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.
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.
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.
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.