In collaboration with Soumyajit Bose.
Koeman’s Barcelona faced Manuel Pellegrini’s Betis at the Camp Nou on the 7th of November. In what turned out to be a goal-fest, Barcelona were able to represent their dominance well on the pitch as well as in the result. Find out how Barcelona beat Real Betis in this tactical analysis.
A 5-2 win over Real Betis left Barcelona feeling confident as they head into the international break. Betis would have hoped to do better against a Barcelona side without Messi who face many issues currently. In this tactical analysis, we find out exactly how the match unfolded and the aspects which decided the result with the help of data and visualizations.
Based on what we have seen from Koeman during his tenure so far, the vast majority of people expected the team to line-up in a 4-2-3-1. A few news outlets suggested we might see a 4-3-3 possibly. Contrary to both, Koeman however deployed the team in a wide 4-4-2 in what turned out to be a good decision.
As we see from the above image, Barcelona were in a 4-4-2 with the double pivot retained. Ousmane Dembele played as a wide-midfielder with Pedri on the other wing. There could be many reasons for this. From bringing out the best in players like Dembele who do very well when given space out wide, or to make the best of the wing in the absence of Nabil Fekir, who does his best to occupy those zones.
The second reason might explain a pattern involving Jordi Alba, Pedri, and Frenkie de Jong, and we discuss later on in this tactical analysis and how Barcelona’s asymmetry dominated Real Betis.
When defending, Barcelona would apply pressure as soon as Betis’ full-backs or wide-midfielders had the ball. Winning possession down the wings was clearly an aim as the following image shows us. This led to some quick attacks after gaining possession down the wings, but it also led to the full-backs, especially Roberto, being caught out often.
Sergi Roberto and Gerard Pique were caught out often by Betis’ quick combinations down the wing. On the other flank, however, Barcelona were much more dynamic. With a low amount of turnovers but with a low amount of times dispossessed as well, the left flank was constantly more attacking than the right.
Real Betis lined up in a 4-2-3-1 which was essentially a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-4 in transitions and attacking phases respectively. While Joaquin and Tello stayed wide, Canales would often play off the main striker, Antonio Sanabria, and later, Loren Moron off Rodrigo Sanchez. The double-pivot employed by Betis was at the core of their team, but it was also a fluid one.
As we can see from the above image, the 4-2-3-1 left space in front of the defence when pressing. The distance between the defensive and midfield lines was much more than that between the forward and the midfield lines.
However, the attack was where Betis showed the most potential. Down the wings, the connection between the full-backs, wingers and forwards was robust. As we can see from the pass-map shown below, their attacks were emphasized towards wing-play and frequent combinational play.
With Griezmann favouring the setup he was played in, it’s no surprise to see him heavily involved in the build-up play as well as in terms of shooting in the final third. The visualization below shows us the strong link-ups the Frenchman had with multiple players which is what he’s most comfortable doing.
Betis’ press was strongest down the wings and in the half-spaces. The pivots would regularly move a bit wider to contribute to the press. When Barcelona had them pinned back, they would be narrower and look to protect the central zones most as the image below shows us.
The main issue for Betis for a long time was the constant availability of space between defence and midfield. This also led to less pressurizing defensive activities through the middle as we can see.
Buildups, Passing Characteristics
Barcelona’s system was such that the left-back, Alba, was much higher than the right-back. With this came different build-ups down both wings. The more effective and interesting was down the left.
As we can see from the image below, de Jong has dropped back till the defensive line to receive the ball. Busquets would simultaneously motor to the side to act as a passing option. With his marker being dragged out of position, it created a lot of space in the usual spot where we see de Jong at the bottom of midfield.
Pedri would then drop into that space which would give him plenty of space to receive a simple lob from Ter Stegen.
Once he had the ball, with Alba down the left, Griezmann through the middle there would be many passing options to build-up through. Of course, many times the ball would be played to Busquets or de Jong to build-up in a simpler way, but this illustrated the difference down both wings.
De Jong was sharp in the build-up. His presence in the half-spaces is always a useful way to build-up, or rather, transition. As we can see from the visualization shown below, from the half-spaces, he was very effective at helping in the transitions into attack.
One important thing to note is that the wide-midfielder role was a great fit for Dembele. The Frenchman was able to stretch the opposition regularly, and it left him in favourable 1v1 situations down the wings often. This is perfectly highlighted by the graphic below.
Though Barcelona’s build-ups were better down the left, the better directness down the right was very visible. The visualization illustrates just how important Dembele’s presence was.
Note the difference between Roberto and Alba’s progressive passes. Most of Roberto’s were to the flanking position where Dembele would start-off whereas Alba played the ball into the half-spaces or into the centre often. Regardless of that, there were many successful take-ons down the right for the Blaugrana.
Real Betis would look to build-up from the back as well. Bravo would look to go short often, but the best chances they had were through more direct passing. As the match progressed, Bravo’s passes were more direct as a result.
The visualization below shows us that he did his best to exploit Barcelona’s right-wing, the weak link. As we see, later on, this was a major issue that led to a Betis goal as well.
Betis would look to build-up through the middle by utilizing their double pivot. But Barcelona would use the flat midfield line to their advantage and start pressing immediately. This led to Betis ending up with the ball down the wings in the attack. This was where they faced many problems.
As the following visualization shows us, Barcelona’s pressing down the wings caused a rather high concentration of unsuccessful passes from the wings into the middle.
Barcelona put up a comprehensive offensive performance against Real Betis. Here is the game data at a glance:
Barcelona enjoyed more possession, had more shots and shots on target, and pressed much better than Betis did. However, a bit of context is necessary too – Betis played about 30 minutes with 10 men after Aissa Mandi was shown a red card.
Notwithstanding the termination, Barcelona generated some fabulous scoring opportunities, both in the first half and the early parts of the second half. The shot maps and the xG flow chart, shown below, are a testament to Barcelona’s offensive prowess.
Barcelona’s possession superiority was not just stale possession either; it dominated critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. After the initial 30 minutes, where territory was evenly split, Barcelona dominated overwhelmingly in terms of passes completed in the final third.
The territorial dominance became even starker after Betis were reduced to 10 men. This is not to say that Betis did not threaten the hosts. As have all other teams in recent games, Betis too hit Barcelona on dangerous counters.
While Antoine Griezmann endured yet another testing day in terms of finishing prowess, his associative play was vastly improved. He led the team in key passes – providing four of them. Both Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto provided two key passes each.
Lionel Messi, while on the pitch for just 45 minutes, provided two key passes while pulling off an outrageous dummy for Greizmann’s goal in the second half. Jordi Alba, Pedri, Ansu Fati and Miralem Pjanic chipped in with one key pass each.
Next, we take a look at some of the goals that Barcelona scored. As is expected, Barcelona produced some intricate buildups throughout the match. But perhaps more interestingly, some of the buildups were extremely direct and fast-paced. Ousmane Dembele opened the scoring post a long, intricate buildup.
The shimmy just before unleashing a rocket beyond Claudio Bravo’s reach is demonstrated in the animation below:
Griezmann’s goal came from a fast piece of buildup. Frenkie de Jong’s fabulous pass released Alba down the left-wing. Alba’s pass was gloriously dummied by Messi – that took two defenders, and Bravo out of the equation. Griezmann was left with a simple tap in.
Lionel Messi scored a brace – the first came from a penalty after a sublime shot from Dembele was stopped on the goal line by Aissa Mandi’s slightly extended arm. It was extended enough to consider a handball, a red card and the penalty was converted by Messi.
Incidentally, this was not the first penalty Bravo had to face in the game. In the first half, he saved a penalty from Griezmann after Mandi fouled Fati.
Messi’s second came from yet another intricate buildup culminating in a beautiful backheel through ball by Sergi Roberto. Smashing the ball over Bravo into the net, Messi ended his open play goal-scoring drought.
The final goal of the game from a throw-in won high up the pitch. A quick link-up between Francisco Trincao and Roberto was followed by young Pedri scoring first time from Roberto’s low cross. Pedri opened his La Liga account with the goal.
Issues with Pressing
Barcelona started the game really well. Their pressing intensity was high. The following graph shows PPDA – passes allowed per defensive action. It measures the intensity of press – lower the PPDA, the more intense the press. As shown, Barcelona were the better pressing team for much of the game.
The press was structured. As early as in the 4th minute, Barcelona had already forced a turnover with the high press and taken a shot.
The structured press continued in the early stages. Pushing Betis’ passes out wide, forcing them to go long, tracking every runner, surrounding the immediate neighbouring zones properly – Barcelona did almost everything right initially.
However, familiar ghosts came back to haunt Barcelona soon. Barcelona’s problems can be broadly classified into four different problems – (i) not tracking runners, (ii) a centre back getting sucked into wide zones leaving gaps with the rest of defence, (iii)a general lack of pace when countered and (iv) Sergi Roberto’s lack of defensive prowess. Some scenarios from the game are discussed below, highlighting this issue.
Betis constantly exploited Roberto’s side in their buildups. The bulk of the attacks came from that side. Either Roberto was unable to cut off crosses, or he was out of position, with runners attacking the space left behind. Here is an example of space behind Roberto getting efficiently exploited by a simple back heel.
The resulting low cross into the box is intercepted by Busquets but almost turned into an own goal.
The next example shows a general lack of awareness by the team. Pique and Roberto get engulfed into the same zone. That leaves Lenglet to defend a huge area, being attacked by two runners. Incredibly enough, neither of the runners get tracked by anyone – Lenglet is not even aware of the man behind him. Fortunately, the pass played is poor and allows Barcelona to escape a potentially tricky situation.
The next example tells the same story again. With Pique and Roberto in the same zone, an untracked runner zooms by to meet the pass. There is a shot this time by Betis but woefully dragged away from the target. Barcelona escape again.
Betis’ first goal come from a low cross into the box yet again from Roberto’s side. An unfortunate deflection takes the ball away from Pique and Lenglet’s reach. However, what is unforgivable is that Antonio Sanabria arrives unmarked into the box to slam home.
Betis’ second goal again has a similar pattern – Pique and Roberto out wide, a runner is released. Lenglet is beaten by speed 1-v-1 in the box. Loren Moron peels off from his markers to meet the cutback and guide it home past Marc Andre Ter Stegen.
A 5-2 win was a satisfying victory for Barcelona. Betis could have done better but the sending-off and Fekir’s injury along with a general lack of cohesion and consistency sees them drop 3 points.
Though they are still above Barcelona in the standings, the gap has been reduced to a single point. As we saw from this tactical analysis, Barcelona have many reasons to feel optimistic after this performance against Real Betis.
From the fact that this was the third formation used which shows the team’s versatility to some players starting to find their footing, it was a comprehensive victory for Barcelona despite the injury to Ansu Fati.
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.