Barcelona’s small-margin victory with Huesca leaves much to be desired from the Blaugrana. Find out what went wrong for Barcelona against Huesca in this tactical analysis.
With 25 points in 15 points leading up to this match, Barcelona had more than double of Huesca’s 12 points, with a game in hand. Last year’s Segunda Division winners, Huesca have been consistently poor in La Liga. Their problems have been mostly in terms of their defensive record, with 25 goals conceded with an xGA of 19.1. Interestingly, Barcelona have faced more shots on target than the Oscenses, conceding 10 goals less.
This matchup turned out to statistically be a complete outlier, as Huesca overperformed on their xGA for once, and Barcelona only faced four shots on target. So what actually led to this? Find out in this tactical analysis.
Ronald Koeman made a choice of starting XI that could form either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. In the 4-3-3, Pedri Gonzalez would be the left-interior midfielder and the mediapunta in the 4-2-3-1. The latter would mean that Frenkie De Jong would play as a pivot, rather than an interior. As it turned out, a 4-3-3 was employed, which meant the central midfielders played an important part.
In the 4-3-3, the full-backs would be high up the pitch as expected. Something that benefited Barcelona was the solidity upfront. Usually, when Griezmann, Messi, or Coutinho start with Pedri as the attacking midfielder, it results in too many players needing high degrees of freedom to make an impact. With Pedri often sticking to his interior role, Ousmane Dembele and Martin Braithwaite’s roles as a pure winger, and a pure striker respectively allowed for good structure upfront.
On his 500th appearance in the league, Lionel Messi started as a right-winger on paper, but he was all over the field due to his free role as we can see from the image above. In terms of his average position, Messi would tend to drift towards the centre and combine with the players down the left, especially Pedri and Jordi Alba.
Barcelona intended to keep control of the ball, create a staggered midfield to get better passing lanes and sustain the attacking play.
Under Miguel Angel Sanchez Munoz, Huesca have lined up in a 4-3-3 often. Their problems have stemmed from playing players in roles that don’t bring out the best of their abilities. For example, Javi Angle, statistically one of the best dribblers in Europe, has Javi Ontiveros in front of him.
Playing a 4-4-2 would favour them to bring the play down the wings. However, Sanchez Munoz, called ‘Michel’, has deployed them in a 4-3-3 which does not boast the interiors to provide quality balls to the wing.
Michel’s team played a 4-3-3 when attacking, and as usual, were skewed to the left. The 4-3-3 wasn’t in use often, with Huesca on the backfoot for most of the match. Instead, a 4-5-1 was seen more often, with the wingers joining the midfield when defending. In the 4-5-1, the sole striker Rafa Mir had the task of harassing Barcelona’s midfielders and looking to cut-off passing lanes. He was largely unable to do this resulting in only one interception in the entire match.
In the second half, as the focus of attacks down the left from Barcelona became more threatening, a 5-4-1 was seen with Sergio Gomez dropping back into the defensive line. Pedri and Messi’s influence further aided the threat posed by Ousmane Dembele and Jordi Alba. The 4-5-1 would be a mid-block, but now with five at the back, Huesca played a low-block.
When building-up, the Azulgranas looked to play down the wings. With Ontiveros’ technique and Galan’s speed, the left-wing had the potential to be a major threat. Unfortunately, the players were quite cautious and looked hesitant to receive the ball in the middle of the field due to Barcelona’s press. This resulted in the wingers and full-backs often being crowded out.
A blunt blade
As mentioned earlier, Huesca were severely lacking in attack. Ontiveros was often looking to drive the ball forwards, but there were a few problems. Firstly, Mikel Rico and Pedro Mosquera were hesitant to move up the field. Barcelona’s interiors were immediately falling back, along with Ousmane Dembele. This meant that Huesca were rarely able to get possession centrally.
With possession down the wings, the next problem was with the position of the forwards. As Gomez was rarely able to drive the ball forwards on his own from the right, he would look to get in the box. Here, we have an image of Huesca’s attempt at getting players into the box.
The problem with this was, the players in the box were too static. There were minimal to no attempts to make runs to receive the ball in space. Here, we can see that there is a 3v3 in the box. Following many unsuccessful attempts at looking to poach the ball in the box aerially, it wasn’t very reassuring to see that Michel’s team kept trying the same move repeatedly rather than innovating.
The lack of attacking potential from the left-wing is apparent from this visualization. There are very few passes from the half-spaces into the box from the right. Especially from the visualization of passes from the middle third to the wing of the final third, we can see the problem of having little incisiveness.
A midfield battle
It would be inaccurate to call it a battle, rather than a bloodbath, if not for the second half. In this section of the analysis, we examine how the midfields were key for either side.
In Barcelona’s 4-3-3, Frenkie De Jong and Pedri would look to receive the ball in the channels quite high up the pitch. As we can see from the following heatmap, Barcelona players concentrated in and around zone 14. There was a significant issue that consistently troubled Huesca; zonal marking. Michel’s side would try to mark Barcelona’s players zonally, which would be fine, if not for the free role Messi had, as well as the freedom Pedri was given.
Though the latter issue was solved by instructing Jaime Seoane to man-mark Pedri for the majority of the second half, Messi was consistently finding players behind the lines. This allowed De Jong and Pedri to have a massive influence on the game. However, an issue that the zonal marking limited was the runs by the midfielders into the box. De Jong and Pedri would regularly get into the box, however only the Dutchman scored as Pedri’s most significant effort with an xG of 0.60 was saved by Alvaro Fernandez.
Huesca’s three-man midfield was only visible when building-up. With Mosquera at the base, Mikel Rico and Seoane would look to move up the field. The issue here was the spacing. The central-midfielders would regularly be positioned too high up the field, and finding grounded passing options was a major challenge.
Huesca did make some cohesive changes in the second half, as the substitutes helped the team press high. Often pressing in a 4-2-4, Barcelona had a hard time retaining possession. However, this change on Michel’s part failed to play a major part in the overall match as it was most efficient only for the last 20-25 minutes. As the following xT visualization shows, it was only towards the end that the Aragon outfit was able to impose themselves on the game.
For the Catalans, this was a victory that could have had a larger margin. An xG of 3.21 to Huesca’s 0.26 was a fair representation of the match. Though this victory was expected, Koeman’s side should not be too happy with the end of the match. Huesca’s high-press proved to be something the team couldn’t deal with, which is a troubling sign. Despite this, the three points are valuable three points, and Barcelona continue their bumpy ascent up the table.
Who are FC Barcelona’s hardest workers?
Work rate is a crucial element in a successful football side, but which Barcelona players have put in the most effort this season?
While FC Barcelona has always been renowned for their technical ability and tactical intelligence of its players, their work rate on the pitch has also played a key role in the club’s greatest triumphs.
The concept is simple, but that does not detract from its importance. Players who track back to win the ball, make bursting runs to create space and passing angles, and constantly apply pressure out of possession are incredibly valuable.
While it may be impossible to quantify a player’s effort with full accuracy truly, the available data can still reveal some prominent trends. With that in mind, which Barcelona players put in the highest amount of work rate statistically?
First things first, time to establish a methodology. Using data from FBRef, the dataset will be filtered down to outfield players who have played five or more 90’s in one of the big five European leagues in the 2020/21 season. That means each player has at least a decent sample size under their belt, so there will not be anyone with only a few ten-minute appearances off the bench.
Then, which metrics can be used to quantify effort best? With the data available, it seems like the most viable option is to try and identify box-to-box players. For that, we can use the different areas of the pitch in which players take their touches.
Each player’s percentile rank for touches per 90 minutes in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, middle third, attacking third, and attacking penalty area was found. The average of those five percentiles became each player’s “attacking average.”
These averages were then scaled between 0 and 100 for the final “Offensive Coverage Rating.” This is how the top five came out for all clubs:
- Raphaël Guerreiro (Dortmund) – 100
- Jordi Alba (Barcelona) – 97.5
- Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 94.3
- Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich) – 92.7
- Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid) – 92.4
Elsewhere in the top 20 are names like Andrew Robertson, Reece James, Luke Ayling of the intense Leeds United system, Ander Herrera, and Frenkie de Jong. There seems to a solid set of players who work their way up and down the pitch, either down the flank as full-backs or as energetic centre-midfielders.
How does the Barça squad stack up in particular?
As previously mentioned, the full-backs are the main standouts. The never-ending stamina of Jordi Alba is especially on display. Frenkie de Jong sits as the top non-full-back by a solid distance, reflecting his ability to drop deep in the buildup and provide dangerous runs forward.
A bit lower down the list, though, things start to look a bit weirder. It should be noted that this methodology can be a bit biased towards centre-backs. They rack up many touches in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, and middle third in a possession-based system, and the additional touches they get in the attacking penalty area off of corners and free-kicks can drive their scores pretty high.
Looking at Antoine Griezmann and Martin Braithwaite all the way at the bottom brings up another limitation. While we can track players who are active in many different areas of the pitch, we can not do the same for players who move and work a lot in the same area.
Watching Braithwaite and Griezmann definitely shows how active they are making runs in behind or across the attacking third, but because they do not drop off very often to pick up the ball, they rank low in the team.
However, those top names prove this offensive coverage metric is able to quantify box-to-box play in possession. Additionally, incorporating defensive metrics will clean things up even more.
On the other side of the ball, the process is very similar. The same players and methodology will be applied, only this time with pressures instead of touches.
StatsBomb, who collect the data displayed on FBRef, define pressure as, “…applying pressure to an opposing player who is receiving, carrying, or releasing the ball.” These pressures are just broken down based on the thirds of the pitch, not the penalty areas too, so only three metrics go into each player’s “defensive average.”
Once again, those averages are then scaled between 0 and 100, creating the “Defensive Coverage Ratings.” The top five performers in these ratings were:
- Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro (Lazio) – 100
- Mikkel Damsgaard (Sampdoria) – 98.1
- Leonardo Bittencourt (Werder Bremen) – 98.1
- Morgan Sanson (Marseille) – 98.0
- Maxence Caqueret (Lyon) – 97.2
Midfield workhorses like Fred and Adrien Silva, along with high-pressing forwards such as Diogo Jota are common throughout the rest of the top 25.
Given that Barcelona are a possession-heavy side, and one that often presses at a lower intensity, one would expect these defensive work-rate ratings to be a bit lower. Still, though, which players stand out?
Pedri comes out as the clear leader. Impressively, the teenager’s score is one that would be respectable in any side. Let it serve as just another testament to his work rate and ability to perform a variety of different tasks on the pitch.
With Sergio Busquets in second, even as he ages, he is still one of Barça’s most active players in terms of closing down the opposition. In third is another newcomer, as Sergiño Dest’s tendency to press aggressively puts him much higher than most of the other defenders in the squad.
The tallies for the other members of the backline are quite low because they defend in a more reserved nature. This can also be attributed to the fact that Barcelona give up fewer opportunities than many teams.
With both of these two ratings in place and some solid results for top-ranking players, it is time to combine them.
Here in the endgame, we will be combining all eight metrics to create one “Overall Coverage Rating.” That means touches in each third, touches in both penalty areas, and pressures in each third are all included. This way, we can see the players who cover most of the pitch overall.
The top five is comprised of:
- Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund) – 100
- Ander Herrera (Paris Saint-Germain) – 99.3
- Bruno Guimarães (Lyon) – 97.6
- Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid) – 96.7
- Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 96.2
Idrissa Gana Gueye, Dani Carvajal, Joshua Kimmich, Renan Lodi, Arturo Vidal, Maxence Caqueret, Ezgjan Alioski, Pedri, Reece James, Mason Mount, and Mateusz Klich are among the top names as well.
Now, for the final Barcelona squad rankings:
The numbers still involve the same intricacies as those discussed for the separate offensive and defensive ratings, but at least the top five names seem to match an eye test evaluation of the squad.
Pedri has joined the team and impressed everyone with his work rate and movement. He will track an opposition runner back to the defensive third, win the ball, combine in midfield, and then get forward to be an outlet for Messi.
While not as youthful and agile, Busquets still serves as a metronome in the possession and an active defender. He will move and reposition to rack up touches in the deeper thirds and engages in defensive duels very often.
The right flank has been slightly ignored at times this season, leaving Dest isolated, but the American always brings energy. He has all the skills and the mentality to be a great modern full-back.
Dest’s counterpart on the left, Jordi Alba, performs a much greater portion of his work offensively. His countless runs down the left wing have made him a key target for through balls and switches of play over the last few seasons.
Lastly, Frenkie de Jong backs up his reputation as an all-round midfielder. This season, the Dutchman is settling in more at the Camp Nou, and his surging runs forward to the penalty area have been awe-inspiring as of late.
Rivaldo (on De Jong): "It is being shown that near the area it seems that he is capable of playing better as an offensive midfielder and that he can even play a role similar to what Messi does when the Argentine is away. This is great news for Koeman." pic.twitter.com/r8aIrdMWSg— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) January 15, 2021
Griezmann and Braithwaite are probably the hardest done by these metrics. However, their energy, work rate and volume of runs they can provide off the ball is noticeable when watching them play, and invaluable for Barcelona.
There is no perfect way to quantify how hard a player works in-game, especially with these limited statistics. What this attempted to do, though, is focus on effort in terms moving to a variety of areas, being as involved in the match as possible, and doing so in different ways.
While not perfect, this methodology was successful in identifying some of the busiest players in the side. It should serve as a reminder of the value these players, like Pedri or de Jong, can offer beyond even their brilliant technical ability.
Given that 32-year-old Sergio Busquets and 31-year-old Jordi Alba were also near the top, it is a reminder of the potential replacements the club will be forced to make eventually. How long can these two continue to exert energy at this level? Could younger players be doing even more in those roles? How will Barça fill those holes when they move on? These are questions that need answering.