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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



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.




Manager: Javier Calleja

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)



Manager: Quique Setién

Ter Stegen
Semedo (60′ Rakitić) · Piqué (82′ Araújo) · Lenglet · Jordi Alba
Vidal · Busquets (72′ Braithwaite) · Sergi Roberto
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.


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.



How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona

Anurag Agate



Photo via Imago

The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.

El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.

The systems

Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.

In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.

In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.

Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.

Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.

Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.

Madrid’s defensive organization

After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.

The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.

Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.

Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.

What went wrong for Barcelona?

Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.

One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.

The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.

Statistical analysis

Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.

As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.

With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.


This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.

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