In an uninspiring victory in the derby at the Camp Nou, our editors share their takes and player of the match on the 1–0 win from Barcelona over Espanyol.
The 1–4 win over Villarreal on Sunday brought optimism to the Barcelona fanbase, who were eager to relegate their local enemies RCD Espanyol on Wednesday. Nevertheless, the clash by no means looked like an encounter between the second and the twentieth-placed team, as Espanyol ended up causing several problems to Barça. Eventually, though, Luis Suárez scored the solitary goal of the game, handing the three points to the blaugranas and officially sending Espanyol to the Second Division. After such match, our editors express their opinions and standout performers from such tight duel.
Ten minutes of madness
It was ten minutes of madness, which included one red card for each side and a Luis Suárez goal after an MSG attacking trio combination (sort of) that ultimately decided the match. Barça, in contrast to their performance at Villareal, were woeful from start to finish. The team lacked the hunger to win. Quique Setién seemed to have understood the same in the first half and decided to bring on Ansu Fati, who got sent off after playing just three minutes. With the red card to Pol Lozano, however, the game somewhat opened up and Barça got a goal amidst the chaos.
“We didn’t play the way we did against Villarreal. We tried to find solutions to break up Espanyol’s defence, but they defended well and they closed spaces”
All in all, it was a boring match. Espanyol played really well and made Barcelona work hard. They fought till the end and gave it their all. Despite Antoine Griezmann being more involved and Lionel Messi too trying hard, the team remained lacklustre and uninspiring. They failed to break through a defensive block of five. Setién needs to learn to adapt to various teams and their style of play if he wants to win silverware. Not performing well against the 20th team in the league in a Barcelona Derby just will not do.
Standout performer: Marc-André ter Stegen
A case could be made for either of Espanyol’s Raúl de Tomás or Barcelona’s Gerard Piqué for being Man of the Match, but it is Marc-André ter Stegen who pips both of them by a narrow margin. Barcelona’s number one once again showed why he is one of the best keepers in the world. His crucial saves kept his side in the game. His 10th minute save against Adrián Embarba stopped a fantastic Espanyol counter-attack, while he saved Clément Lenglet the humiliation of putting the ball into his own net in the 44th minute.
Ter Stegen never put a foot out of line, and his positioning and passing were inch-perfect. His display was well-rounded and just goes to show how important he is to the club.
A night of mixed emotions
It finally happened. Espanyol have been officially relegated after another loss in the backyard of their sworn enemies. A bitter pill to swallow indeed. The derby loved true to its hype, as it never looked like a clash between teams on opposite spectrums of the table. Espanyol made Barcelona work hard for the three points. They often defended with eight men, making it impossible for the blaugranas to penetrate the lines.
Gerard Piqué could not get his much-desired goal against Espanyol, but he still delivered a praiseworthy performance | Photo by Lluís Gené / AFP via Getty Images
It was only after a flurry of red cards that spaces began to open up in the Espanyol lines, which helped the MSG combine to score the lone goal of the game. The same Barcelona that threatened to score eight goals against Villarreal failed to register a shot on target in the whole first half. While it’s happy times seeing Espanyol gone, the Derbi Barceloní will be missed.
Standout performer: Gerard Piqué
There were undoubtedly times in the game when Barcelona looked like conceding. Espanyol missed a peach of a chance in the first half after a lobbed pass caught the defense off guard. But it would be harsh to not give credit where it is due. Gerard Piqué’s personal rifts with Espanyol are well known. He rose up to the occasion once again with seven clearances and ten aerial duels won. As always, he ventured forward as he loves to, but he was also defensively solid as a rock. He was surely one of the key players in making sure we maintained a clean sheet.
Sometimes 3 points is 3 points
It was never going to be an easy game when the two sides met, especially when Espanyol were running the risk of being relegated at the hands of their worst rivals. They assembled in blocks of five in an attempt to neutralise Barcelona’s 4–3–1–2, which works best through the centre. After a horrid first half, Ansu Fati was brought out to stretch the play, but we saw how that panned out didn’t we?
“What we have to do is win our next three games. Whatever Madrid do is up to them. If the rival drops points then fantastic, we have to think about being there if they do”
on Barcelona winning but still being four points behind Real Madrid in case they win tomorrow
Barcelona were lucky to have Luis Suárez in the right place at the right time because until that point, no-one had really made Diego López work. However, it is no news that Espanyol are a really irritating team to play, and three points against them is always a good result, even if the performance was far from satisfactory. Exhausting 90 minutes, but we move.
Standout performer: Sergi Roberto
Sergi Roberto started the game on the left side of a midfield trio after putting in a tremendous display there on the weekend and continued to impress. He was key in connecting the midfield to attack since Iván Rakitić and Sergio Busquets were mostly static.
He created three goalscoring opportunities, one of which was so nearly tucked in by Antoine Griezmann through a solid header but alas. The reason for such top performances probably stems from the rest he received from his injury, and could be key for Barcelona if the season does not go into further turmoil.
Not much to celebrate
Culés, as shown with the fireworks as minutes went by, certainly were filled with joy in seeing their antagonistic city rivals be relegated to the Second Division. But, before getting any party started, Barcelona should first look at themselves in the mirror and ask: is this something to be proud of? The team is filled with individual, structural and tactical struggles, and, while a bit of celebration hurt nobody, the enthusiasm for yesterday’s game was more provoked by the rivals’ failures than by oneself’s successes.
Standout performer: Raúl de Tomás
If there’s one player that does not deserve to be relegated, that certainly is Raúl de Tomás. Having arrived to Espanyol in January, he has proved on a regular basis that he should be competing for the European, rather than the relegation, spots. Against Barça he was ever-present in the frontline, being a constant threat and forcing Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet to never put a foot wrong. While his performance was not rewarded by a positive outcome, his display was triumphant.
Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal
FC Barcelona kicked off their 2020-21 La Liga campaign at home against Villareal in style. They won by a margin of 4-0, marking a very auspicious and positive start to the Ronald Koeman era.
The shape of the team
The starting eleven was, somewhat expectedly, the same set of players that started against Elche in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Neto started in goal in the absence of Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto started in defence, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong started in a double pivot, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann started as nominal wingers, Philippe Coutinho started as the nominal 10, and Lionel Messi as the nominal 9. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution (minute 70):
As can be seen, Griezmann frequently dropped deep and moved in – and he can be forgiven for that, for he is not a natural right-winger; he is an SS. Messi dropped less deep as compared to the Elche game, but he still had the freedom to roam.
The left side of the team was highly effective. Jordi Alba was a constant menace down the flank and combined wonderfully with Fati. Frenkie and Coutinho lent their support down the left whenever possible. In stark contrast, the right side was not effective at all. Griezmann had the least passes and touches among the outfielders and didn’t combine effectively with Roberto at all. Going ahead, this might be a headache to solve.
Barcelona were devastatingly good in offence in the first half. They scored 4 unanswered goals, had an overall of 17 shots in the game, 9 of which were on target. Here is a small data table compiling some stats at a glance for the game:
Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game; as shown, Villareal never really got a sniff at Barca’s goal and couldn’t assert themselves at any stage of the game.
All of this could’ve been possibly very different, had Paco Alcacer decided to take a first time shot instead of chesting the ball down in the path of his Villareal teammate early in the game. That didn’t result in a shot, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Barcelona’s goals came in all varieties. The first goal was a wonderful long ball over the top from Clement Lenglet to Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Ansu Fati to smash in a great shot.
This was very much reminiscent of how Messi set up Alba for the goal against Elche.
The second goal came from a quick break. Lenglet released Coutinho from deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Coutinho carried the ball upfield quickly, catching Villareal out with a fast break. A simple layoff and Fati took care of the rest with a brilliant near-post finish past Sergio Asenjo.
The third goal came from a penalty, won again by Fati with a burst of speed into the box, and getting fouled. There was a nice bit of buildup to that:
And finally, there was also the return of the own goal – a pass from Messi to the onrushing Busquets – yes, you read that correct – in Villareal’s penalty box led to Pau Torres poking the ball into his own net past Asenjo.
While the tempo dropped a lot in the second half, there were still plenty of shots taken by Barcelona that required Asenjo to pull off some wonderful saves to keep the scoreline down to 4-0. Most notable was the save from Francisco Trincao’s shot late in the second half. On the other end, Neto came up with a calm display to keep Takefusa Kubo’s shot away.
As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the productive buildup happened from the left side. Lenglet made a wonderful pre-assist and was assured in his passing in general. Alba was a threat throughout, with his brilliant off-the-ball runs and cutbacks to Fati, Messi, and Coutinho. Fati was a threat with his direct running and taking on defenders. Coutinho and Frenkie provided good support too. Here is a look at all progressive passes by all the starting outfield players:
Next we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):
The half spaces and the left wing were very well utilized, and there were quite a few passes into the box from zone 14 as well.
Villareal didn’t breach the box as frequently as Barcelona did, thanks to some abysmal crossing by Pervis Estupinan. It was only after Kubo came on that they could get into the box with some regularity from the left. But by then, it was 4-0 late into the second half, and Barcelona had taken the foot of the gear completely.
Something that’s easily noticed in the plots above, and is a definite bit of concern, is Griezmann’s struggles with linkup play. He could not combine effectively with Roberto, and bulk of his passes were back to Busquets or Frenkie or Messi back into the midfield. If he is to continue playing as a winger down the right, he has to strengthen his combination play along the wing a lot more. Being able to take on defenders will be an additional bonus too. Right now, the right side is very limited as compared to the left. It remains to be seen if and when Sergino Dest can change the dynamic there upon arrival.
As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, the PPDA recorded by neither of the teams were particularly impressive. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive actions. From Wyscout, Barca recorded a PPDA of 15 while Villareal had a PPDA of 22. In other words, Barca allowed Villareal to pass around for 15 times on average before trying to win the ball back with some defensive action like tackles or interceptions. Compared to the European pressing elites like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, these numbers are pretty bad. It was evident during the game that Barcelona didn’t go all out trying to press. They picked and chose moments when to. Same goes for Villareal as well. They showed too much respect to Barca, and allowed them to build from the back very comfortably. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:
Its very clear how Barca didn’t try to high-press for bulk of the game, and how Villareal spent of lot time trying to defend against the threat of Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati.
For Barcelona, Gerard Pique was a rock, and so was Lenglet. Neither of them allowed a Villareal forward to run past them, and blocked and cleared all shots and crosses into the box. Pique in particular was called into action many times because Roberto was caught way up the field in transitions. Belying his age, he put forth a magnificent defensive performance in sweeping up everything that came up his way.
Busquets and Frenkie, while mostly assured in passing, had their nervy moments as well. Busquets was particularly awful in the first 20-25 minutes. He repeatedly misplaced his passes and that led to repeated transition attacks against Barcelona. In the same vein, Frenkie, who played really well for the first 70 minutes, lost the ball at least three times in the last 20 minutes. Each of the resulting attacks by Villareal were threatening, and required timely interventions by Lenglet and attentive goalkeeping by Neto to snuff out. Going ahead, this is going to be a concern. Both of them need to clean their games up quite a bit.
Ousmanne Dembele, Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao and Pedri had short cameos in the second half. All of them looked decent. Dembele kept it simple with his passing, and I for one am glad about it. He is returning from a long injury layoff and needs to take it slow and simple. There will be plenty of time to watch his explosive pace and dribbling once he has regained confidence and has stayed fit for a reasonable chunk of time. Pjanic seemed to have shaken off his rust and did pretty well to win the ball back on a couple of occasions, and was very clean with his passes. Pedri was his usual bumbling self. He helped out defensively, connected well with the wingers in passing, and was always a threat with his runs. Trincao looked impressive yet again, and could have scored his maiden goal for Barca but for a magnificent save by Asenjo. He meant business; trying to take on defenders, and trying to shoot whenever he found an opportunity.
There is no denying that Villareal was abjectly poor, especially in the first half (surprising given the players they managed to buy in the transfer window). They left behind lots of space that was ruthlessly exploited by Barcelona. Not all Spanish teams are going to give up similar amounts of space to Barca in the coming games. In fact, it’s probably best to assume that none will. In such tight games, it will be interestingly to see how this fluid 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann as a wide player manage to perform. I was personally happy with the game, and only look forward to more good performances from the team.