Luis Enrique has, ever since the start of his managerial career with Barcelona B, been a propagator of attacking possession-based football. His Barcelona team has so far been the peak of his managerial career. The amalgamation of individual expressionism and collective efficiency seen in that team is matched by few in history. The next challenge of Luis Enrique’s managerial career; La Roja.
Spain faced Greece in the first matchday of the World Cup Qualifiers on 25th March as part of the International Break. Coming into the matchup, the former were strong favourites thanks to a strong squad, a clear game plan and plenty of depth. With a strong midfield three consisting of Rodri as the anchor with Sergio Canales and Koke in front of him, the Spaniards had no problem controlling the game.
On the wings, Ferran Torres and Dani Olmo are players that can offer both incisiveness and width as required, while Alvaro Morata acted as the pressing forward. In defence, the full-backs Jose Gaya and Marcos Llorente were essentially attackers, with Greece allowing Enrique’s side plenty of possession. In front of goalkeeper Unai Simon, the indispensable leader Sergio Ramos was partnered by the leader of Spain’s next-generation, Eric Garcia.
The 20-year-old centre-back was the youngest player among both starting XIs. Under Pep Guardiola’s guidance at Manchester City, Garcia has added a unique ability to his arsenal, which was visible throughout the match — active problem-solving.
Improvisation and intelligence
Spain were trying to build-up from the back from the start. Greece would allow them space in their own half and, to an extent, even in Greece’s half. However, John van‘t Schip’s side aimed to suffocate the supply of passes to midfield. When Rodri would drop back, a Greek striker would follow him and cut passing lanes.
This was seen often as the ball would be circulated between the four defenders for a while, the team patiently looking for passing options. To counter this, Koke and Canales would drop into space besides Rodri. This was one of the few ways the ball was progressed. Another way was through long-balls. Sergio Ramos would be the one switching play often.
During the initial ten minutes, Eric Garcia was attempting no risky passes. It was turning out to be a very conservative performance from him. However, as the match progressed, the La Masia graduate was seen being very vocal and leading the team from the back. Though we don’t exactly know whether it was all thanks to him figuring out the tactics or simply acting as Enrique’s connection to the players on the field, he was dictating the majority of the play on the right when building-up.
Taking into account how Greece were marking Rodri, Garcia would patiently wait for him to drop back. This would drag a Greek striker with him, and Garcia would drive forwards. From here, he did extremely well acting as a base to build up from. Alvaro Morata would usually be too far off to present a clear passing option, but Garcia played some line-breaking passes towards him, which would eliminate the majority of the opposition’s players and allow the wingers and full-backs to receive Morata’s lay-off and advance.
In the second-half, Inigo Martinez was subbed on for Sergio Ramos. The 20-year-old would instruct him on when to move wide to receive, when to shift the defensive line and when to fall-back. Unfortunately, there will always be a certain amount of speculation when we see a player instructing another as we don’t exactly know what is being communicated. Even excluding that, Garcia’s performance was impressive.
With 117 passes successful out of an attempted 120, Garcia’s excellence in passing was clearly visible. He displayed his passing-range often. In the second-half, Koke would move higher up the field. The former Barcelona defender would then play a ball over the opposition to Ferran Torres and facilitate quick combinational play between the two and Marcos Llorente on the right. Out of 7 long passes attempted, he had a 100% success rate.
Apart from this, Garcia defender won all of his duels, made seven recoveries and three interceptions. The match was one that Spain should have won. Greece’s defensive organization, however, was impressive. They were solid when defending as a collective and allowed few clear chances.
The penalty conceded by Spain was a highly controversial one. It was a situation where Inigo Martinez cleared the ball, and the follow-through hit a Greek player. A confident performance by Eric Garcia at the heart of Spain’s defence deserved a clean sheet and a victory, but it was not to be.
With Eric Garcia heavily linked to Barcelona, yesterday’s match further reinforces the fact that this is a player who can be a part of Barcelona’s defence for years to come. One of the most impressive qualities Garcia shows is his obsession with tactics and smart football. Apart from coaching Manchester City’s youth sides when possible, Garcia is thought of as a son by Pep Guardiola as a result of his always-inquisitive nature, which developed a strong bond between the two.
“Eric Garcia is like a son. He was a guy last season that after the lockdown was our best central defender. He never made a mistake and played in the quarter-final of the Champions League.”Pep Guardiola
These kind of players, who are essentially the manager’s eyes and brains on the field, are a special breed. They can be counted on to be ever-reliable, make sure the team is functioning well as a whole, and convey small tweaks and changes to their teammates. In the mould of Philip Lahm, Sergio Busquets, Joshua Kimmich, even Eric Garcia looks set to have a great footballing-career. If Barcelona are able to get him for free, we might look back at it as some of the best business in quite a while in a few years.
Three talking points from Real Madrid 2-1 Barcelona
In the final edition of El Clásico in the 2020/21 domestic campaign, Barcelona incurred their fifth defeat of the league campaign. It was end-to-end stuff in the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium, as an exceptional first-half performance from the hosts was followed up by a tantalizing second from Barça.
This game had everything someone could ask for in a Clásico. There was controversy, passion, goals and for the first time in a few years, a red card was the cherry on the top. These are Barca Universal’s takeaways from the game in the capital.
Real Madrid’s efficiency on show
With four shots on target, 1.58 Expected Goals, and two goals to their name, Real Madrid put to show their sheer efficacy in front of goal, as well as in defence. For the first half at least, Zinédine Zidane’s men were always at the right place, at the right time making all the right movements and to devastating effect.
Los Blancos‘ philosophy is one of winning, and doing so regardless of how the victory is earned. Contrary to the Catalans, who not only need to win, but also do it a certain way, Los Merengues are more than capable of abandoning their usually proactive approach to games in favour of a more reactive one. The fact that they are not bound to a specific ideology makes winning matches one of the simplest of tasks.
They held the ball for only 32% of the game, which goes completely against what a majority would expect them to. At the end of the day, however, possession matters significantly less than what one does with it. With every lapse in concentration from the Garnet and Blue, Madrid had enough men forward, and well enough positioned, to hit them where it hurt.
Despite the relatively low xG, they had enough big chances to even lead 4-0 come the halftime whistle. When it came to defending, their tight-knit defence, in stark contrast to that of their rivals, barely broke a sweat. They imposed an impenetrable low block, and applied a collective press to force as many errors as they could.
In addition to this, Zidane has the luxury of having a starting eleven of devastatingly versatile footballers in his arsenal. Fede Valverde for instance was as much a right-back as he was a central midfielder and a winger. He executed each role to pristine perfection, and so did his peers to ensure all 3 points, and bragging rights stayed in Madrid.
Excellent mentality shift
Following such a harrowing performance in the first half, few, if any, could have expected Barcelona to mount a comeback. Had this been any other team, that would have been possible, but given Real Madrid’s first-half performance, this was all but envisageable.
Indeed, the Catalans did fail to get any points from the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium, however, the sheer mentality they showed in the second half was a sight for sore eyes. Ronald Koeman made the necessary adjustments to the side, reverting to the 4-3-3 and with it, they wrought trouble in the Madrid backline.
Lionel Messi celebrating the goal. pic.twitter.com/ZX1HzWSqAR— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) April 10, 2021
If in the first half Barça seemed caged in endless cycles of worthless possession, then in the second they made thorough use of it. The Blaugrana created eleven chances for themselves in the second period, and while doing this, they in turn limited Los Blancos to just a single shot on goal for the entirety of the half; a complete turnover from their performance in the opening 45 minutes.
It was nail-biting stuff up until the final second of the game, as Ilaix Moriba’s volleyed effort struck the underside of the crossbar. Given the overall performance from both sides, a draw would have been a considerably fairer result, but even in defeat with this version of Barça, the players and fans know that they can keep their heads held high.
A game of fine margins
Games of the magnitude of El Clásico will forever be decided by the most minute of details and the same was the case here.
The first significant one was the frame of the goal. In the first half, following the umpteenth counter attack from Real Madrid, Fede Valverde, who up until then was having yet another phenomenal showing against Barcelona, struck the frame of the post with a shot that crucially bounced underneath Sergio Busquets.
In the second half, Ronald Araújo nearly scored an own goal, but with Ter Stegen rooted to the spot, the ball rolled delicately onto the post and out for a corner. In the final minute of the match, and with Madrid fighting for their lives, Ilaix Moriba struck the underside of the crossbar to end this sensational tie on an emotional high.
Jordi Alba has often been criticized for being just as much a blessing offensively as he is a curse defensively. In the build-up to the hosts’ opener, he had one task to fulfill: mark his opposing fullback. This is one he absolutely failed, as he drifted too far inside, and by the time he had noticed his error, Lucas Vázquez already had Karim Benzema in his sights. Too little, too late.
The final significant detail was in the goal that won Los Blancos the game. After what many consider a poorly given free-kick from the referee’s standpoint, Toni Kroos surely could not believe his eyes when he saw the sheer state of Barça’s wall. Marc André Ter Stegen’s poor leadership of his defenders left him utterly vulnerable, and his German counterpart spared him no blushes, slotting it home to seal the victory for his side.