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Analysis

La Liga preview: The best three games from matchday 31

Alexandre Patanian

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Header Image by Carlos Sánchez Martínez / Icon Sportswire via Imago

Another set of sublime matches come at La Liga fans’ way, and there are many reasons to feel excited at the midweek action in matchday 31.


After last round’s controversy, it feels like football in Spain is back only one day later and the fans look ready to be as passionate as ever for the teams they love. Of course, last weekend’s events meant that there is a new pilot in town as Real Madrid are ahead of Barcelona on the head-to-head ruling, and it is up to the Catalans to rewrite the stars in the next few weeks. Now, a new round of matches means the exciting games never end, and there are some belters for matchday 31 of, for some, the best league in the world.

Villarreal vs Sevilla

Monday 22nd of June

One of the games with the most consequences will be the first to get underway in matchday 31, as Sevilla visit the Estadio de La Céramica after holding reigning league champions Barcelona to a draw on Friday. Villarreal are on the hunt for continental football, and their recent peak in form has seen them reach the heights the out-of-form Real Sociedad and Getafe had set. Now level on points with the two mentioned teams, they need to beat Sevilla to get closer to the Nervionenses.

Javier Calleja Villarreal La Liga matchday 31

Even if all by 1–0, Villarreal have won all matches since football’s return | Photo by Carlos Sánchez Martínez / Icon Sportswire via Imago

Indeed, the Yellow Submarine are only four points behind Sevilla, and a win here would mean they would only be one point away from fourth place. If one were to bet on this game, they would be advised to go for Villarreal, as they haven’t lost to Sevilla in four games – two wins and two draws –, and also given the run they are in right now compared to the Andalusian side.

Barcelona vs Athletic Club de Bilbao

Tuesday 23rd of June

A day after Villarreal vs Sevilla, Barcelona host Athletic Club in a bid to return on top of the table, as this would be the game with the most meaning afterwards. The Basques are only five points behind Villarreal and look to threaten Barça after having beaten them twice this season already with two late goals from the now-retired Aritz Aduriz and the tireless Iñaki Williams. Williams scored the goal in the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey, in which a Basque derby will take place in the final.

However, and luckily for Barcelona, these two games were at San Mamés and went entirely differently. The first one was under Ernesto Valverde, and the football was disappointing, and the winner was somewhat deserved. In the Copa del Rey, Quique Setién’s Barça were unlucky and looked back at an honourable performance. It’s worth noting that, at the Camp Nou, Athletic practically never wins. Their last win was in 2001, but Barça need a victory no matter what. Luckily, Los Leones have only managed to muster three draws against the azulgranas since their previous win in Catalonia

Real Sociedad vs Celta de Vigo

Wednesday 24th of June

This match is one of the most important in the whole round of games as, again, it means so many different outcomes for everyone involved. Real Sociedad’s last four games have been dull and have seen them slip to sixth in the table, while Atlético de Madrid and Sevilla are battling it out for what was their Champions League spot. At Anoeta, they will look to capitulate on Celta de Vigo’s recent attacking woes at the worst time because the Galicians have refound form against a Basque team by slaughtering Alavés with a 6–0 win on the weekend.

Alexander Isak Real Sociedad La Liga matchday 31

Real Sociedad have recorded one draw and two losses since the break | Photo by Humberto Bilbao / Cordon Press via Imago

This emphatic win may have pumped Iago Aspas and his teammates with confidence ahead of their trip to San Sebastián. Both sides need these points more than anyone, and it wouldn’t be crazy to think that their desire to win might mean they will neutralise each other in this exciting encounter between two historical La Liga sides.

What are the possible outcomes for Barça?

As mentioned, Barcelona have to win to no matter what, especially when Real Madrid have a secure fixture in Mallorca at home. If the culés win and Madrid don’t, they will regain their place at the top of the table, but nothing is decided yet. The merengues are now in the driving seat, and they don’t look like slowing down anytime soon.

Players to watch

Many players’ performances will be scrutinised in the midweek games, but the spotlight is mainly on one man, and that is Quique Setién. The Cantabrian’s decision in Seville have raised many blaugranas‘ eyebrows, and Ansu Fati‘s performance could be at the centre of attention for Barça against Athletic Club.

Far from Catalonia, Karim Benzema is on fire, and it will be interesting to see him continue his goalscoring form against Mallorca. In the Basque country, the Celta fans will require the same kind of performances from Iago Aspas, Rafinha Alcântara and Denis Suárez. Also, it will be interesting to see if Asier Garitano still has faith in 18-year-old Javi López, who gave away a penalty at Balaídos in a debut to forget as it ended in a 6–0 win for Celta. Finally, left-back Pervis Estupiñán will look to improve from his last outing for Osasuna too.


See more

• La Liga review: the best and worst of matchday 30

Riqui Puig: has his time finally arrived?

• Semedo and Piqué, two positives from the Barça draw in Seville

• Iván Rakitić: Stepping up at the right time

As a Lebanese teenager who never had the chance to support their local team, I fell in love with the club that was FC Barcelona at the start of the decade. I always was passionate about writing and this is exactly what I am looking for: sharing my insights and opinions on football.

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Analysis

How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona

Anurag Agate

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Photo via Imago

The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.

El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.

The systems

Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.

In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.

In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.

Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.

Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.

Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.

Madrid’s defensive organization

After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.

The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.

Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.

Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.

What went wrong for Barcelona?

Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.

One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.

The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.

Statistical analysis

Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.

As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.

With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.

Conclusion

This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.

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