The first El Clasico of the 2020/21 La Liga season is upon us and Real Madrid head into the clash just a point behind leaders Real Sociedad with a game in hand. Despite a hat trick of victories just before the international break, Los Blancos now find themselves on the brink of three defeats in seven days. Several reports have emerged that head coach Zinedine Zidane could be facing the sack if his side head home with anything less than a point from this encounter. But, what it is that has gone wrong for the defending champions this season, and how can Barcelona counter these to the best of their ability?
A Dysfunctional Attack
The capital outfit has shown an evident inability to make fair use of the high possession they have in games of late. They’ve been consistent with two formations: a 4-3-3 that morphs into a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 diamond as well. In and of themselves, these tactical setups aren’t by any means inadequate; however, the players deployed in these systems have been unable to make the best use of them thus far.
1. Wasteful strikers
With a striking duo of Luka Jovic and Karim Benzema, Real Madrid reasonably should be able to do more than score just over a goal a game as they have done this season. They’ve thus far scored 6 in five of their outings, with five of those coming against two teams, Real Betis – who were on a red card for around 30 minutes – and Levante away from home.
We are yet to see the best of Luka Jovic in the Spanish capital. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)
Taking a look at their xG (expected goals) of 10.29 in all competitions, we see that they also reasonably should have scored four more goals than they actually have – in theory. This kind of underperformance can be attributed to the likes of Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema for their wastefulness in front of goal, both of them underperforming their xG by 0.71 and 1.47 respectively. Additionally, the former has also missed several opportunities to shoot, which cannot be attested to ‘expected goals’.
Specific examples of these are when Vinicius found himself in a one on one situation with the keeper against Real Valladolid and spent a chance worth 0.48xG and Luka Jovic somehow failed to put away one worth 0.66xG against Levante. To put this into context, Opta deems shots over 0.38xG as big chances and for them to have squandered two such significant opportunities and to do it so often that they find themselves four goals behind their expected goals, is worrying.
In their league winning season, Real Madrid scored 70 goals at an xG of 72.93. Of this, 52.83 came from chances they created in open play, while the rest was distributed across corners, direct free kicks, set-piece opportunities and the infamous penalties they scored all across the campaign. For a club the size of Real Madrid, racking up such a relatively low xG from open play should have been big enough a red flag to push Zidane and club President Florentino Perez into investing in some forwards to bolster their attack. The lack of expenditure in this past window meant that Zidane had to tweak his tactics to suit the players he has at his disposal, something we are yet to see consistently this season.
2. Poor Positioning from Forwards
While the forwards can be criticised for their inefficiency in attack from clear cut chances, their positioning to make use of said chances that come to them has been wanting. Karim Benzema isn’t your typical striker. He, in some ways like Messi, is a player that prefers to drop deep to create chances for his teammates and surge forward whenever the opportunity presented itself. Such can be seen in his stats last season: 21.25xG and 8.15xA (expected assists).
Someone needs to shoulder creative responsibilities from Benzema to bring the best out of him in the attack. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)
For this to be a successful tactic, he needs players – like Jovic – to occupy the spaces he vacates in attack to be an ever-present threat for when a chance is created. Instead, his teammates find themselves lost amid their oppositions’ backlines and even if a through ball were to be played, there simply wouldn’t be anyone there to cease it.
This dreadful running off the ball leads to many of their attacks breaking down before they even begin. On several occasions, despite finding themselves in some auspicious positions, the attackers, be it from the wings or down centrally, simply don’t place themselves in places that would grant them good enough chances to score regularly. It stands to reason that scoring goals from high-quality opportunities requires players to be active in the penalty box.
3. A Pungent lack of creativity from the Wing
Football in the modern era is dominated by two kinds of fullbacks: inverted and offensive. Real Madrid via Marcelo have spearheaded the revolution of a traditionally defensive position of the pitch and transformed it into yet another offensive outlet to benefit from.
While the fullbacks and central midfielders can make a convincing case against their forwards for their inadequate positioning, they don’t help their cause either with their consistently inaccurate deliveries are.
Mendy and Barcelona need to improve their supply quality. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)
As per Whoscored, Real Madrid has attempted a total of 93 crosses into the opposition penalty box in their six games this season. While this is a good aggregate number, only 17 of these have actually met their targets at a measly 18% success rate.
This inefficiency can undoubtedly be blamed on them, given the aforementioned problems when it comes to positioning. Still, the onus is on Dani Carvajal, Ferland Mendy, and Marcelo to do better than just 18%.
A Maladjusted Backline
Last season, in Europe’s top 5 leagues, Real Madrid had the second-best performing defence of teams that had completed their domestic campaigns. While the metric for ‘goals conceded’ places them right at the top, a better representation of their proper defensive rigidity can be evaluated by use of xGA (expected goals against). Despite conceding just six goals in all competitions so far, Real Madrid overperformed by 8.15 goals.
Clearly, such a level of overperformance isn’t by any means sustainable as somewhere down the line; a team is going to pick their pockets and make a mauling out of them. We saw bits of this against Shakhtar Donetsk in midweek and could easily see the same this evening. Thus far in La Liga, despite conceding just three goals, Los Blancos have an xGA of 5.02 and can attribute that majorly to the phenomenal saves made by Thibaut Courtois.
There is only so much that Thibaut Courtois can do alone. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)
The positioning of their defenders is as inefficient and as inconsistent as that of their attack. In the build-up leading to Cadiz’s only goal of the game, we saw a pattern that we know all too well from Real Madrid and one that repeated itself on several occasions in that game. They failed to track their markers, left gaping holes in their defence and were punished accordingly.
They can, of course, rely on their Belgian shot-stopper to continue making insane saves – which is precisely why they bought him – but it merely isn’t an expendable tactic. Again, their lack of investment has come to bite them in the back. While the backline consists of dominant individuals, there is a clear communication gap between then, which often leads to poor marking and tracking.
How can Barcelona exploit these Weaknesses
The Catalans can easily counter Real Madrid by adjusting the line up in several ways to hurt their opponents. Firstly, Ronald Koeman could start by playing two pacey fullbacks in Sergino Dest and Jordi Alba; though the fitness level of the latter is still in question.
Why do this? As mentioned before, there’s an apparent problem when it comes to the positioning and movements of the Real Madrid attackers.
Dest’s blistering pace may help combat Madrid’s ability to counter quickly. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)
Following Luka Jovic’s performance in midweek, there’s a meagre chance of him making it into the starting XI for the El Clasico. Therefore there’s a high chance that Real will deploy a 433 with Vinicius and Rodrygo in the wider areas. To mitigate their impact, Barcelona will need to use two fullbacks that have enough pace to make ball recoveries if ever their visitors are successful in making overlapping runs into the byline. While not an airtight solution, it does substantially aid the Catalans’ case.
What about Benzema himself? Assuming Zidane will grant him the freedom to float around the box rather than stay within it, the best counter to this would be to partner Frenkie de Jong with Sergio Busquets rather than Miralem Pjanic. The Spaniard is far more defensively stable than the Bosnia,n and his interpretation of spaces is a notch higher. His defensive attitude will help him alleviate a large chunk of what the Frenchman has to offer
Moving on to their midfield, Cadiz did an excellent job at shutting their creative players down by use of one block of five in defence layered by a midfield block of four on some occasions.
The beauty of the 4-2-3-1 that Ronald Koeman is keen on using is that it can be switched to cater to several situations. By taking advantage of the fitness levels of most of our squad right now, Koeman could use a 4-5-1 when defending and instantly transition to a 4-3-3 or the 4-4-2 when the team advances.
Here there is one major thing that Barca could do to punish their visitors, and that is by using Francisco Trincao in the wider areas. The Portuguese did an excellent job at two things against Ferencvarosi: staying close to the touchline and taking on opposing defenders. He completed five take ons against the Hungarians, and most inspiringly, most of these were near the touchline.
Starting Trincão over Griezmann will be beneficial for the team tomorrow. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)
Against Marcelo, a player infamous for his defensive work, having his profile on one end can do wonders for the team. Adding Dembele late on, preferably in the final 30 minutes to take advantage of the waney legs of the Madrid defence, could prove to be a blessing for the hosts.
Should all these come in play, we can expect Barcelona to finish the El Clasico the way they started the new season against Villarreal – with a bang.
The causes and effects of Barcelona’s inability to cope with pressure
On the back of a 1-4 trouncing at home to Paris Saint Germain, Barcelona had the opportunity to extend their 7 game-winning run in the league to a phenomenal eight, and against probably the easiest of competition to do so.
After all, Cádiz were on the back of a four-game losing streak in La Liga, having won a meagre 5 points from a possible 33, and up against a team that had won 31 from their last 33. This was as perfect a game as they came, but, as has been a motif at the Catalan club in recent years, they crumbled under pressure.
Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The defence gave away two big chances, one of which came from a ludicrous and much too easily avoidable penalty two minutes from time. As for the forward line, despite having had eleven and a half chances more than their visitors to hit the back of the net, amassing a whopping 3.56xG, they could settle for only one goal, and this too from a penalty. Ronald Koeman had a mostly tolerable afternoon, but at this point, the complaints about the team make the ever-demanding fans sound like a broken record.
In this article, Barca Universal explores some events that have become all too common when the team faces minimal adversity, stretching from the managers in the dugouts, the pressure the collective falls over for in crucial moments and finally, individual mistakes which, like a bad rash, spread to all corners of the team continue to plague the club.
Managerial incompetence in crucial moments
Barcelona’s last three managers, Ronald Koeman included, have each shown, and on plenty of occasions, certain character traits that, rather than improve the team, contribute to its inevitable downfall. What is most shocking is, despite being akin to water and oil in terms of their tactics, they each have an uncanny ability not only to fail to learn from each other but, more surprisingly, themselves.
Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setién, and Koeman have each shown a palpable level of a lack of tactical ingenuity whenever called upon. In one way or another, each one of them has taken the club farther and farther away from its roots, all while failing to replace them with anything sustainable enough to win points, or at the very least, make games enjoyable.
It comes as a shock that even in-game, whenever their set systems start to show fissures, neither one of them has consistently shown the most basic of requirements in a manager, this coming in their ability to rectify their errors.
In 2019, leading 3-0 against Liverpool, Barcelona needed just but a goal to gain a spot in the UEFA Champions League’s final. Rather than set his side up for an offensive tussle with the Merseyside club — who mind you were bereft of any real attacking talent —, the then manager deployed a controversial and rather defensive 4-4-2 formation, providing little to no width and with a clear disconnect between the midfield and the two up front.
Down by a just goal at half time, Valverde had the chance to add Malcom to attack the right flank given Andy Robertson had been taken off at halftime, but he opted not to. He had a chance to add Arthur Melo to improve ball circulation after conceding two in two minutes to Georginio Wijnaldum but instead decided to go for Nelson Semedo.
The sheer lack of order in the team, and his inability to react to reach the goals they scored, meant Barça would inevitably give up the aggregate lead and the tie as a whole. Impervious to criticism, he would continue to show this very same level of incompetence for the nine months that led up to his sacking.
Quique Setién did much of the same here too. Once admired for his Cruyffist tendencies, he fell apart under the unspoken power dynamics set in place by the heavyweights in the club, leading him to never make changes to his starting elevens regardless of how poorly an individual had played. Even when the game was crying for an intervention via a substitution, he, like Valverde, before him would cower in fear and take refuge in the dugouts, which for much of his tenure remained untouched.
Despite having three years worth of evidence on what not to do at Barça, Ronald Koeman continues to make the same exact mistakes as his predecessors. He at least makes rotations in the starting eleven every once in a while, but unless, of course, the team is in a comfortable winning position, he will wait until at least the 80th minute to effectuate any changes to the team’s shape, tactics, or personnel. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that almost every game that has seen Barca trail this season in La Liga has gone on to end as either a draw or a loss of all three points.
Against Paris, many fans observed the gaping holes left in between the defence at the halfway line and the poorly dispersed midfield and attack. This was at halftime, yet in the second period, he left it as it was rather than change up the team’s shape. The exact same mistakes occurred at home against Cádiz in both the first and second period and was only met with a change in the final minutes of the tie.
In La Liga, where the level is lower, managers can get away with a draw here and there, but in the Champions League, where every mistake is punished, they all falter, and to the surprise of no one. When push comes to shove, they all look clueless, lose their train of thought, and as has been the case in each of the last four years, the Blaugrana have lost and lost heavily to equal opposition.
Players that simply don’t make the cut
It comes to reason that not every defeat is as a result of managerial or tactical mishaps. Sometimes, and as has been the case for many years now, tactical flaws have been compounded with some ghastly individual errors, some of which lead fans to question how it is that these players became professionals in the first place.
There are many games that can illustrate this, but none more so than Barcelona’s almighty collapse against the new sextuple winners, Bayern Munich. It is quite unjust that subsequent to such defeats, only the manager’s contract is cut short. Some of the mistakes made by the entirety of the team in that game were so blatantly unacceptable that at least half the team should’ve been sacked at the end.
A score of 4-1 against Paris, or 3-0 against AS Roma this year and in 2018 respectively could be attributed to a manager’s inability to take a firm hold of the game, but when it goes beyond five, it is imperative that the players, perhaps more than their manager, be put to question.
Despite the average age of the squad on that night being over 30 years of age, everyone on the team, from Lionel Messi upfront to Ter Stegen in goal, made rookie mistakes. Leading from the front, the Argentine couldn’t be bothered to press for the ball, despite his individual mistakes directly leading to a quarter of their goals.
Luis Suárez partnering him, made just eighteen passes, nine of which were from the centre circle at the start of one half and one for each of the eight goals that Ter Stegen, a man whose capacity to play under pressure, is being questioned more and more by the year, conceded.
The entirety of the team has this impeccable ability to collectively fall into pieces, with mentalities that shrink to the sub-atomic level when faced with the slightest of adversity. The usual suspects in defence, these coming in Jordi Alba, who almost singlehandedly won Liverpool the second leg at Anfield, Samuel Umtiti, whose career essentially came to an end after the 2018 world cup, Clément Lenglet, whose in-game reactions can be outpaced by a tortoise, are often the catalysts to the team’s failure.
Football is a team game, but individual errors often do have a profound impact on the collective. How is Barca supposed to be challenging for La Liga when their defence is the one with the most individual errors leading to a goal in the entire division.
How are clean sheets meant to be preserved when individuals like Clément Lenglet concede 3 penalties in the same campaign, each leading to a loss of points. It is borderline impossible to challenge for anything when half the time, in do or die situations, you have defenders that shoot themselves, and thus the team, in the foot.
But it’s not only the defence to be blamed. The attack and midfield, charged with finishing chances and creating an air of stability, respectively, do none of the like when called upon. Against the Bavarians, the midfield was essentially inexistent, with next to no pressing, and even when applied, none of it had any coordination or impact on the much superior German machine. Passing somehow from a trio or quadruple of players whose careers are built on just that, all inexplicably goes awry or loses all meaning at the slightest instance of pressure.
The forward line, as seen on innumerable occasions this campaign and during their European disasters, somehow collectively forgets how to find the back of the net. No one can be spared from this judgment, not even Messi.
Ousmane Dembélé had the chance to kill off the tie against Liverpool, but rather than blast the ball past Alisson in a 1v1 situation, he chipped it into his arms and did basically the same thing against Paris last in midweek when he wasted a chance to take the game to 2-0, only for the visitors to equalise within seconds. The same was the case as recently as yesterday against Cadiz, whereof 23 shots made, only one via a penalty found the back of the net.
Barcelona not only have to contend with managers who show complete ineptitude at understanding or implementing the one style of play asked if them, but also a team that, when needed to perform, has not the slightest idea how.
As Johan Cruyff once famously said, “football is a game of mistakes, and whoever makes the least mistakes wins.” When it comes to Barcelona, winning goes from something that should be a regular, weekly occurrence to a proverbial mountain crafted from the tiniest of anthills.
These errors span all the way from managers in the dugouts who, despite years of experience, keep making the same mistakes to the players on the pitch, who, through a lack of attention to detail, ridiculous mistakes and otherworldly missing, never cease to contribute to the demise of the team.