The defensive improvements of Barça are showing on a game to game basis, and Nélson Semedo and Gerard Piqué had two superb games against Sevilla on Friday.
Barcelona’s goalless draw at the Sánchez Pizjuán was a match were many negatives were drawn. Many were quick to criticise Quique Setién’s passive reaction to the dull football at the culés disposal in the second half. However, one big positive Setién can draw from the last four fixtures is the rock-solid defence that has played a big part in Marc-André ter Stegen’s four clean sheets in a row.
With Sergi Roberto, Samuel Umtiti or Ronald Araújo, the Culés have shown great depth at the back, and Ter Stegen’s saves have been magnificent as ever in front of the dangerous Real Sociedad or Sevilla sides that sit right near the top of the table. With all these players finding some sort of form, Nélson Semedo might have felt out of place in a Barça side that was playing well, especially the full-backs. Sergi Roberto’s run of form with Semedo foolishly breaking lockdown rules a few days before the Mallorca game made it easy for Setién to bench him.
Still, the Cantabrian tactician had to revert to Semedo when Roberto got injured before the Sevilla clash. On Friday, the Barcelona attack and defence contrasted as the forward line looked toothless while the defenders ruled the Andalusian attack. Two players stood out in the blaugrana defence. The first one is Nélson Semedo himself.
Sergi Roberto is expected to miss Tuesday’s meeting with Athletic Club, so Nélson Semedo could use this opportunity to continue improving his form | Photo by Imago
The Portuguese was everywhere and was even the most threatening visitor on the pitch, stretching the opposition defence with his powerful runs on the right. His attacking duty did not alter his work rate, and he returned well at times to stop attacks, even going from the right to the left side to discontinue Sevilla’s counter-attack. It was a delight to watch him running up and down the pitch and be a threat with the ball every time he touched it. His ability to create space for his teammates on the right was on display.
Semedo played exceptionally well in a tricky away game for Barça, but his partner in crime Gerard Piqué that night was as excellent as him. The Catalan is enjoying one of the best seasons in his career, even though it feels like culés say that every year. The centre-back’s run of form has been scintillating, but his game in Seville last time out was astonishingly good. He bothered the opposition a lot in attack and also became an attacking threat at times, trying to tease left-back Sergio Reguilón every time he was forward, as he poked the Real Madrid loanee before half-time.
On the offensive side of things, Piqué did President things. Everyone could feel his tranquillity, as his passing was delicious. At the half-hour mark, he had completed all his passes and helped Barcelona in dominating the game on the first half. When Barça began to suffer more after the second half, Piqué kept it together and showed everyone who’s boss. Against Lucas Ocampos’ repeated runs, Piqué was there, intercepting the passes, heading the ball or tackling the opposition. His incredible tackle inside the box denied Sevilla a dangerous shot on goal.
Gerard Piqué has been a saviour for Barcelona this term | Photo by AFP7 via Imago
Despite being heavily criticised, Setién has shored up a defence that looked shaky earlier in the season. Many would say his possession-hungry system helps a lot, as the Catalans now defend with the ball, but his tactics require top players, intelligent enough to move and pass the right way. Semedo’s game in Seville was a lesson of movement and commitment by a man who has often received criticism for his work rate and hid attacking flaws.
For Piqué, his game is the pinnacle of defensive greatness. His 96% pass accuracy, accompanied by his tackles and interceptions, show much of an intelligent and composed footballer he is and, alongside Clément Lenglet and Sergio Busquets, the core of Barça’s team is as relaxed as ever in the back, allowing the attackers to breathe a bit. Performances like these from Nélson Semedo and Gerard Piqué could win leagues, and even though Barça do not depend on themselves anymore in the league, it is not their defence’s fault but instead their inefficient attack.
Determining Barcelona’s best line-up for the Clasico
El Clásico is the biggest club rivalry in the world as its links with Spanish history make it more and more heated year after year. In recent years, Barcelona came out on top in most fixtures with Ernesto Valverde having one of the most impressive records against Real Madrid. The likes of Pep Guardiola, Gerardo Martino, and Luis Enrique, too, all have El Clásico nights they’ll surely remember for as long as they’re alive. This weekend, Ronald Koeman takes on Madrid for the first time.
Who starts? Who sits? Koeman has a lot of thinking to do. (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)
The aforementioned coaches had set teams with players such as Samuel Eto’o, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, and Carles Puyol at their disposal and they went to play Madrid deeper into the season than where Ronald Koeman is now. For example, in the 2-1 win at Camp Nou, where Luis Suarez scored the winner, Luis Enrique went into the game off the back of a superb run of fixtures and knew which team would start the game.
Due to the recent crisis, Ronald Koeman comes into his first El Clásico with, perhaps, some blank spaces as his team is in a transition period. After a loss against Getafe on the weekend, Koeman’s side demolished Ferencvaros in the Champions League, helping the squad gain morale. That said, he will have to thing hard and through about the team selection, otherwise it could come back to hurt the team in an important game.
With Marc-Andre ter Stegen out injured, there is little time that Neto will start this game. He has been solid so far for the Catalan giants, so it is far from being a problem for Ronald Koeman. In the defence, Koeman has other fish to fry, and the right-back position is a much more problematic one.
Roberto usually puts on a show against Madrid – but is that enough to warrant a starting spot? (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP via Getty Images)
With Jordi Alba out for the recent few games, Sergiño Dest started the last two fixtures on the left, but the former Valencia defender is expected to be back for El Clásico, which raises doubts over who starts on the right. Rushing Alba back is not the most intelligent decision, but the defender was rumoured to be ready to play the Hungarians on Tuesday, and Koeman might have taken his left-back out of the team to start him against Madrid.
If Alba starts, which he’ll most likely do, Koeman cannot overlook Dest’s recent performances, and he should start ahead of Sergi Roberto, who isn’t in his best run of form.
With the two full-backs sorted, Koeman will surely start his best centre-back pairing in Gérard Piqué and Clément Lenglet since they’re fully fit for the game.
The former Everton manager has a clear plan at Barça, and he’s played a 4-2-3-1 in every game as Barça coach. Frenkie de Jong is a constant in the double pivot, starting every game and will undoubtedly feature against Zinedine Zidane’s side.
An experienced head alongside de Jong shoulders. (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)
However, Koeman hasn’t found de Jong’s partner in midfield yet, and Miralem Pjanic’s performance against Ferencvaros was from his best. Sergio Busquets began every game prior to this one under his new coach, so getting him back in the side after rest might tempt Koeman. De Jong looked comfortable alongside both players but was evidently freer next to Pjanic. That said, it looks like a far call to see him start again.
For the mediapunta or attacking midfielder, role, Philippe Coutinho will take up that place as he confirmed his superb start to the term with a great goal against the Hungarians. Pedri should get some minutes as his recent outings have been spectacular. The former Las Palmas midfielder will undoubtedly come on, regardless of the scoreline.
Lionel Messi is the best player in the world, and he showed more intent against Ferencvaros and will most definitely start against his favourite opponents. As for the left-wing, Ansu Fati has been on fire this term and, with his performance on Tuesday has cemented his place in the starting lineup.
The big debate takes place on the right, where three players fight for the right-winger position. Ousmane Dembélé, Francisco Trincão, and Antoine Griezmann are the three players in contention to start El Clásico.
Griezmann is going through a rough patch, and while he needs all the confidence in the world, mustn’t be in the Catalan giants’ XI for the most significant encounter of the season yet.
With the World Cup winner out of the conversation, Trincão and Dembélé – both of whom made heads turn against Ferencvaros are in pole position to be the third attacker in the lineup. Trincão started the game against the Hungarians, impressing on the right, but was not efficient enough as he did not score or assist on the night.
However, a lot of attacks came from his side, something that did not happen when Griezmann was in the eleven. Dembélé, who replaced the Portuguese, was a welcomed addition to the side and his piece of skill before assisting Pedri was a joy to watch. His easy goal shouldn’t make him a clear favourite, but his performance made his chances of starting rise.
Fati has been marshaling the Barcelona attack this season – will he do it again against Madrid? (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)
Nonetheless, Dembélé is recovering from a long-term injury and lacks match sharpness right now. The Frenchman could be an impact sub for Trincão or Fati as his pace might terrify the tired legs of fellow Frenchman Ferland Mendy. That said, Koeman could start the 23-year-old against Madrid, subbing him off early for a more lethal finisher like Griezmann.
Barça Universal’s Starting XI against Madrid:
Dest – Pique – Lenglet – Alba
Busquets – De Jong
Trincāo – Coutinho – Fati