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.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?
Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.
He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.
Tactical and Statistical Analysis
Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.
Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.
Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).
In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.
His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.
Where would he fit at Barça?
Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.
Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.
The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.
Should Barcelona pursue him?
There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.
There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.
He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.
While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.
On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.
Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.
Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.