In May of 2011, Barcelona traveled to Wembley Stadium for the biggest match of the season. Against the champions of England, Barça rose to the occasion and produced one of the club’s most memorable victories. This is the tactical analysis on how Barça did it against Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final.
With Barcelona knocking out Real Madrid in an El Clásico semi-final of the 2010/11 Champions League, and Manchester United breezing past Schalke 04 in their tie, the stage was set for a rematch of the 2009 final. There were legendary managers and players on both sides, and the two clubs had already won their domestic leagues that season. It was truly set up to be a remarkable event, and the pinnacle of the footballing world.
When it was all over, though, there was no doubt which side had been superior. Let’s go further into Barça’s play, and find the key aspects that created such an excellent performance.
Control in midfield
Barcelona’s midfield on the night was made up of the legendary trio of Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Xavi Hernández. The chemistry, intelligence, and technique possessed by each of them allowed Barça to completely dictate the tempo of the match. Here are the locations taken up by the trio to receive the ball:
Iniesta stayed in his traditional area, a bit advanced and to the left, where he would often find pockets of space to open up a passing lane. As the pivot, Busquets stayed central and was usually the deepest of the three. Looking at Xavi‘s positioning, though, you can see that he would pick the ball up mainly to the right side of the pitch when Barça were building out from the back. However, going further into the attacking half he would shift to a very central area.
The positioning of these three is perfectly highlighted just before Lionel Messi’s goal. As Barça had beaten the initial pressure and were looking to break down the United defense, Xavi pushed up and moved central. Iniesta stayed in his area to the left of Xavi, while Busquets stayed deeper.
With Xavi pushing up and in, Messi then dropped to become almost the right part of the midfield trio. In short, when Barça were building up, the midfield would have its traditional shape with Iniesta on the left and Xavi on the right just ahead of Busquets in the center. But as the ball advanced, Busquets would usually stay back, leaving the center of the trio open for Xavi to slot into, which then left the right interior space for Messi. Adjustments and fluctuations in positioning like this allowed Barcelona to dominate possession and wear down United.
The Red Devils could not figure out how to deal with this positional flexibility, and in the end, the numbers show just how dominant Barça’s midfield was. Iniesta, Busquets, and Xavi combined for 329 completed passes on the night, while Manchester United as a whole managed just 302. This was done with extreme efficiency as well, as the trio combined for a 93.2% pass completion rate. Even without mentioning that they supplied all three of Barça’s assists – one each – it’s clear how unstoppable this midfield was.
Messi at his best
While it may be impossible to choose one match as the best in the illustrious career of Lionel Messi, this one has to be a candidate. The Argentine was unplayable on the night. It was a performance that goes far beyond any words or numbers, but they can still paint some of the picture. To start, let’s look at the area Messi was positioned in for the match.
Messi was clearly in false nine mode, as he picked up the ball in very central positions. With Pedro Rodríguez and David Villa supplying the width in the front three, Leo had plenty of room to operate. He took full advantage of this space by constantly taking on United defenders, and he ended with an astonishing 13 successful dribbles. Here’s where those dribbles occured:
To put this tally of 13 in context, the whole Manchester United squad combined for the same number of dribble attempts as Messi (15), but they only completed 7. Out-dribbling the entire opposition is far from unheard of for Messi, but against a side of this caliber, with some legendary defenders and midfielders, it was a truly remarkable feat.
Looking at those locations also shows the centrality of Messi, with many being completed right through the spine of the pitch. Nonetheless, the most important and memorable of these dribbles has to be the one you see furthest on the right wing.
For this play, Messi did come out wide from his central position. When he got on the ball, Nani was the United player who closed him down. Let’s just say that if United’s defenders were having no luck stopping Messi, the Portuguese winger had absolutely no chance.
Messi drew Nani in, and then completely fooled him with a body feint to the left. This left Nani stumbling as the Argentinian burst to the right and took the ball into the box.
Then, after cutting inside of Patrice Evra, the ball bounced around and fell to Sergio Busquets. The Catalan laid the ball off to David Villa at the edge of the box, who supplied one of the all time great Champions League final finishes to give Barcelona a two goal lead.
That goal, along with so many more Barcelona attacks, began with one of many dynamic runs from the phenomenon that is Lionel Messi. On top of his dribbles, Leo finished the match with 4 key passes (passes assisting shots), 5 shots, and 1 incredible goal – which we’ll look further into.
We have discussed how Barça dictated the tempo of the match and progressed the ball through the midfield’s passing and Messi’s dribbling, but now we look at the end product of those moves. In total, Barcelona out-shot Manchester United 22 to 4. When examining the locations and expected goals of these shots, Barça’s dominance is even more clear.
Wayne Rooney scored with United’s only shot from inside the box, but after that the Red Devils were completely shut down. Barça on the other hand, racked up an abundance of shots from inside the United penalty area. The blaugranas best chances based on expected goals were actually missed from close range. Notwithstanding, the shots that did find the back of the net were of exceptional quality.
The first of these came from one of the unsung heroes of the Barça side: Pedro. Similar to the winger’s overall play, his goal may not have been the most spectacular or flashy, but it was just as important for the team. After receiving a pass from Xavi, Pedro still had much work to do to stay composed and slot his finish to the near post of Edwin van der Sar.
The Spaniard made it look easy in the end, despite Nemanja Vidić closing in on him, and despite the pressure of the game still being at 0–0. In a crucial moment, Pedro gave their much-desired lead.
Manchester United did respond well after conceding, and got their equalizer just seven minutes later through a Wayne Rooney strike. But once Barcelona calmed down again, it became clear that it was only a matter of time until they broke the deadlock a second time. That ended up occurring early on in the second half, with one of Lionel Messi’s best ever goals.
Pressure from Patrice Evra, another defender blocking the path to goal, and the massive frame of van der Sar could do nothing to stop this Messi thunderbolt. Barça had their lead back, and looked on their way to the trophy, but there was one more wonder-goal to cap it all off.
About fifteen minutes after the strike by Messi, David Villa clinched the victory with a finish of just as high quality. Following that Messi dribble down the right, Busquets teed up Villa for a shot from just outside the area. The composure, the technique, and the placement involved in the shot are a testament to the player Villa was.
All the boxes were ticked in Barcelona’s attacking performance on the night. The passing, the dribbling, and the finishing on display seemed to be unstoppable. However, the performance of the defense can’t be forgotten either.
Smart, efficient play from the center backs
The pair at the heart of Barça’s defense was Javier Mascherano and Gerard Piqué. While their impact on the match wasn’t as entertaining as the more advanced players, they played a crucial role in the victory. In terms of their ball playing, the duo easily dealt with Manchester United’s attempts to press, and they progressed the ball efficiently. These are the passes made by the two center backs, with their completions in white, and incompletions in red:
The two combined for 97 completions at an 84% completion rate, which allowed Barça to advance the ball and not lose it in dangerous areas. The defensive performance of the duo may have been even better, though.
We’ve discussed already how United managed only 1 shot from inside the box and 1 shot on target the whole match, and this was largely due to the play of Piqué and Mascherano. Both of them were extremely efficient when challenging to win the ball. Piqué attempted 4 tackles in the match, and all 4 were successful. Mascherano then chipped in with 2 successful tackles out of 3 attempts, as well as 2 successful interceptions out of 3 attempts.
In total, these two accounted for 8 out of Barcelona’s 13 successful ball wins, or 62%. The fact that they did so at an 80% success rate shows their intelligence and ability to read the game as well. Clearly, these two deserve a bit more praise for their efforts in almost completely silencing the Red Devils’ attack.
This Barcelona side are widely regarded as one of the best to ever grace a football pitch, and this match is seen by many as their most prestigious display. Both of those reputations are definitely deserved. The quality, dynamism, and chemistry on display across all areas of the pitch and all aspects of the game was truly something to behold.
There may never be a side like this again, but at the very least, we have to learn from them. The current Barcelona board, managers, players and fans have to recognise the things that made this team so successful. The spacing, positioning, fluidity, the chemistry and understanding of the system by La Masía graduates, these are all things that have to be better applied in the present day. While this may be challenging, this match is one example of the results when it all comes together.
Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal
FC Barcelona kicked off their 2020-21 La Liga campaign at home against Villareal in style. They won by a margin of 4-0, marking a very auspicious and positive start to the Ronald Koeman era.
The shape of the team
The starting eleven was, somewhat expectedly, the same set of players that started against Elche in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Neto started in goal in the absence of Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto started in defence, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong started in a double pivot, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann started as nominal wingers, Philippe Coutinho started as the nominal 10, and Lionel Messi as the nominal 9. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution (minute 70):
As can be seen, Griezmann frequently dropped deep and moved in – and he can be forgiven for that, for he is not a natural right-winger; he is an SS. Messi dropped less deep as compared to the Elche game, but he still had the freedom to roam.
The left side of the team was highly effective. Jordi Alba was a constant menace down the flank and combined wonderfully with Fati. Frenkie and Coutinho lent their support down the left whenever possible. In stark contrast, the right side was not effective at all. Griezmann had the least passes and touches among the outfielders and didn’t combine effectively with Roberto at all. Going ahead, this might be a headache to solve.
Barcelona were devastatingly good in offence in the first half. They scored 4 unanswered goals, had an overall of 17 shots in the game, 9 of which were on target. Here is a small data table compiling some stats at a glance for the game:
Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game; as shown, Villareal never really got a sniff at Barca’s goal and couldn’t assert themselves at any stage of the game.
All of this could’ve been possibly very different, had Paco Alcacer decided to take a first time shot instead of chesting the ball down in the path of his Villareal teammate early in the game. That didn’t result in a shot, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Barcelona’s goals came in all varieties. The first goal was a wonderful long ball over the top from Clement Lenglet to Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Ansu Fati to smash in a great shot.
This was very much reminiscent of how Messi set up Alba for the goal against Elche.
The second goal came from a quick break. Lenglet released Coutinho from deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Coutinho carried the ball upfield quickly, catching Villareal out with a fast break. A simple layoff and Fati took care of the rest with a brilliant near-post finish past Sergio Asenjo.
The third goal came from a penalty, won again by Fati with a burst of speed into the box, and getting fouled. There was a nice bit of buildup to that:
And finally, there was also the return of the own goal – a pass from Messi to the onrushing Busquets – yes, you read that correct – in Villareal’s penalty box led to Pau Torres poking the ball into his own net past Asenjo.
While the tempo dropped a lot in the second half, there were still plenty of shots taken by Barcelona that required Asenjo to pull off some wonderful saves to keep the scoreline down to 4-0. Most notable was the save from Francisco Trincao’s shot late in the second half. On the other end, Neto came up with a calm display to keep Takefusa Kubo’s shot away.
As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the productive buildup happened from the left side. Lenglet made a wonderful pre-assist and was assured in his passing in general. Alba was a threat throughout, with his brilliant off-the-ball runs and cutbacks to Fati, Messi, and Coutinho. Fati was a threat with his direct running and taking on defenders. Coutinho and Frenkie provided good support too. Here is a look at all progressive passes by all the starting outfield players:
Next we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):
The half spaces and the left wing were very well utilized, and there were quite a few passes into the box from zone 14 as well.
Villareal didn’t breach the box as frequently as Barcelona did, thanks to some abysmal crossing by Pervis Estupinan. It was only after Kubo came on that they could get into the box with some regularity from the left. But by then, it was 4-0 late into the second half, and Barcelona had taken the foot of the gear completely.
Something that’s easily noticed in the plots above, and is a definite bit of concern, is Griezmann’s struggles with linkup play. He could not combine effectively with Roberto, and bulk of his passes were back to Busquets or Frenkie or Messi back into the midfield. If he is to continue playing as a winger down the right, he has to strengthen his combination play along the wing a lot more. Being able to take on defenders will be an additional bonus too. Right now, the right side is very limited as compared to the left. It remains to be seen if and when Sergino Dest can change the dynamic there upon arrival.
As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, the PPDA recorded by neither of the teams were particularly impressive. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive actions. From Wyscout, Barca recorded a PPDA of 15 while Villareal had a PPDA of 22. In other words, Barca allowed Villareal to pass around for 15 times on average before trying to win the ball back with some defensive action like tackles or interceptions. Compared to the European pressing elites like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, these numbers are pretty bad. It was evident during the game that Barcelona didn’t go all out trying to press. They picked and chose moments when to. Same goes for Villareal as well. They showed too much respect to Barca, and allowed them to build from the back very comfortably. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:
Its very clear how Barca didn’t try to high-press for bulk of the game, and how Villareal spent of lot time trying to defend against the threat of Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati.
For Barcelona, Gerard Pique was a rock, and so was Lenglet. Neither of them allowed a Villareal forward to run past them, and blocked and cleared all shots and crosses into the box. Pique in particular was called into action many times because Roberto was caught way up the field in transitions. Belying his age, he put forth a magnificent defensive performance in sweeping up everything that came up his way.
Busquets and Frenkie, while mostly assured in passing, had their nervy moments as well. Busquets was particularly awful in the first 20-25 minutes. He repeatedly misplaced his passes and that led to repeated transition attacks against Barcelona. In the same vein, Frenkie, who played really well for the first 70 minutes, lost the ball at least three times in the last 20 minutes. Each of the resulting attacks by Villareal were threatening, and required timely interventions by Lenglet and attentive goalkeeping by Neto to snuff out. Going ahead, this is going to be a concern. Both of them need to clean their games up quite a bit.
Ousmanne Dembele, Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao and Pedri had short cameos in the second half. All of them looked decent. Dembele kept it simple with his passing, and I for one am glad about it. He is returning from a long injury layoff and needs to take it slow and simple. There will be plenty of time to watch his explosive pace and dribbling once he has regained confidence and has stayed fit for a reasonable chunk of time. Pjanic seemed to have shaken off his rust and did pretty well to win the ball back on a couple of occasions, and was very clean with his passes. Pedri was his usual bumbling self. He helped out defensively, connected well with the wingers in passing, and was always a threat with his runs. Trincao looked impressive yet again, and could have scored his maiden goal for Barca but for a magnificent save by Asenjo. He meant business; trying to take on defenders, and trying to shoot whenever he found an opportunity.
There is no denying that Villareal was abjectly poor, especially in the first half (surprising given the players they managed to buy in the transfer window). They left behind lots of space that was ruthlessly exploited by Barcelona. Not all Spanish teams are going to give up similar amounts of space to Barca in the coming games. In fact, it’s probably best to assume that none will. In such tight games, it will be interestingly to see how this fluid 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann as a wide player manage to perform. I was personally happy with the game, and only look forward to more good performances from the team.