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.
Ronald Koeman starts to find the pieces to Barça’s jigsaw
While the whole Europe has started or is approaching to start their respective national campaigns, Ronald Koeman is trying to find the right system to display his force as soon as the La Liga season starts for Barça in about a week. But with the Nàstic and Girona friendlies already on the Dutch manager’s stomach, has he already found the right men to do the job?
As Barcelona’s start of the season finally approach, after the team had more rest days due to the late Champions League ending, it is fair to underline how its newest manager, new coach Ronald Koeman is still trying to find the right notes to complete the symphony. A symphony that is yet to be completed and to be refined, but certainly one that has been quickly asserting the right tracks under its belly.
This year’s preseason has been an unknown for all professional sports out there, with many having to occur in faster, soarer training sessions than usual. While the fitness aspect of it all will probably be the main cause of differences this season, as fitness coaches had to reduce the workloads and increase speed sessions to keep the players fresh and ready, the managers’ job will be much harder in terms of creating the right harmony and cohesion in a short period of time. There is no enough time to practice the desired movements, tactical systems and other structural aspects of a team’s in-pitch organisation.
Barça, apart from an athletic routine that hasn’t much been under scrutiny in recent history due to the club’s different values, had a few more problems to cope with. Lionel Messi‘s transfer saga, the motion of no confidence against president Josep Maria Bartomeu, a new manager, a strange signings strategy – both in and out of the club –, and more. In all the chaos that Barcelona is right now, Koeman’s job has been much harder than what it could have been under normal circumstances. Still, the Dutchman is slowly finding his rhythm with the team.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona is taking shape | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
One of the biggest tactical unknowns of Koeman’s appointment was whether he was going to keep Barça’s vintage 4–3–3 system, or if he was going to change it in a 4–2–3–1, due to his own preferences and the team’s characteristics. After very much debating between fans and pundits, the first two friendlies of Barça’s short preseason gave the environment the answer it was looking for: 4–2–3–1.
While the tactical system is different from the culés‘ traditional one, Koeman’s mentality and footballing ideas are far from being the opposite of Barça’s. Offensive, intense and vertical football are a must for Barcelona’s expectations as much as Koeman’s interpretations. There is a perfect binomial conduction between the club and its new employee.
Football in preseason is as much a test for all the players in a team’s roaster as a training to keep the legs rolling and the lungs filling the air. So were the recent friendlies against Nàstic de Tarragona and Girona. As expected, Koeman literally played eleven different players per half in both games, with a few changes in the last one. And as the coach was varying things and changing the pieces of the puzzle, you could already see the ideas, the movements, the principles that he wanted to give to the team.
As many distressed fans have already noticed, the defence that suffered eight goals against Bayern Munich has not changed a bit. While it may seem discouraging for some, having such individual qualities at the back paired with some solid and correct defensive training may end up being the best signing Barça could do to improve its backline.
With Marc-André ter Stegen on its way back to recovery after surgery, Neto will be the only difference in Barcelona’s defence this season, with lack of competition from the bench arising. At least, as long as Manchester City keeps its firm stand on the Eric García situation and Sergiño Dest doesn’t move to the Camp Nou.
With a proven-to-be two-man midfield in Barça’s new squad, a Koeman favourite will certainly find his place game in, game out: Frenkie de Jong. As the same manager told upon his arrival, it is a shame to watch players like De Jong – and Antoine Griezmann – in unusual positions, as they will not perform at the levels they are expected to.
“The plan is to start playing Frenkie de Jong in the position that he plays with the national team as well. I remember attending a Barcelona game and I saw him play a position where I wouldn’t play him as a coach. You’ve spent a lot of money on a young player. You should then play him in his own position, where he can perform in a way you’d expect from him. He has shown at Ajax and with the Dutch national team which position suits him best and that is where he will be playing at Barcelona as well”Ronald Koeman
With De Jong‘s place not being threatened by anyone else except himself, it is expected from Riqui Puig and Carles Aleñá to provide that support quality and solutions from the bench or, in some cases, to perform in an eventual three-man midfield, with Puig being hierarchically higher than the former Real Betis loanee.
Next to De Jong is a position that is going to be fought for the whole length of the season: Sergio Busquets’ intelligence or Miralem Pjanić‘s quality? With an ageing Busquets, it will be the first time in twelve years that his place will be under severe scrutiny by the club, as years go by and fresher legs come in place. But while the Bosnian’s quality will be very much needed throughout the entire season, Busquets’ tactical awareness is going to be a solid piece of refinery yet again.
Slowly approaching Barça’s biggest guns, it is no secret that the Catalan’s team offensive overbooking is going to keep several doors open throughout the whole season. Having the freedom of two players per position is a manager’s dream, but while it may be a benefit, it is also a challenge to keep the team balanced and the moods paced.
With the signings of two youngsters such as Francisco Trincão and Pedri, both incredibly bright against Nàstic and Girona, Barcelona’s wide game takes a big jump in terms of volume, youth and creativity. But with Luis Suárez’s mysterious future under supervision, the seniority of Barça’s main man upfront will take its advantage overall. At least initially.
“I liked Trincão positionally, sometimes coming inside and sometimes going outside. He has the quality and has to adapt to the speed and rhythm. He’s a great signing”Ronald Koeman, on Francisco Trincão after the 3–1 win over Nàstic last Saturday
Apart from Ansu Fati, who is already considered a senior throughout the whole footballing world, Messi and Antoine Griezmann seem to be Koeman’s main men for the central roles up top: as much as they will both exchange their positions, the Argentinian is destined to take the playmaking role, while the French World Cup winner will move around him and try to create spaces and finish chances for the team.
Besides Barça’s business, Philippe Coutinho is another player to have returned to the blaugrana headquarters. Full of determination, he will look to prove himself once and for all where he wanted to be ever since his Liverpool days. With similar motives to the Brazilian’s, but with different sources, Ousmane Dembélé is approaching the start of a defining season for him: either he proves to be world-class or he goes home. And with the explosion of Ansu Fati and the incredible talent he brings to the field, those three may feature in most of Barça’s games in this start of the season. Ansu Fati’s injury permitting, of course. However, Trincão and Pedri’s talents may change many’s minds, Koeman’s included.
“He [Pedri] is a great talent. He’s 17 and such an important signing for our future. He has trained with us and has the quality to play, so we’ll see how much he can take part”RONALD KOEMAN, AFTER beating NÀSTIC LAST SATURDAY
Ronald Koeman is slowly finding the pieces to solve this incredibly difficult puzzle that Barça appears to be. It is going to take more than just a few friendlies and a few good performances to overturn the season’s predictions around Barcelona’s offices. That is why players are tools for a team to perform. You can have better or worse ones. But the mentality and the identity of a team’s way of playing are principles much more important for a club’s success in the pitch.
It is no surprise that, perhaps, the most positive aspect of the new Barça’s performances over the course of the first two friendlies has not been a single player, a chance created or a defensive movement. Instead, it has been the intensity of the team’s ball movement mixed with those two, maximum three, touches per player.
The path to Barcelona’s native brilliance is long and hard, but having the right mindset to attack this jigsaw is the best strategy that the Dutch manager could employ. One idea, 4–2–3–1, eleven optimal choices and the highest intensity possible. Step by step, game after game, Koeman’s Barça will surface. With patience. And, as in microeconomics when supply meets demand, in football, when principles meet practicality, the puzzle is solved.