As Barcelona won against Espanyol in a new yet problematic style in La Liga, this tactical analysis will provide a deeper look at this match-up.
The 172nd Derbi Barceloní took place at the Camp Nou yesterday on the 8th of July 2020. With Barcelona in second place in La Liga and their rivals Espanyol rock-bottom in the table at twentieth, the winners were widely expected to be Barcelona. Especially with their form at the Camp Nou, Espanyol would really need a miracle to beat the Catalans.
If Espanyol didn’t win this match, even a draw would be enough to confirm their relegation. Espanyol have had a lot of problems this season. With manager Rubi and star striker Borja Iglesias leaving for Real Betis, the Periquitos‘ decline started early on. Now, after three managerial changes, Espanyol find themselves at the bottom of La Liga and confirmed for relegation.
In the derby on Wednesday, Barcelona managed to win 1–0 thanks to a goal by Luis Suárez. Surprisingly, the match was quite close. In this deep analysis of the Barcelona versus Espanyol, we will take a look at the tactical trends seen throughout the match.
Coach: Quique Setién
Semedo (45′ Ansu Fati) · Piqué · Lenglet · Jordi Alba
Rakitić (90+2′ Araújo) · Busquets · Sergi Roberto
Suárez (82′ Braithwaite) · Griezmann (71′ Vidal)
Coach: Francisco Rufete
Víctor Gómez · Bernardo · Cabrera · Calero (66′ Sergi Darder) · Dídac Vilà
David López · Marc Roca (86′ Wu Lei) · Pol Lozano
Raúl de Tomás · Embarba (74′ Campuzano)
A defence deserving of more
Though on paper, RCD Espanyol played in a 5–3–2, they transitioned into a sort of 5–4–1 or 5–3–1–1 when defending. 28-year-old Adrián Embarba would drop back to contribute to the press. When Barcelona had the ball in front of Espanyol’s midfield three, Embarba would drop back and he and a select player from the three midfielders would attempt a double-press. When Barcelona had sustained possession in the opposition half, Embarba would drop into midfield, completely transitioning into a 5–4–1.
As we can see in the image, Espanyol maintained a compact three in midfield with one player, usually Adrián Embarba looking to press the player with the ball.
Adrián Embarba would drop back into midfield to make it a 5–4–1 for Espanyol
This allowed the visitors’ back five to cover the entire width of the field. Full-backs Jordi Alba and Nélson Semedo are always an integral part of Barcelona’s team with their overlaps. To avoid this, playing five at the back is certainly helpful. Dídac Vilà and Víctor Gómez could mark the full-backs if they advanced, with the defence still remaining stable. In a back four, Barcelona could have caused overloads down the wings more often.
Though Espanyol’s midfield three would act as a compact unit, they were instructed to man-mark each Barcelona midfielder in the diamond that the Catalans played. As we can see from the image, above, Embarba joined the midfield so that the four could tightly mark Barcelona’s midfield. Both this and the compact three were clearly aimed towards making sure Barcelona were unable to play through the middle. This attempt was quite successful. From the image below, we can see that the majority of Barcelona’s attacks were from out wide.
Barcelona’s attacking map versus Espanyol | Graph via SofaScore
New system, same old problems
Barça coach Quique Setién went with the new formation he had been using recently: 4–4–2 diamond or 4–3–1–2. This greatly succeeded against Villareal. However, against a team like Espanyol where a low block was expected, many people were unsure whether or not it would work. Unfortunately, as many expected, it was not up to the mark. Barcelona were unable to be penetrative against a low block. The substitution of Ansu Fati at half-time could have helped in this. Unfortunately, the youngster was immediately sent off when VAR recommended a red card.
Barcelona played in a 4–4–2 diamond with Messi acting as the number 10, from where he could make the most of his ball-playing abilities
In the 4–4–2 diamond, Lionel Messi acted as the number 10 with Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann up top. A few times, the Argentine dropped back as much as the defenders to receive the ball. He was clearly given a free role to make the most of his abilities. Leo’s creative abilities are very beneficial to the team in such positions. We saw this against Villareal and a few previous matches clearly. Unfortunately, against the offside trap that Espanyol played along with their highly defensive system, there weren’t enough chances for the Barcelona forwards to capitalise on.
Luis Suárez read the play very well and was aware of where the ball would end up. His movement was aimed towards reaching that point
Though on the ball Luis Suárez was quite disappointing, his off-the-ball movement made the difference. As we see in this image, the Uruguayan read the game perfectly. Antoine Griezmann’s pass to Messi was already underway and Suárez knew that Messi would play it to him next. Hence, his run was already in expectation of where the ball would end up, leading to a goal.
Though unrefined on the ball, Luis Suárez’s off-ball movement was causing small problems in the Espanyol defence. With Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig, this could have been the key to unlocking the opposing structure
As we can see in the example above, Suárez’s runs behind the defence were enough to cause small problems within the offside trap. With a player like Ansu Fati on the left wing, Suárez and he could have probably caused a lot of problems for Espanyol. Combined with the direct passing and superb vision of players like Riqui Puig, could this have been the key towards Barcelona’s win? It will remain an unknown.
Barcelona were mostly caught on the counter. Barcelona played a dangerously high line. Though Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet don’t lack pace, they aren’t especially fast either. Coming up against a team of high calibre, this will be a huge weakness. The fact that we have seen this high line so often and that there hasn’t been a clear alternative is very concerning. Thus, it is no surprise that Barça were very vulnerable to long balls from the opposition. As we can see in the following instance, often Piqué and Lenglet were the only ones defending.
Often, Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet were the only defenders in their own half. Playing this high line, Barcelona were vulnerable to long balls and counter-attacks
Even though Sergio Busquets provided cover, his skills are inclined towards positioning and intercepting cleverly.
Against Raúl de Tomas and Adrián Embarba, Piqué and Lenglet were the only ones who were capable of working against the pace from the attackers, and the long balls from Espanyol caught them out a few times. In recent weeks, Barcelona’s defence has looked shaky, to say the least. There hasn’t been a proper plan which works, rather improvisation and individual talent. This has however brought to light just how good Clément Lenglet is.
Besides, Antoine Griezmann has the ability to work hard to retain possession and also tackle fairly well thanks to his experience under Atlético de Madrid’s Diego Simeone. His work rate complements this as well. To use this to Barcelona’s advantage, Setien’s side transitioned into a 4–4–2 when defending with Griezmann dropping into midfield. Not only does this improve the defensive stability, but it also makes the transition into attack easier with Messi and Griezmann’s interchangeable roles.
What made the difference?
In the end, Barcelona’s exceptional quality in the box awarded them with a goal in the end, which saw them win this fixture 1–0. Espanyol played admirably, but it was too late for them. This display wasn’t deserving of relegation, but their performances throughout the season dug this hole for themselves.
This match could have easily gone Espanyol’s way. For them, the next steps are to make huge changes within the club and immediately start preparing to get promotion next season. For Barcelona, there are still a lot of problems. Will this defence sustain the onslaught of a higher-caliber team in the Champions League? Will Quique Setién’s next gameplans be adaptive according to the their previous struggles, which we saw this time? How can this team overturn a low block?
Unfortunately, regardless of the results, things don’t look good for the blaugranas if they are to remain like this, but there’s still a lot to work on for Barcelona.
Detailed Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona
In collaboration with Anurag Agate.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.
A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.
Barcelona structure and formation
Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.
Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.
Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.
Atletico structure and formation
Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.
Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.
The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.
Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.
The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:
Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :
Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.
Buildup to shots and goals
Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.
Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.
Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.
Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.
In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:
Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.
Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.
For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.
Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.
The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:
Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :
Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.
Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.
The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.
Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.