Despite the inconsistent collective performances that have cost Barcelona the La Liga title, several players have improved or, at least, been holding the team on their back since the restart of football.
While Barcelona may have failed to acquire the La Liga title, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the blaugranas after the restart, since several players in the squad put out a statement with their monumental contributions. In this article, we rank the top 5 most impressive performers since football resumed in June.
5. Iván Rakitić
Notwithstanding Iván Rakitić has been critiqued heavily for his lack of creativity on previous occasions, it is an undeniable fact that he had been one of the club’s most faultless interiors since football has returned. The Croatian seemed to have upped the ante and had been playing much more creative football as of late.
Rakitić is known to be really effective at retaining possession and that is something which he has continued to do without any difficulty whatsoever. However, him making runs into the box, pressing the opposition in their half or making forward passes to the wingers in space was a refreshing change to see in the 32-year-old’s gameplay.
The importance and level of Iván Rakitić have increased after the break | Photo by Manuel Blondeau / Aop.Press via Imago
The former Sevilla man showed appreciable form against Sevilla, Leganés, Athletic Club and Celta de Vigo, where he contributed massively in the centre of the park. Whilst he gradually began to show signs of weariness and fatigue towards the end, he was one of Barcelona’s better players over the last month or so.
4. Sergi Roberto
Sergi Roberto, a man who is constantly lambasted and excoriated from Barça’s demanding fanbase, came up with a few scintillating displays to silence countless doubters.
The Catalan has usually been deployed at the right back position, where he has excelled and created a name for himself. Nonetheless, in the closing stages of the season, coach Quique Setién decided to start him in midfield, which, at first, seemed like a dubious call. In Valverde’s regime, Roberto rarely impressed in the centre of the park, often failing to link up with Nélson Semedo or knowing where to station himself. Even so, being deployed in a left central midfield role paid the club dividends as his creativity and tactical intelligence truly came to light.
“We have a player so versatile that he can play in various positions. He is absolutely willing to do what you ask him. Having players like that is a relief. I like him in all positions”
on Sergi Roberto
Sergi had to compete with Semedo at the right-back spot for a majority of the season as well, but even led in that category, producing some impeccable exhibitions where he effectively carried the ball forward and accommodated the forward-line. Despite being unfit for a week or two, the 28-year-old maintained an imposing figure whenever he was given the nod to start, excluding one subpar game against Leganés. The jack of all trades proved that he is an undisputed asset for his side and will always be there for the team in whatever part of the field they need him in.
3. Gerard Piqué
Yet another individual who faced innumerable criticism during certain parts of the campaign, but he casually silenced every doubter after football’s hiatus came to an end. Gerard Piqué, in spite of being 33 years old, started every single game for Barça, and still managed to marshall his side’s defence effectively. In addition, the Spaniard was able to salvage four consecutive clean sheets in a row after the restart.
Although Barcelona’s defensive woes became increasingly noticeable towards the end of the campaign, Piqué’s inefficiency was never the sole reason for conceding goals since the full-backs were, on most occasions, caught off guard with their advanced positions in attack.
Piqué, above all, demonstrated that he’s a technical genius. He doesn’t need to please the audience with inch perfect tackles or clearances. What makes him unique and tremendously underappreciated is his positional play. Geri can go all the way to the front line, and still be back in time to save his side from danger. He’s always in the right place at the right time, which allows him to be one step ahead of opposing strikers. Piqué‘s proficient performances in the last few weeks reminded fans that he is always going to be a vital member of the starting XI.
2. Riqui Puig
Riqui Puig is living the dream: free, exuberant, jaunty and euphoric. Everything he does on the ball reminds fans of how football really should be played-with irrepressible feelings of happiness. Puig’s breakthrough has to be one of the biggest positives from this, not so pleasing, campaign.
His influence, even without consistent gametime, was simply laudable. With colourless players often surrounding him, he effortlessly adds vibrance to the pitch. In metaphoric fashion, the youngster splits defenses and seeks his partners in crime. A poet and a magician with the ball at his feet, which he proved to be in Barcelona’s last game, against Deportivo Alavés.
Riqui was, by far, one of the most enjoyable players to watch. Despite his style of play involving several risk-taking plays, he never seemed to put a foot wrong. How a player can be so perfect and precise at such an age is baffling. Then again, La Masía’s talent has always been limitless. Riqui’s growth was a huge positive to behold and he played a key role in fixtures against Atlético de Madrid, Alavés, Celta de Vigo and Leganés.
1. Lionel Messi
Was there any doubt? It’s always an expected sight seeing Lionel Messi at the top of categories, but it is also painful to see him head and shoulders above everyone else, considering the support he has is often so little.
In spite of this not being his best goalscoring season, Lionel Messi secured his seventh Pichichi trophy | Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce via Getty Images
Leo’s goalscoring rates had been substantially low, but he kept striving to get his side past the finish line by enduring a number of roles on the field, which he played with utmost perfection. Messi had absolutely no rest after the restart and looked exhausted from time to time, yet, he provided assists almost every time he stepped foot on the pitch. Along with that, he produced consistent performances and was always a menace for oppositions.
What was so remarkable was that, even though the Argentine wasn’t at his brilliant best, he was still an unstoppable force. The burden towards him may have exceeded to a point that his performances were getting affected severely, Messi still bamboozled oppositions smoothly.
Detailed Analysis: Dynamo Kyiv 0-4 FC Barcelona
In collaboration with Soumyajit Bose.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced experienced manager Mircea Lucescu’s Dynamo Kyiv at the Olimpiysky National Sports Complex as the Blaugrana looked to continue their perfect UEFA Champions League campaign.
After a 2-1 victory in the home fixture for Barcelona, they now faced Dynamo Kyiv away from home in the Ukrainian capital. With both sides missing many key players due to injuries, as well as the pandemic in the case of Kyiv, it wasn’t a very promising fixture.
After the first half with some flashes of brilliance from Barcelona, the second half was what made the difference. Find out the tactics used, and the patterns seen throughout the match in this tactical analysis of Dynamo Kyiv vs FC Barcelona.
System: Dynamo Kyiv
Lucescu’s Kyiv side started out in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-4-2. Striker Benjamin Verbic would often be lower down the field than attacking midfielder Buyalskiy, primarily because the former had more defensive duties.
The midfield four was staggered, with Denys Harmash having more of an anchoring job and Shepelev moving up the field to join the attack. As the pass-map below shows us, the staggered midfield was a characteristic of the Kyiv side.
There was a clearly better attack down their right wing for Kyiv. The full-back and winger on the left, Karavaev and de Pena respectively, were much more defensive than Kedziora and Sharapenko on the right as we can see from the heatmap below.
This was due to two reasons. Shepeliev, who was one of the two central-midfielders with more attacking duties, was a passing option on the right which was further up the field than the other midfielder, Harmash on the left.
The other reason was that with Pedri and Philippe Coutinho, Barcelona had two players who could play both as attacking midfielders as well as left-wingers. There were many rotations down Barcelona’s left, with a lack of directness a pure left-winger provides that Kyiv were able to use to their advantage to have a higher point to start the attack from.
Koeman’s Barcelona has rigidly stuck to a double-pivot system throughout this season. This match was no exception as Carles Alena and Miralem Pjanic started in the centre of the pitch, with Frenki de Jong and Sergio Busquets out of contention. Pedri and Coutinho would switch frequently among themselves, due to them both being able to play through the middle as well as down the left.
Down the right, Fransisco Trincao would look to get further up the field and then come in narrow. This would open up space for Sergino Dest to run into behind him as we can see from the pass-map shown below.
As expected from Barcelona, building-up from the back was a priority. In midfield, Alena and Pjanic would circulate possession, with Pedri or Coutinho playing through the middle and looking for passing lanes. Something that helped Barcelona immensely was Alena’s quick-passing. The La Masia product was on the top of his game, and the directness and more impressively, the consistency he provided with the passing helped Barcelona switch the play quickly.
In the second half, as more and more substitutions were made, Koeman would implement a 4-4-2, with Alena and Matheus Fernandes as the central-midfielders.
There was a clear contrast of duties of the two midfielders, with the Spaniard dropping deep to collect the ball while Matheus stayed up. This was not a particularly effective formation, but with Kyiv drained out and frustrated, Barcelona were able to capitalize.
Buildups and Passing Characteristics
The Barcelona team was clearly skewed in terms of the formation, with the right-side being more attacking than the left. Down the left, in the first half the full-back Firpo would look to underlap rather than overlap, and in the second half, as Alba came on, more overlaps were visible.
This was mostly down to the left-back’s decision making, as Pedri and Coutinho would often switch positions between left-wing and attacking midfield, which is shown in the similar-looking heatmaps in the viz below.
In Koeman’s Barcelona, usually, one pivot is more of an anchor with the other having more attacking duties. However, this time around both pivots would drop deep based on the situation and passing lanes, often moving apart to create new lanes down the middle. This was similar to Koeman’s system at Southampton where he would have the double-pivot acting as more of a reference for the team than it is at Barcelona.
Taking a look at Kyiv, their build-ups were rarely lateral. They looked to play directly in terms of their passing. The two images shown below illustrate the recurring theme we saw from the Ukrainians. They would look to pass vertically, and they had the most chances in the final-third after quick combinations to catch Barcelona flat-footed.
Barcelona produced an excellent second-half display to turn the tides in their favour. Even though the first half was even, Barcelona finished the game very strongly. Here are the game stats at a glance:
Barcelona not only enjoyed a ton of possession, but they also out-shot their opponents by quite a margin. Barcelona’s pressing was also much better comparatively. Barcelona allowed Kyiv to have only 76% passing accuracy and registered a higher pressing intensity (indicated by the lower value of PPDA – a metric to measure pressing).
Next, we take a look at the quality of chances created in the shotmaps and xG flow:
As can be seen, Barcelona fully deserved their victory margin by generating very high-quality chances and converting them extremely efficiently. Interestingly enough, all of the high-quality chances came in the second half.
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.
However, perhaps a bit more context is required here. Barcelona did spend their lion’s share of possession in opposition territory in the first half but were unable to generate clear-cut chances. There were moments where choosing to shoot would have been a better option, as indecision and a penchant for excessive passing led to nothing.
Buildup to shots and goals
Here we take a look at the goals Barcelona scored. Having been restricted to poor quality shots in the first half, it took some skill to unlock Kyiv’s defence in the second half. A neat interchange of passes involving Dest, Pedri, and Braithwaite led to Dest practically taking the ball away inside the box from Braithwaite’s feet and shooting low past Kyiv’s goalkeeper.
The second goal came soon after. A corner taken by Alena was flicked on Oscar Mingueza. Braithwaite met the flick at the far post to score his first ever Champions League goal. Soon after, Braithwaite doubled his tally from the spot after being fouled inside the box trying to score from a header.
Antoine Griezmann came on as a substitute late in the second half and bolstered his confidence by scoring Barcelona’s fourth and final goal.
Apart from this, Barcelona could have possibly increased their goal tally even further had second-half substitute Riqui Puig not missed a glorious opportunity. Following a wonderfully intricate buildup that stretched and tore Kyiv apart, Puig failed to score from close range. But the buildup itself was testimony that the youngsters of Barcelona can truly play some beautiful football.
Barcelona had a fairly comfortable day in defence. Their pressing up the field was much more intense compared to the La Liga game against Atletico, as shown by the PPDA time-flow chart here:
By virtue of fielding a bulk of young, energetic players, Barcelona could actually afford to maintain intensity all game. Here is Barcelona’s defensive heatmap:
Barcelona pressed aggressively through the center higher up the pitch, forching Kyiv to go wide and play long balls to escape pressure. And while Kyiv did that a few times, Lenglet and Mingueza aggressively won the ball back along each flank.
On the few occasions that Kyiv completely evaded pressure and progressed the ball high up, Mingueza showed brilliant skills to block shots or cut out dangerous passes. The following graphics – displaying Kyiv’s unsuccessful passes – clearly show how they had to play long balls from the deep to escape the press, and that they were unsuccessful fairly often.
Kyiv, on the other hand, chose not to press high. As shown, Barcelona had no problem passing out from the back.
Their major pressure areas were the middle and the defensive thirds. They tried their best to stifle all progression in the first half. They dealt with Dest’s crosses fairly well too. However, intricate passing and better movements by Barcelona in the second half unlocked their defence easily.
La Masia and youth to the forefront
Oscar Mingueza deserves a special mention along with Sergino Dest. Both youngsters produced sterling displays. Mingueza was calm and composed in defence, and very tidy in passing bar a couple of mishit long balls. He did not shy away physically from any duel and made some excellent blocks.
🗣 — Guillermo Amor: “Mingueza grew up at Barça and La Masia. He feels the Blaugrana colours and defends them.” pic.twitter.com/I2Qb8nT3dd— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) November 24, 2020
Dest used his recovery speed to great effect in sniffing out attacks down his side. But his biggest quality was in the offence. Fearless in taking on multiple players, playing neat passing combos with Trincao and Pedri in particular, he fully deserved his first goal in the Garnet and Blue, or we can say Black and Golden.
Carles Alena also got a rare start and justified his cause with a very assured and composed display. With an astonishing 99.1 % passing accuracy (106 out of 107), he kept the Barcelona midfield ticking. He also had two key passes to his name.
Riqui Puig finally got some minutes to play. He found himself in wide midfield role after Barcelona’s system changed to a 4-4-2 later in the second half. While he was not at his sparkliest best, he could easily have scored a goal had he kept his composure.
Matheus Fernandes and Konrad de la Fuente also made their first-team debuts in this game. Limited game time meant they could not particularly assert themselves.
The previous weekend was harsh for the Blaugrana. They succumbed to the battle on the field to Atletico Madrid and lost two senior members of the squad in Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto to possibly long term injuries. Lionel Messi and Frenkie de Jong were rested for this game, and Sergio Busquets was already ruled out with a previous injury.
Given all these setbacks, it was a wonderful display from the team and the youth in particular to overcome a tricky fixture. This display should also bolster the team’s confidence as they return to La Liga action next weekend against Osasuna.