In a tricky and tedious clash with Leganés, Barcelona ended up coming up top and winning the match: this is the tactical analysis of such uneasy win.
In the second matchday in La Liga since the return of football, Barcelona faced Leganés at the Camp Nou. After a 4–0 victory against Mallorca, Barça come up against the team at the 19th position this time, Leganés. On one hand, the blaugranas had easily been better than Lega throughout the season. On the other, in their last encounter Barcelona were 1–0 down at half-time and it was only through a late Arturo Vidal goal that they won 1–2.
However, coming into yesterday’s match, Barcelona were the favoured team looking at their ability and performances throughout the campaign. Eventually, the Catalans won by 2–0, but the match was not easy for them at all. In this analysis, we will take a look at the tactical trends both sides displayed through the match and how they affected the outcome.
With the current fixture list providing around three days between two matchdays, rotations in the line-up were expected. Key players must be well-rested and ready for the intense campaign to come. This was Barcelona’s starting XI:
Sergi Roberto · Piqué · Lenglet · Junior Firpo
Rakitić · Busquets · Arthur
Messi · Griezmann · Ansu Fati
Substitutes: Neto · Iñaki Peña · Umtiti · Semedo · Araújo · De Jong · Collado · Monchu · Riqui Puig · Vidal · Braithwaite Suárez
Junior Firpo got a chance at left-back with Jordi Alba suspended and Lenglet replaced Ronald Araújo. Frenkie de Jong and Arturo Vidal both started on the bench with Arthur Melo and Iván Rakitić coming in for them. Youngster Ansu Fati got a chance starting in the place of ex-Leganés player Martin Braithwaite. Meanwhile, Leganés line-up was as follows:
Ruibal · Awaziem · Tarín · Bustinza · Jonathan Silva
Recio · Roque Mesa · Rubén Pérez
Eraso · Guerrero
Substitutes: Lombo · Soriano · Navarro · Omeruo · Rosales · Kévin Rodrigues · Amadou · Carillo · Assalé · Bryan Gil · Avilés · Amores
Guido Carillo and Kévin Rodriguez both were rested with Javier Eraso and Miguel Ángel Guerrero starting upfront instead. Ibrahim Amadou and Roberto Rosales were rotated too for Rodrigo Tarín and Kenneth Omeruo, plus Aitor Ruibal added for an added defensive element.
Barcelona played in a 4–3–3 with the full-backs drifting forward very frequently. Quique Setién’s side looked to attack as much as possible. A low block is one of the problems Barcelona have faced due to a lack of directness. That’s why players like Ansu Fati are helpful to take on defenders in one-on-ones.
Leganés started out in a 5–3–2 on paper but it was more of a 5–4–1 with Javier Eraso dropping back into midfield. Rodri Tarín acted as cover for the two central defenders Bustinza and Awaziem in the low block. Leganés tended to rely only on counter to attack.
Barcelona had a clear plan in mind similar to the one from their match against Mallorca. The full-backs were given a lot of responsibility, the wingers would drop back into midfield often, especially Lionel Messi, and triangles were formed between the midfielder, winger and full-back on either side.
The unique skillset of Messi caused a lot of difference between the wings. On the left, Ansu Fati would look to stretch the opposition full-back. This in turn allowed Arthur Melo to look for space in the half-spaces. Junior Firpo would try to find either of them when he had the ball. Off the ball, however, he did not make as many overlaps as Sergi Roberto on the right. This is because Messi has great passing ability along with dribbling, which allows him to drop into midfield with both the full-back and right-central midfielder in front of him. By doing this, he had the freedom to create which the little magician made the most of.
❛ It was a complicated match because the Leganés players closed the spaces and they were very defensive. We still aren’t at our best in controlling the ball and getting the ball forward ❜
Till around the thirtieth minute, Barcelona had a lot of possession but looked to be unable to find a way through the defence. Until there, some things were observable such as Leganés looking to contain with three or even four players against Messi. So, if he had the ball, their team structure around him would change. Antoine Griezmann’s runs were useful as they stretched the defence and allowed the midfielders a bit more space than usual.
These observations were used to find the solution against the Lega defence by Quique Setién. Messi henceforth played a more central role, the midfielders were getting forward between the lines and Griezmann was making a lot of runs between the centre-backs and full-backs. This gave the midfielders more space which resulted in Iván Rakitić launching a ball over the top for the French centre-forward, who couldn’t get there fast enough. If the ball were better, he would have had an open shot on goal.
Even though this solved the problem of space, Arthur Melo was still facing problems. Positionally, he was not the best. Rather than getting into good spaces and receiving he was receiving and then trying to get into good spaces.
For the overloads of full-backs, midfielders and wingers, the trigger for making runs was very clear. Whenever the winger had the ball, the midfielders would make runs around the full-backs. The advantages of this were twofold. Firstly, Barcelona’s midfielders were not getting enough space in their interior positions due to the pressing in Leganés’ low block. Secondly, with five at the back, clear through balls were not going to cut apart the visitors’ defence easily.
Without their stars, Leganés still were ambitious and enjoyed a couple of clear cut chances to score | Photo by Imago
So moving around the Leganés players and taking the right opportunity was the only option. But crosses from the sides by the midfielders had a chance of making a difference as this stretched the Leganés defence and the wingers went in narrower in such scenarios. This is what led to Junior Firpo getting space in such an advanced area and Ansu Fati then converting the chance for the first goal.
On the attack, the only options for Leganés were balls over the defence or catching Barcelona on the counter. With the loss of Martin Braithwaite to Barcelona and Youssef En-Neyseri to Sevilla, and with Óscar Rodriguez suspended, they lacked their main attacking threats. All the responsibility fell to their number 9, Guerrero. The 29-year-old Spaniard would look to hold up the ball, pass and make runs behind the defence.
Leganés would play long balls and have four or five players make attacking runs. They were unable to sustain any attacking play, though. Still, they were able to get a few good chances, all through Guerrero and all on the counter. Their defensive tactical set-up did not favour much attacking play.
Javier Aguirre’s Leganés had clear defensive tactics with one main purpose: avoid conceding and catch Barcelona on the counter. They wee aware that there was no point in trying to technically outplay the Catalans. So they must be tactically sound and communicate well. Throughout the match, they were very organised and they did not make it easy at all for their opposition.
Conscious of their limitations and situation, Leganés Mexican coach Javier Aguirre tried to make the most of his resources and tactics | Photo by Imago
In their 5–4–1 low-block, Tarín was the cover for the two central defenders. These two were the ones who would press more aggressively with Tarín for help. Usually, having two strikers to pin down the centre-backs and a number 10 to occupy the space between the lines helps. But instead of another striker, Rakitić or Arthur would look to pin the centre-backs. That said, Leganés had no qualms in letting them do that as their second defensive line was still able to make sure they didn’t get much space.
The culés were allowed possession out wide. The second defensive line of Leganés would shift according to where Barcelona had possession. They were well-coordinated and were able to keep the opposition from making any major strides in attack. But when the ball was with the midfielders, Leganés would press immediately and make sure they didn’t get much time on the ball to pick out a pass.
When Lionel Messi had the ball, Leganés would immediately have multiple players on him. This worked most of the time through the match. Due to this, the midfielders would look to make use of the space that Lega occupied before pressing onto Messi, however they were restricted only to lateral passing.
On the other side, Barcelona’s defenders didn’t have much purely defensive duties to carry out as Leganés had very brief attacks. They instead focused more on distributing the ball and carrying it forward. Clément Lenglet was impressive throughout the match. He not only blocked a goal but even his tackling and distribution was very well executed. His long-passing ability helped the locals significantly.
Gerard Piqué would look to get forward with the ball and got deep into the opposition half a few times as well. Sergio Busquets was very good in facilitating the transitions but, in terms of stopping the counters, his lack of pace was a problem as Leganés looked to use the wings predominantly.
Leganés really did their best to make things as tough for the azulgranas as possible and they deserve to be commended. Their defence was impressive. Nonetheless, they lacked severely in attack, which was understandable since they have lost their main attacking threats to other teams. Barcelona had to work hard to get the win and the goals were due to individual talent and perseverance. Though this was far from an ideal performance, such victories are very important for teams that aspire to win the league. Barcelona now face Sevilla next whereas Leganés will meet with relegation-battling Mallorca. Two key fixtures.
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.