As the giants can relegate their city rivals, our editors try predicting the final score and mention their player to watch of Wednesday’s derby between Barcelona and Espanyol.
Following consecutive draws against Celta de Vigo and Atlético de Madrid, Barcelona got back to winning ways in brilliant fashion with a 1–4 victory over Villarreal on Sunday. Maybe such result was symbolic for the La Liga title race, considering Real Madrid hold the advantage with a four-point gap at the top of the table. Still, Barça will be looking to continue gaining confidence and form in an always special local derby with rivals RCD Espanyol.
Barcelona, second in the league, could officially relegate 20th-placed Espanyol if the blaugranas were to beat them tonight at the Camp Nou. Considering the latest triumph from Barça and also Espanyol’s tragic form, there are reasons for optimism for culés this evening. Nonetheless, the Periquitos will also be hoping to ruin their enemies’ title hopes, and at least postpone their relegation. Ahead of Wednesday’s spicy encounter, our editors try predicting the final score, as well as sharing their player to watch, from the duel between Barcelona and Espanyol.
Barcelona 4–0 Espanyol
Game of fun
Barcelona no longer depend on themselves to win La Liga, so now all that remains is to wait for Real Madrid to drop points. Even so, the blaugranas still have to keep fighting. Against Espanyol, it will be a different duel as, in the Barcelona derby, los Periquitos tend to be motivated to win against the culés. Notwithstanding, a streak of five defeats in a row and an inevitable relegation are reasons for Barcelona not to have much trouble obtaining the three points.
“Of course we can win La Liga. Reality and the maths prove it. It’s not easy, but you have to hope until the last day. We have to think about ourselves and win every game; see that there is a progression”
More than a decisive match, it may be a fun match for the local players. The Barcelona players – insert Gerard Piqué – love facing Espanyol and they will show their smile if they officially send one of their most historic rivals to the Second Division. It may be the last Derbi Barceloní for some time in La Liga.
Player to watch: Antoine Griezmann
After a series of matches without performing at a good level, Antoine Griezmann smiled again against Villarreal. He will probably start in the clash against Espanyol and he will look to continue offering elite football. A Griezmann comfortable on the pitch, with a role and in the area he likes the most, is simply poetic. When he is so active there is no one who can stop him from shining. If he plays, don’t be surprised if you see a showtime by the Little Prince.
Barcelona 3–0 Espanyol
It’s Adiós for Espanyol
As the two teams meet for the second time this season, there seems to be absolutely no reason for Barcelona to drop any further points. RCD Espanyol are on the last of their lifelines, and will be relegated anyway, if it is not at the hands of Barcelona – which seems the likelier result at the moment.
Gerard Piqué will certainly be looking to score against Espanyol once more | Photo by Imago
Quique Setién has found a rhythm with the 4–3–1–2 and we might see it again against their town rivals. It helps the players in the centre of the park to bypass a deep block easily without compromising numbers in attack. Moreover, neither team boast of a good form right now, but obviously one of the two teams has it worse – Espanyol. Their journey in the Spanish top flight will come to an end tonight, and Barca will be motivated to make it happen.
Player to watch: Gerard Piqué
Gerard Piqué has proven this season that he is still among the best centre-backs in the world who can come up with clutch performances against big sides. He has been able to retain this form since the restart of football, keeping four clean sheets out of a possible eight.
Barcelona’s captain without an armband absolutely loves a game versus Espanyol and will do his best to score a goal, or one of many that puts an end to the Catalan Derby.
Barcelona 4–0 Espanyol
Momentum, dearly needed
Quique Setién’s head was on the chopping block before Sunday’s game against Villarreal. After two consecutive draws from the culés basically gifted Real Madrid the title, Los Blancos only need eight points in four games to wrap up the title, meaning they can afford to lose once or draw twice. However, Barcelona have sharpened their game since narrowly winning against Athletic Club two weeks ago. The Catalans were good but not great against Celta de Vigo and Atlético de Madrid, but they upped their game against Villarreal.
“We have to look at what we can do. Win, leave good feelings, make progress. And if not in this competition, everything we do is worth it for the next one”
Now against Espanyol, they must find momentum for the latter stages of the season. This match could mean a lot for Barcelona. First of all, they can relegate their neighbours with a win at the Camp Nou, but that could be the least of their worries tonight. If they win, they will put pressure on Real Madrid, but they can also gain momentum for the Champions League. A dominant win such as the one against Villarreal is primordial, especially in this system that seemed to work but needs further adjustments to be perfect.
Quique Setién has to opt with a similar squad than the one that demolished Villarreal, but a few changes are needed. Arturo Vidal seemed shattered on Sunday, and Gerard Piqué, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez need rest if they are going to play for much longer. Antoine Griezmann should have another chance to shine after he had his best game in red and blue on Sunday. For Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba, they should be given continuity for their excellent form since coming back.
Player to watch: Sergi Roberto
Griezmann has to find form after dominating the Yellow Submarine, but his teammate Sergi Roberto needs it more. The La Masía graduate immediately got an injury when Quique Setién first came to Barça, but his return has been scintillating. As a right-back or a midfielder, he has carried the ball magnificently, getting it in deep areas and moving with it further up the pitch in dangerous zones.
Nélson Semedo isn’t having the best run of form but has shone at times, and Frenkie de Jong isn’t back in the match squad. That means Sergi can be a starter at two positions and maybe make amends with an assist, as his assist to Messi on Sunday was disallowed by VAR.
The Catalan will be essential when trying to unlock the midfield and will be helped by Sergio Busquets and hopefully Riqui Puig. All in all, all eyes should be on Sergi tonight as he will want to relegate Espanyol and help Barça on their pursuit of the title.
Barcelona 3–0 Espanyol
The decisive derby
The Camp Nou readies itself to witness what could be the last Derbi Barceloní for the foreseeable future. Emotions will be high and football at its best. Espanyol have failed to register a point on board in the last five games. Another similar result tonight will seal their fate in the Segunda. Expectations on Barcelona, particularly on the MSG attacking trio, are sky-high after the performance on Sunday. However, tonight’s encounter is a totally different ballgame. Espanyol do not leave as many spaces between the lines like Villareal. It will be interesting to see if the central overload work against a low block.
Player to watch: Antoine Griezmann
The Frenchman has had a rough start to his Barcelona career. He never really adapted to the wing role that was asked of him and dropped a series of disappointing performances. The lowest point of his period at Barcelona was surely the game against Atlético de Madrid, where he didn’t feature till added time.
“The feeling you have is that the three have found each other; I think they had found each other before. The other day [against Villarreal] was brilliant because the moves ended in goals. I’m not just guided by one game, I think you have to see things in perspective. There are many variables in every game. What your opponent proposes also has an influence”
on the Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann front three
He sprung back in glorious style in the last game after Quique Setién tweaked the formation against Villarreal. The new system saw the front three combine with amazing chemistry and create innumerable chances to score. All eyes once again will be on Griezmann and how well he combines with Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez. Will he be able to build on his impressive display on Sunday?
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.