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.
Ousmane Dembélé: Is the serious business finally about to start?
After three long campaigns plagued by injury, many hope that Ousmane Dembélé can overcome these issues in the 2020/21 season. The young Frenchman has exceptional talent and, on his day, can change the outcome of the match at any moment.
As the second most expensive player in the club’s history, Ousmane Dembélé has not lived up to his price tag yet. Having missed the majority of matches at Barcelona due to injury, it has been a frustrating time for both the player and culés.
There is no doubting the winger’s talents, but Ousmane Dembélé must prove his worth in this upcoming 2020/21 season. He has the potential to be one of the world’s best if he can stay injury-free, but will he achieve it? When he has managed to stay fit, Dembélé has been one of the most decisive players at the club, but many conditions have to be met for that to happen.
The injury problems
It is almost impossible to discuss Dembélé’s time at the Camp Nou without mentioning his injury problems. Before joining Barcelona, the pacey winger was only injured for a total of 10 days during his time at Borussia Dortmund. Then, with his move to the Spanish giants, injuries have stacked up.
According to Transfermarket, Ousmane has missed a total of 80 games due to injuries since joining in the summer of 2017. In terms of days out injured, this amounts to 512 days unavailable in just three terms. Although injuries are common in football, it is the frequency and length of Dembélé’s that are the issue. At the most important times of the season, the club has not been able to rely on him.
Questions should be asked on why the injuries started mounting up when he arrived in Barcelona. It is the same recurring injuries that are affecting the former Rennes youngster. The predominant ones are involving his hamstring and muscles. These can be serious and, without the proper treatment and recovery, can haunt a player through his full career regardless of the talent that once mesmerised the world and terrorised the opposing defences.
What Dembélé can offer
Though these injuries have been a cause of much frustration, there have been enough flashes of brilliance to convince the club to keep their faith in him. When the 23-year-old has managed to have a consistent run in the team his form continues to grow. The fake shot king can be one of the most exciting players to watch at his best. His incredible pace and dribbling can be a real asset to Barça in unlocking tight defences.
Dembélé has scored some incredible goals at the club already. His goals in the Champions League against Tottenham and his thunderbolt winner against Sevilla in the 2018 Spanish Super Cup are real standouts. Being just as strong with his left foot as his right, this allows him to play on the left or right wing effectively. By April 2019 he had achieved the incredible record of having 14 goals and 14 assists with both his right foot and left foot.
So far, the Frenchman has played a total of 74 games for Barcelona, scoring 19 and assisting 16 times. It shows that he can create and score goals. Thus, ahead of the 2020/21 season, Ousmane Dembélé could be an important player for the team if he can stay fit. He could be key in taking some of the pressure from Lionel Messi in terms of having to create and score the goals for Barça.
With the likes of Ansu Fati, Francisco Trincão, Antoine Griezmann and Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembélé will face tough competition this year | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
When watching Dembélé play for the Catalan side there are several impressive attributes that also stand out, apart from his pace and dribbling. One of these is his ability to drag in two or three defenders to try and contain him. This creates a lot more space for others to exploit, especially Messi. Barça have particularly struggled against teams that play a low block and Dembélé could be the player to help break these defences.
Another attribute he posses is a good connection with Messi. When Barça’s number 11 is on form, he connects well with the Argentinian. They have a good understanding of each other’s game. With Luis Suárez‘s departure from the Camp Nou, Messi will be looking for others to connect with in attack. Both are creative and can pick out difficult passes.
The 2020/21 season, already his fourth at the club, will be the most important in the Barcelona career of the still young Ousmane Dembélé. If another long-term injury strikes, then it is likely patience will run out with him. He can make basic mistakes such as misplacing simple passes, being out of position and lacking composure in front of goals. He does return from injuries rusty and the ball bounces off him or his control lets him down at times.
But the potential the winger has when he plays is endless. Dembélé is a special player and could be a generational talent if able to play regularly. If he can stay injury-free, he could be the second most important player at the club, after Messi. One of the most enjoyable players to watch on his day, Dembélé needs to perform this season and fulfil his potential.