Three months that felt like nothing for Barça, who were competitive and ambitious from minute one in their return to action at Son Moix. A match review of the Mallorca 0–4 Barcelona.
Football had been patient. But Arturo Vidal wasn’t. 98 days were too much for the Chilean, who needed 65 mere seconds to exhibit his productive impetus. A hunter never loses his instinct. Hungry after more than three months without catching a prey, Barcelona pressed, Frenkie de Jong tackled, Jordi Alba crossed and Arturo Vidal scored. Just two minutes gone, but Barça already had the lead against Mallorca.
With plenty of time to search for ways to innovate, Quique Setién wanted to display his new tactical changes early on. To implement them he chose the most aggressive midfielder and forward he had in his squad. Vidal, from midfield, and Martin Braithwaite, on the left wing. They both scored. In the 37th minute, a sharp Lionel Messi assisted Braithwaite for the Dane’s powerful half volley. Striking the net with force, showing that the absence of football had not affected him.
There was some significant asymmetry in the system, but with the objective of compensating all of the players’ movements and natures. If in Setién’s debut match versus Granada he had introduced an unusual back three formation with many footballers in unnatural positions, experience had made Quique reconsider and aim to exploit each one’s best virtues in his preferred position.
This seems to be the new normality for Barcelona, but the old fashion is also back. Beardless and with longer hair, Lionel Messi’s new look is reminiscent of older but golden times. Starting significantly wide on the right wing, in spite of drifting inside often, Leo looked fresh, fit and motivated. Rejuvenated. Happy, after all. Happiness for the number 10 cannot be understood without his best friend, though.
With 35 minutes ahead, Luis Suárez re-appeared for Barça, but for the first time under Setién. Having got injured in January’s Super Cup clash with Atlético de Madrid, in a loss that costed Ernesto Valverde his job, Suárez’s season was supposed to be over. Until tragedy, in the form of pandemic, happened. Determined to look at the bright side of the situation, Luis took advantage of the long break to join the party for the odd end of the campaign.
No circumstance is strange enough for Lionel Messi | Photo by Jaime Reina / AFP via Getty Images
Quique Setién hadn’t wanted to risk Luis Suárez at first, just like he had left Samuel Umtiti and Arthur Melo on the bench with their often problematic fitness. 21-year-old centre-back Ronald Araújo got his first start, and second appearance, for the first team, while Vidal played 45 minutes before being subbed out at half-time for Iván Rakitić. Far from rusty, the blaugranas were liquid. With full-backs very high and long but purposeful spells of possession, everything looked smooth for the visitors at Son Moix.
Always direct and determined, Martin Braithwaite proved once more that succeeding at Barça is more a matter of appropriateness than of quality. Selfless in his off-ball movements and aggressive with space, the former Leganés man knows his strengths and weaknesses, and his role. He executed Setién’s demands to perfection, while Messi had fun too but with an opposed style. Assisting Braithwaite in the first half, the little genius had time to record one more assist and a late goal in the second.
Jordi Alba, assister of Vidal’s goal, found the net himself after Leo’s fabulous pass. Alba and Messi, Messi and Alba, the connection doesn’t seem to fade away. Every pass was synchronised and well-timed, just like the entire block. With the distances well-measured and the required associative plays, Setién surely had little complaints on his team’s response.
❛ The feelings in general are good, you always have to be attentive for things to improve on, but I’m satisfied. We have shown effectiveness and we have been good on the ball ❜
With a break that was longer than the summer holidays, many asked for a mini preseason to take place. But, with the tight title race and with Real Madrid with only two points less, Barcelona took the game as a final rather than a preparatory friendly. With the competitiveness of the biggest duels, the Catalans cared little about the circumstances. Players like Lionel Messi and Martin Braithwaite take no off days.
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.