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.
Detailed Analysis: Ferencvaros 0-3 Barcelona
In collaboration with Soumyajit Bose.
As Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona looked to continue their perfect Champions League 2020/21 record, they faced Serhiy Rebrov‘s Ferencvaros side whose Europa League hopes were at stake at the Groupama Arena.
Compared to La Liga, Barcelona’s UEFA Champions League campaign has been much stronger. With 12 points in four games, with just two goals conceded and 13 goals scored, the confidence was high. However, for Ferencvaros, the best possible finish is in third place in Group G, which would see them qualify for the Europa League.
As a motivated Ferencvaros side faced Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona, a 0-3 victory in favour of the Blaugrana was far from ideal for the Budapest outfit. In this analysis, we take a look at the patterns seen throughout the match and the tactics used by the Barcelona, as well as the Ferencvaros side.
Serhiy Rebrov’s Ferencvaros side had a clear game-plan from the start. Though this was commendable, there were some immediate issues. The disappointing aspect of this was that Rebrov was either unable to, or was unwilling to make the changes which could have changed the outcome of the match.
The Hungarians looked to play a back-three throughout the match. The two full-backs essentially had little to do in the build-up. Partly because their starting position was too high and also because Barcelona’s forward four were able to cut passing lanes effectively.
Ferencvaros’ number five, Abraham Frimpong, was at the heart of the defence. When building up, he would often drift forward in line with the full-backs. This would have been a good strategy, but the back-three were constantly forced to launch the ball forwards after Barcelona’s pressing.
When defending, the full-backs would tuck in and the wide forwards would drop back to form a 5-4-1. At times, there were too many players in defence. Isael on one occasion played Griezmann onside when there were six players back defending.
As the above heat-maps shows, forward Tokmac Chol Nguen was barely involved, and the full-backs Endre Botka and Marcel Heister were only active in small parts of the field. There was a clear disjoint between the midfield and the forwards and between the defence and the midfield at times as well.
As expected from the current Barcelona side, the 4-2-3-1 was deployed. Right off from the start, something very apparent was the different player profiles in the attack. With Lionel Messi, Pedri, Philippe Coutinho, three players like to have the ball and roam around. Add Antoine Griezmann to that mix and you have four players who do best in a free role and have a moderate attacking work-rate at best.
With Martin Braithwaite, Fransisco Trincao, Ousmane Dembele this Barcelona side were able to press high and very actively as we shall see later.
The double-pivot of Sergio Busquets was at the core of the team in terms of recycling possession as well as playing balls forward. As the above pass-map shows us, these two were very active in passing and formed strong combinations with many players.
With the full-backs, or rather the wing-backs, very high up the field, Ousmane Dembele and Trincao would tuck in. This would make underlaps easier, as we saw with Braithwaite’s penalty-winning run, and it would also give the full-backs freedom to drive forwards.
The different full-back profiles on either side meant that down the left, excellent combinational play was visible and while Dest was more direct in his approach. This offered the Catalans with more choices in the final third.
A new pattern we saw in the build-up was a diamond between the centre-backs and the pivots. With Mingueza moving a bit further up the field, Busquets would drop back and form the second passing options for Clement Lenglet. Miralem Pjanic would look to find passing lanes in midfield and provide the third, and most direct, passing option.
When defending, Busquets and Pjanic would look to close off the channels, and Alba and Dest would have to retreat quickly. With the back-four completely flat and the pivots cutting passing lanes, the forward were given the best chance to show their work-rate and that is apparent from Barcelona’s goal-protecting activities that started from the front.
Barcelona were devastatingly good in the first half, scoring all three goals and putting the game to bed. They dominated possession, pressed much better than their opponents, all while outshooting and consequently outscoring them. Here is the game data at a glance:
Next, we take a look at the quality of chances created in the shotmaps and xG flow:
Barcelona created brilliant chances all game, and all of the goals came from high-quality chances. Understandably, they took their feet off the gear in the second half. This allowed Ferencvaros to create their most threatening moments. Even then, Barcelona had plenty of opportunities to score at least a couple of goals later in the second half. Profligacy in front of goal meant they could not add to their already impressive goal tally.
Barcelona’s territorial superiority is shown in the following figure. Field tilt – a metric to measure final third passing share, and hence territorial dominance –was overwhelmingly in Barcelona’s favor for most of the game. As shown, Ferencvaros only did better for certain stretches of the second half.
A look at the goals
Here we take a look at the goals Barcelona scored. Ousmane Dembele had one of the games of his life. He constantly linked up with Jordi Alba to create threat down the left. This very combination led to the first two goals of the game. For the first one, Dembele and Alba had some nice little one-twos, before Dembele released Alba into space behind the Ferencvaros right back. Alba used his speed to reach the ball ahead of his tracker and lay off a nice low cross to Antoine Greizmann, who made an excellent run into the box. Greizmann finished the move with an exquisite flick. Here are illustrations of the entire buildup and animation of the final moments :
The second goal came from a long buildup. First, a shot by Sergino Dest was blocked in the box. Following a flurry of passes, Griezmann made a cross-field pass to Alba. Alba laid the ball off to Dembele, who beat his marker by speed and played another low cross into the box. This time, it was Martin Braithwaite who made an intelligent poacher’s run into the box to prod it home.
Braithwaite made yet another great run behind Ferencvaros’ defence before getting fouled just when he was getting ready to shoot. Dembele scored from the resulting penalty.
Clement Lenglet could return from an injury scare to start the game, so Barcelona had two senior members at least in the beginning. The defence remained unperturbed for most of the half. Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza did an admirable job of cleaning up loose balls and snuffing out attacks. Ferencvaros rarely managed to get the ball to Barcelona’s final third. Here is a time-evolution chart of PPDA, which measures press intensity:
Evidently, Barcelona pressed much better throughout the game. The only interval where Ferencvaros had any luck pressing was in small intervals in the second half.
Next we take a look at Barcelona’s defensive heatmap.
This is probably the first time Barcelona have pressed this high up the pitch. Their effort paid dividends too, as Ferencvaros really struggled to build up successfully from the back, as shown in the following:
On the other hand, while Ferencvaros tried pressing higher, Barcelona were able to build through the press fairly regularly. The following images show Ferencvaros’ defensive efforts and Barcelona’s unsuccessful passes.
La Masia and youth get chances again
Several youngsters got a runout yet again. Mingueza continued to impress displaying composure on the ball and no-nonsense defending. Dest had yet another stellar show as the right back. He was impressive in tracking back, showing both speed and strength to nullify Tokmac Nguen. Dembele was electric; scoring and assisting one goal each and could have had more to his name. He finished the game wearing the captain’s armband.
Frenkie de Jong came on in the second half to replace Sergio Busquets and ended up playing centre back after Lenglet was withdrawn as well. Francisco Trincao got a start and played for about 80 minutes. While wasteful in front of goal and generally had some ugly touches, he also came up with some great dribbles. He should have really scored after being set up one on one by Dembele.
Carles Alena, Riqui Puig and Konrad de la Fuente all had cameos as well. Puig was particularly impressive, racking up 3 key passes in 28 minutes. He could have had an assist had Dembele elected to shoot from his pass.
Five wins out of five in the Champions League. Three victories in a row in all competitions. Three clean sheets. Eleven goals scored. Ronald Koeman probably could not have asked for a more favorable series of results for his team. Not only did important players like Lionel Messi and Frenkie de Jong get some rest, the fringe players got some decent run-out. Greizmann has scored three goals – he surely is brimming with confidence right now. Braithwaite has scored 4 goals in 3 games. Dembele looks to be in good form. The team seems to be hitting better stride. Injuries notwithstanding, this is a perfect time for Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona to make up for all the points lost in the league.