Following a dominant display from Barcelona at the Estadio de la Cerámica, our editors share their takes on the Catalans’ 1–4 win over Villarreal.
Regardless of whether the La Liga title race is over or not, with Real Madrid still holding a four-point advantage at the top of the table, Barça needed to win and perform on Sunday against a challenging Villarreal to recover their confidence for what’s to come. The 1–4 victory, with an own goal from Pau Torres and wonderful strikes from Luis Suárez, Antoine Griezmann and Ansu Fati, couldn’t have been more perfect. Therefore, our editors share their opinions and standout performers from such clash.
Performance of the season
They have waited. Oh how the Barça faithful have waited, for a performance like this. Amid so much negativity that has surrounded the club in recent weeks, today was an absolutely scintillating display from the Catalans. Fluid on and off the ball, coming up with all the right ideas and being devastatingly efficient. Quique Setién and his team showed just what they are capable of.
“We played well, overloaded them [Villarreal] in central areas, made progress out wide, and were a goal threat with shots”
Finally, Quique came up with an innovative solution for his front three crisis. Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann playing together up front with Lionel Messi behind them proved to be an absolute treat to watch. The deadly trio finally seemed to be clicking in full force. Other than an initially shaky defence, Barcelona’s performance was glorious. A much-needed win over a very tough opponent in Villarreal. This performance must be the standard. Barça must carry on in this fashion which is their identity: style mixed with immense substance.
Standout performer: Antoine Griezmann
Another sight for Barcelona supporters’ sore eyes and it had been a long time coming. After finally being deployed in his favoured position, Griezmann demonstrated the full extent of his stellar ability. The Frenchman was supreme in his movement, his quick one and two-touch interplay was elite as always and he tracked back energetically as he always does.
But, most importantly, yesterday was all about his prowess in attack, something which had been abnormally dormant till the encounter with Villarreal. He linked up with his teammates very well and was brimming with confidence. And the crown jewel of his showing? An absolute wondergoal from outside the box. Set up by Messi with a wonderful backheel assist, Griezmann emulated the Argentine maestro’s chip against Real Betis in 2019 with a daring, deft and delightful goal. Hopefully, this performance serves as a turn in fortune for Griezmann at Barça.
A punch of nostalgia
A magical night of football at La Cerámica. A night that culés will be talking about for weeks or months to come. Barcelona dominated the game for most parts, easily threading balls through Villareal’s world-class midfield and defence. The game goals of the highest quality, and saw a Barcelona side that played with intent, passion and purpose.
The much-hyped Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann front line showed what it can do when the cards are played the right way. Quique Setién’s masterplan of playing Leo in a free role behind a front line of Griezmann and Suárez reaped rewards in spades. The Yellow Submarine often threatened on the counter, but they could not close down gaps, and that let the game get away from them.
Standout performer: Antoine Griezmann
Every player in the blaugrana colours had a night to remember, with Sergi Roberto pulling of a masterclass in midfield. Villarreal keeper Sergio Asenjo had a wonderful game despite conceding four goals, a clear indication of the nature of the game.
However, given how important this performance was to his confidence, Antoine Griezmann was a clear standout. He played with confidence in spades, linking up beautifully with his Argentine and Uruguayan partners in crime. Defensively he was as committed as ever, and he also finished the game with an astounding 98% pass accuracy. To cap off a solid performance he scored an absolute gem in the first half, a goal to remember for years to come. A much-needed boost to a critical player could come at no better time!
Fianally a cohesive front three and an excellent performance
In a 1–4 victory, it finally looks like Quique Setién has solved some of Barcelona’s problems. Villareal now must win every match to even retain a Europa League spot in what was a disappointing performance for them. Barcelona’s front three finally seem to have chemistry and it looks like Griezmann has finally started linking-up well with Messi playing behind Antoine and Suárez. Griezmann’s and Messi’s interchanging roles were also a breath of fresh air for the team. Sergi Roberto put in a shift with consistent excellent work through the 90 minutes as well.
At long last, the ‘MSG’ attacking trio was highly functional for Barça | Photo by Maria José Segovia / Zuma via Imago
Villareal’s defence lacked organisation and especially the full-backs were getting dragged out of position often. The Catalans must be pleased with such a performance along with some great cameos by Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati. This system seems to suit the team really well apart from the fact that the defence is not very solid yet.
Standout performer: Antoine Griezmann
The Frenchman finally looked like a part of the front three and not disjoint. Antoine Griezmann’s link-up play benefited the system as him and Messi could interchange roles often. More importantly, after such controversy in the past week, Griezmann showed his hunger throughout the match. Always looking to press, actively cutting passing lanes and energetically chasing down every ball. Always looking to get the second and third balls as well, Griezmann was giving his all for this match.
His decision making was excellent as well, knowing when to play the short pass, knowing when to lay it off. Especially, his runs and positioning in the final-third were impeccable. The goal he scored was pure talent, but even the way he made the run and Messi knew where he would be was a spark of hope for a potentially deadly front three which Barcelona haven’t had with Griezmann.
Perfect from A to Z
Barcelona’s recent games usually drew a pattern of playing well one half and below-par the other. The first half in Sevilla was tremendous but what followed was abysmal. At Balaídos against Celta de Vigo, it was the first half that was good enough, but the second cost Barça the league. This game, when Real Madrid surely had wrapped up the title at San Mamés earlier, shows everything right with Setién’s ideas.
His 4–3–1–2 did the trick, especially against such an open team. Griezmann in his preferred position behind the strikers and allowed to free roam; the full-backs given space and time to attack, which suits Nélson Semedo and Jordi Alba to the ground; and a mixture of shutters and creators in midfield was a match made in heaven for the culés.
The opening goal was the epitome of such a well-structured system. After a nice build-up, Alba got the ball in a dangerous area, and Griezmann’s dizzying movement made Pau Torres nervous and, eventually, the young defender scored an own goal. The pressing was relentless, and only broken during lack of concentration, which is where Villarreal’s goal came from. Other than Gerard Moreno equalling his most prolific season in the league, Barça weren’t really bothered by the Yellow Submarine, other than two opportunities by Carlos Bacca and Samuel Chukwueze.
“Today was an important victory. The team played with seriousness and we can all be satisfied. We will keep battling for La Liga until the end”
Josep Maria Bartomeu
After the goal from Villarreal, the Catalans showed their dominance, and the goals that followed were a joy to behold. Suárez’s Anoeta-like strike was insane and Griezmann’s Messi-esque chip from outside the box was equally crazy. In the second half, the dominance continued, and it was nice to see Ansu Fati get rewarded for his hard work after an insane chipped pass from Jordi Alba.
This performance was everything Barça needed: Confidence, genius and composure, something they had lacked at the Sanchez-Pizjuán, Balaídos and at the Camp Nou against Atlético de Madrid. It also fills fans with confidence for the next few games, and even though the league seems out of reach, fighting for it and keeping the momentum for the Champions League will be crucial. Performances like this were duly needed at Camp Nou, so brace yourselves culés.
Standout performer: Antoine Griezmann
Amid every polemic that emerged this week, Antoine Griezmann was the hottest topic. After entering the pitch in the 90th minute against his former side in the last game, the Frenchman’s future at the club looked bleak. Nevertheless, Griezmann wasn’t doing anything wrong; it was Setién that seemed to utilise him wrongly. Griezmann can’t play on the wing; he lacks flair and dribbling isn’t forté. Using him more centrally and in behind two world-class strikers, in Messi and Suarez, was the key to all this system clicking.
The Frenchman free roamed his way to his best performance for the club, running everywhere and opening spaces for his teammates. He compensated for Messi and Suárez jogging in the pressing by showing what a few years under Diego Simeone do, which is multiply his work rate by two. Brilliant on and off the ball, he crowned such a jewel of a performance by scoring a chip resembling Messi’s against Real Betis last term. He made the system tick and it might be the system that takes Barça to another level. Sublime.
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.