With a convincing first half and disappointing second, Barça managed to progress into the Champions League quarter-finals. This tactical analysis presents an in-depth look at the Barcelona 3–1 victory over Napoli.
With the national leagues over and the winners of La Liga, Serie A and more already decided, we are now in the midst of a unique Champions League campaign. Unique, in this case, but unfortunately since the reason was a global pandemic. However, the new format is something unique as well. After the round of 16, every match will be a single-legged tie played at a neutral venue in Portugal.
On Saturday, Quique Setién’s Barcelona and Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli faced each other at the Camp Nou after a 1–1 draw at the San Paolo stadium. Though they are two of the best in Europe, their circumstances are polar in a way. Napoli have never been past the round of 16. Whereas, Barcelona have always progressed past the round of 16 since 2004/05.
Regardless of this, there was a lot of tension surrounding this match, especially for culés. Barça haven’t won a single trophy yet this season. Their recent performances haven’t been great and the club is at a low point. Apart from this, a loss would have most probably meant that Setién would be sacked. With such intriguing circumstances, the matchup had a lot to live up to. Find out in this tactical analysis whether or not it did live up to the expectations.
Napoli favoured using the wings to progress the ball and tried to get it centrally in the final third. José Callejón and Lorenzo Insigne are highly capable in progressing the ball. Gattuso’s system has benefitted Dries Mertens highly leading to his incredible form. Mertens plays an important part in the final third as expected. His positioning was between the centre-backs most of the time.
He kept drifting nearer to both defenders periodically, which led to Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet being unable to let their guard down anytime and always being wary of his blindside runs. This allowed the midfielders to stay close to Barcelona’s box when needed without being marked by more than one player.
Napoli transitioned between a 4–4–2 and a 4–3–3. The 4–4–2 was more for transitions and defence. With Callejón dropping back the wide midfielder, Napoli continued their usual practice of crowding the midfield. This made it easier for them to counter-attack quickly and use the pace and efficiency of the front-three to their benefit.
“I congratulated him for the extraordinary work he’s doing and the evolution his team have undergone. He deserves a lot of credit and they keep getting better. I’m a big admirer of his”
on Gennaro Gattuso
Barcelona played a 4–3–3 and a 4–4–2 transitioning system as well. Lionel Messi would often drop back to avoid being outnumbered in midfield. The full-backs were high up the pitch whenever possible. This aimed at stretching the opposition’s defense. Usually when Arturo Vidal plays as the midfielder on the right, he often moves forward to allow Messi to drop back. However, with Sergi Roberto in his role, Barcelona were looking to sustain numbers in midfield with Messi dropping back. This would make it easier to maintain possession in the opposition’s half.
When Messi would shift in or drop back, Roberto would leave the wing open for Nélson Semedo to overlap. On the left, though, Jordi Alba would almost always have space to overlap since Antoine Griezmann would either come in narrower when in a 4–3–3 or would be in a position near the centre when in a 4–4–2. Thanks to this, there was a better balance between the wings than usual. Luis Suárez and Griezmann would look to pin the centre-backs. With the defence being stretched by either the full-backs or wingers, Napoli had to have their midfielders drop back, but this surprisingly benefitted their transitional strategy.
Clément Lenglet’s opener in the 10th minute was a big game-changer for Barça | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
Napoli looked to overload Barcelona down the wings throughout the match. Even when moving the ball from defense to midfield, Napoli’s midfielders would drop back and form triangles with the help of the full-backs and central defenders. This was more predominant in the second half. After half-time, the centre-backs came in closer but wider to receive the ball from the goalkeeper. This naturally helped the overloads since Barcelona didn’t have numerical superiority in their final third. In attack, there weren’t many overloads down the wings from Napoli, yet they still emphasised progression using the wings.
Kalidou Koulibaly moved up the field a few times, which meant the left-back wouldn’t advance as much but the midfield would have an extra option to pass back to. This wasn’t as much to help the attack as it was to maintain possession. With Koulibaly’s composure and passing, he was a good fit for recycling possession. Diego Demme was also tasked with circulating possession in midfield.
“What we have done wasn’t easy. We had to defend with intelligence”
Napoli looked to play a possession-based game, but what they lacked was sufficient pressing to retain possession. When Barcelona’s full-backs had the ball, Napoli would immediately look to close them down on the wings. This tied with their attempts to commit more players forward resulted in some good chances for the Italians in attack.
Barcelona looked to play out from the back as always. With Iván Rakitić in place of Sergio Busquets, the build-up wasn’t as effective down the middle as usual. Frenkie de Jong was crucial in the build-up with his ability to play under pressure. It does seem like playing De Jong as a false centre-back would have been much more effective. If De Jong and Sergi Roberto were man-marked, the full-backs would drop back to increase the passing options for Barcelona.
Barcelona maintained a very high line which solved the man-marking problem Napoli presented. The inclusion of Roberto helped in transitions. He would drop back often and allow Semedo to move forward and allow Rakitić and De Jong to receive the ball in threatening positions as well.
Barcelona managed to win 3–1 against a Napoli side which never really found its footing. Once again, Barcelona’s stark contrast in results at home and away was visible. Even though it was a victory, it’s very unlikely that Quique Setién would label this performance as good. A team should be greater than the sum of its parts. And that just wasn’t the case. Barely being able to maintain the majority of possession, Barcelona relied on individual ability.
Coming up against teams like Bayern next, Barcelona’s weaknesses will be completely exposed. Regardless, the individual talent the Catalans have is still too much to rule them out.
Detailed Analysis: Elche CF 0-2 FC Barcelona
Coming into this match, Barcelona were in good form statistically with only one loss and two draws in the last 12 games. Elche, a team with a sub-par record to say the least against Barcelona, had only two wins in the last 10 games. Barcelona were the favourites, but despite this, the performance wasn’t without hiccups for the Catalans.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 4-3-3 as expected. The game plan remained the same as always; maintaining possession, attacking consistently, and playing a game that emphasized passing and hence, bringing out the best in a team that was technically much superior to the opposition was the philosophy. The full-backs were key to this. Jordi Alba and Oscar Mingueza would regularly move up the field.
To facilitate this, Sergio Busquets would stay back on the attack, and a very high defensive line was employed. The wingers would stay wide, with Antoine Griezmann down the middle. The Frenchman would be seen dropping back to even out the numbers in midfield, while linking-up the play.
When building up, Busquets would often drop back to receive the ball. Considering Elche’s system, playing centrally was a problem. Hence, the ball would often be passed to the wings. The alternative included a staggering of midfield. Staggering is especially effective when the players are marked very tightly by the opposition.
Here, we have an example of the same. As the ball is with Samuel Umtiti, the Elche midfielder would appropriately step forward and prevent the centre-back from progressing with the ball. This would create a small window of opportunity when another midfielder would be moving to mark Pedri, seen in the circle on the far side, and space would be formed between the defensive lines. Frenkie De Jong is closer to Busquets as we see, which complemented his dynamic ball-progression. However, both interiors would regularly try to get into the box as seen in the 4-3-3 employed by Koeman this season, which led to both of Barcelona’s goals.
Jorge Almiron’s Elche side lined up in a 4-5-1. Their aim was to defend with organization, prevent Barcelona from finding space centrally, and attack through quick combinations and long-balls. The four-man defence was the core of Elche’s setup. As we see in the image below, the team was in a well defined 4-5-1. Lucas Boye, the sole striker, would look to press Barcelona’s defenders depending on who had the ball. However, with a major numerical superiority in the build-up phase, the Catalans had few problems getting the ball to midfield.
Another aspect of the team that we can see from the image above is the structure of the midfield line. Victor Rodriguez and Ivan Marcone are man-marking Frenkie De Jong and Sergio Busquets here. The middle-three of the five midfielders had an important job. Depending on Barcelona’s players, they would have to change the player they were marking while making sure not to give space through central areas.
When building up from the back, Elche would have one player very close to the goalkeeper. The central-defenders would stay in the box with the full-backs occupying the field higher up as the image below shows us. The midfield would completely split during this phase. Firstly, Marcone would drop back into defence. Secondly, the wide-midfielders, Emiliano Rigoni and Josan would move further up the field and look to occupy Barcelona’s full-backs. Raul Guti and Victor Rodriguez would be the two players remaining in midfield as we see here.
Almiron’s side should theoretically have done much better in progressing the ball. Once the ball was launched over to the full-backs, they would form triangles on either side with the wide-midfielders up the field, and the central midfielders laterally. The problem was of technical quality. Many times, the intention behind the combinational play was admirable, but the execution would go haywire.
When Elche had the ball, Barcelona would immediately counter-press. Due to this, there were times when Elche lost the ball in Barcelona’s half with many players committed forward. Following this, Barcelona would find a lot of space to progress. As we see in the image below, Barcelona have just won possession in their own half. Elche have five players in the opposition’s half, and Barcelona have five, including Busquets, ready to attack. This was a recurring theme.
The problem with this was Elche’s full-backs failing to fall back in time. As we can see, Ousmane Dembele is completely free to make a run behind the defence. Though organized when without the ball, Elche’s defensive line was chaotic when caught on the counter. This led to Barcelona getting many chances on the counter. However, a combination of individual errors from Barcelona’s players and Elche’s willingness to absorb pressure, the Catalans lacked the final, decisive pass.
In the image below, we see another important aspect of Elche’s game plan. They would always look to force Barcelona wide and attempt nullifying the threat. Forcing a technically astute side to play down the wings can often be a good way to cope with them, but Elche failed to be solid enough in defence as both the goals showed.
Barcelona look to be finding their rhythm, after a slow start to the season. This victory was a step in the right direction for the Catalans, while Miguel Almiron’s side was a model example of a team’s technical limitations hindering the tactics. Elche have much work to do as this matchup clearly reinforced. However, this matchup could have easily gone the other way if not for a great save by Ter Stegen to keep Barcelona 0-1 up. Either way, an important three points, and a crucial first goal for Riqui Puig.
The Blaugrana are on their way to becoming greater than the sum of their parts but are yet to prove themselves against stronger opposition.