In collaboration with Soumyajit Bose.
After a promising performance in the Champions League, Koeman’s Barcelona struggled against newly-promoted Cadiz. In this analysis, we try to figure out exactly what went wrong for the visitors at the Estadio Ramon de Carranza.
A defeat against Cadiz now leaves Barcelona 12 points behind league leaders Atletico Madrid with 10 games played by either side. Though Barcelona are going through a transitional period and realistically the expectations shouldn’t have been high, the performances so far have still disappointed. As we shall see in this analysis, Barcelona were flawed, but Cadiz put in a performance that deserves significant credit.
Structure and system: Cadiz
Álvaro Cervera’s Cadiz side have most-often lined up in a 4-4-2 this season. Relying on direct, pacey transitions, the wide midfielders defend more than attack and the forwards look to defend while cutting passing lanes as well.
Replacing regular starter Filip Malbašić, the sole leader of the line was was Álvaro Giménez. Rather than a 4-4-2, a 4-1-4-1 formation was chosen, where 27-year-old Jens Jønsson started as the single pivot in the centre of the pitch.
Playing a 4-1-4-1 has an immediate advantage. The player between the lines has the job of plugging the gaps and along with the other four midfielders, making sure that the opposition cannot advance through the middle.
Though Jønsson did this capably, with four interceptions, three clearances and a blocked shot, the midfield was often a flat one. This was where Álex Fernandez as the left-central midfielder and Yann Bodiger as the right-central midfielder came into play.
Below, we have an example of the structure of the midfield five. As we can see, Jønsson is at the base of the midfield and lies deeper than the other four here. His position depended on the positions of Barcelona’s attackers.
The fact that Koeman chose multiple players that like to play through the middle only helped Cadiz’s case. When the ball was reached the half-spaces, depending on the side, Fernandez or Bodiger would push forward to press and force the Barcelona players wide. Once the ball ended up on the wings, the Cadiz midfielders would return to either a flat five or a four.
Up next, we have another example of Cadiz’s structure. Jønsson would be deeper as we can see. The important thing to notice here is how effective Cadiz were at preventing Barcelona from having possession in the half-spaces. Though this was due to how Cervera’s side cut out passing lanes capably, the fact that Barcelona had no directness from wingers contributed to it.
When the ball was switched to a full-back high up the field, The Yellow Submarine would get compact into a 4-5-1 and defend while patiently waiting for a chance to counter.
Another thing highlighted by the above image is the compactness of Cadiz’s mid-block, constantly looking to force Barcelona wide was to be expected. What makes little sense is Koeman’s omission of a natural winger. Even if a 4-1-4-1 can be argued to be a surprise, the fact that Cadiz would not allow Barcelona to play through the middle was to be expected.
Usually, Lionel Messi comes to the rescue of Barcelona in such situations. With this being fairly common knowledge, it was no surprise to see him being pressed by three players at the least each time he got the ball. The image below shows how Cadiz dealt with players in the half-spaces while trying to simultaneously suffocate Messi.
As we can, the midfield would shift to the left-side of Barcelona. They could afford this as Messi would roam towards the middle, isolating Sergiño Dest on the right. Yet again, something that would have benefited Barcelona by having natural wingers.
Cadiz’s relatively stronger left-side might have contributed in Messi having more touches in the left channels than usual as we can see from the visualisation below.
Structure and system: Barcelona
Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 4-2-3-1 as expected. With no wingers to provide width, Philippe Coutinho and Lionel Messi coming in narrow would allow Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest to utilize the space left.
The double-pivot of Sergio Busquets and Frenkie De Jong had the Spaniard in a role akin to an anchor, with the Dutchman moving forwards on the left. With Martin Braithwaite through the middle, Barcelona’s front-four was extremely narrow considering Antoine Griezmann, Messi, and Coutinho’s positions constantly clashing.
The first half was a disappointment from Barcelona, the player selection being the main reason.
Cadiz’s left side is objectively stronger than their right. With Busquets on the right of the double-pivot, there were many occasions during which de Jong would move forward, leaving behind a single midfielder in space.
However, this was a part of the game-plan it seems, and not a fault on De Jong’s part. With Coutinho getting forward, he would often end up occupying the half-spaces very high-up the field. Simultaneously, Jordi Alba would occupy the wide areas on the left. This would leave a lot of space behind them which Frenkie would move up to cover.
In the second half, Ousmane Dembele and Pedri Gonzalez came on. These two substitutions were a good choice by Koeman and it looked like Barcelona could finally have a grip over the game.
As we see from the image below, Dembele would occupy the wide space, and when the ball was on the left-wing, Pedri could occupy the left half-spaces. Messi coming into the middle also attracted more Cadiz players towards him, leaving more space for Pedri. When Coutinho played, there was nobody with the directness Dembele possesses on the left which led to Cadiz being able to contain him and Alba easily.
This was one of those games where statistics tell no story at all. The game was decided by two poor individual errors and less-than-ideal tactics, formations and substitutions. Barcelona expectedly dominated possession, while Cadiz expectedly sat in a profound block. Cadiz made no attempts at constructive buildup. Instead, they focused all their energy on countering down the left whenever they could. Here are some brief game data to glance at:
It is quite astounding that Barcelona took 21 shots in total, yet generated only ~ 1.7 xG. The following shot-maps and xG flow charts show how Barcelona’s average chances were mostly long-range and poor in quality. At the same time, it also shows how schoolboyish errors by Barcelona’s backline gifted Cadiz absolutely golden opportunities which they did not squander.
The game was truly being played in Cadiz’s defensive third and half for bulk of the game. The following territory dominance graph shows just that – field tilt, used to measure territorial dominance by calculating percentage share of final third passes, was overwhelmingly in Barcelona’s favor all game.
How the goals came
Barcelona’s defence has consistently undone any good work done upfield with terrible errors at the back. This game was the fourth time this season that Barcelona came undone due to individual mistakes.
For the first goal, Oscar Mingueza diverted a flicked header off a Cadiz corner towards his own goal. Ter Stegen did admirably to keep out the header but was helpless to prevent the lurking Alvaro Gimenez from tapping in.
Barcelona got one back courtesy of an own goal, when Jordi Alba’s attempted low cross was diverted past Cadiz keeper Jeremias Ledesma.
However, shortly after, a horrendous mix up at the back led to Cadiz getting their second of the night. Alba’s throw in to Lenglet was a poor one, bouncing awkwardly instead of being at his feet. Lenglet did not help the case either, as he was unable to control it. Ter Stegen had to scamper to clear the ball out, but his attempted clearance hit Alvaro Negredo and stayed in play. Negredo then had the simple job of pausing to let the desperate Frenkie de Jong slide across him before tapping the ball into an empty net.
Pressing and Defence
Since most of the game was played upfield in Cadiz’s defensive territory, it’s no wonder that Barcelona registered a very low PPDA. PPDA is the metric that’s used a proxy for pressing intensity – the lower the value, more intense the press. Barcelona had a PPDA of 4 as compared to Cadiz’s 28, implying they pressed high up pretty well. They did not allow Cadiz to build anything constructively from the back. The following show Barcelona’s defensive heatmap and Cadiz’s unsuccessful passes:
As shown, Cadiz just simply tried to go long and direct. And that strategy mostly failed. However, on the occasions where Cadiz did manage successful launches, it was almost entirely down the left.
Alberto Perea did quite well to hold his own against both Sergino Dest and Oscar Mingueza. He pulled off most of the progressive runs, did well to hold off defenders when the ball was laid off to his feet and had some stunning dribbles. As can be seen in the defensive heatmap, Barcelona’s right side was held defensively while the left side almost registered nothing, as Cadiz rarely threatened down that lane.
Cadiz, on the other hand, mostly employed a deep low block. They allowed Barcelona to progress from the back most game without pressing, as shown in the following graph:
It’s Barcelona’s final third and box entries that Cadiz mainly tried to cut off or shepherd away from central zones. Cadiz’s defensive heatmap shown below bears further testimony to their low block defending, as well as duels against Dest and occasional pressing of Lenglet (the most press-prone player in the team).
Substitutions – mostly bizarre and too late
Substitutions were a mixed bag. Oscar Mingueza was sacrificed after the half to bring on Pedri. Frenkie de Jong was forced to play centre back for an entire half yet again. Bringing on Ousmane Dembele was the right move to provide width, but Pedri proved to be ineffective in a deep role. Although its not his strongest position, the young kid did however much he could to influence the game positively. Miralem Pjanic and Francisco Trincao were brought on far too late.
Not to mention, sacrificing Dest for Trincao made absolutely no sense. Dest was easily the best player on the pitch, and just needed the support of a winger to build, not be substituted. Towards the end, Barcelona had lost all semblance of a functioning midfield and very little defensive presence on the right.
De Jong, who was supposed to be a centre back, had to push out wide and high to cover the ground. As such, Cadiz easily launched counter-attacks and ran through Barcelona easily, who were truly lucky the scoreline stayed 2-1 given that there were two excellent scoring opportunities from those counter-attacks.
The deceptive run of dominating victories and clean sheets came to an end in a truly spectacular fashion. The defence had some howlers, and the front line looked devoid of ideas. Apart from Messi, no one seemed capable of creating anything. Even Messi was guilty of several giveaways and possession losses, but probably understandable given he was single-handedly trying to drag the opposition players with him and create something out of nothing.
Ronald Koeman’s strange under-performance in La Liga continues and leaves Barcelona with one of the poorest starts in the illustrious history of the club. Much needs to be sorted if Barcelona are to hope of a top 4 finish and keep UCL qualification chances alive.