With four goals, the clash with Celta de Vigo was the joint-highest scoring Barcelona match since their return. However, it was also the first in which any of the scoring came from the opposition. This led to another gut-wrenching result, and the goals left much to be discussed.
Barça came into Saturday’s match against Celta de Vigo knowing there would be no easy victory, even against a celeste side near the relegation zone. In the blaugranas four previous visits to the Estadio de Balaídos for La Liga matches, they gained just one point in total. Unfortunately, those struggles could not be reversed. Despite some very encouraging play from the Catalans, their defense ultimately collapsed. There were goals involving ingenuity, poor defending, and controversy, that will now be analysed.
Celta de Vigo 1–0 Barcelona
After a solid start, Barcelona took the lead relatively quickly in just the twentieth minute. The build-up to the goal began with Lionel Messi cutting in from the right side of the pitch. After dribbling to a central position, the Argentine split two Celta defenders with a pass ahead to Riqui Puig.
After showing his positional awareness by finding the space in the defense, Puig showed his brilliant technique. With one touch of his right foot, the youngster flicked the ball behind him to Arturo Vidal, without even having to turn. A quick and subtle piece of skill, but impressive nonetheless. The Celta centre-back, Nestor Araújo, then fouled Vidal from behind trying to win the ball. This set up a free-kick for Lionel Messi in a very dangerous position, which certainly did not play out as one would have expected.
Knowing the danger Messi possesses from that area, Celta set up to do everything possible to stop him from scoring. Behind their three man wall was the keeper and the other seven outfield players – two of which were set on the goal line. Even for Messi, it looked impossible to score, so he passed instead. That’s right, the world’s best free-kick taker passed a direct free-kick from just over twenty yards out, and it was truly brilliant.
The Argentine had spotted his main partner on the pitch, Luis Suárez, in open space at the back post. The Celta defender closest to Suárez stayed on the line, and was solely anticipating a Messi shot. This left the Uruguayan open by at least a few yards, and he was never going to miss that target.
El Pistolero made no mistake with the finish, as he headed the ball in for his twelfth league goal of the season. This was Barcelona’s first goal from a free kick since football resumed, and who would’ve thought it would come like this. Some nice play to win the set piece followed by a truly magical linkup between Messi and Suárez made it a very nice goal, and it looked as though Barça were on their way to a win.
Celta de Vigo 1–1 Barcelona
The first goal conceded by Barcelona since the return of La Liga, and the one that broke a five match clean sheet streak, came from a combination of errors. It all began with Barça calmly in possession, and Iván Rakitić on the ball in midfield. Then, inexplicably, with no pressure on him, the Croatian tried to force a pass across the middle of the pitch to Riqui Puig. Celta midfielder Brais Méndez read it like a book, and stepped in to intercept the ball.
Brais Méndez tapped the ball off to Celta’s number ten, Iago Aspas, who controlled it and turned forward just inside his own half. The Celta captain scanned the field and saw the run of midfielder Okay Yokuşlu being made in behind the Barcelona back line.
The second big error by a Barça player came from Samuel Umtiti. The Frenchman, in the line-up for this match in place of Clément Lenglet, tried unsuccessfully to anticipate the pass of Aspas. Instead of staying deep to allow the defense to regroup after losing possession, Umtiti stepped up to mark Brais Méndez. This left a massive amount of space behind him, and Gerard Piqué had no chance to step up to make Yokuşlu offside.
After the simple through ball was played by Iago Aspas, Gerard Piqué was left alone against two Celta attackers. Yokuşlu drove into the penalty area with the ball on the right side of the pitch, while the striker, Fyodor Smolov, was unmarked to the left. A square ball across the box gave Smolov a simple tap in, and erased the Barcelona lead.
It was a truly disappointing goal for Barça to concede, as it stemmed from two easily-preventable mistakes. Despite being one of the squad’s best performers in recent matches, Rakitić has to take some of the blame for this goal as he should never be losing the ball from that position. The lack of match sharpness from Samuel Umtiti was then on full display, and the positioning of the Frenchman was atrocious.
Celta did show quality and directness with this attack, going from midfield to goal with just three passes between four players. However, it’s hard to argue that this was just as much Barça throwing away the lead as Celta earning an equaliser.
Celta de Vigo 2–1 Barcelona
With each passing minute after the equaliser, the nervousness among culés continued to grow. In the sixty-seventh minute, most of these nerves were settled again. The attack stemmed from a misclearance by the Celta goalkeeper, giving the azulgranas a throw in deep in the opposition half. Following some passing down the right side of the pitch, Ivan Rakitić looked to play Luis Suárez, who was just outside the box.
Luis used his body well to box out his marker and open the lane for the pass. Rakitić then played it, splitting to Celta defenders. At first, the attack looked like a failure, as Suárez attempted a first time pass to Nélson Semedo, which was intercepted. Fortunately, Semedo utilised some solid counter pressing to win the ball back from former Barcelona player Denis Suárez.
From Semedo, the ball went to Lionel Messi. The Argentine had quietly drifted into the box as the sequence played out, and he pounced on his opportunity. With a first time pass, Messi cut the ball across to Luis Suárez with his right foot.
With his back to goal and a defender tight on him, Luisito still had much work to do. In order to open up that sliver of space he needed to get a shot away, Suárez faked as though he would receive the ball on his right foot. This would have had him still with his back to the goal. Instead, the number nine let the ball roll across his body while pivoting around to face towards goal.
This brilliant manoeuvre by Suárez gave him just the space he needed to fire a shot low into the bottom corner. The goal gave Semedo a secondary assist and Messi another assist to his mate. Coming from just two connected passes between three players, this goal seemed to sum up Barça’s recent performances: far from beautiful, but it got the job done. Unfortunately, this job was not done.
Celta de Vigo 2–2 Barcelona
In the eighty-eighth minute, just a few away from a crucial three points, a dagger was thrust into Barcelona by Iago Aspas. The goal stemmed from a Celta attack down the left wing. A deflected pass from Nolito out wide took a kind bounce for Celta and found its way to Rafinha Alcântara. The La Masia product and former Barcelona player received it in a dangerous position.
With Rafinha on the ball, Gerard Piqué was forced to step up and close him down, creating a one-on-one situation. The centre-back attempted a sliding challenge, and Rafinha knocked the ball far ahead and to the left. This is where the controversy comes from.
Whether it was smart or not of Piqué to go to the ground, he clearly did not commit any kind of foul. After tapping the ball into no man’s land, Rafinha kept running straight into the challenge of Piqué. Even then, there was barely any contact, but Rafinha went down and a free-kick was given.
The Celta talisman Iago Aspas stepped up to take it, and curled his shot around the wall into the bottom left corner. There was absolutely no chance of a Marc-André ter Stegen save, but it seemed as though Antoine Griezmann actually could have stopped the shot. While it may be reaching to put the blame on the Frenchman, he was positioned on the outside of the wall, and his jump took him away from the ball.
While the wall perhaps should have done better, take nothing away from the strike by Iago Aspas. A player with so much quality, and he showed it again here with his shot just squeezing inside the post. It was a true heart-breaker for Barça fans, and another massive blow in the title race.
Without a doubt, the one thing every culé should learn from this match is the importance of Clément Lenglet. With him on the bench, Barcelona’s defence gave up a multitude of chances, and his replacement, Samuel Umtiti, was at fault for several of them. With his superb positioning and reading of the game, Lenglet is truly a player who isn’t fully appreciated until he isn’t playing.
While the result is undoubtedly a massive negative, there were some bright spots for Barça. In terms of the goals, Luis Suárez ended a three game scoring drought and reminded everyone how deadly his partnership with Messi can be.
In the build-up to the first goal and throughout the match as a whole, the quality of Riqui Puig was once again on display. Despite his youth, Puig just oozes confidence on the ball and experience well beyond his years. His flick leading up to the opener was just a glimmer of the dynamism he brings to the squad.
Detailed Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona
In collaboration with Anurag Agate.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.
A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.
Barcelona structure and formation
Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.
Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.
Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.
Atletico structure and formation
Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.
Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.
The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.
Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.
The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:
Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :
Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.
Buildup to shots and goals
Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.
Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.
Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.
Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.
In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:
Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.
Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.
For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.
Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.
The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:
Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :
Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.
Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.
The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.
Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.