As Barcelona needed their substitutes to get an indispensable win against Athletic Club de Bilbao, this tactical analysis will provide a deeper look at such tight victory.
Barça’s goalless draw with Sevilla on Friday, and Real Madrid’s 1–2 win over Real Sociedad on Sunday, saw Los Blancos climb to the top of the La Liga table on head-to-head goal difference. For Barcelona, the La Liga title was no longer dependent on their results solely. They now have to hope Madrid drop points and they themselves don’t in order to win the league.
The match against Athletic Club de Bilbao was hence a must-win. In a game where the substitutes made the real difference and some problems were still not fixed, the Catalans won 1–0. Find out how the Barcelona beat a dogged Athletic Club set-up in this tactical analysis.
Quique Setién’s Barcelona lined up in their preferred 4–3–3. With two changes from their previous encounter with Sevilla, Martin Braithwaite made way for Frenchman Antoine Griezmann alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez in attack, while Iván Rakitić was benched for Arthur Melo. The midfield of Sergio Busquets, Arthur and Arturo Vidal was chosen with Frenkie de Jong out injured. Sergi Roberto sustained an injury as well leading to Nélson Semedo being the only choice at right-back. In defence, Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet played centrally with Jordi Alba down the left.
Barcelona’s average positions against Athletic Club | Graph via SofaScore
Gaizka Garitano’s Athletic side lined up in a 4–2–3–1. The lone striker upfront, Iñaki Williams, had youngster Oihan Sancet as the attacking midfielder behind him. Iñigo Córdoba and Iñigo Lekue played as the wide midfielders with Mikel Vesga and Unai López centrally.
In defence, Yuri Berchiche was out suspended, which meant Mikel Balenziaga was the left-back. Along with him, the left central-defender Yeray Álvarez was tasked with making sure Leo Messi didn’t get his 700th goal. The right side of defence was composed of youngster Unai Núñez and captain Óscar de Marcos.
Athletic Club’s average positions at the Camp Nou | Graph via SofaScore
Dynamism without efficiency
Barcelona‘s formation was quite fluid. The two central midfielders, Arturo Vidal and Arthur were moving into space as and when it popped up. Often even making forward runs off the ball, they were given a certain amount of freedom. Antoine Griezmann’s dropping back to receive the ball and link-up play was helpful in the build-up. This also created pockets of space behind him. Messi, of course, dropped into midfield to orchestrate play frequently. The full-backs often made forward runs.
There was a lot of dynamism and even some fluidity but none of it was efficient. Griezmann still hasn’t exactly found his bearings with Messi and him. His link-up play was helpful, but in the final third or in front of goal, where it mattered, Barcelona couldn’t rely on him. There were some passages of play which were very progressive but the Frenchman still doesn’t look in sync with is teammates. He had 61 touches from which he managed 35 passes with a 76.1% success rate, lost possession 14 times. Playing 65 minutes, he had only one shot and 0.06 xG and an xA of 0.
Arthur looked to get into positions where he could receive the ball often. He also tried to make forward passes whenever possible. But he lacked the killer pass. The Brazilian aimed to get forward with the ball but his lack of directness often meant he went forward a few steps and then laterally. Against a team like Athletic, who when defending played with two lines of four, Arthur and Griezmann linking up would have helped a lot.
But, instead, Arthur looked to lack creativity though he has the talent. On the other side, Vidal was playing much further up the field with Messi and him switching often. Arthur had to stick to his position and he was unable to have much influence.
Barcelona’s front three all tend to drift towards the middle, which causes a narrow formation
The front three have lacked width often. Griezmann, with his previous experiences, tends to drift towards the centre, similar to Messi. This does give the midfielders more space to move up the field but the lack of width is something that affects the directness as well. With players like Ansu Fati, the opposition defense is stretched and it also gives the midfielders a chance to thread a ball through.
Messi did not have the best game either but his dribbling and constant threat was a huge help to Vidal to get space on the right and for Nélson Semedo to overlap. Messi completed ten dribbles, the most on the pitch with the second being Gerard Piqué and Griezmann at two.
Another problem Barcelona faced in the final third was lack of Chemistry in the front three. Luis Suárez was unable to make an impact and with Messi passing the ball to him a lot of times, it’s no surprise he was dispossessed 13 times. The Uruguayan had a passing accuracy of less than 70%, which is again expected since many times his passes were out of sync with the others.
Time for homegrown youth
Throughout the clash, Athletic Club youngster Oihan Sancet was a threat for the blaugranas. For Barcelona, substitutes Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati added a whole another dimension which we will discuss later.
Athletic Club’s attack came predominantly from the right side and mostly through long balls and counters-attacks
Technically, Sancet could have done much better with a 61% passing accuracy. However, he won 7 out of 9 ground duels, was fouled thrice and made 4 tackles. His mindset was excellent, his confidence visible all the time. Out of the 13 passes he attempted, 11 were forward passes. Athletic relied heavily on him connecting with the wide-midfielders on the counter. When they were on the attack, the visitors were in a 4–2–3–1. Most of their attacks were down the right.
Iñaki Williams was unable to get behind or dribble past the defense with Piqué and Lenglet positionally being excellent. Hence, he looked to bring his teammates into the attack by holding up the ball. Sergio Busquets had a tough job with Williams and Sancet both being threats, but the Spanish defensive mid was able to contain Sancet as much as possible and was always there to recycle possession in the first and second thirds of the field.
Willaims, playing as the striker, was aerially excellent winning three duels. In the final third, he was not very effective unfortunately. Barcelona’s full-backs fell back in time, which meant the Basques did not have pure counter-attacking chances. They would often start the counter attack but would hardly ever have numerical superiority in or near Barcelona’s box. The Catalan defense was one of the plus points helping Marc-André ter Stegen get a fifth straight clean sheet.
Substitutions to unlock the match
On this occasion, manager Quique Setién did not shy away from bringing on the La Masía graduates Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati. These substitutions, along with Croatian midfielder Iván Rakitić, were key in Barcelona’s victory.
Barcelona’s xG improved steadily after substitutions were made | Graph via Understat
Barcelona’s substitution changed the nature of the match. From this xG graph we can see how their xG saw substantial improvement as the substitutes came on.
The stale and lateral play that Barcelona found themselves stuck in was due to the inefficiency in the final third and a lack of directness. Riqui Puig, known for his direct and excellent passing, was brought on in the middle of the second half. He arguably changed the game. He replaced Arthur in midfield. With this substitution Barcelona had an excellent asset in transitions. Puig’s line-breaking passes were very impressive.
Playing 34 minutes, he had a passing accuracy of 84.4%. With 1 key pass and 100% passing accuracy in long balls and crosses, this forward passing was essential for Barcelona to dominate the attack in the final third as well. Constantly looking for the ball, finding space and with a very positive mindset, the young Spaniard added energy to the whole team.
Iván Rakitić was brought on in place of Sergio Busquets. He was playing as a pivot but he got forward at every chance. This led to him scoring the only goal of the match and giving Barça the victory. Ansu Fati’s cameo was like a spark in the dark for Barcelona’s attack. Excellent decision making, great dribbling and a fresh mindset were the things he brought to the table. The breath of fresh air these youngsters offered was very important for the local team and, more importantly, the culés.
Barcelona still have problems in the final third. The lack of coordination is a serious problem which has to be solved as soon as possible. This victory was nowhere near an ideal performance and Athletic could have even managed to get three points easily instead. Coming up against Celta de Vigo next, Barcelona have that match to improve their performance but, after that, it’s the Catalans against Diego Simeone’s Atlético de Madrid.
This fixture is going to be a hugely important match for the title race, as good as a decider if Real Madrid don’t lose tonight against Mallorca, who are in the relegation zone. The excellent defence and the individual talent of a few players saw Barça beat the Basque side last night, but the azulgranas are not a team that looks like it is greater than the sum of its part, something that the champions of the league must be.
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.