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.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?
Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.
He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.
Tactical and Statistical Analysis
Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.
Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.
Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).
In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.
His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.
Where would he fit at Barça?
Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.
Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.
The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.
Should Barcelona pursue him?
There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.
There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.
He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.
While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.
On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.
Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.
Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.