In 2009, Barcelona visited the Santiago Bernabéu and produced one of the club’s greatest performances with a 2–6 victory over Real Madrid, as explained in detail in this tactical analysis. Let’s go deeper into the statistics and analyse the match to see what made Barça so unstoppable that day.
Heading into the second Clásico of the 2008/09 season, on 2 May 2009, Barcelona were sitting four points ahead of Real Madrid at the top of the table, with both sides having played thirty-three matches. This meant that time was running out for Madrid’s title hopes, and they desperately needed Barça to drop points
With the Clásico being played at the Santiago Bernabéu, Los Blancos had their best possible chance to make that happen. However, as you all know by now, Barça were up to the challenge and produced a truly memorable display for the ages. These were the key aspects of the performance that allowed the blaugranas to pull off an incredible victory.
Note: All stats from StatsBomb data.
Dominance in possession and chances
In the typical fashion of a side led by Pep Guardiola, Barça completely dictated the tempo of the match. They had the ball much more than Real Madrid, and were far more efficient with it. This is reflected when comparing the match stats for the two sides.
With 210 more completed passes, as well as a higher pass completion rate, Barça were able to wear Madrid down by making them chase the ball. This meant that by the end of the match, the Real Madrid squad had applied pressure on the ball a combined 184 times, while Barcelona had just 115 total pressures.
With this conserved energy, Barça were able to be far more effective in the attack. The azulgranas had over three times more shots on target and expected goals than Madrid. Clearly, Barça were not just holding the ball, but they were also getting into better scoring positions, and doing it more often. This is shown further when looking at the locations of the shots and goals for both teams.
Each circle represents a shot, with the darker circles representing goals
While Madrid got a few decent shots from inside the penalty area – two of which were their goals – they were nothing compared to the volume of Barcelona’s. So, just how were Barça able to be so dominant?
Balanced, dynamic attacking trio
Many remember this clash for the introduction of Lionel Messi as a false nine. Guardiola had come up with the idea of moving Messi to a central position while analysing Real Madrid in the build-up to the match. This is how Messi explained the role:
“He was going to put Samuel [Eto’o] and Thierry Henry on the outside, and I was going to play as the false centre-forward. I wasn’t going to stay there, but rather come out and join up with the central midfield. The idea was that Madrid’s centre backs would follow me out, and the two fast wingers that we had would go around the back”
This tactical adjustment is shown when examining the positions that Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry took up in the match. Here are heatmaps for the locations where they received passes:
As Messi talked about, he would take up central positions and drift back close to the center circle to pick up the ball from the midfield. On the left, Henry stayed extremely wide to give Messi space and options for a through ball. Finally, Eto’o provided the width on the right wing, before sliding over to the left after Henry was substituted off due to an injury. This balance of width and central presence – something which Barça’s current attack struggles with – gave Real Madrid’s defence nightmares.
This was especially on display for Thierry Henry’s two goals in the match. Both were assisted by through balls in behind the Madrid backline, with the first assist coming from a deep-lying Lionel Messi. Even for Barcelona’s sixth and final goal scored by Gerard Piqué, the attack was started with a Messi through ball to Eto’o out wide.
Messi in a central position, about to play a through ball to Henry for Barcelona’s first goal of the match
To make matters even worse for the madridistas, Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry were electric with their dribbling on the night. The two combined for 9 successful dribbles – 6 for Messi, 3 for Henry –, which gave Barcelona even more of an advantage, as the two forwards couldn’t be stopped one on one. Here’s where the successful dribbles of Messi and Henry occurred:
The successful dribbles of Lionel Messi (blue) and Thierry Henry (red)
With Henry beating his defender down the left wing, and Messi doing so throughout the rest of the attacking third, the Madrid defence was constantly pulled out of position. It was clearly an incredible performance from the front three, Henry and Messi in particular, but the man of the match was probably in Barcelona’s midfield.
Influential Xavi performance
We all know Xavi Hernández is one of the greatest midfielders in the history of football, and this was one of his best performances. Every passage of play seemed to go through him, and there was no player on the pitch who had more impact on the match.
The Barça legend ended up leading all players in the match for attempted passes (105), completed passes (92), key passes (6), and assists (3). Take a look at the start and end locations of all of Xavi’s completions, with his key passes and assists highlighted:
Xavi’s completed passes in the match. Blue dot shows where he played the ball from, and each line travels to where it was received. Yellow lines show key passes, and red lines show assists
He was distributing the ball all over the pitch in a simple, but unpredictable fashion, which made his passes unstoppable. The best one of the match was probably Xavi’s long through ball for Thierry Henry’s second goal. You can see it on the pitch above, in the long red line coming from the centre circle, and here’s a better visualisation with Xavi about to play the ball:
The vision, intelligence and composure of Xavi were on display for this pass and throughout the whole match. He accounted for 17.6% of Barça’s total pass completions on the night, with the next closest player being Andrés Iniesta at 11.9%. On top of this, he supplied 50% of the team’s key passes, and assisted 50% of the team’s goals. This Xavi performance was truly something to behold.
Despite the two goals put in by Real Madrid, it was a strong defensive showing by Barça. After all, if a side attacks as much as the Catalans did, giving up only one open play goal is definitely acceptable.
As previously mentioned, Madrid were the team doing far more defending, with 210 fewer completed passes and 69 more defensive pressures. Notwithstanding, Barcelona made a total of 28 successful tackles and interceptions, while Madrid had just 21. So despite spending all that time chasing the ball, the home side performed significantly worse in terms of actually winning it back.
This shows just how much smarter and more efficient Barcelona were with their pressing. Here you can see the locations in which Barça pressed the most:
The noticeable hot spots are right around midfield in the centre of the pitch and on the right wing, as well as deeper into the left side of the defensive third. This seems to point towards Barça targeting the central and left sided players of Madrid with high pressing, while letting Los Blancos build down their right wing a bit more before stepping to win the ball.
It’s also clear that Barcelona’s pressing extended towards Real Madrid’s penalty area through the center of the pitch. This high central pressing was on display for Barça’s third goal of the match. With Madrid building out from the back, there were five Barcelona players in their half, closing down the space. When defensive midfielder Lassana Diarra received the ball, Xavi immediately stepped to him and put in a tackle.
Xavi winning the ball off of Lassana Diarra before Barcelona’s third goal of the match
From Xavi’s tackle, the ball fell right into the path of Messi who just had to carry the ball into the box and tap it past goalkeeper Iker Casillas. It was a brilliant example of Barça turning defense into attack with intense, intelligent pressing, something that has been lacking at the club in recent years.
In terms of individual defensive performances, the stats of three players stood out for Barça: Gerard Piqué, Dani Alves and Yaya Touré. They each made 5 successful tackles in the match, and there were two successful interceptions for Alves, along with one each for Touré and Piqué. That means that those three accounted for a combined 19 successful defensive actions, or around 68% of Barcelona’s total. Here are the locations where each of them performed those actions:
The successful tackles and interceptions of Dani Alves (blue), Gerard Piqué (red) and Yaya Touré (yellow)
With a combination of these three winning the ball back defensively and the team’s solid collective pressing, Barça were able to fend off the Real Madrid attack for the majority of the match. Great sides always need a balance of attacking and defensive talent, and Barcelona had plenty of both.
What a brilliant team this was, and what a performance. No numbers or stats were needed to recognise the quality of this Barça side, but looking back on them makes the dominance even more impressive.
One of the contributing factors to this dominance was balance: balance of width and centrality, balance of possession and direct play to create chances, balance of La Masía graduates and the right signings. The list goes on and on, but all these factors together made this team close to unstoppable.
The quality of these past teams must be remembered and appreciated. It should be recognised that Pep Guardiola‘s Barça were possibly the greatest side to ever grace a football pitch. Nevertheless, while the greatness of that era may never be matched, the club has undoubtedly strayed far from the path it once followed. Hopefully improvements will be made to restore the correct balances within the club, and culés will be able to witness more performances like this in the future.
Trincão, Griezmann or Dembélé: Who should start for Barcelona?
From having to field center-mids such as Arturo Vidal on the flanks to now owning the likes of Dembélé, Trincão and Griezmann, it’s probably safe to assume that Barcelona’s wing play finally seems to have adequate profiles, individuals worthy of starting out wide. But, while healthy competition is always welcomed at the club, it’s apparent that Koeman must quickly find his “go-to player” and analyse whom he must bet on to consistently start games. With Barça successfully concluding their pre-season and looking ever so dominant in the opening game of La Liga, let’s take a look at what each player brings to the table.
Currently, it looks as if Antoine Griezmann has been reserved as a starter, which doesn’t come as a surprise given his immense status and the weightage his name carries in the squad list. However, Ronald Koeman’s intricate 4-2-3-1 system hasn’t truly allowed the Frenchman to fully express himself yet. Against Villarreal and even in the matches Antoine previously featured in, Griezmann was deprived of a fixated role and alternating occasionally with Messi as a direct number 9 or as a somewhat number 10 often left the right-hand side vulnerable, where Sergi Roberto would be tasked to produce most of the output upfield. Although Griezmann was seen making some well-timed runs, his link-up play was far from satisfactory, and as Messi would occupy the number 9 role, the former Atletico man would fail to operate effectively behind Leo or out wide.
In Barcelona’s La Liga opener, the left flank ticked every box the club seemed to have left unanswered and neglected last season. Jordi Alba’s runs from deep, Coutinho’s additional support as a mediapunta, and Ansu Fati’s exhilarating flare on the touchline proved too much to handle for Emery’s side since diverging attention from even a single player would lead to the visitors getting battered in the final third. Even so, while the Catalans eliminated their narrow and horizontal football to a somewhat acceptable extent, Ronald has only managed to refurbish one side of the pitch, with Griezmann and Messi’s natural tendency to operate centrally leaving the right flank vacant.
Therefore, to truly make the most of Barça’s offensive yield, it is vital to rely on natural wingers such as Trincão or Dembélé, players that can be considered ruthless on the counter and unforgiving in transitions. Whilst both players may eventually qualify as classic wingers, these two individuals propound different options, proving to be ideal in their respective departments. For example, in contrast to Dembouz, Trincão is likely to excel far more against a team with a low-block, given he is an exceedingly refined dribbler and considerably polished in his movement on/off the ball. Dembélé, on the other hand, could bring maximum results against a team with a higher line or a side that prefers to apply a suffocating press, mainly due to the fact that the winger is a space dominant player, and his unparalleled pace and chaotic style of play tends to add a sense of unpredictability on the flanks. Nonetheless, despite the slight differences in gameplay, they are ideal contenders to start for Barça, and must be prioritized in line-ups.
Spectators saw Lionel Messi function as a pure false 9 in the closing minutes of the game against Elche a few days ago as the Argentine partnered up with the likes of Dembélé and Trincão on each side of the pitch. Although Ansu Fati is probable to own the left flank for the upcoming games, it was refreshing to witness the Blaugranas look so imposing with two explosive wingers by Lionel’s side. As it turns out, Koeman’s experiment worked out even against the Yellow Submarine with him applying the same method in the second half. Barça saw their most promising football after proceedings just as Griezmann came off the bench for Trincão, who went on to form a trio with Lionel and Ousmane. Such flare and aggression was not seen previously considering most of Barça’s harvest came solely from the left-hand side of the field.
At this very moment, Barcelona has ample options to choose from, but for the newly adopted 4-2-3-1 formation to continue working at the highest level, it’s important to make the most of such diverse profiles in the squad. Ronald Koeman still has a backlog of work to do and must completely eliminate Barcelona’s horizontal structure if the club truly intends to compete in Europe. With Ousmane and Fransico looking immensely promising in their recent outings, the Dutch coach should take the bold decision of starting either one of them and pursue enhancing the front four’s capabilities.