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.
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.