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La Liga review: the best and worst of matchday 31

The best games, performances and main consequences of matchday 31 of La Liga

Alexandre Patanian

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Header Image by Fran Santiago via Getty Images

In matchday 31 and another round of matches in La Liga, the performances have yet again been impressive. Let’s review it.


The most competitive league in the world had another round of exquisite matches where the teams did manage to show their brilliance again. Matchday 31 of La Liga saw a new face on the touchline as Betis sacked their coach, Rubi, after their 1–0 loss at San Mamés last weekend. Alexis Trujillo came in as an interim manager for Los Béticos, and got them back to winning ways.

Also, with a new pilot in the league, the title race is getting heated, and the two big boys are giving their all to add another illustrious title to their collections. As usual, here are the best three games from the round of matches.

Villarreal 2–2 Sevilla

Villarreal hosting Sevilla always is an exciting game where the football treats the fans exceptionally well. Again, the two squads did not disappoint as they are both searching for European football next year. The game started as expected, with Paco Alcácer opening the scoring just before the 20th-minute mark. The cross from the right came precisely on Samuel Chukwueze’s head, but Tomáš Vaclík parried it only for former Barcelona striker Alcácer to tuck it home.

Sergio Escudero Sevilla Villarreal La Liga matchday 31

An action-packed afternoon at the Estadio de la Cerámica | Photo by Óscar J. Barroso via Imago

After some heroics from Villarreal keeper Sergio Asenjo, Sevilla’s Sergio Escudero equalised with one of the best shots in La Liga since the return. The left-back’s strike was rifled in off the net as it was too powerful to be saved. Just before half-time, old met young with the eternal Santi Cazorla crossing in a corner straight to centre-back Pau Torres’ head. The local lad’s header was a bullet, and the Yellow Submarine got the lead.

Sergio Asenjo playing at the highest level, Sevilla found it hard to pull the game back and tried everything that would get saved by the Spanish shot-stopper. Munir el Haddadi wasn’t impressed, though, and his insane volley was too much for Asenjo himself. The La Masía graduate justified his substitution with that strike as he salvaged a point for the Andalusian side.

Return was also a hot topic of this game as Bruno Soriano came back from three years of injury with a cameo at the end of the game. At 36, his return was great and a joy for La Liga fans.

Real Madrid 2–0 Mallorca

Real Madrid are seeking their 34th La Liga and, since going atop last week, they don’t seem like slowing down any time soon. Against RCD Mallorca, they had a few moments where they suffered a lot, but were ultimately dominant. Los Blancos‘ Karim Benzema missed a sitter in the first quarter of an hour, but the red side looked quite threatening early on. First, Idrissu Baba’s superb shot from range nearly would have gone in had it not been for the in-form Thibaut Courtois. Lago Junior then dribbled past two defenders, but his shot was too tame to trouble Courtois.

Vinícius Júnior Real Madrid La Liga matchday 31

Real Madrid continue with their impeccable record after the break | Photo by Javier Soriano / AFP via Getty Images

After those two chances, Real Madrid tried to open the scoring, and they stopped messing around. An extraordinary pass from the defence, after an alleged foul from Dani Carvajal, came to Luka Modrić. The Croatian midfielder found Vinícius Júnior running at full speed, as usual in him. The Brazilian’s crisp finish landed in the top corner, and it was just a testament of his incredible form. After scoring the first against Barcelona in March and winning the penalty at Real Sociedad’s Anoeta last Sunday , Vinícius’ goal against Mallorca gave his side the lead.

Mallorca couldn’t fight back after the break, and the merengues played champions football against one of the weakest sides in Spain. Sergio Ramos grabbed the headlines after scoring an impressive free-kick into the top corner. This goal made him the defender with the most goals in La Liga, surpassing Ronald Koeman’s tally of 67. Real Madrid’s captain is determined to bring the title back to the Santiago Bernabéu, as it hasn’t done so for the past two seasons.

Real Betis 1–0 Espanyol

The post-Rubi era began at the Benito Villamarín on Thursday, and it ended well for Real Betis. Their caretaker manager Alexis Trujillo managed a win against Espanyol, who were trying to keep their heads above water after Mallorca’s loss in Madrid. Betis were a unit, for once, and didn’t rely on one individual as their whole team put on a show for whoever takes over next. They went attacking from the get-go and Barça loanee Emerson‘s performance was scintillating. The Brazilian was tireless and a constant threat against the Catalans.

After many attempts, Betis found their saviour in Marc Bartra. The former Barça defender lept like a salmon as his headed effort was unstoppable. Sergio Canales owned up after missing the crucial penalty in Bilbao last week and assisted Bartra from the corner. He then had a brilliant shot from just inside the box stopped by Diego López. As Betis tried to go for the kill, Espanyol became more and more dangerous and came closer than ever to a goal.

Marc Bartra Real Betis La Liga matchday 31

A fresh start for Alexis Trujillo’s Betis in La Liga matchday 31 | Photo by Fran Santiago via Getty Images

A final counter-attack could have given the point to the Periquitos, but Wu Lei missed a sitter from a few yards and Joel Robles, who pulled up a heroic save, was furious at his defence. Still, Betis came out victorious after a poor run of form, and that’s crucial for them.

What does La Liga matchday 31 mean for Barcelona?

On Tuesday, after a long first half in which Athletic Club de Bilbao neutralised Barcelona well, the Catalans found a way through Iván Rakitić‘s enthusiastic goal. With a 1–0 win, they did their job, but so did Real Madrid, as mentioned. The culés are still second on the head-to-head ruling and will hope for a Madrid slip-up in the near future.

How has the league table been affected?

After weeks of constant change, the Champions League places look settled as Atlético de Madrid are on an encouraging run of form following a 0–1 triumph over Levante, and Sevilla refuse to lose. Getafe’s 1–1 draw against Valladolid means they are still fifth, only separated from Villarreal by one point. Villarreal, after their draw, have climbed above Real Sociedad, who end this round of matches in seventh after coming back in fourth.

Valencia couldn’t send the Basques any lower as they also lost. The Valencians lost to relegation-threatened Eibar, who breathe a little more as they are now six points above Mallorca. The important victory at Real Sociedad’s Anoeta from Barça’s next rival Celta de Vigo keeps the Celestes alive in the league a little longer. Celta are currently seven points above the relegation zone. For Espanyol, Leganés and Mallorca, it looks bleak.

Standout performers

There were many impressive performances this week in La Liga. Let’s start with Barcelona, as Riqui Puig caught the eye in a super-sub appearance along with the goalscorer Iván Rakitić. In Madrid, Vinícius and Sergio Ramos had two exciting games. The other giants of the capital, Atlético de Madrid, had another excellent display against Levante, and natural midfielder Marcos Llorente showed how much of a goal threat he is as he caused the own goal.

Iago Aspas’ penalty against Real Sociedad keeps Celta’s head above water before hosting Barcelona on Saturday. And, of course, the return of Villarreal’s Bruno Soriano was a real sensation in Spain as seeing an old great come back after years of labour is always superb.


See more

Barça or Juventus: who are the winners of the Arthur – Pjanić swap deal?

• How does the Arthur – Pjanić deal work from an economical point of view?

• What can Miralem Pjanić provide to Barcelona?

• Sergio Busquets, reborn after the break

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

A Detailed Look into Barcelona’s defeat against Getafe

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

Barcelona fell to defeat in Madrid, and Barça Universal brings a detailed analysis of how the visitors fared against the relentless Getafe.


Matchweek four saw FC Barcelona travel to Coliseum Alfonso Perez to take on yet another difficult opposition – Getafe. In recent years, Getafe have seen an uptick of fortune under manager Jose Bordalas, by opting to play a straightforward counterattacking style of football while staying defensively compact. It is easy to not classify their game as pretty. Still, they are highly effective – with constant disruptions to the game with a very physical style of play, they forced Barcelona to stay out of their box very effectively. The game indeed was gruesome to watch and ended in Getafe eking out a narrow 1-0 victory – their first over Barcelona in the league since 2011-12.

The Shape of the Teams

As the team returned from the international break with many of the players having played 180+ minutes, Ronald Koeman rang in some interesting changes. However, one could always argue if there were, in fact, enough changes and whether they made a lot of sense. Neto, Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Sergi Roberto at right-back, and Sergino Dest as the makeshift left-back formed the back-five, with the usual double pivot of Sergio Busquets of Frenkie de Jong.

Ousmane Dembele was back in action on the left-wing, Antoine Griezmann started in a false 9 role, and Lionel Messi as the nominal ‘right-wing’. The biggest surprise perhaps was the first start handed to 17-year-old Pedri at central attacking-midfield.

From the pass-maps and the following touch-based heatmaps, you can see that Messi did stay a lot wider than the “false RW” role he had under the previous two managers. Still, he kept interchanging slots with Griezmann quite a bit as well, especially in the deeper zones. The Frenchman had a lot of touches in the wider zones while tracking back. As such, and combined with his highly ineffective combination play with the midfield and the forwards, it does the beg the question as to whether it makes any sense to put Griezmann up top, or for that matter, as a starter in the team at all.

Also, de Jong’s role and influence in the game was in sharp contrast to the previous games and Busquets’ as well. Busquets influenced a lot of the central zones, while Frenkie tried to rattle wider, and deeper areas more, partly due to the absence of Jordi Alba.

Getafe came up with a highly asymmetrical 4-4-2, with very distinctively different lines of midfielders in possession, and very different roles of the wide players on two sides:

It was former La Masia youngster Marc Cucurella, playing as a left wide-mid, who was really the most adventurous of the lot and showed the most attacking prowess. In midfield, Mauro Arambarri had the freedom to drift around a bit while Nemanja Maksimovic stayed deep and patrolled in front of the defence, seldom venturing up.

Offence

This was a game with very little quality and very few clear cut chances. Getafe didn’t allow Barcelona to create a lot with extremely compact and physical defending. Barcelona enjoyed the lion’s share of the possession, but to no avail. They could have easily scored at least once in the first half through Antoine Griezmann, where they were clearly the better side. The biggest chances they conceded came in the second half – the unfortunate penalty, and counter-attacks in the late stages of the game.

Apart from the shots shown here, there was a dangerous moment where Cucho Hernandez had the opportunity to take a crack at Barcelona’s goal but slipped at the vital moment.

As for the goal, it resulted in a really unfortunate foul in the box by Frenkie de Jong. It came from a set-piece play pattern, and after the ball had pinged inside and outside the box a few times, de Jong tripped Djene Dakonam in the box as they both went for the ball.

Getafe, as was shown in the pass-map before, were not interested in deep build-up at all. They constantly went direct, staying true to their style of play. The attack pattern of swift transitions is clearly visible in the buildup to some of the shots they took, as shown below. These shots either came from forcing high turnovers or from speedy breaks from their own half with just a handful of passes only to transition over a large vertical distance:

In contrast, Barcelona were rambling, slow and sometimes clueless in the buildup, especially in the second half. There were two opportunities following two gorgeous buildups. The first one was intricate and involved a beautiful turn by the youngster Pedri to set up Dest, who cut the ball back for Messi. The Argentine’s left-footed precision shot evaded the Getafe goalie David Soria but cannoned off the post.

But the best opportunity of the first half fell to Griezmann. Yet again, the creator was Pedri, who met the World Cup winner’s wonderfully timed run with a delectable through ball. Griezmann raced clear of Getafe’s defensive line and with only the keeper at his mercy, shot high into the stands. The buildups are shown below:

(To be noted: neither Antione Griezmann’s shot nor Cucho Hernandez’s shots were on target – they blazed over the goal-post. The visuals above should not confuse the readers.)

The majority of the rest of the shots that Barcelona took came from set-pieces or hopeful crosses into the Getafe box. Apart from the cross that was almost turned into his own goal by Erick Cabaco late in the game and the one where Lenglet failed to connect properly with Messi’s freekick, the rest aren’t even worth discussing.

Barcelona did manage a lot of successful takeons, way more than Getafe, but most notably perhaps, none successful in Getafe’s box. The bulk of these duels were restricted in the wide areas, where Dest and Messi showed good feet. In the central zones, only Messi and Pedri were skilled and silky enough to beat their marker.

Passing

Barcelona’s progressive passing took a bit of hit this game. Here is a compilation of the successful progressive passes by all Barcelona players shown below. Something that strikes out immediately – there was almost nothing down the middle. Frenkie could only exert his influence through passing in the wide areas. Both centre-backs heavily sprayed out the ball wide. The characteristic dagger balls from Lenglet that we have grown used to seeing was missing this game:

Next we take a look at the assortment of most threatening passes that Barcelona put together:

Just like the game against Sevilla, there were barely any successful entries into the box. Many passes were sprayed out wide, which only halted the progress till that point. Simply put, Getafe were just too compact and physical to allow anything constructive to happen.

Shown below are Getafe’s progressive passes by all players, and their most threatening passes. They were either mostly pinging long balls into Barcelona’s third or launching counters from the deep bypassing the entire midfield and trying to catch Barcelona out. Unlike the visitors, there were a lot more entries into the box mostly coming from wide areas.

The two passes that standout are Cucurella’s pass to initiate a fast counter, and Pedri’s ball to Griezmann. Cucho Hernandez led the Getafe side with 3 key passes, with Cucurella and Enes Unal with one each. For Barcelona, Dest had two key passes, and Messi and Pedri had one each.

 

Next we look at switches of play. There is an amazing distinction between the two. Getafe’s switch passes from the wide areas were mainly to attack Barcelona’s 3rd and the box. Barcelona’s switches mainly came in buildup phases, attempting to open up Getafe, almost exclusively in the middle 3rd.

The quantity used here to compare passes into the final third is called field tilt – it’s the number of final third passes completed by a team, divided by the sum of final third passes completed by both teams, expressed as a percentage instead of a fraction. It’s a stat introduced by Statsperform (previously Opta) to measure territorial dominance.

Barcelona completed a greater number of final third passes than Getafe, and yet had a lower number of box entries – this is simply unacceptable in the future. Shown below are the mean field tilts as well as the time evolution. Barcelona overall had much higher territorial dominance with 67%. The only times Getafe enjoyed a better share of the territory was in the first 15 minutes of each half, and they made their territorial dominance in the second half count with a goal within that 15 minutes of the restart.

Defence

As a short side note, PPDA serves as a proxy of pressing intensity. It tells us how many passes the team in possession is allowed to make in their own 3-5ths of the pitch before disrupted with a foul or a tackle or an interception by the defending team. Lower the PPDA numbers, roughly speaking, higher the pressing intensity upfield. Getafe are known as notorious pressers, but they didn’t try to press too high or too much against Barcelona – recording a modest PPDA of 11 as compared to Barcelona’s 5. Also shown is the PPDA time evolution below:

Getafe exhibited their best press between the 15-30 minutes of the first half, and then at the beginning of the second half. It was 15-minute slot when the second half started where they dominated territory and pressed extremely well, and eventually scored. Next, let’s take a look at the defensive activities heatmap:

Barcelona’s pressurizing defensive actions were mainly concentrated on the left courtesy of Dest, Dembele, and de Jong. In the box, Pique and Lenglet held their own for the most part, and Neto was a safe pair of gloves. In fact, the Brazilian stopped a great shot from Cucho late in the second half to prevent Barcelona from going 2 goals down.

Getafe pressured the middle third to great effect and targeted Dembele’s wastefulness on the left flank and Roberto’s lack of support on the right. The unsuccessful passes tell the story of very curious pass weights by several Barcelona players, but most notably Dembele who couldn’t seem to get anything right in the first half. Misplacing so many short passes – for a team like Barcelona- should be a crime.

In terms of turnover creations, Barcelona managed a few handfuls on the left flank, helped by a reasonably good left-back outing by Dest. Getafe created turnovers in the middle and defensive thirds mostly.

Of course, you can’t describe a Getafe game without mentioning fouls. Fouling is an extremely effective strategy by Bordalas’ men, and an obliging referee meant they got away with almost everything. Getafe committed twice the number of fouls as Barcelona – 20 to 10, and yet had only one more yellow card than Barcelona. Allan Nyom should have easily seen the red card – if not direct, at least by accumulation – but escaped with just yellow.

Issues

There were several issues. The passing weight remains an issue. It was an issue against Sevilla, at the Camp Nou. It was an issue against Getafe. Dembele had a torrid showing. This was his first start and the first bunch of meaningful minutes. But nothing on display was encouraging, and it remains to be seen how much faith Koeman puts in him in the upcoming matches.

The midfielders were mostly solid – and that’s about it. They failed to influence the game with incisive passes. De Jong was pushed deep and wide. Busquets had one good pass, and the rest were all simple.

In the absence of Alba, the left side is almost as dead as the right. Dest tried a lot, and he was along with Pedri, the only standout performer for the travellers. He had two key passes, and a couple of really admirable dribbles, going toe-to-toe with Nyom. But he wasn’t nearly close enough to being the marauding Jordi Alba. The Messi-left wing connection has been a super fruitful one over the last few years, and that was sorely missed yesterday.

Speaking of, Messi was not utilized well at all in this game. He wasn’t allowed to drift as much and stayed wide a lot more. He was also not a part of the buildup as much as Barcelona would have preferred. If this was a conscious tactical decision not to involve Messi too much, it is much better to let him rove near the goal so he can make the most of his stellar finishing.

One way or the other, Messi looks really uninvolved and it’s costing Barcelona. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

Griezmann continued to be underwhelming for Barcelona. He did nothing notable from the right-wing in the previous games, and he did nothing notable as the false 9 against Getafe. Barely involved in possession, he did make a good run only to smash a shot into the stands. At this point, it’s a fair call to try other attackers on the wing, especially with Fransisco Trincāo and Konrad de la Fuente waiting for quality minutes.

The refereeing was questionable, to put it mildly. Cucho Hernandez ran into Pique’s elbows and won a foul, with the Spaniard on the receiving end of a yellow. To even things a bit, the referee gave Mata a yellow for a soft foul on Lenglet. But nothing was more contentious than the elbow in the face of Messi by Nyom, who amazingly enough, escaped any card at all. He kept committing several fouls and was only shown a yellow after his 7th foul of the game, when in fact, he was lucky to survive that long.

The substitutes

For the first time, Ronald Koeman’s substitutes made no sense and brought no spark to the game. In theory, bringing Ansu Fati for Ousmane Dembele made sense, but it changed nothing in the broader context of things. Pedri did not deserve to get yanked before Antoine Griezmann given how well he was playing. Pique moving up to play striker late in the game meant there was no midfield bar Riqui Puig (getting his first minutes of the season) and Barcelona were easily countered. The subs were too late and made little sense.

Conclusion

It was an ugly game and required real motivation to keep watching. Barcelona needs to be much more direct – like the first two games. The Griezmann experiment probably needs to stop, and the excessive fluidity is coming at the cost of too many people trying to do the same set of things and occupying the same zones.

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