On Sunday, Antoine Griezmann scored his 15th goal of the season and equalled the tally of Neymar in his first year at Barça, thus setting up comparisons again. However, this is why it is not worth comparing the two superstars.
Big signings are often the epitome of summer windows: they usually are the result of big sagas that span through many days, months and even transfer windows. Recently, Barcelona has had many superstar signings, and a new Galáctico era has come to the Camp Nou.
Sure, Barça always had superstars and sometimes broke the bank on greats like Johan Cruyff or Ronaldinho earlier, but these signings were the game-changers for the culés. Now, astronomical sums are thrown around every summer like nothing and are harming the team more than it helps.
The first of these superstar signings was Neymar Júnior, who came from Brazil for 88 million euros, and the last one to date is the Frenchman Antoine Griezmann, who went for a heftier 120 million from Atlético de Madrid last summer. But, despite the big spending, this has not been translated into an improvement on the pitch. For instance, Barcelona have continued to struggle on the read, but such away woes have been accentuated this season and have done many negative things at the club:
1. Put new coach Quique Setién in uncomfortable conditions
2. Gifted Real Madrid the La Liga title
3. Many fans scapegoated their least favourite players and the two managers at the helm
The scapegoats came in many forms. Some directed their anger at players like Samuel Umtiti or Arturo Vidal, and others at Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann. The criticism Griezmann received drew stupid comparisons with Neymar Júnior as they both were the two marquee signings in their respective windows. The reason these comparisons are senseless is that the two players came under very different circumstances, systems and ideologies.
Barcelona have changed managers a lot ever since Pep Guardiola stepped down in 2012. From Tito Villanova, who tragically passed away, to Quique Setién, passing by Gerardo Tata Martino, Luis Enrique and Ernesto Valverde. Neymar came under Martino and would end the season trophyless, sadly. The impact the winger had was immediate, though. First, his goal in the Spanish Supercup against Atlético de Madrid gave Barça the trophy, and some decent debut matches for the Brazilian.
While Neymar’s first season at Barcelona clearly was not as good as the ones that would follow, it was the start of something special | Photo by John Thys / AFP via Getty Images
Second, his equaliser at the Camp Nou in the Champions League quarter-finals against Atleti themselves was crucial and made Barça breathe a little in a tie where Diego Ribas ended up stunning them. Yes, Neymar’s first season was a complete disaster team-wise, but not individually. His numbers were decent enough: in the league, he had 19 goal contributions, and added to that tally with nine goal contributions in the Champions League and a solitary goal in the Copa del Rey.
15 goals and 15 assists in 41 fixtures for a young winger who played in a somewhat broken team with Lionel Messi having his worst statistical season is more than decent, and the former Santos man went from strength to strength in the following year.
For Antoine Griezmann, the circumstances were as harsh, if not harsher. The Frenchman also came in a broken squad with managers that didn’t understand his needs at first. Ernesto Valverde first tried to play him in a 4–3–3, but the teams he picked did not click, and Griezmann’s role was reduced to an inefficient winger forced to make the runs for two other players in Luis Suárez and Messi, who keep their energy for the decisive moments on the ball.
There were some games where it went well, such as against Borussia Dortmund, where the three superstars worked wonders and all got their names on the scoresheet. However, Griezmann does not like to play on the wing. He indeed emerged on the left at Real Sociedad, but coach Philippe Montanier’s system never was Valverde’s and certainly did not match Setién’s ideas.
Griezmann lacks that X-factor on the wing, something Neymar had. Neymar is skillful and therefore likes the wing. He also possesses the ability to drive the ball forward with some intricate dribbling and with both feet. Griezmann isn’t skillful, as he himself stated that he does not enjoy dribbling and never did he have to do that kind of work at Atlético or for France.
“I don’t know how to dribble. I like to take one or two touches at pace. I like that the ball comes out cleanly and to shoot at goal”
The rojiblancos‘ and Les Bleus‘ sides were built around Griezmann, a player who enjoys playing off another striker, with Diego Costa, Álvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud all playing a part in Antoine’s story and form. Wings are not made for Griezmann; he prefers playing centrally, with one or two players supporting him. By contrast, Neymar fit like a glove in Tata Martino’s 4–3–3 because he was a pure winger and his numbers rose subsequently.
Griezmann has primarily played the season in two broken systems, out of his most comfortable position, and he has still recorded numbers. In 44 appearances in all competitions, he has accumulated 15 goals and four assists, which is less than Neymar for sure. It shall be noted that the Frenchman’s best performance with the blaugranas precisely came on Sunday against Villarreal, when he was deployed in his preferred position. Griezmann was outstanding as he was used as a sort of secondary striker next to Luis Suárez, and with Lionel Messi in behind.
It’s also worth adding that, after a curse that lasted since spring 2015, in Naples in February Antoine scored the first away goal in the Champions League knockouts for a Barça player not named Lionel Messi. That goal, when Barça only had a few occasions against a compact team like Napoli, could be crucial to advance into the tournament’s quarter-finals. It means that the culés can go back to the Camp Nou this August more relaxed about the outcome since they have the vital away goal.
All in all, comparing two attackers only by their numbers is pointless if the right context and background is not provided. If Antoine Griezmann is given time and a system that suits him, he will flourish and hopefully even play like 2014/15 Neymar in his second season. Because quality certainly has never been an issue for any of them.
How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona
The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.
El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.
In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.
Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.
Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.
Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.
Madrid’s defensive organization
After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.
The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.
Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.
Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.
What went wrong for Barcelona?
Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.
One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.
The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.
Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.
As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.
With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.
This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.