The second game of a hectic week is upon us as Ronald Koeman and his men travel to Galicia for the second game of the 2020/21 season. The Estadio de Balaídos is not a name that brings pleasant memories to FC Barcelona. It is a stadium where the Catalans have not tasted victory in six encounters. To add salt to the wound, it is the place where they let the title slip from their hands less than three months ago.
The blaugranas are coming off a resounding victory over Villareal that saw a dominant first-half display followed by a silent second half. A pattern that echoed the performance in the 2–2 draw at the Balaídos just a few months ago. Despite putting up one of the best displays the team had seen along with a dominant first-half display, slackness in the second period cost them two crucial points. Nevertheless, with a rejuvenated and younger squad determined to prove themselves, one would expect things to go differently.
Celta de Vigo has played three games so far in the new campaign. After opening with a draw against Eibar, they pulled off a victory over Valencia in Matchday 2. Their most recent match was against Real Valladolid where the Galicians were held to a 1–1 draw. Despite having started the season earlier, Óscar García’s men are yet to arrive at a settled eleven. Three formations have been tried out in three games, with none working convincingly.
The initial 4–3–3 formation was met with considerable defensive instability, prompting García to switch over to a 4–4–2 against Valencia. However, as the game progressed, the team slowly morphed to a more comfortable 4–2–3–1 which was once again seen against Real Valladolid. For long stretches in the game, Renato Tapia dropped between the centre-backs making it five in defence. Fran Beltrán played a higher line, slotting in between Nolito and Denis Suárez, helping provide a midfield dominance. With Emre Mor active in the half-space, the team was constantly on the look for Iago Aspas’s dangerous sprints behind the defenders. Thereby, it was effectively a 3–5–2 in the attack. A system strikingly similar to the team fielded against Barcelona in June.
“We expect a difficult match. In recent years Barça has not been able to win in Vigo. It is a complicated team, with good players. We have to be be ready for it and play our own game to win”Ronald Koeman, ahead of visiting Celta de Vigo
One can expect a similar approach tomorrow night, with a compact five-man defensive line when Barcelona are in possession. The last time these two teams faced, it was the dynamic duo of Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig the combined wonderfully to create threats on the left-wing. Ansu’s ability to act as a true winger turned out trumps as the fullbacks were forced to stay wider, opening up central spaces for Lionel Messi and Riqui Puig. The concentration of play was significantly lower on Barcelona’s right wing, owing to the lack of a natural winger. Nevertheless, Arturo Vidal covering up defensive duties enabled Nélson Semedo to make some attacking runs in the final third.
This could be the key for Koeman once again as this is exactly the kind of opposition his 4–2–3–1 set-up flourishes against. It would be but natural to expect Ansu Fati to start on the left wing. Owing to the shortage of options, Lionel Messi will once again operate as the central striker. With the dribbling flair that Francisco Trincão has shown in training and in real action, he is an ideal option to play on the right wing. His dribbling skills and pace would function similar to Ansu’s on the left wing.
Thus, this will render both sides of the field on level attacking terms. After an impressive showing against Villareal, Phillipe Coutinho must surely be given another go as the attacking midfielder. He could be instrumental in connecting the pivots with the attack, slotting ahead of the double pivot.
The double pivot will certainly see the young Dutch protege Frenkie de Jong retain his spot as the advanced defensive midfielder. Alongside him, though, Koeman should opt for Miralem Pjanić to replace Sergio Busquets, who had many evident mistakes on Sunday. The Bosnian had an immense impact coming off the bench the other night. In addition to providing defensive stability, Pjanić is adept at connecting with the wingers from deep positions. Against Celta, it is an ability that could prove to be a trump move.
With a new competitor set to join him ahead of the clash against Sevilla, Sergi Roberto will enjoy one last game as the undisputed starter at right-back. Jordi Alba will once again be looking to impress Koeman following an impressive showing against Villareal.
In central defence, Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet will certainly hold on to their spots along with Neto behind them. The centre-backs need to be on the constant lookout for Aspas’s runs. Parallelly, they must be wary of former Barça man Denis Suárez, who can be a real cause of trouble. A massive test for the Catalan defence, but a necessary one ahead of a crucial clash against Sevilla.
Barcelona vs Real Madrid: The Game through Numbers
A detailed look into the game by numbers, statistics, and tactics as FC Barcelona fell to defeat against Real Madrid in the first El Clasico of the season.
Following a high-flying victory against Ferencvaros in the opening game of the Champions League, FC Barcelona returned to action in La Liga against Real Madrid at Camp Nou. However, the game didn’t go as Ronald Koeman planned, and Barcelona stumbled to defeat in the first El Clasico of 2020-21. This followed a draw against Sevilla and a shock loss to Getafe and left Barcelona midtable 5 games into the season.
Ronald Koeman sprung in several surprises ahead of this fixture. Firstly, Jordi Alba returned from injury to play as left-back, while Sergi Roberto was omitted altogether for Sergiño Dest. Philippe Coutinho played as left-wing. 17-year old Pedri got to start the Classico as a reward for his performances but was fielded on the right-wing. Lionel Messi played as the no. 10 behind Ansu Fati as the striker.
Off the ball, Barcelona defended in a 4-4-2 with Messi and Fati staying and pressing up. From touch-based heatmaps, there are two interesting features.
Firstly, while Frenkie de Jong played in a relatively advanced role, he stayed quite wide. Sergio Busquets occupied the central channels. However, tasking his old legs to guard such a big zone resulted in recurring issues.
Secondly, Pedri is not a natural winger. He loves to play centrally. Having three natural CAMs in Pedri, Coutinho and Messi on-field and forcing two of them to play as wingers was never a good idea, to begin with. Pedri kept drifting inside, as shown in the heatmaps. Both Coutinho and Pedri were limited in their influence. Koeman’s overthinking and tinkering nullified both their strengths.
Real Madrid on the other hand set up in a skewed 4-3-3 as shown. Early injury to Nacho resulted in Lucas Vazquez coming on as the right back for the remainder of the game. Vinicius stayed high and wide, while Marco Asensio drifted in and out, often letting Federico Valverde occupy the wider channels.
Barcelona’s structure after the 81st minute deserves a special mention. Koeman made several offensive subs, bringing on Antoine Greizmann, Ousmane Dembele, Martin Braithwaite and Fransisco Trincáo into the game, in place of Pedri, Fati, Busquets and Alba. To top it all off, Coutinho was slotted as the only pivot in the side, instead of de Jong as the shape devolved into a bizarre 3-1-6.
Attacks and Buildups
This game had a clear moment after which the game changed – minute 62. Until then, Barcelona were evidently the better team starting to dominate a bit as well. Here are the stats from the entire game:
Barcelona were outshot, outscored, and had fewer shots on target – but a lot of that’s skewed from what happened minute 62 onwards. From the PPDA (Passes per Defensive Action) data, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, it’s evident that neither team went for a very high press. Here is the shot map and xG flow:
Minute 62 was when Clement Lenglet fouled by pulling Sergio Ramos’ shirt inside the penalty area while defending a corner. Ramos didn’t need a second invitation to exaggerate the pull. He fell theatrically to the ground, won a penalty, and Barcelona were chasing the game that moment onwards.
The first blood was drawn by Madrid after a moment of disastrous marking by Busquets allowed Federico Valverde to run into Barcelona’s box, unmarked, and smash home from Karim Benzema’s pass.
Thankfully, Barcelona did not take long to reply. A delightful ball over the top from Lionel Messi met Jordi Alba’s well-timed run, and Alba’s square pass was prodded home by Ansu Fati. Here is a little animation of the goal:
As mentioned earlier, Madrid’s second goal came from a penalty, scored by Ramos himself. And Luka Modric capitalized on some terrible defending to make it 3-1 in the 91st minute.
Neither team were truly impressive in passing. Here are the most dangerous passes by both teams:
Passes into the box were few by either team. Barcelona did manage to get into the box from central zone 14 or half-spaces, while Madrid clearly utilised their greatest strength – attacking from wide areas. It’s also shown in the key passes map:
However, in buildup, Madrid were far more expansive. They switched the play a lot as compared to Barcelona.
Comparing the passes completed in the final third by each team, quantified by field tilt – Barcelona completed a greater number of final-third passes. However, the field tilt, or final third territory gained, was being dominated by Madrid in the first half. Barcelona started the second half positively and dominated territory. However, they got scored against the run of play. After that, Madrid were happy to let Barcelona keep possession and attacked the team on the counter.
Defence and Pressing
Both teams exhibited some terrible defending in the first half, to say the very least. Both goals were conceded from such cases.
As mentioned before, there were huge gaps in the midfield, and too much space between the midfield and defence; i.e. poor covering by Busquets and de Jong. Madrid made the best use of this for their first goal, and repeated it several times as the clock ticked ahead.
In the first image, it is evident that too many Barcelona players got sucked in trying to press the Madrid defence, resulting in a huge void in the midfield. Madrid play out of the press with ridiculous ease.
In the second image, the gap between Dest and Pique is appalling. Both centre-backs are engulfed towards Benzema for some reason, and Busquets completely loses track of Valverde’s run. One simple through ball and the job is done.
Almost immediately after that, Vinicius almost scored a second. Quick combination with Benzema in the box, while Busquets is seen jogging outside the box, there is a huge space to attack. Thankfully, Vinicius’ poor decision making and first touch allow Alba to throw him off.
The next example, again in the first half, shows terrible spacing between defenders, and terrible tracking from Busquets. A simple ball behind Dest, who is in isolation with the rest of the backline meets a well-timed run that Busquets can’t keep up with.
The next two examples are from the second half:
In the first one, the “pivot” Coutinho loses track of Toni Kroos’ run. Kroos runs onto Vazquez’s cutback to take a shot that Neto saves marvellously, and denies the German again pouncing perfectly on the rebounded shot.
The second image shows the moment when Vazquez lobs a ball into Ramos’ path, who is completely unmarked on the far post. Thankfully, Neto comes to Barça’s rescue saving the Madrid’s captain volley with his foot.
Madrid didn’t cover themselves in glory either, especially in the first half. Barcelona’s only goal of the game came as a result of terrible tracking from Nacho as Alba found space behind him. There were giveaways in midfield that led to multiple chances as well.
Most notably, Fati’s lofted ball into the path of an unmarked Messi, who eviscerated Ramos with a quick dribble but shot straight into the hands of Thibaut Courtois at the near post. However, they weren’t as often as Barcelona’s, and in general, resulted in lower quality chances.
As mentioned before, neither team went all out to the press. Barcelona’s pressing structure was so poor that Madrid played through it without trouble. They could even manage elaborate buildups, with two examples shown below:
Shambolic would be the right word to define Barcelona’s defending in the game. The lack of speed and the alertness to track runners was exposed yet again. The card-happy centre-backs came to haunt Barcelona again, as Lenglet gave away a poor penalty.
Busquets, on the other hand, looks far from being a starter and should be replaced as soon as possible. And if he somehow manages to retain his spot in the lineup, the midfield structure needs to be fixed so that he doesn’t get tasked with defending such a wide area.
The substitutions and Koeman’s game management made little to no sense. As seen in the Getafe game, in more cases than not, more forwards does not equate to more goals. The midfield was non-existent in the last 10 minutes, and Los Blancos made the best use of this as they scored the third where Luka Modric made the Barcelona defence dance.
The game was pretty even for nearly one hour, with neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid standing out as the better team. Post that, however, the scoreline spoke for itself.
Sergiño Dest made a solid claim for starting as right back in the coming games. He was outstanding in defence and quite courageous and innovative in the offence, with some neat dribbles. Fati kept his goalscoring form alive, becoming the youngest ever scorer in an El Clasico. Neto ended the game as arguably the best player on the pitch, but that is more bad news than good for the Garnet and the Blue.
However, there are defensive, structural, tactical, and personnel problems to be ironed out by Koeman in the future, especially if he wants to retain his job after a change of presidency. Otherwise, this could turn out to be a worse season the previous one for La Liga.