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Analysis

Congratulations to Real Madrid: how did they edge Barça to win La Liga?

Did Real Madrid deserve the La Liga trophy? What did they get right to beat Barça in the title race?

Suhas Achanta

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Header Image by Gabriel Bouys / AFP via Getty Images

After 37 matchdays, the fate of the 2019/20 La Liga goes in favour of Real Madrid after two years of dominance from Barça. Zinedine Zidane’s men are deservedly champions of Spain as they capitalised on the azulgranas’ inconsistency. Yesterday, Madrid’s scrappy 2–1 win over Villarreal and Barcelona’s 1–2 loss to CA Osasuna summed up the story of this season.


A 100% win record since the restart saw Real Madrid take away Barcelona’s hopes of retaining the La Liga title. When compared to their rivals, the Catalans have had a disappointing run of form since football’s return. Three draws and one defeat in ten games saw them fall off from the summit of the table. Zinedine Zidane’s side, on the other hand, made the most of every slip-up from Barça, and have now won the league by seven points.

Los Blancos‘ highly motivated board

Let’s rewind the clock back to the conclusion of last season. Real Madrid ironically lost to Quique Setién’s Real Betis, while Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona was held to a 2–2 draw by Eibar. The blaugranas had won the league weeks before the final matchday and finished nineteen points above Madrid. The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo had hurt them massively. Despite appointing three managers in one season, there were absolutely no signs of revival.

In response to the horrific 2018/19 season, president Florentino Pérez invested massively in the squad. Despite Eden Hazard being the highlighted signing, the best one turned out to be left-back Ferland Mendy. There was a need to address the fact that Marcelo was declining, and their board spent no time in finding a successor. Furthermore, Los Blancos also signed Luka Jović and Eder Militão for hefty fees.

The intent was clear from day one, to eventually replace an ageing squad with youngblood. Even if Jović has had a season to forget, there is little denying that the 22-year-old is one for the future. He has all the time in the world to develop his attacking expertise and take over the mantle from Karim Benzema. On the other hand, Mendy has already made the left-back berth his own. Marcelo is deservedly second-choice, and no one can argue about that.

Sergio Ramos Real Madrid Barça La Liga

Despite some bumps in the road, Real Madrid have managed to overcome them by keeping their focus on the pitch | Photo by Daniel González Acuña / Zuma via Imago

While it must be said that Eden Hazard hasn’t had the dream start to his career at Madrid, there’s nothing to worry in particular. Not every high-profile signing becomes an instant hit. Additionally, injuries didn’t help his cause. However, he will be highly motivated to prove his critics wrong next season.

Massive credit should go to Florentino Pérez and the rest of the board members. They were reactive to the failures of Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari. Florentino analysed the negativity looming around the dressing room and chose to bring back Zidane as he is someone the players respect a lot. The Frenchman left along with Ronaldo as he was aware of the board’s plans at the start of the 2018/19 season. They were unambitious and chose to rely on the existing squad quality, which backfired.

But Pérez understood the errors he made and backed Zidane in the 2019 summer transfer window. They spent on the areas where they were massively weak, and have even found long-term replacements to a few players. A combination of fantastic on and off-pitch decisions saw Real Madrid win their 34th league title. 

A contrasting situation at Barça

After praising Real Madrid’s administration for its proactive and brave decisions, discussing Barcelona’s board is a mood kill. President Josep Maria Bartomeu has been making destructive decisions from the start of the season. It began with the signing of Antoine Griezmann, that was never going to be a direct match in profile. The sacking of Ernesto Valverde mid-season when they were at the top of the table proves to be the wrong call. Indeed, the Spanish tactician deserved to be shown the door, but it was at the wrong time.

Lionel Messi Barça Real Madrid La Liga

At Barcelona there is a strong division between all parties | Photo by Alberto Estevez via Imago

Bringing in Quique Setién, who knew the Barcelona way, was a decision that initially seemed excellent. The 61-year-old immediately improved the football, but the form has been inconsistent since his arrival. Under Valverde, the style of play wasn’t pretty, but they always managed to grind out results. Overreliance on Lionel Messi is something that was exposed this season. The Argentine’s scoring record against teams in the top half hasn’t been the best this season.

The azulgranas dropped points every time Messi couldn’t give his 100%. Be it Valverde or Setién, Leo’s form was the deciding factor of almost every game. The board’s horrific sporting decisions peaked when they decided to let go of Arthur Melo for Miralem Pjanić. As much as one may try to deny it, the administration just didn’t have its head in the game. Bartomeu was focussed on making selfish calls that suited certain minimalistic administrative agendas. 

Comparing the manager’s powers

At any football club, the major talking point will always be: How much of a say does the manager have on the major decisions? At Real Madrid, Zidane’s word is omniscient. Zizou has been given all the freedom to execute whatever tactics he felt was right for the team. About the handling of players, Zinedine was in complete control. The treatment of Gareth Bale is enough to explain how authoritative the 48-year-old was in the dressing room. Even if there was a degree of player power in the dressing room, no individual was greater than the manager.

“We believe in him and in his work. He’s the one who has to make the difference, he’s a person who trusts players, and few do. We hope he stays here for a very long time, he is unique”

Sergio Ramos
on Zinedine Zidane

These words from Sergio Ramos tell you how much the players rate their manager. Notwithstanding, Madrid didn’t have the ideal starts to this season. They were dropping points to mid-table sides, and at one point, there were rumours of Zidane even losing his job. Nonetheless, the players stuck with him throughout the inconsistent period. They put everything into making sure that the situation was overturned.

At Barcelona, the scenario seems to be massively contrasting. There is clear evidence of the fact that neither Valverde nor Setién were given control of the dressing room. The player power is unhealthy, and the board’s toxicity reaks all the way to the pitch. At times, one can even see that Quique Setién isn’t able to pick his starting XI. The decisions seem too questionable for the coach to receive the entirety of the blame. While the lion’s share of the fault goes to the manager, there’s nothing he can do if the players don’t respect him.

Real Madrid Barça La Liga

Players, coaching staff and board, Real Madrid is a union | Photo by Gabriel Bouys / AFP via Getty Images

There is not one case where we were able to see Setién display control. His press conferences are too passive, and his opinions make him look like a victim of a mismatch in the dressing room powers. Quique might be an excellent tactician, but the truth is that he can’t handle the huge egos in Barcelona’s squad. When players show their backs to the coach, the manager should respond like how Zidane did with Bale. At the Camp Nou, the stance is different, where Setién is easily scapegoated for each and every decision.

Conclusion

From the start of the season, Real Madrid’s focus was entirely on the pitch. At times, the tactics didn’t go as per plan, but Zidane was always in control of every situation. Be it sporting or non-sporting decisions, there was always an amount of clarity displayed by the board. A combination of clever calls and excellent player-management saw the merengues win the Spanish Super Cup and La Liga. The new champions of Spain took advantage of Barça’s off-pitch problems, and are now reaping the benefits of a strong campaign.

“I did not expect Madrid to maintain their high level for this long”

Quique Setién

Barcelona are currently in free-fall, partly because of the manager and majorly due to the players. The board should either appoint a coach who can control the dressing room and manage the egos, or instruct the players to respect the current one. With uncertainties looming over Quique Setién’s future, it doesn’t look like the club is mentally ready for the Champions League. When asked about his future, the coach said, “I hope so, but I don’t know”. These shocking quotes from him sum up how uncertain and unfortunate he has been since taking over as coach.

Madrid will be looking to make a comeback against Manchester City in the Champions League. Barcelona, on the other hand, host Napoli in a critical second leg, where they lead on away goals. Judging by their recent performances, one can conclude that they are neither tactically, nor mentally prepared to face the Italian outfit. The azulgranas continue to suffer against teams that opt for the low block, and Gennaro Gattuso seems to be a master in it. The mood around Setién’s camp is massively negative when compared to that of Zidane’s. Real Madrid has deservedly won their 34th La Liga, while Barcelona is a messy work in progress.


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I started writing so that I could bridge the gap and pass time on days when there were no matches. But little did I know that writing about the beautiful game would amp up my love for it. I've always wanted to learn more, and share whatever insights I have on the game, to anyone, anywhere. The world stops for 90 minutes when your team plays, and that for me is very much true.

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Analysis

Koeman’s system in the Barcelona 4-0 Villareal

Anurag Agate

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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.

Double-pivot

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.

Conclusion

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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