Since the departure of Neymar to PSG, Barcelona have struggled to find a potent front three. Antoine Griezmann, the latest player brought in to fill that void, has had a largely uninspiring season for his standards, struggling to fit in with Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez. However, after witnessing a masterclass by the MSG against Villareal, has a sustained solution finally been found by Quique Setién?
Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Antoine Griezmann. Three names in the world of football that strike terror in the minds of any opposition. Three players who are certainly in the top five in the world on their day. A combination that on paper should be able to cruise past any defence in the world, even on their worst days. Nevertheless, estimating the potency of attacking combinations in football is not as easy as arithmetic addition.
Messi and Suárez are no strangers to being in goalscoring trios. The dreaded MSN spearhead, completed by Neymar Júnior, was arguably the most dangerous trio that football has ever seen. They averaged a goal every 45 minutes, with as many as 270 goals scored between them. But, after Neymar decided to go out in search of fresh pasture in Paris, Leo and Suárez took on the burden of compensating the loss of what was one of football’s brightest talents.
While they have done their job considerably well, no other player has been able to cement his spot alongside them. The club spent heavily on Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembélé and Malcom, just to name a few. None reaped the desired rewards. The next card played was that of Antoine Griezmann, who was the trump player for Diego Simeone’s Atlético de Madrid.
The birth of the MSG
On the 12th of July 2019, Barcelona announced the signing of Antoine Griezmann. The transfer received a mixed response across the globe. While some felt that it was exactly the name required to finally compensate for the departure of Neymar, others thought it was yet another futile effort by the board.
The new trio soon came to be hyped as the MSG. At the time of his arrival, Griezmann had over 130 goals for Atlético de Madrid and 185 career club goals. Whilst he was never a true winger, the obvious position for him on the field seemed to be the left wing. The question always remained the same: would he be able to adapt to a new role in the Barcelona system?
Various systems were deployed
Both Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién struggled to accommodate the three of them together on the pitch. Luis Suárez has earned the starting role as the centre-forward over the years. Lionel Messi, despite starting on the right wing, drifts centrally to the hole left behind the number 9. In Barcelona’s traditional 4–3–3 system, the only vacancy for Antoine Griezmann was that on the left wing.
The Frenchman, however, preferentially operates as a secondary striker, just behind a primary striker. At Atleti, that reference was Diego Costa, and in the French national team, it was Olivier Giroud. But at Barça, that role behind Suárez was taken up by Messi, around whom the whole team revolves.
Antoine Griezmann was more used to being a secondary striker behind a reference like Diego Costa | Photo by Óscar del Pozo / AFP via Getty Images
Naturally, Griezmann was like a fish out of water. He still produced moments of brilliance, but his overall play was quite haphazard. Defensively he worked as hard as ever, but he hardly ever posed an attacking threat from the wing. Injuries played a key role in halting the development of any type of harmony In the trio. Messi found himself out for a month in August. In January, Suárez underwent a knee surgery that saw him out for six months.
During this period, Griezmann was deployed in a plethora of roles. He was played on either wing, even given chances as the main centre-forward. But none of these brought out the best in him. Statistically, he may have equalled Neymar’s debut season, but the play always looked disjointed and out of place.
Setién’s change in approach
The game against Atlético de Madrid last Tuesday saw Quique Setién experiment a 4–4–2 with a diamond midfield. Riqui Puig occupied the apex of the diamond, directly behind Messi and Suárez. Performance-wise, the team delivered well. Full-backs Jordi Alba and Nélson Semedo pushed higher than usual. Interiors Arturo Vidal and Iván Rakitić covered up the duties of winning the ball back. Sergio Busquets had to stay deeper to cover for the advanced full-backs. Meanwhile, Griezmann was kept on the bench till the 90th minute against his former club, something he was understandably not happy with.
“The MSG linked up extraordinarily well and we endangered their centre-backs and their holding midfielders. We were able to make progress on the wings when attracting people inside. It was what we were looking for, endanger them in central areas and have presence and threat”
on the performance against Villarreal
Inspired by the performance against los rojiblancos, Setién opted for the same formation against Villareal at La Cerámica on Sunday. In what turned out be an ingenious tweak, Messi started at the apex of the diamond this time. Griezmann and Suárez played directly ahead of him as the two main strikers.
Understanding the latest MSG system
Luis Suárez playing at the tip makes him the primary threat to opposition defences. Additionally, it places Antoine Griezmann in a much more familiar position in what can be called a half-secondary striker position. While Messi started directly behind the two, he continuously switched positions with Griezmann. That ensured that all three players got equal chances in front of goal. Griezmann’s high work rate ensured that the ball was won back far more in the rival’s box, giving the team more control.
While the system seems centrally overloaded, the highly advanced full-backs provided some much-required width. Left midfielder Sergi Roberto played a crucial role in providing fluidity to the left wing. At the same time, he carried out defensive duties with Arturo Vidal.
The azulgranas created chance after chance against the Yellow Submarine. For the first time, the MSG upfront combined to produce absolute fireworks. The lighting quick passing sequences were heavenly, and the level of understanding they showed was commendable. At any point there were two predators ready in the Villareal box, waiting for an opportunity to pounce on.
The race for the league title may be over, but the team still fights on other fronts. Seeing the front three combine so exquisitely is a dream come true for the Barça faithful. If Quique Setién manages to bring symphony into the game of these three superstars, it would be a massive boost to the race in the Champions League. With four La Liga games yet to go, there is sufficient time for them to find that symphony. After all, as they say: better late than never!
Tactical Analysis: Juventus 0-2 Barcelona
In collaboration with Soumyajit Bose.
A detailed look into the game by numbers, statistics, and tactics as FC Barcelona outplayed Juventus at the Allianz Stadium in the UEFA Champions League.
Koeman’s Barcelona side started out as expected, in a 4-2-3-1. Antoine Griezmann operated as a false 9, with Lionel Messi behind him in a free role. Off-the-ball, Griezmann would have the job of pressing the opposition ball-carriers which resulted in his starting position being relatively deeper.
Barcelona’s formation always have more than a hint of asymmetry due to Messi’s free role. This resulted in different positional play for the wingers as we can see from the pass-map.
Not only did this affect the wingers, but even the full-backs had different degrees of attacking potential. Miralem Pjanic and Frenkie de Jong formed the double pivot, with the latter having the task of being the ball-carrier more often than Pjanic as always.
Juventus lined up in a 4-2-3-1, but it was more of a skewed 4-2-4 as we can see from the pass-map. Paolo Dybala played in the role we’ve seen Ramsey play under Pirlo where he has the license to contribute anywhere in the attack, as well as drop back to facilitate the build-up.
Adrien Rabiot and Rodrigo Bentancur, due to their high-energy play had the job of controlling the midfield. They would switch sides fluidly, looking to drag Barcelona’s midfielders out of position for Dybala to find space and drop back towards.
The skewed formations and the emphasis of play down one wing more than the other resulted in Juan Cuadrado playing in a much higher position than Danilo.
From the start, there was a significantly larger portion of the play on the right-wing from Juventus. Dybala was a major reason for this, as the Argentine prefers to drift wide and drive forwards with the ball. Along with Dejan Kulusevski, both of these left-footed players made it easier for Juventus to attack using the right-wing, which they made the most of as we can see from the touch-based heatmaps.
It’s also important to see how both systems affected each other. Ousmane Dembele, being more of a direct dribbler than Pedri, often received the ball higher up the field to utilize the right-wing. This meant that Sergi Roberto was unable to carry out the same marauding runs which Jordi Alba was down the left.
Pedri would tuck in on the left, which is something he often did at Las Palmas and is comfortable with, while simultaneously allowing Alba the attacking freedom he needs.
This part of Barcelona’s player dynamics meant that Juventus had to be more cautious when defending with Danilo. With Messi favouring to drift towards the right, Dembele was able to move higher- up the field sticking to the touchline.
Though Sergi Roberto was unable to overlap due to this, it brought the best out of Dembele’s penetrative attacking play. As the touch-based heatmap shows, Dembele was able to cut in often, whereas Roberto drifted towards the half-spaces to form triangles with Dembele and a midfielder or with Messi.
The following visualization shows just how much more of a direct threat Barcelona’s right-wing was than the left-wing.
This is also represented through the following visualization, which helps us understand just how much of a benefit Messi drifting towards the right was. There is a much higher number of take-ons down the wings and the half-spaces in the final-third for Barcelona and a much lower number for Juve down their left-wing.
The build-up and transitions
Juventus have adopted a unique approach to building-up which we have seen from Andrea Pirlo’s initial matches, as well as what he stated in his thesis.
Forming rhombuses or diamonds allows the team to progress in units, which maintains positional integrity while forcing the opposition to commit more players to the press. The following visualization shows just that. Barcelona’s pressurizing activities were either through the middle to prevent the midfielders from having too much possession and to force the centre-backs to pass wide.
This is where the wingers, one midfielder, and a full-back would immediately start pressing Juventus. Especially on the near side, it meant a higher concentration of pressurizing defensive activities as we can see, with less focus in the half-spaces.
Juventus would opt to build up from the back, then forming diamonds with one full-back, a centre-back, a midfielder, and one forward or Dybala who had te license to roam.
This asymmetry is something that Juventus could face a problem with in the future. The concentration of play down the right-wing is highlighted through their progressive passes, which we can see were mostly from right-to-left when transitioning from the middle-third.
Once in the final-third, there was relatively more of a balance as the same visualisation shows us.
Barcelona looked to build from the back with centre-backs Clement Lenglet and Ronald Araujo passing to the full-backs, or the pivots. To help in the build-up, Barcelona’s wingers would drop back, while staying wide. This gave the team a free man in the build-up and provide numerical superiority.
Well, that would be the case usually. However, Juventus were man-marking de Jong and Pjanic according to where the build-up was from. Simultaneously, Dybala and a winger pressed the backline while Alvaro Morata tried to aggressively pin the defenders back.
This pressing system forced Barcelona to play long-balls often, which was what Juventus wanted. As we can see from the following visualization, the majority of unsuccessful passes from the defensive third were long passes.
However, this is where Sergi Roberto was able to do his best. Forming triangles on the right with Messi and either Dembele or a midfielder, he was able to frequently dribble progressively inwards.
As Ronald Koeman himself said, Barcelona played a very complete match. They dominated almost every phase of the play, in every way possible. A brief glance at the datatable shows just that :
Barcelona were on fire from the very get-go and could have scored within a couple of minutes after a terrible pass by Merih Demiral, which led to a succession of 3 shots by Lionel Messi, Miralem Pjanic, and Antoine Griezmann respectively. Barcelona’s overall shot qualities were better, and they were fully deserving of the scoreline. Here are the shot maps and the xG flow showing the domination :
That Barcelona dominated possession is somewhat of a given, but they dominated possession in the right areas. The following graphic shows the field tilt or territory gained, which is the share of final third passes by either team. As shown, Barcelona dominated territory in every phase of the game.
Lionel Messi had an outstanding day in office, producing several take-ons, an assist, a goal, and 5 key passes. Alba, Pjanic, and Greizmann chipped in with one key pass each.
For Juventus, the biggest threat throughout the game was Alvaro Morata. Notwithstanding the three offside goals, Morata constantly threatened with his pace and was able to find space between the lines. He also had a key pass to his game while Rabiot, Bentancur, Cuadrado, and Kulusevski had a key pass each.
Barcelona switched the ball around a lot more than usual. Against Sevilla, Getafe and Real Madrid, Barcelona were perhaps a little bit guilty of not stretching the field more frequently. Against Juventus, the switching worked according to plan.
As usual, the left side was overloaded with Alba, Pedri and de Jong and one of Messi or Griezmann. As the heatmaps show, Barcelona’s captain played mainly centrally or on the right half space. So him moving to the left to combine with Alba and Pedri meant that Juventus’ structure got dragged significantly and often left Dembele in space.
In fact, one such switch of play resulted in Dembele’s opener, which was following a stellar switch of play by Messi.
As shown in the above graphic, the buildup was quite intricate and beautiful. Barcelona built attacks intricately throughout the game and could have scored more, only to be thwarted by some desperate last-ditch defending by Leonardo Bonucci, Demiral and Danilo.
This performance sees Barcelona cement themselves at the top of their group. In what was a very convincing performance, Araujo had to be subbed-off leading to de Jong playing as a defender, as explained above. This injury, if it is long-term, would leave Barcelona with just Pique and Lenglet in defence with Samuel Umtiti already ruled out.
However, the team will be confident of victory in the home fixture on 9th December thanks to the collective fluidity and great performances from veterans and youngsters alike.