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.
Erling Haaland — One for Barcelona to chase
Erling Haaland is set to dominate the world of football for the next decade, and Barcelona will regret if they do not sign him in the next summer window.
Whenever Barcelona are linked with new players, one question always emerges: “Does he have the Barça DNA?” Although a vague term, Barça DNA has come to mean the traits that a Barça player should have, whether already at the club or a prospective transfer. These traits include everything from being technically sound to fitting a possession-oriented style — think of Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, and Lionel Messi.
It’s natural for a club to want players that fit their ethos, especially Barcelona who have such a well-established identity, but where should the line be drawn? Should the Blaugrana miss out on top players because of an inhibition to change tactics, or should the team mould itself around them?
This is where Erling Haaland comes into play. At only 20-years old, Haaland has already solidified himself as one of the best young players in the world, and his position at centre-forward fills a dire need for the Catalans. And to the joy of Culés, the links to him have already begun, with Joan Laporta particularly interested in signing him for the club when and if he becomes President.
Rumours around his signing prop up two eternal arguments: He’s a world-class player that we need versus, he doesn’t fit our player profile.
How do Barcelona navigate this tricky situation?
Who is “The Terminator”?
Dubbed ‘the Terminator’, Haaland burst onto the world stage in the 2019-20 season with Austrian club Red Bull Salzburg, tallying 24 goals in 20 appearances. He also made headlines with the Norwegian international team in the under-20 World Cup, where he scored nine goals in one match.
His ‘meditation’ celebrations are among things Haaland has caught attention for. (Photo via Imago)
In January 2020, he made a mid-season switch to Borussia Dortmund and has been wreaking havoc ever since. Now in the midst of his first full season with the German club, Haaland has scored 33 goals in 31 appearances, winning the Golden Boy Award as well, looking set to dominate world football for the next decade.
Haaland is notorious for his finishing, goal-scoring instincts, and intelligent off-the-ball movement. He scores in a variety of manners, whether with powerful long-range shots or well-placed finishes. As aforementioned, his goalscoring record speaks for itself, having already scored 17 goals in 13 appearances this season.
At 6’4″, he is a menace for opposing defenders, boasting a natural ability in the air as well as blistering pace, a combination unheard of, and feared. Earlier this year in a match against Paris Saint-Germain, the Norwegian reached a top speed of 36 kilometers per hour.
The 20-year old tends to play off the shoulder of the defence, menacingly waiting for a through-ball or long ball from his creative teammates.
Below is Haaland’s heat-map from this season, representing his average positions on the pitch. Evidently, he lurks in and around the box, waiting for the right moment to pounce.
Haaland’s heat-map from for the 2020/21 BuLi season. (Courtesy Sofascore)
With the ball at his feet, his pace and physicality allow him to out-run his defender, and without it, his world-class positioning always results in him being in the best spot to score a goal. His movement also drags opposing defenders, putting his teammates in prime goalscoring opportunities. Haaland is a nightmare to defend and must be closely marked because all he needs is a sliver of space to score.
Though not his best attribute, he can link up well with his midfielders, playing small one-twos, then receiving the ball in the penalty box.
Haaland is a versatile scorer, who can do a lot with creators like the ones Barcelona has behind him. (Photo via Imago)
Haaland is a counter-attacking threat as he can use his pace to capitalize on regrouping defenders. He’s also adept at holding up the ball, fending off defenders with his physicality and laying the ball off to his teammates. He’s an old-school number nine, with drops of a brilliant, adaptable player who can score goals out of thin air.
With at least a decade in front of him, Haaland can still improve, and one can only wonder what his ceiling is.
“I’ve maybe been around too long but I have never seen a guy since maybe Messi or Ronaldo that developed at such a young age. That’s very unique and he has all the possibilities to become a really world class player.”Norway coach Lars Lagerback
The Numbers Behind the Player
In his young career, Haaland has already established himself as one of the most lethal finishers in the world. He recently became the youngest and fastest player ever to reach 15 Champions League goals, as well as the youngest to score four goals in a single Bundesliga match.
The Norwegian-international has taken 91 shots on target in his professional career, and scored 72 goals, giving him an astonishing shots on target to goals ratio of 79%. He’s averaging 4.21 shots per 90 minutes this season and 2.59 shot-creating actions. Additionally, he comes up with 0.53 goal creating actions a game, showcasing how much of an all-around threat he is.
The following graphic compares Haaland’s statistics in the last two seasons with top-five league forwards.
His goalscoring attributes (red) clearly stand out and his creative stats (yellow) are promising too.
The graphic below compares Haaland’s stats in the Bundesliga over the last two seasons with Bayern Munich’s talisman Robert Lewandowski.
(Graphic from Understat)
The stats are eerily similar, albeit Haaland has played almost half as many minutes as Lewandowski, arriving not before January. The most noteworthy one being the G90 (goals per 90) and A90 stats (assists per 90), where he eclipses the Pole. A goalless outing today barely provides a dent to what has been a fantastic start to life in the 2020/21 Bundesliga season.
Should Barça sign him?
Haaland is evidently a world-class forward, yet questions about his fit persist. Some fans question whether his player profile suits the Catalans, and many are wary of his lack of “Barça DNA”.
While he’s not as much of a creator as Barça might want in the striker position, he’s by no means inept and still has so much time to improve. Furthermore, Barça’s front line is filled with creative players like Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann, and they desperately need someone who is lethal in front of goal. He may not be renowned for his passing or creating in tight spaces, but he excels in the most important duty of a goalscorer: scoring goals.
The goal against PSG is testament of the plethora of goals Haaland is capable of scoring, something Barcelona crave for. (Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts)
On the other hand, Barça typically face teams that like to sit-deep and form a low block. How would Haaland fare against opposition that won’t allow him to maximize his pace and darting runs? Given his ability and instincts, it’s safe to assume that with the right creative pieces behind him, there’s no doubt Haaland could thrive in any setup, especially given his height and built, which can help him bully the strongest defenders in the box.
Above all else, it’s necessary to consider whether Haaland would even want to go to Barcelona, let alone whether the Catalans should pursue him.
The club is an institutional mess, and the squad is performing poorly. It’s not exactly an ideal spot for any player. Barcelona are also struggling financially, and can not realistically pursue Haaland without offloading a lot of other players. Haaland does have a fixed release clause of €75 million, though, and certainly, that plays into Barcelona’s lap. The centre forward would definitely need assurances of being an undisputed starter, as his ability certainly warrants that.
Another reason Barcelona should definitely get into the action to bring him to Spain is because rivals Real Madrid are the clear favourites to sign Kylian Mbappe from Paris Saint-Germain. Ansu Fati, for all his brilliance, is too young to draw comparisons with the Frenchman, but Erling Haaland is the man who can give him real competition, and if shove comes to push, even overtake him.
Alongside Kylian Mbappé, Haaland might be the best young player in the world right now. He has all the necessary attributes to shine anywhere and is a transfer target for most of Europe’s big clubs. The 20-year old could potentially lead Barça’s front line for the next decade, and he could be Barça’s next iconic number nine, following in the footsteps of Luis Suárez, David Villa and Samuel Eto’o.
Haaland is set to dominate the decade, and Barcelona will regret not getting him. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)
He would surely astonish the Camp Nou, even without the so-called “Barça DNA”, but his transfer depends on navigating the financial crisis, and his on the pitch success depends on the right coach. However, just having Haaland on the team sheet, Barcelona would return to instilling genuine fear into their opponents.