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.
Detailed Analysis: Elche CF 0-2 FC Barcelona
Coming into this match, Barcelona were in good form statistically with only one loss and two draws in the last 12 games. Elche, a team with a sub-par record to say the least against Barcelona, had only two wins in the last 10 games. Barcelona were the favourites, but despite this, the performance wasn’t without hiccups for the Catalans.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 4-3-3 as expected. The game plan remained the same as always; maintaining possession, attacking consistently, and playing a game that emphasized passing and hence, bringing out the best in a team that was technically much superior to the opposition was the philosophy. The full-backs were key to this. Jordi Alba and Oscar Mingueza would regularly move up the field.
To facilitate this, Sergio Busquets would stay back on the attack, and a very high defensive line was employed. The wingers would stay wide, with Antoine Griezmann down the middle. The Frenchman would be seen dropping back to even out the numbers in midfield, while linking-up the play.
When building up, Busquets would often drop back to receive the ball. Considering Elche’s system, playing centrally was a problem. Hence, the ball would often be passed to the wings. The alternative included a staggering of midfield. Staggering is especially effective when the players are marked very tightly by the opposition.
Here, we have an example of the same. As the ball is with Samuel Umtiti, the Elche midfielder would appropriately step forward and prevent the centre-back from progressing with the ball. This would create a small window of opportunity when another midfielder would be moving to mark Pedri, seen in the circle on the far side, and space would be formed between the defensive lines. Frenkie De Jong is closer to Busquets as we see, which complemented his dynamic ball-progression. However, both interiors would regularly try to get into the box as seen in the 4-3-3 employed by Koeman this season, which led to both of Barcelona’s goals.
Jorge Almiron’s Elche side lined up in a 4-5-1. Their aim was to defend with organization, prevent Barcelona from finding space centrally, and attack through quick combinations and long-balls. The four-man defence was the core of Elche’s setup. As we see in the image below, the team was in a well defined 4-5-1. Lucas Boye, the sole striker, would look to press Barcelona’s defenders depending on who had the ball. However, with a major numerical superiority in the build-up phase, the Catalans had few problems getting the ball to midfield.
Another aspect of the team that we can see from the image above is the structure of the midfield line. Victor Rodriguez and Ivan Marcone are man-marking Frenkie De Jong and Sergio Busquets here. The middle-three of the five midfielders had an important job. Depending on Barcelona’s players, they would have to change the player they were marking while making sure not to give space through central areas.
When building up from the back, Elche would have one player very close to the goalkeeper. The central-defenders would stay in the box with the full-backs occupying the field higher up as the image below shows us. The midfield would completely split during this phase. Firstly, Marcone would drop back into defence. Secondly, the wide-midfielders, Emiliano Rigoni and Josan would move further up the field and look to occupy Barcelona’s full-backs. Raul Guti and Victor Rodriguez would be the two players remaining in midfield as we see here.
Almiron’s side should theoretically have done much better in progressing the ball. Once the ball was launched over to the full-backs, they would form triangles on either side with the wide-midfielders up the field, and the central midfielders laterally. The problem was of technical quality. Many times, the intention behind the combinational play was admirable, but the execution would go haywire.
When Elche had the ball, Barcelona would immediately counter-press. Due to this, there were times when Elche lost the ball in Barcelona’s half with many players committed forward. Following this, Barcelona would find a lot of space to progress. As we see in the image below, Barcelona have just won possession in their own half. Elche have five players in the opposition’s half, and Barcelona have five, including Busquets, ready to attack. This was a recurring theme.
The problem with this was Elche’s full-backs failing to fall back in time. As we can see, Ousmane Dembele is completely free to make a run behind the defence. Though organized when without the ball, Elche’s defensive line was chaotic when caught on the counter. This led to Barcelona getting many chances on the counter. However, a combination of individual errors from Barcelona’s players and Elche’s willingness to absorb pressure, the Catalans lacked the final, decisive pass.
In the image below, we see another important aspect of Elche’s game plan. They would always look to force Barcelona wide and attempt nullifying the threat. Forcing a technically astute side to play down the wings can often be a good way to cope with them, but Elche failed to be solid enough in defence as both the goals showed.
Barcelona look to be finding their rhythm, after a slow start to the season. This victory was a step in the right direction for the Catalans, while Miguel Almiron’s side was a model example of a team’s technical limitations hindering the tactics. Elche have much work to do as this matchup clearly reinforced. However, this matchup could have easily gone the other way if not for a great save by Ter Stegen to keep Barcelona 0-1 up. Either way, an important three points, and a crucial first goal for Riqui Puig.
The Blaugrana are on their way to becoming greater than the sum of their parts but are yet to prove themselves against stronger opposition.