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Analysis

Gerard Piqué, more imperial than ever at Barça

Gerard Piqué continues to be the undisputed defensive leader of Barça

Javier Giorgetti

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Header Image by Imago

It is not the perfect season for Barcelona, but there are a few reasons to be satisfied. Among them, Gerard Piqué, who, with his consistency, fight and intelligence has become more essential than ever at Barça. One of the team’s best players this term.


Gerard Piqué started the season at Barça in a disappointing way. The world of football began to doubt him, thinking that it was already the twilight of the career of the blaugrana legend. The reality is that he had many defensive mistakes, he did not seem physically or mentally focused, and game after game he demonstrated that he was far below his best level. However, once again, Piqué has made a brilliant bounce back to lead the defence of the Catalans.

Since midseason, Gerard has been perfecting the details in his football until becoming an almost flawless player on the defensive side. From there, with the arrival of Quique Setién, Piqué has been improving more and more until, with the return of La Liga, he has played every match in a masterful way. He has been one of the most responsible players for Barça’s great defensive work and high number of clean sheets since the break.

Since the opening post-pandemic game against Mallorca, Piqué has had an average of 77 passes per game with an effectiveness of 96%. Something surprising considering that he is a centre-back. Not only that, but he has also excelled in terms of interceptions, clearances, tackles and low number of errors. In addition, the culés have kept six clean sheets in the nine games played, all of them featuring Gerard.

But not all of Piqué’s work can be measured by stats. The Spaniard has been displaying an immense intelligence in his positioning, in moving the ball out from the back and in closing down spaces, doing everything in an impeccable way.

“In the end, being at a club like FC Barcelona who must win titles, you have to stay motivated, and often times, using your head is more important than using your body”

Gerard Piqué

Moreover, as everyone knows, Gerard Piqué is quite a character off the pitch. Charismatic even to enter the parking lot of the Camp Nou by bicycle, and with enough confidence to protest jokingly in the face of referee Matheu Lahoz against Real Valladolid. Also, he never minces his words in press conferences, transmitting the reality in his eyes or encouraging the rest of the team to continue fighting in the title race.

This superiority that he exhibits in front the media is later implemented in the matches, generating a perfect symbiosis with all the elements. Attitude and talent to retain total hegemony on and off the pitch. A born leader capable of building an empire with his football.

With two games to go in La Liga, Piqué is undoubtedly one of those who will want to continue fighting until the end. And the end is not when the league is over, but when the full season ends with the Champions League in August. With enough rest and with the level that the number 3 is showing, Geri will be an essential piece to increase Barcelona’s chances of going far in the European tournament.

For now, fans have to continue enjoying Gerard Piqué, who, despite all the discussion surrounding him, is one of the all-time greats in his position. Piqué will continue to prove himself by being Piqué, and there are no other words to describe what he means. Simply: Piqué.

Years go by, players grow old and the rising youngsters take the places that the legends leave. But Gerard is different. Like a good wine, the older he gets, the better. Every year he is improving himself. Each season he solves the deficits of the physique he is naturally losing, to end up being better than in the previous campaign. There are many reasons to be disappointed at Barça right now, but Gerard Piqué is one of the few to be thankful for.


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Analysis

Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by David Ramirez via Imago

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.

Offence

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.

Passing

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.

Defence

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.

Issues

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.

The substitutes

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.

Conclusion

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.

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