As Barcelona prepare to visit Real Valladolid on Saturday afternoon, our editors try predicting the score and players to watch from this duel.
After an unconvincing 1–0 win over Espanyol on Wednesday, Barcelona will look to find their best form again in their visit to Valladolid on Saturday. While Real Madrid continue to have a four-point lead at the top of the La Liga table and only three games are remaining for the domestic season to end, the least Barça can do is to win, win and win, and hope for their rivals to drop points. Real Valladolid won’t be easy opposition, though. Ahead of this meeting between Barcelona and Valladolid at the José Zorrilla, our editors try predicting the final score and share their player to watch from this game.
Valladolid 1–3 Barcelona
Fighting the away blues
Barcelona will be in their away kits again on Saturday for their visit to the Estadio José Zorrilla. Real Valladolid, the home side, has been having a decent run. At any rate, it is easy to conclude that they are not going to be a pushover. Then again, in Barcelona’s current state of affairs, no team is really expected to be a pushover.
With a stable 4–4–2 system and two tight banks of defence, Valladolid is a resolute side. This is further visible from the fact that they have resolutely held quality sides like Celta de Vigo, Sevilla and Levante at bay and secured a stalemate in each of those close encounters.
Couple this with Barça’s lack of consistency in general and their away form in particular, this contest might be much tighter than it seems on paper. However, if they can replicate the performance at the Estadio de la Cerámica last weekend, where they drubbed Villareal for a 4–1, then things could be smoother.
Player to watch: Riqui Puig
While manager Quique Setién was once again under attack from several quarters for not fielding Riqui Puig against Espanyol in the last match, I would still like think that the intent was good. I would like to cut some slack for the manager, by believing that he was wrapping the young midfielder in cotton wool against an Espanyol side that was on the brink of relegation. The Catalan derbies do get physical. Whether this is the case or not, a well rested Puig should be in the starting line-up. Especially seeing how his absence was evident in a dry performance a couple of days ago. His skill and dynamism will be key in breaking those defensive banks.
Valladolid 0–2 Barcelona
Barça have to adapt to the circumstances and play the right approach
Three games to go in La Liga and Real Madrid have to drop points twice. Otherwise they will be champions for the first time since 2017. On the other hand, Barcelona has nothing left but to continue fighting a clash against one of the teams that have conceded – and scored – the fewest goals in the campaign. Real Valladolid is one of those teams that usually have a compact defence and make it difficult to find gaps, more so considering Ansu Fati’s suspension. The meeting today at the José Zorrilla may seem like a difficult mission, unless Quique Setién plays with the best he has.
Lionel Messi looks to break Xavi’s assisting record | Photo by Marc González Aloma via Imago
It’s true that Barça’s only pure winger, Ansu Fati, is suspended. Nevertheless, a 4–3–1–2 would not be the best option against teams that park the bus, we could appreciate this against Espanyol. That said, the responsibility for this match falls on three factors. First, in the absence of a winger, the correct thing would be to start with the closest thing the Catalans have: Martin Braithwaite. Second, two skilled players to break lines in the midfield and with enough verticality to generate danger: Arturo Vidal and Riqui Puig. Finally, an impeccable game from the full-backs to support offensive tasks. If it is possible to follow these three steps, the blaugranas have all the odds on their side to win.
Player to watch: Lionel Messi
Probably the real Man of the Match in each game is always Lionel Messi. He always surprises fans and it is very unusual to see him play an awful game. That’s why he tends to be chosen over others as the obvious man that will have a great performance.
Notwithstanding, on this occasion and with just three games remaining to end the La Liga season, Messi will want to wake up with his streak of goals and break the record of Xavi Hernández for the record number of assists in a season in La Liga. Knowing the competitiveness of the Argentine, Leo will not rest until he is settled in a better position for the golden boot, continue distributing assists and, of course, leading his team in the pursue of the league title.
Valladolid 0–5 Barcelona
It’s time to perform
Barcelona are entering the business end of the weirdest season in their history, and this begins by playing against Valladolid to keep up with Real Madrid for the title. However, winning won’t be sufficient anymore, especially with only three games to go and a deficit of four points, the Catalans need style. With yesterday’s Champions League draw pitting the winner of the Barça v Napoli tie against the winner of Bayern v Chelsea, the culés have to up their game.
The Catalans prefer to play against teams with open spaces, unlike Espanyol last Wednesday. It’s worth noting that Espanyol were playing for their lives that day and maybe Valladolid, who are practically safe, will already be on the beach and give Barça some confidence ahead of the Champions League.
If Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi could get some rest, it would be golden, and Riqui Puig deserves all the game time in the world, especially with Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal suspended for the first game in the Champions League. It will be nice seeing Barça play with no pressure as the league comes to an end, it can give the whole squad some confidence before a stressful August.
Player to watch: Gerard Piqué
Barcelona might not win the title this year, but one man has played football at the peak of his powers in nearly every game, and that is Gerard Piqué. The Catalan defender has been rock solid and does not deserve to lose this title as he had held this defence like prim Carles Puyol when it sank.
Now, with Clément Lenglet surely being his partner tomorrow, he could further Barça’s clean sheet record with another rock-solid performance before the Champions League.
Against one of the weakest and luckiest teams in the division, Piqué will have an easy opponent to showcase his talents again and practice for Napoli, Bayern or whoever.
Opponent Analysis: Real Madrid; La Liga Matchday 7
The first El Clasico of the 2020/21 La Liga season is upon us and Real Madrid head into the clash just a point behind leaders Real Sociedad with a game in hand. Despite a hat trick of victories just before the international break, Los Blancos now find themselves on the brink of three defeats in seven days. Several reports have emerged that head coach Zinedine Zidane could be facing the sack if his side head home with anything less than a point from this encounter. But, what it is that has gone wrong for the defending champions this season, and how can Barcelona counter these to the best of their ability?
A Dysfunctional Attack
The capital outfit has shown an evident inability to make fair use of the high possession they have in games of late. They’ve been consistent with two formations: a 4-3-3 that morphs into a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 diamond as well. In and of themselves, these tactical setups aren’t by any means inadequate; however, the players deployed in these systems have been unable to make the best use of them thus far.
1. Wasteful strikers
With a striking duo of Luka Jovic and Karim Benzema, Real Madrid reasonably should be able to do more than score just over a goal a game as they have done this season. They’ve thus far scored 6 in five of their outings, with five of those coming against two teams, Real Betis – who were on a red card for around 30 minutes – and Levante away from home.
We are yet to see the best of Luka Jovic in the Spanish capital. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)
Taking a look at their xG (expected goals) of 10.29 in all competitions, we see that they also reasonably should have scored four more goals than they actually have – in theory. This kind of underperformance can be attributed to the likes of Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema for their wastefulness in front of goal, both of them underperforming their xG by 0.71 and 1.47 respectively. Additionally, the former has also missed several opportunities to shoot, which cannot be attested to ‘expected goals’.
Specific examples of these are when Vinicius found himself in a one on one situation with the keeper against Real Valladolid and spent a chance worth 0.48xG and Luka Jovic somehow failed to put away one worth 0.66xG against Levante. To put this into context, Opta deems shots over 0.38xG as big chances and for them to have squandered two such significant opportunities and to do it so often that they find themselves four goals behind their expected goals, is worrying.
In their league winning season, Real Madrid scored 70 goals at an xG of 72.93. Of this, 52.83 came from chances they created in open play, while the rest was distributed across corners, direct free kicks, set-piece opportunities and the infamous penalties they scored all across the campaign. For a club the size of Real Madrid, racking up such a relatively low xG from open play should have been big enough a red flag to push Zidane and club President Florentino Perez into investing in some forwards to bolster their attack. The lack of expenditure in this past window meant that Zidane had to tweak his tactics to suit the players he has at his disposal, something we are yet to see consistently this season.
2. Poor Positioning from Forwards
While the forwards can be criticised for their inefficiency in attack from clear cut chances, their positioning to make use of said chances that come to them has been wanting. Karim Benzema isn’t your typical striker. He, in some ways like Messi, is a player that prefers to drop deep to create chances for his teammates and surge forward whenever the opportunity presented itself. Such can be seen in his stats last season: 21.25xG and 8.15xA (expected assists).
Someone needs to shoulder creative responsibilities from Benzema to bring the best out of him in the attack. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)
For this to be a successful tactic, he needs players – like Jovic – to occupy the spaces he vacates in attack to be an ever-present threat for when a chance is created. Instead, his teammates find themselves lost amid their oppositions’ backlines and even if a through ball were to be played, there simply wouldn’t be anyone there to cease it.
This dreadful running off the ball leads to many of their attacks breaking down before they even begin. On several occasions, despite finding themselves in some auspicious positions, the attackers, be it from the wings or down centrally, simply don’t place themselves in places that would grant them good enough chances to score regularly. It stands to reason that scoring goals from high-quality opportunities requires players to be active in the penalty box.
3. A Pungent lack of creativity from the Wing
Football in the modern era is dominated by two kinds of fullbacks: inverted and offensive. Real Madrid via Marcelo have spearheaded the revolution of a traditionally defensive position of the pitch and transformed it into yet another offensive outlet to benefit from.
While the fullbacks and central midfielders can make a convincing case against their forwards for their inadequate positioning, they don’t help their cause either with their consistently inaccurate deliveries are.
Mendy and Barcelona need to improve their supply quality. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)
As per Whoscored, Real Madrid has attempted a total of 93 crosses into the opposition penalty box in their six games this season. While this is a good aggregate number, only 17 of these have actually met their targets at a measly 18% success rate.
This inefficiency can undoubtedly be blamed on them, given the aforementioned problems when it comes to positioning. Still, the onus is on Dani Carvajal, Ferland Mendy, and Marcelo to do better than just 18%.
A Maladjusted Backline
Last season, in Europe’s top 5 leagues, Real Madrid had the second-best performing defence of teams that had completed their domestic campaigns. While the metric for ‘goals conceded’ places them right at the top, a better representation of their proper defensive rigidity can be evaluated by use of xGA (expected goals against). Despite conceding just six goals in all competitions so far, Real Madrid overperformed by 8.15 goals.
Clearly, such a level of overperformance isn’t by any means sustainable as somewhere down the line; a team is going to pick their pockets and make a mauling out of them. We saw bits of this against Shakhtar Donetsk in midweek and could easily see the same this evening. Thus far in La Liga, despite conceding just three goals, Los Blancos have an xGA of 5.02 and can attribute that majorly to the phenomenal saves made by Thibaut Courtois.
There is only so much that Thibaut Courtois can do alone. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)
The positioning of their defenders is as inefficient and as inconsistent as that of their attack. In the build-up leading to Cadiz’s only goal of the game, we saw a pattern that we know all too well from Real Madrid and one that repeated itself on several occasions in that game. They failed to track their markers, left gaping holes in their defence and were punished accordingly.
They can, of course, rely on their Belgian shot-stopper to continue making insane saves – which is precisely why they bought him – but it merely isn’t an expendable tactic. Again, their lack of investment has come to bite them in the back. While the backline consists of dominant individuals, there is a clear communication gap between then, which often leads to poor marking and tracking.
How can Barcelona exploit these Weaknesses
The Catalans can easily counter Real Madrid by adjusting the line up in several ways to hurt their opponents. Firstly, Ronald Koeman could start by playing two pacey fullbacks in Sergino Dest and Jordi Alba; though the fitness level of the latter is still in question.
Why do this? As mentioned before, there’s an apparent problem when it comes to the positioning and movements of the Real Madrid attackers.
Dest’s blistering pace may help combat Madrid’s ability to counter quickly. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)
Following Luka Jovic’s performance in midweek, there’s a meagre chance of him making it into the starting XI for the El Clasico. Therefore there’s a high chance that Real will deploy a 433 with Vinicius and Rodrygo in the wider areas. To mitigate their impact, Barcelona will need to use two fullbacks that have enough pace to make ball recoveries if ever their visitors are successful in making overlapping runs into the byline. While not an airtight solution, it does substantially aid the Catalans’ case.
What about Benzema himself? Assuming Zidane will grant him the freedom to float around the box rather than stay within it, the best counter to this would be to partner Frenkie de Jong with Sergio Busquets rather than Miralem Pjanic. The Spaniard is far more defensively stable than the Bosnia,n and his interpretation of spaces is a notch higher. His defensive attitude will help him alleviate a large chunk of what the Frenchman has to offer
Moving on to their midfield, Cadiz did an excellent job at shutting their creative players down by use of one block of five in defence layered by a midfield block of four on some occasions.
The beauty of the 4-2-3-1 that Ronald Koeman is keen on using is that it can be switched to cater to several situations. By taking advantage of the fitness levels of most of our squad right now, Koeman could use a 4-5-1 when defending and instantly transition to a 4-3-3 or the 4-4-2 when the team advances.
Here there is one major thing that Barca could do to punish their visitors, and that is by using Francisco Trincao in the wider areas. The Portuguese did an excellent job at two things against Ferencvarosi: staying close to the touchline and taking on opposing defenders. He completed five take ons against the Hungarians, and most inspiringly, most of these were near the touchline.
Starting Trincão over Griezmann will be beneficial for the team tomorrow. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)
Against Marcelo, a player infamous for his defensive work, having his profile on one end can do wonders for the team. Adding Dembele late on, preferably in the final 30 minutes to take advantage of the waney legs of the Madrid defence, could prove to be a blessing for the hosts.
Should all these come in play, we can expect Barcelona to finish the El Clasico the way they started the new season against Villarreal – with a bang.