As another round of matches awaits La Liga fans in matchday 32, let’s delve into it with its best games and players to watch.
A day after Betis closed the 31st matchday in La Liga, their arch-nemesis Sevilla open number 32 and excitement will set foot, again, in La Liga. As we edge closer than ever to the final sprint for the title, European places and relegation places, it will be nice to see the players’ reactions at this stressful period. Without further ado, let’s get into the three most exciting games of the weekend.
Celta de Vigo vs Barcelona
Saturday 27th of June
Barcelona are second in the league and want to retain their crown for the third year in a row. However, against Celta de Vigo, it won’t be easy. The Catalans haven’t won in their last five meetings in Galicia and will have to reverse the curse for once if they want to stay competitive in the league. Celta have found form for the first time in a while, with a thumping 6–0 win at Balaídos on Sunday and seeing off Real Sociedad at Anoeta on Wednesday.
With the connections some of the Celta players have with Barça, such as Denis Suárez, Rafinha Alântara, Jeison Murillo and Nolito, it will be pleasant to see familiar faces in the opposition’s line-up. And let’s not forget, before last week, Celta were one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league and wins against two out-of-form sides do not mean that they can rest on their laurels.
Barcelona have to improve from their last outing, and the imminent transfer of Arthur Melo to Juventus means Riqui Puig will see more game time, especially when the kid had a great game against Athletic Club. Iván Rakitić will surely deserve a place in the eleven too after his game-winning goal on Tuesday and with Sergio Busquets suspended.
Villarreal vs Valencia
Sunday 28th of June
After hosting and drawing against Sevilla in midweek, Villarreal have another tough opponent at home in Valencia. The Yellow Submarine is in fine form, and they deserved to win in midweek after leading twice. Valencia come off a poor run of form, with one win out of five in the league. The two sides are chasing Europe and can’t afford to lose points at this point of the season.
More than a thousand days after his last game, Bruno Soriano re-appeared with Villarreal against Sevilla | Photo by David Aliaga via Imago
Villarreal, the more in-form side, have a slight advantage going into the game and will try to utilise their power to the maximum. Everyone affiliated with Spanish football will scrutinise Bruno Soriano’s second game since a three-year injury as well as Santi Cazorla replicating his magic against an equally fierce adversary.
Valencia should be up for the fight and will try and offer their best to win finally and get into the European places as they will be hoping for yet another slip-up from Real Sociedad. For Valencia, the likes of Dani Parejo, Rodrigo Moreno and Gonçalo Guedes will have the spotlight on them as they will need to pull off an excellent performance to win.
Espanyol vs Real Madrid
Sunday 28th of June
The title race hots up at Cornellà, as leaders Real Madrid visit the worst team in the league. Espanyol are in lousy form, and Madrid have had a banging return from lockdown, winning every game, even the hardest ones. At the RCDE Stadium, they will need to win to stay in the driving seat for the next matchday, at least. On the other hand, the Periquitos have to win to stay in the fight against relegation. After the wins of Eibar and Celta in midweek, Espanyol are in a precarious position and look like going down.
Real Madrid beat Espanyol by 2–0 in the reverse fixture of this La Liga season | Photo by Imago
For Madrid, Vinícius Júnior will have to perform at the outstanding level he usually does, and the team will be raring to go to keep their advantage on Barça. Also, this game will be open as Espanyol do try to play at times, and Madrid play with confidence right now.
What are the possible outcomes for Barça?
As mentioned, Barcelona have to win if they want to stay competitive. Nevertheless, if they draw at Balaídos and Madrid lose, they will be first. If they win and Madrid slip-up, they will be first. If Madrid win, they will finish the matchday in the second position of the table regardless of their own result. If they match Los Blancos‘ result, they are also second.
Players to watch
After some extraordinary midweek performances, it’s time for the stars to replicate their form. For Barça, the two main talking points will be Riqui Puig and Iván Rakitić, as their performances against Athletic were superb. For Atlético de Madrid, original defensive midfielder Marcos Llorente is inexplicably carrying the attack, and he will terrify Deportivo Alavés on the weekend.
Real Madrid’s Vinícius is another hot topic right now, and his form has been insane lately. Celta’s Iago Aspas will also have to do as well as last week to beat the holders. Sergio Canales will have to continue to play at this impressive level for Betis for a long time and, hopefully for La Liga fans, he does against Levante in matchday 32.
Barcelona vs Real Madrid: The Game through Numbers
A detailed look into the game by numbers, statistics, and tactics as FC Barcelona fell to defeat against Real Madrid in the first El Clasico of the season.
Following a high-flying victory against Ferencvaros in the opening game of the Champions League, FC Barcelona returned to action in La Liga against Real Madrid at Camp Nou. However, the game didn’t go as Ronald Koeman planned, and Barcelona stumbled to defeat in the first El Clasico of 2020-21. This followed a draw against Sevilla and a shock loss to Getafe and left Barcelona midtable 5 games into the season.
Ronald Koeman sprung in several surprises ahead of this fixture. Firstly, Jordi Alba returned from injury to play as left-back, while Sergi Roberto was omitted altogether for Sergiño Dest. Philippe Coutinho played as left-wing. 17-year old Pedri got to start the Classico as a reward for his performances but was fielded on the right-wing. Lionel Messi played as the no. 10 behind Ansu Fati as the striker.
Off the ball, Barcelona defended in a 4-4-2 with Messi and Fati staying and pressing up. From touch-based heatmaps, there are two interesting features.
Firstly, while Frenkie de Jong played in a relatively advanced role, he stayed quite wide. Sergio Busquets occupied the central channels. However, tasking his old legs to guard such a big zone resulted in recurring issues.
Secondly, Pedri is not a natural winger. He loves to play centrally. Having three natural CAMs in Pedri, Coutinho and Messi on-field and forcing two of them to play as wingers was never a good idea, to begin with. Pedri kept drifting inside, as shown in the heatmaps. Both Coutinho and Pedri were limited in their influence. Koeman’s overthinking and tinkering nullified both their strengths.
Real Madrid on the other hand set up in a skewed 4-3-3 as shown. Early injury to Nacho resulted in Lucas Vazquez coming on as the right back for the remainder of the game. Vinicius stayed high and wide, while Marco Asensio drifted in and out, often letting Federico Valverde occupy the wider channels.
Barcelona’s structure after the 81st minute deserves a special mention. Koeman made several offensive subs, bringing on Antoine Greizmann, Ousmane Dembele, Martin Braithwaite and Fransisco Trincáo into the game, in place of Pedri, Fati, Busquets and Alba. To top it all off, Coutinho was slotted as the only pivot in the side, instead of de Jong as the shape devolved into a bizarre 3-1-6.
Attacks and Buildups
This game had a clear moment after which the game changed – minute 62. Until then, Barcelona were evidently the better team starting to dominate a bit as well. Here are the stats from the entire game:
Barcelona were outshot, outscored, and had fewer shots on target – but a lot of that’s skewed from what happened minute 62 onwards. From the PPDA (Passes per Defensive Action) data, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, it’s evident that neither team went for a very high press. Here is the shot map and xG flow:
Minute 62 was when Clement Lenglet fouled by pulling Sergio Ramos’ shirt inside the penalty area while defending a corner. Ramos didn’t need a second invitation to exaggerate the pull. He fell theatrically to the ground, won a penalty, and Barcelona were chasing the game that moment onwards.
The first blood was drawn by Madrid after a moment of disastrous marking by Busquets allowed Federico Valverde to run into Barcelona’s box, unmarked, and smash home from Karim Benzema’s pass.
Thankfully, Barcelona did not take long to reply. A delightful ball over the top from Lionel Messi met Jordi Alba’s well-timed run, and Alba’s square pass was prodded home by Ansu Fati. Here is a little animation of the goal:
As mentioned earlier, Madrid’s second goal came from a penalty, scored by Ramos himself. And Luka Modric capitalized on some terrible defending to make it 3-1 in the 91st minute.
Neither team were truly impressive in passing. Here are the most dangerous passes by both teams:
Passes into the box were few by either team. Barcelona did manage to get into the box from central zone 14 or half-spaces, while Madrid clearly utilised their greatest strength – attacking from wide areas. It’s also shown in the key passes map:
However, in buildup, Madrid were far more expansive. They switched the play a lot as compared to Barcelona.
Comparing the passes completed in the final third by each team, quantified by field tilt – Barcelona completed a greater number of final-third passes. However, the field tilt, or final third territory gained, was being dominated by Madrid in the first half. Barcelona started the second half positively and dominated territory. However, they got scored against the run of play. After that, Madrid were happy to let Barcelona keep possession and attacked the team on the counter.
Defence and Pressing
Both teams exhibited some terrible defending in the first half, to say the very least. Both goals were conceded from such cases.
As mentioned before, there were huge gaps in the midfield, and too much space between the midfield and defence; i.e. poor covering by Busquets and de Jong. Madrid made the best use of this for their first goal, and repeated it several times as the clock ticked ahead.
In the first image, it is evident that too many Barcelona players got sucked in trying to press the Madrid defence, resulting in a huge void in the midfield. Madrid play out of the press with ridiculous ease.
In the second image, the gap between Dest and Pique is appalling. Both centre-backs are engulfed towards Benzema for some reason, and Busquets completely loses track of Valverde’s run. One simple through ball and the job is done.
Almost immediately after that, Vinicius almost scored a second. Quick combination with Benzema in the box, while Busquets is seen jogging outside the box, there is a huge space to attack. Thankfully, Vinicius’ poor decision making and first touch allow Alba to throw him off.
The next example, again in the first half, shows terrible spacing between defenders, and terrible tracking from Busquets. A simple ball behind Dest, who is in isolation with the rest of the backline meets a well-timed run that Busquets can’t keep up with.
The next two examples are from the second half:
In the first one, the “pivot” Coutinho loses track of Toni Kroos’ run. Kroos runs onto Vazquez’s cutback to take a shot that Neto saves marvellously, and denies the German again pouncing perfectly on the rebounded shot.
The second image shows the moment when Vazquez lobs a ball into Ramos’ path, who is completely unmarked on the far post. Thankfully, Neto comes to Barça’s rescue saving the Madrid’s captain volley with his foot.
Madrid didn’t cover themselves in glory either, especially in the first half. Barcelona’s only goal of the game came as a result of terrible tracking from Nacho as Alba found space behind him. There were giveaways in midfield that led to multiple chances as well.
Most notably, Fati’s lofted ball into the path of an unmarked Messi, who eviscerated Ramos with a quick dribble but shot straight into the hands of Thibaut Courtois at the near post. However, they weren’t as often as Barcelona’s, and in general, resulted in lower quality chances.
As mentioned before, neither team went all out to the press. Barcelona’s pressing structure was so poor that Madrid played through it without trouble. They could even manage elaborate buildups, with two examples shown below:
Shambolic would be the right word to define Barcelona’s defending in the game. The lack of speed and the alertness to track runners was exposed yet again. The card-happy centre-backs came to haunt Barcelona again, as Lenglet gave away a poor penalty.
Busquets, on the other hand, looks far from being a starter and should be replaced as soon as possible. And if he somehow manages to retain his spot in the lineup, the midfield structure needs to be fixed so that he doesn’t get tasked with defending such a wide area.
The substitutions and Koeman’s game management made little to no sense. As seen in the Getafe game, in more cases than not, more forwards does not equate to more goals. The midfield was non-existent in the last 10 minutes, and Los Blancos made the best use of this as they scored the third where Luka Modric made the Barcelona defence dance.
The game was pretty even for nearly one hour, with neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid standing out as the better team. Post that, however, the scoreline spoke for itself.
Sergiño Dest made a solid claim for starting as right back in the coming games. He was outstanding in defence and quite courageous and innovative in the offence, with some neat dribbles. Fati kept his goalscoring form alive, becoming the youngest ever scorer in an El Clasico. Neto ended the game as arguably the best player on the pitch, but that is more bad news than good for the Garnet and the Blue.
However, there are defensive, structural, tactical, and personnel problems to be ironed out by Koeman in the future, especially if he wants to retain his job after a change of presidency. Otherwise, this could turn out to be a worse season the previous one for La Liga.