An analysis of the game by numbers, statistics, and tactics as FC Barcelona returned to winning ways against Dynamo Kyiv in the UEFA Champions League.
FC Barcelona managed to maintain a 100% record in the UEFA Champions League group stage of the 2020-21 campaign with a 2-1 victory over Dynamo Kyiv. The narrow scoreline very much reflects the close nature of the game as it unfolded.
Kyiv were hit badly by COVID-19 and had 13 first team players missing from the team. Even then, they managed to give a good account of themselves. They caused all sorts of problems for Barcelona, as Gerard Pique and coach Ronald Koeman both acknowledged later.
Barcelona went in with a nominal 4-2-3-1 yet again, with some personnel changes. Marc-André ter Stegen returned from injury for his first game of the season in goal. Clement Lenglet and Sergi Roberto were omitted from the first team. Frenkie de Jong partnered Pique in the heart of the defence, while Sergiño Dest returned as the right back.
The game, for the first time, saw a midfield duo of Sergio Busquets and Miralem Pjanic. Young Pedri played as the 10 behind Antoine Griezmann. Ansu Fati and Lionel Messi started on the right and left flank, respectively.
However, in possession, Messi rarely stayed wide. He would often drop deeper than the double pivot to facilitate buildup. Griezmann would drop back to combine or help out defensively. Pedri ventured higher up to press and combine with Fati, Dest, Messi, and Griezmann.
This was de Jong’s third game playing partially as a center back, and he played the first half splendidly. In possession, he showed his ability to carry the ball up from deep. He often pushed up to the line of the midfielders and even higher sometimes. He was the first building block in the usual left-sided overload with Fati and Jordi Alba.
The first 20 minutes saw a good amount of pressing from Barcelona. De Jong’s ball carrying abilities allowed the midfielders to stay up and push high. Off the ball scenario was curious though, as Busquets pushed incredibly high to press. It worked in the first 20 minutes, as Barcelona pressed Kyiv into corners and sidelines and forced long passes that were easily won back.
But after that, the intensity dropped. Most notably, Messi stopped pressing. Barcelona were in almost a 4-3-3 structure when pressing with Busquets, Pedri and Griezmann pushed high, Pjanic marshalling the midfield alone, and Messi and Fati on the flanks. There were loads of space for Dynamo to exploit.
Dynamo Kyiv lined up in a skewed 4-2-3-1, almost a 4-1-4-1 formation. They were mostly pegged back in their half. In possession, they countered with the pace of Gerson Rodrigues and late-arriving runners in Viktor Tsygankov and Vitaliy Buyalskiy.
The game was almost exclusively played in Kyiv’s half. Kyiv players didn’t actively press high. Instead, they tried winning the ball back deep in their half and then counter with pace. The field tilt, which measures the share of final third passes, was overwhelmingly in favour of Barcelona, as shown:
Poor finishing has been haunting Barcelona this season this game was no different. Notably, Lionel Messi went yet another game without scoring from open play. Having said that, Barcelona can consider themselves truly unlucky not to have scored at least 3 goals inside the first 20 minutes. Here are the xG flow charts and shot maps from the game:
However, after that, Kyiv snatched the initiative and creative multiple scoring opportunities. They got their reward, a few minutes after Barcelona scored their second. Although the hosts finished the game with every statistic in their favour, the visitors players can really hold their heads high with the performance. Here is the game data at a glance:
Let’s have a brief look at the goals and some shots by either team. Barcelona had a fantastic start and almost went ahead with a near-post Griezmann flick that was saved by the young goalkeeper Ruslan Neshcheret. But Barcelona won a penalty pretty soon, and Lionel Messi converted.
There were a flurry of high quality shots after that. First, Pedri struck the post from a pass by Dest. Then, Fati’s ferocious shot was palmed away by Neshcheret and Griezmann stunningly failed to score from the rebound from close range.
Neshcheret kept up his good form to deny Messi and Fati soon after, and Kyiv should be thanking the 18-year-old — their third-choice goalkeeper — for keeping the scoreline down to just a single goal deficit.
For the rest of the match, Barcelona mostly created low-quality shots from distance. Neshcheret did brilliantly to keep out a Messi freekick and then deny Sergi Roberto’s point-blank header. However, he was finally beaten by a brilliant glancing header by Pique following a cross from Fati.
Kyiv created several good opportunities, exploiting the space left in the midfield and the pace and positioning of the defence. They were finally rewarded in the 75th minute. A cross was slightly deflected by Dest’s attempt to intercept. Ter Stegen stopped the first shot that followed, but the rebound fell in the path of Tsygankov – who arrived in the box ahead of Alba – to tap in.
Barcelona went through phases of divine passing, followed by periods of uninspired passing. When they were competent, they attacked from all sorts of areas. In particular, both half-spaces were well-utilized to enter the box. Zone 14 saw a lot of activity as well, but a congested centre meant the ball only entered the penalty area once from there.
While the left side was utilized more, courtesy of Alba and Fati, Dest held his own on the right. He was practically the only offensive and the defensive cog on the right wing for the bulk of the match. He ended up with 2 key passes; Messi had 4, Fati and Alba had 3 each, Busquets had 2, Pjanic and Pedri chipped in with 1 each. Here is the key pass map :
Kyiv, on the other hand, created the bulk of the danger from wide areas exclusively, with Gerson pivoting all counter-attacks coupled with late runs from other forwards. While lacking in volume, the counters were devastating and caused a lot of trouble for Barcelona. Here are the progressive pass maps and the switch maps :
Defence, Pressing and Issues
As the game data table earlier indicates, neither team pressed too intensely. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the lower the number, the better the press. Barcelona were better, with a PPDA of 16. Dynamo Kyiv didn’t want to press high and had a PPDA of 32.
However, the average numbers barely tell the story here. Here is the PPDA flow-map for Barcelona – as is shown, Barcelona didn’t press well beyond the 30th minute.
Barcelona concentrated their pressing defending activities on the flanks where they had to deal with long balls and switches constantly. They barely stopped anything high up in the central zones. Kyiv’s bad passes and Barcelona’s defensive heatmaps show the same :
For Kyiv, targeting the lone man Dest on the right was a highlight as shown below. Other than that, they were mostly forced to do a lot of deep defending to stop Barcelona. As the turnover creation maps show, they mainly created turnovers in the Dest battle or intercepted deep and countered or launched long balls.
Having discussed defence in broad strokes, let’s have a look at some individual examples of terrible defending. First up, both midfielders pushing high and wide led to enormous gaps in the midfield. In the image below, both Busquets and Pjanic moved high to press but did so poorly. Not only did they leave space behind, but also failed to win the ball back.
Shown below is yet another example of Busquets pressing high. Barcelona are structured in a 4-3-3 structure while pressing. Uncoordinated and half-hearted pressing led to a Kyiv counter, although they could not get a shot off in this particular case.
Counters attacks have been Barcelona’s Kryptonite for several seasons now, and this was on display against the Ukranian outfit as well. With full backs pushed high and a midfield leaving gaps, Kyiv countered quite frequently.
Shown below are Gerson Rodrigues’ progressive carries, and an example of a counter-attack. The counter went from dispossession near Kyiv’s penalty area to almost a 4-v-3 counter in a matter of seconds. To be noted, Rodrigues was not carrying the ball in the image shown here :
Each of the shots Kyiv took had a story of their own as well. For the first one, Vitaliy Buyalskiy was allowed to ghost into the box for a thumping header. Griezmann did not track him, and none of the defenders or midfielders were even looking at him. Ter Stegen had to be called into action to save Barcelona with a sensational save.
The second half started with Kyiv keeping possession extremely well from the kick-off. A long ball and a couple of interchanges sucked in both the centre backs and Dest on the right side of Barcelona’s half. A simple ball slipped through, a nutmeg on Alba by Tsygankov, and ter Stegen had to be called into action yet again.
Soon after, there was another counter. It started again from a fairly innocuous position with Messi losing the ball at the edge of Kyiv’s box. But Rodrigues’ powerful running and a clever pass led to the shot by Vladyslav Supryaha. Even though de Jong went toe to toe with Supryaha, he was shrugged off as the striker was able to release a shot.
The scoreboard was a fair reflection of the game – a narrow, uncomfortable victory. Even though expected goals tell a story of superiority from Barcelona’s perspective, Kyiv came very close to pegging the equaliser in dying minutes of the game; and it would have been no more than what they deserved.
Barcelona lost concentration and intensity midway through the game, which has been a recurring issue even in the past seasons. Fast and strong centre backs with elite defensive qualities are needed for a team that plays such a high line. Also, perhaps its time to shelf the 4-2-3-1/4-2-4 for a 4-3-3, at least temporarily. Koeman needs to fix the glaring issues in the team fast, or this could end up being a very long season to endure.
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.