal. Gaspar was unable to contain him. Jordi Alba was much better than in a long time. The work-rate Koeman demands and the many extra training sessions were really showing. After a 2019/20 season which wasn’t the best for Barcelona, yesterday’s performance was very impressive.

Koeman’s foresight

Both wingers would regularly tuck-in between the full-backs and center-halves. This allowed Barcelona’s full-backs to advance up the field much more. With the full-backs attacking and the wingers tucking in, the Villareal defensive line would be occupied. This allowed Coutinho more space than usual. Along with this, Busquets and De Jong would be available to either stop the counter, or to act as passing options. This assortment of many attacking roles allowed Barcelona to have sustained attacking possession.

Villareal had a clear game plan as well. Considering the fact that their two strikers are performing well and are well-synchronized, the wingers were instructed to cross the ball often. The full-backs would advance, but not overlap frequently. This could either not be a part of the game plan or because of the attacking threat, Barcelona posed from the start. With Dani Parejo in midfield, Emery would ideally be able to continue playing the possession-based football his teams play. Coquelin would offer a bit of dynamism in midfield along with the Spanish midfielder.

However, Koeman took an interesting decision and gave Busquets the role to man-mark Parejo. Though both were surprisingly not the best on the ball on the day, Busquets did well to restrict Parejo to lateral and back passes. In the second-half, Vilalreal’s game plan was executed better in the 4-4-2 diamond. This allowed Parejo to get on the ball more, wit him playing a major role in the build-up. Emery knows his players’ strengths very well. Parejo in the defensive mid role, with pacey wingers on either sides means fast transitions. For Barcelona s well, the transitions were key. Coutinho’s mediapunta role and the freedom Messi has both contributed to this.


We already saw the many benefits this formation has offered, taking the strengths of the players Koeman has into full consideration. The ease during build-up with one pivot dropping back, being able to sustain the attack with the mediapunta getting more space, the freedom Busquets had to man-mark Parejo, which would have been difficult in a single pivot, etc. Another one of the advantages is in defense.

Barcelona were vulnerable in defense throughout last season. Jordi Alba looks like refreshed and fitter than usual, and with Dest potentially joining the Blaugrana, the full-backs are looking promising. In case that Barcelona does get caught on the counter, Koeman does have a solution to one of the problems. When Barcelona are on the backfoot, De Jong and Busquets would need to make sure their positioning is immaculate. They were instructed to plug the gaps between the center-halves and full-backs, which would have a two-fold purpose. Firstly, through-balls against more creative players would be much more difficult, with the gaps being reduced and Coutinho and Griezmann helping in defense. Secondly, the opposition would be less likely to crowd the box, since Barcelona can now afford to get at least 4 players into the box if the pivots were to position themselves as such. However, this would be very dependent on the split-second judgment and whether the players decide to press or track-back.


For Koeman’s first La Liga match, the performance was quite promising. Barcelona looked better tactically and in terms of hard work than Villareal as we saw in this tactical analysis. The latter being something that Barcelona desperately need, what remains to be seen is how Barcelona will fare against teams that rely on individual ability more than Villareal and the unpredictability that follows. Apart from this, will the players be able to sustain the intense work ethic Koeman demands? If Barcelona do decently in these conditions and some others, we might see a much better season from them than expected.

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