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Tactical Analysis: Villarreal 1–4 Barcelona

Find out in this tactical analysis how Barcelona won against Villarreal on Sunday in a key result to remain alive La Liga title race

Anurag Agate

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Header Image by Álex Caparrós via Getty Images

As Barcelona won against Villarreal in a new and exciting style in La Liga, this tactical analysis will provide a deeper look at this matchup.


As we reach matchday 34, with only four games left the final table is starting to shape up. With the La Liga title race between Barcelona and Real Madrid close to concluding, the Catalans can no longer rely on their results only. They now have to rely on Real Madrid dropping points in order to win the title. For Villarreal, the chance to get a Champions League spot still remains. With Sevilla in front of them with three points more and a game in hand, the hope is still present. However, more than one loss might see them lose out on Europe completely.

With such high stakes, both teams came to the Estadio de la Cerámica ready to give their all. Find out in this tactical analysis, the tactical trends observed and how they influenced the result.

Lineups

Villareal

4–4–2

Manager: Javier Calleja

Asenjo
Mario Gaspar · Albiol · Pau Torres · Alberto Moreno
Chukwueze · Zambo Anguissa · Iborra (45′ Bruno Soriano) · Cazorla (56′ Trigueros)
Gerard Moreno (45′ Moi Gómez) · Alcácer (36′ Bacca, 71′ Fernando Niño)

Barcelona

4–3–1–2

Manager: Quique Setién

Ter Stegen
Semedo (60′ Rakitić) · Piqué (82′ Araújo) · Lenglet · Jordi Alba
Vidal · Busquets (72′ Braithwaite) · Sergi Roberto
Messi
Griezmann (72′ Ansu Fati) · Suárez (60′ Riqui Puig)

Villarreal’s lack of defensive organisation

Villarreal played a compact 4–4–2 when defending. The full-backs of Barcelona were granted plenty of space. Nevertheless, when they received the ball Villarreal would immediately have the full-backs or wide midfielders pressurise them. Though this meant that the Villarreal full-backs weren’t pinned down by Barcelona’s which would have given Arturo Vidal and Sergi Roberto freedom to cause havoc with Lionel Messi behind the front two. But because Mario Gaspar and Alberto Moreno would press immediately, a quick one-two could utilise the space made behind them.

Villarreal Barcelona tactical analysis

Villarreal played in a 4–3–1–2 transitioning from their 4–4–2. This helped them close down Busquets and cover more of the field while staying narrow as well

When Barcelona’s defenders or goalkeeper had the ball, Villarreal aimed to cover most of the pitch. To do this, they would shift from their usual 4–4–2 into a 4–3–1–2. This formation was formed by Zambo Anguissa moving forward from his usual midfield role. Because of this, Sergio Busquets was unable to receive the ball in his usual pivot position. The 4–3–1–2 was a smart choice by Javier Calleja as Busquets is often the heart of Barcelona’s build-ups. Marc-André ter Stegen would be forced to play more long balls due to this allowing Villarreal a chance to gain possession aerially.

Villarreal Barcelona tactical analysis

Barcelona’s forwards dropping back would cause problems for Villarreal’s centre-backs in terms of whether to close them down and weaken the structure or to allow them slightly more freedom

As mentioned earlier, Villarreal would often have space formed behind the full-backs. Another problem in their defense was that the centre-halves were sometimes pulled away from their usual position. As we can see here, Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suárez dropping towards midfield meant the centre-backs would be in more advanced positions than the full-backs. The full-backs couldn’t afford to maintain the line as Barcelona could easily play a ball over the defence with Lionel Messi or Jordi Alba and Nélson Semedo ready to make runs.

Interchanges and versatility

These two images show us Antoine Griezmann and Lionel Messi’s interchanging of roles. Since both of them can play as a number 10 in a diamond, Quique Setién used it to his advantage. Having this capability is very useful. Firstly, the opposition will have to be very good at decision-making. If Messi drops back, when does the centre-half pass of the duty of marking him onto the defensive mids? Secondly, if Griezmann drops back, do Villarreal make sure he is contained or continue marking Messi with multiple players? Due to this, both Griezmann and Messi got more freedom than they would have without this interchangeability factor.

Messi’s fake runs resulted in many players being dragged out of position. This is an often overlooked aspect of the Argentine’s game.

With the space created by Messi’s run, Barcelona now had a clear shot on goal

Messi’s fake runs are always a huge threat. But with him playing behind the front two and Griezmann and him being able to interchange, they were even more of a threat. Especially in and near the box. As we see here, Messi makes a run into the box and drags away three players with him. In this process, he frees up a lot of space behind him for Suárez to cross into.

One of the problems the Villarreal backline faced was organisation in defence. With Messi and Griezmann interchanging, Leo given a free role showing up even on the left-wing along with the midfielders looking to get forward, especially Vidal, Setién made things as complex for the Villarreal defence as possible.

Villarreal Barcelona tactical analysis

Defensively, Barcelona faced some problems. With Villarreal playing with two at front and Barcelona’s full-backs moving up the field the responsibilities were on Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet completely. If Villareal get a number 10 sort of player in the space between defence and midfield on the counter, that would mean Barcelona have numerical inferiority there. Because of this, Barça’s centre-halves would be vulnerable to a well-timed ball on the counter which was what happened here. Along with this, a good pass can find a well-times run to make the most of a two-versus-two as well.

Griezmann dropped into midfield to make the 4–3–1–2 into a 4–4–2 when defending. Barcelona didn’t let Villareal keep possession even in non-threatening areas, looking to close down passing lanes and press immediately

Playing under Atlético de Madrid’s Diego Pablo Simeone for so long has helped Antoine Griezmann develop his work rate and defensive capabilities significantly. Quique Setién uses this to his advantage very well. Apart from chasing after all second and third balls, the Frenchman also helped in the defensive formation.

Barcelona played a 4–4–2 when defending. Griezmann would drop back into midfield. As a consequence, Barça managed to not suffer from numerical inferiority. The blaugranas did not allow Villarreal to keep possession in non-threatening positions either. As we can see from the image above, Griezmann is already looking to close down one passing lane to Vicente Iborra.

Conclusion

The 1–4 win saw an excellent display from the Catalans. Fans could finally witness the front three playing with good chemistry, an efficient attacking display and a new system which could help the attack perform to their fullest. Villarreal just lacked possession near Barcelona’s box and there’s only so much they could do on the counter against the azulgranas‘ sustained attack.

Despite the Yellow Submarine’s efforts, Barcelona’s new system completely caught them off guard. A tough match which could have gone either way considering Villarreal’s recent form, Javier Calleja and his team must be highly disappointed with the result. For Setién and the culés, this performance was a breath of fresh air.


See more

Goals analysis: Villarreal 1–4 Barcelona

• 5 takeaways from the Villarreal 1–4 Barcelona

• Villarreal 1–4 Barcelona: Players ratings

• Villarreal 1–4 Barcelona: Match Summary

18, living in India, obsessed with Barcelona and Spanish football. I am into football in any form: watching, playing, reading about, writing about...In particular, I'm very interested in youth football, especially La Masía. I try to learn more about the tactical side of football as well.

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Analysis

Why the 3-5-2 can never be a long term option for Barcelona

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Photo via Imago

Ronald Koeman’s greatest tactical revelation upon coming to Barcelona has without a shadow of a doubt been the 3-5-2 formation. Fully conscious of the frailties of the team in every department, the Dutch manager crafted out a setup with which the strengths of his players could be amplified, and their weaknesses quickly swept under the rug.

The full capacity of the setup was illustrated in the ties against Sevilla both in the league and the cup, against Paris in the UEFA Champions League, and in its full glory against Real Sociedad in Barcelona’s 1-6 annihilation of them. More than the results, the performances won back the hearts of fans. Barça were, as it seemed, back to their best, and not a single soul could deny this. Not a single soul, except perhaps Zinedine Zidane.

In the recently concluded Clasico, the Catalans endured one of their worst first halves of the season to date. Overrun defensively on every turnover, Barcelona’s seemingly airtight defence was reduced to rubble while their attack could neither get to nor could they make use of the ball. With that, their titles hopes, too, were damaged seriously.

In the second period, however, with the introduction of the 4-3-3, things changed for the better, and if not for some misfortune in the final seconds of the match, the comeback would have been completed. In this article, Barça Universal explores the identity crisis within the club, the setup’s unsustainability and the inevitable complacency that awaits the team should the formation overstay its welcome.

The lack of cohesion with club institutions

Formations are, after all, nothing more than telephone numbers; or at least that is how Pep Guardiola sees it. While this is true in principle, it is a train of logic that only applies to a certain extent.

It certainly makes a difference when one has four midfielders in comparison to when one has three, and the number of centre-backs, while a seemingly irrelevant figure, has a panoply of consequences on the shape of the team long term. The way the first team sets itself up is a reflection of what will trickle down to the academy level, but with a club that seeks a distinguishable identity from the ground up, should it not be the other way around?

Barcelona, as a football club, have the luxury of boasting one of the best academies in world football, La Masia. From the Pre-Benjamín to the Juvenil and all the way to Barça B, the academy players are inculcated with a strict set of values, intricately detailed roles with pertinent information for each position one can take up once they get to the end game, which is, for every academy player, to play for the first team.

All levels in the La Masia deploy a formation similar to the 4-3-3. (Photo via Imago)

The maintenance and furtherance of this school of thought and football ensure ease of integration into the first team, almost indifferent of age. Why so? This is due to the fact that a winger, for instance, at the tender age of 16 — while certainly inexperienced in the highest level — has all the necessary principles of what is expected of them in the big stage deeply rooted in his veins.

With coherence in the running of the club, from the academy level all the way to the first team, players have absolutely no need to be integrated into the first team. Everything that they need to do, they a priori already know, and will lead to them sailing ever so smoothly into a first-team spot. This is why players such as Ansu Fati and Oscar Mingueza have succeeded, where Nelson Semedo and Arda Turan have not.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that every single academy graduate will succeed, but merely that their presence will infinitely be of utmost utility to the club — as long as the happenings in the first team foster an environment for them to succeed in.

Most teams, as part of the La Masia, use the 4-3-3 to integrate players. This simply means that if ever a formation such as the 3-5-2 or the 3-4-3 is to be used at the club, it should not be for extensive periods of time. It renders an entire academy structure useless, and this then translates to club presidents having to spend ludicrous amounts of money to acquire players that will simply not be needed once the team eventually reverts to the core values it upholds.

Unsustainability in the face of change

If at all anyone desires to know to what extent the 3-5-2 — or any of its variants — is sustainable over the long term, one need only ask one question: Should Ronald Koeman be sacked right this instant, what formation is his successor — perhaps García Pimienta, or Xavi — going to implement once he arrives at the club?

A staunch believer in Barcelona’s core values both in style and in ethics, the Spaniard is most certainly going to revert to the 4-3-3. It is what he has known all his life, and also what the youth he trains have been instilled with over the course of their journey into first-team football. Why change what never once needed fixing?

The use of a 3-5-2 needs particular transfers to be made in order for it to be used to its highest level: a pair of strikers, a set of wingbacks, an attacking midfielder, perhaps a libero, an attacking midfielder and a double pivot. While not a complete representation of the needs of the setup — one whose use varies from manager to manager —, this is a general overview of what the 3-5-2 demands and the 4-3-3 does not.

Koeman’s 3-5-2 was a brilliant temporary fix. (Photo via Imago)

Much like it would have a negative knock-on off on the academy for the fact it does not major in these specific positions, the sheer lack of durability of the setup will be put to show once the reverse is done and the team reverts to a back four. Suddenly the team will be in need of one positional pivot, a single central striker and interiors where the attacking midfielder would be of most use.

Knowing that Barcelona as an entity simply can not keep up with this particular setup for a year, let alone three, then it stands to reason that such a setup be used only for particular circumstances rather than be a regular occurrence at the club.

Inevitable complacency

The centre-backs

Ronald Koeman’s adoption of the back three was born out of one desire; to mask the flaws of previous systems. As Barcelona came to learn following Ernesto Valverde’s tenure, putting stop-gap solutions to long-standing problems is anything but desirable, as rather than put an end to a present-day problem, all it does is stall the defence’s eventual downfall by a couple of weeks or months.

The back three masks a panoply of positional issues within the players. As has been the case with both Oscar Mingueza and Frenkie de Jong, the back three system allows one centre-back to make runs into the attacking half of the pitch. This liberty stems from the fact that regardless of what one does upfront, they are going to be covered by the remaining two centre-halves.

Not the best idea for an young CB like Mingueza. (Photo via Imago)

Additionally, most modern teams prefer to set up with a single striker. It becomes almost too easy for a backline of three to deal with a single striker pressing them or making runs between the lines. And unless you have a midfield such as Marco Verratti, Idrissa Gana Gueye, Leandro Paredes, the forwards cannot afford to stay up and pin the CBs. 

In La Liga, the go-to formation is the 4-4-2. More often than not, the two furthermost players tend to stay at a certain distance from one another, with one fixated on the centre-backs while the other rests deeper in the pitch. Given the relatively low need to stay in one’s own defensive half, one of the players in the defensive trio could easily abandon his post and embark on his own missions in the opposition half. This has happened on more than enough occasions with Mingueza, even with Sergino Dest acting as the wingback.

Thanks to heroics from Marc Andre Ter Stegen, problems pertaining to his centre-backs’ positional negligence has been mitigated, but not for much longer. Relying on the goalkeeper to cover up for their inadequacies is nothing more than a means to an end. It is their job to make saves, however, this should not now become an excuse for future complacency.

For young centre-backs like Ronald Araujo and Mingueza, this is far from ideal. Eventually, they will have to move away from a three-man system which is bound to cause trouble in paradise. 

The sages once coined that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and there are several concrete examples to further this theory. One need only look at David Luiz’ career to get a glimpse at the long term negatives of the pursuit of a back three. Throughout his career, the Brazilian has been marred by defensive issues. His overall decision making, positional awareness and his ability to mark attackers have often been permeated with his dreadful inconsistency and woeful uncertainty.

Luiz’s career has been a defensive tragedy since 2013. (Photo via Imago)

Offensively, Luiz is a sight for sore eyes. His prowess in attack, owing to his pristine ball control, reliability under pressure and impressive passing range are rather impressive for a centre-back. Despite this, the fact that one would constantly need to have two near him for him in order for him to excel speaks volumes about his defensive ability. If anything, it was Arsenal’s 3-0 mauling of Chelsea in the Emirates back in the 2016/17 season that pushed Antonio Conte into making the switch to a back-three.

This example, and many others, illustrate the detrimental effects of a back three to the unit itself. It is a method in which a team can shoot itself in the foot. It fosters complacency in defence, and what for?

The wingbacks

Koeman has spoken highly of Jordi Alba in the past, and this season, the Spaniard has been revitalised. This has been one of his individual best offensive seasons in a Barcelona shirt — he has five goals and 13 assists from 40 appearances this season to his name, averaging more or less a goal contribution every two or so games.

The same, however, cannot be said about his defensive abilities. It is his failings in this sector that have meant that rather than be considered the best left-back in all of Europe, he lags behind, and for obvious reasons.

Tasked with defending as well as attacking the left flank in conjunction with his wingers, the Spaniard has shown aptitude in only one of these things. He has, on far too many occasions in this and preceding campaigns, been caught out of position to the detriment of the team. The Blaugranas’ defeat to Athletic Club in the Supercopa final best illustrates his sheer defensive ineptitude. He recorded two assists, which on its own was phenomenal, but on the flip side, he gave away two goals as a result of his complete lack of positional and spatial awareness. He was just about as much a blessing in attack as he was a curse in defence. That is, up until the introduction of the 3-5-2.

Offensive powerhouse, defensive slaughterhouse. (Photo via Imago)

Koeman sees Alba as indispensable for the team, and as such, he shaped up the team in such a way that it would accommodate him regardless of how he would perform. Thus far, this ambitious project has borne fruit. The 32-year-old has since scored two goals as well as provided two assists in La Liga, as his newfound offensive privileges have relieved him of all his backbreaking defensive duties.

Much as was the goal with the centre-backs, this new system has been put in place not to remedy previous issues but rather to paper over the cracks. For all the virtues the system has, it has done absolutely nothing to improve Alba’s — or Dest’s — defensive capabilities but rather conceal them by use of the back three.

It should stand to reason that if a manager has to change a system because he is incapable of placing any trust in his full-backs to defend, which is after all the bare minimum they have to offer, then there is a dire need to stir up things. The American has shown on several occasions that he is dextrous enough to alternate between his offensive and defensive responsibilities with relative ease. The Euro winner, however, has not.

The attack

More often than not, teams that take up a three/five-man backline use two strikers upfront. There are issues that have a detrimental impact on the 3-5-2 as a general formation and others that affect Barcelona in particular.

Much like the centre-backs and fullbacks have a toxic and symbiotic relationship with one another, the strikers do too. They tend to be excellent when partnered up with one another, but not so much so as sole strikers. Sebastian Haller and Luka Jovic formed a formidable partnership when deployed together in such a system at Eintracht Frankfurt, but once put asunder, they immediately regressed. 

A predictable regression. (Photo via Imago)

The opposition defence has to leak outwards to cope with the wingbacks, and in the process, stretches the centre beyond help. Consequently, with as many as three central midfielders, one of them can afford to rove into the final third, after which it essentially becomes a 3v2 scenario in the centre. The strikers can then exploit this space. Atalanta did this by using Alejandro Gomez as the focal point, while Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan does it by pushing one of Nicolo Barella or Stefan Sensei up. 

Moving to a single striker system, then, becomes a lot more complicated because you are not given this kind of space in the attack. 

At Barça, there is an entirely different set of issues at hand. To start, the team has no true striker but rather a false 9 and a winger in the form of Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele, respectively. The Frenchman has suffered greatly in the novel setup. While he has been on the receiving end of innumerable crosses from his teammates, his sheer inability to make hay while the golden sun shone brightly upon him has come back to haunt not only him but also his team.

Bar his inability to bury chances presented to him, he is simply incapable of forming partnerships with his teammates. As a result, he oftentimes finds himself isolated, much like an outsider looking in. his decision making is just as woeful as it was before, but this time, as the last man, they perhaps carry more weight.

Messi and Dembele cannot operate in the 3-5-2 for much longer. (Photo via Imago)

This setup reduces wingers to ashes. The likes of Alex Collado, Francisco Trincao, could each lose a place in the team if at all this setup is to be used in the long term. No winger has a place in it, which is quite ironic given how much of Barcelona’s history has been shaped by players of that position exactly.


In and of itself, the 3-5-2 is not a horrible formation but simply one that will fail to stand the test of time. It is an excellent formation should one require a dangerous attack and a defence capable of covering up its flaws, but in the long term, it will collapse in on itself. Teams such as Inter Milan, good as they are, are ticking timebombs. A managerial change is always around the corner in this fast-paced footballing world, and should Antonio Conte depart from the Nerazzurri, then the current Italian leaders could see a majority of their squad turn to deadwood in the blink of an eye.

The onus is on Ronald Koeman and the current board to discuss the way forward. The 4-3-3 is, has been, and will continue to be the way that Barcelona will best play their football. The team needs reinforcements and pruning of unwanted players in equal measure wherever necessary.

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