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Analysis

Thiago Alcântara should be shining for Barça, not against them

Lewis Shankie

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Header Image by David Ramos via Getty Images

On Friday night, Barcelona will be facing Bayern Munich in the quarter finals of the Champions League. Thiago Alcântara, one of La Masía’s former graduates, will be facing his former team Barça. The Spaniard has been sensational for Die Roten. This raises the question of should Barcelona have let such a talent leave?


In 2013, Thiago Alcântara left Catalonia and moved to Bayern Munich. At the time, the blaugranas were blessed with incredible talent in midfield with Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Sergio Busquets almost irreplaceable. However, the young Thiago was still getting game time in a strong Barcelona side. He had great mentors to learn from and understood the principles of the club.

Everything seemed to be going well and many saw him as the ideal replacement for the ageing Xavi. In the end, the board sold one of the brightest talents at the club for £22.50 million. Many culés will see this as a mistake as Thiago has developed into one of the best midfielders in the world.

Thiago Alcântara Bayern Barça

The current one has been one of, if not the, best seasons in Thiago’s career | Photo by Sebastian Widmann / Bongarts via Getty Image

Around the time that Thiago left Barcelona, a new era was beginning at the club. Pep Guardiola had brought about one of the greatest dynasties in footballing history, playing Johan Cruyff football to near perfection. Under Pep, many youth team players were promoted such as Busquets, Pedro Rodríguez and Thiago. Guardiola was perfect for developing youth and put a big emphasis on this. He trusted the Barça B youngsters and gave them game time to help them grow. Joan Laporta, the president of Barcelona until 2010, was a big supported of this and supported youth development and Cruyff football. It was the perfect time for a young Thiago Alcântara to come through the ranks at the club.

However, when the new president was appointed in 2010, it saw this decade change drastically for Barcelona. Sandro Rosell marked the end of successful Cruyff football and La Masía became less important. The world-famous academy has been sadly neglected and youth players have suffered because of this. When Pep left in 2012, it was rumoured to be due to bad relations with the board. Rosell was the beginning of a decade for Barcelona that has been driven by money and not by football. Josep Maria Bartomeu, his successor, has carried on this pattern with questionable transfers, overpaying players and neglecting youth.   

In 2013, when Guardiola was announced as the new Bayern Munich manger, it was no surprise that one of the first signings he made was one of his Barça protégées Thiago Alcântara. Rosell being too blind to see what a talent he was and Thiago having the option to link up with his former manager, it was a good move for the Spaniard. Since then, he has gone on to win many trophies with the German side and establish himself as a world class player. The now 29-year-old is a complete midfielder, both in defending and creating. He has an intelligent footballing brain and an incredible dribbling ability. His range of passing is sensational, and he is a joy to watch. Thiago Alcântara is a perfect fit for Barça.

“Thiago is the only player I want, that’s what I told them. It’ll be him or no one”

Pep Guardiola

When you consider how much money Barcelona has spent trying to build a midfield since Alcantara left, it is staggering. Players such as Iván Rakitić, André Gomes, Denis Suárez, Arthur Melo, Frenkie de Jong, Paulinho and Arturo Vidal have all joined to varying degrees of success. Alex Song and Cesc Fàbregas were also bought in 2012 and 2011 respectively, a year or two before Thiago left. It is difficult to argue that any of them have reached the heights of the Bayern player, so far. If Barcelona had trusted their La Masía player then half of these signings would not have been made.

This transfer window it looks like the midfield maestro is set to leave the Bavarian club for a reduced price as his contract has one year remaining. Though 29 and being injury prone in the past, it would have been a smart signing for the azulgranas to make. Instead, due to the financial problems through years of reckless spending, Barça were forced into transfers to balance the books. They could have signed a midfielder that understands the Barcelona style and way of playing. 

So many players that have signed over the last decade have failed to adapt to the club. Thiago is a prime example of why La Masía players should be trusted more. In the end, the Catalana lost one of the best academy graduates and have failed to replace his talents since. It is one of many poor transfers this decade which the board still has not learned from. When considering talents like Riqui Puig, the club cannot make the same mistake again. Buying midfielders that take away vital game time from the young prospect is damaging. He needs to play regularly and develop his game knowing he has the support of the club.


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Football is the greatest sport in the world. There is no sporting event that is watched more and is as passionately followed. Any football fan should try and watch Barcelona to understand how football should be played. At Barcelona, football is all about keeping the ball, movement, passing and playing great football above all else. I am a Barça fan from Scotland and have been following the team for over a decade now. I have been lucky enough to watch possibly the greatest era on football ever, and hope it continues.

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Analysis

A Detailed Look into Barcelona’s defeat against Getafe

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

Barcelona fell to defeat in Madrid, and Barça Universal brings a detailed analysis of how the visitors fared against the relentless Getafe.


Matchweek four saw FC Barcelona travel to Coliseum Alfonso Perez to take on yet another difficult opposition – Getafe. In recent years, Getafe have seen an uptick of fortune under manager Jose Bordalas, by opting to play a straightforward counterattacking style of football while staying defensively compact. It is easy to not classify their game as pretty. Still, they are highly effective – with constant disruptions to the game with a very physical style of play, they forced Barcelona to stay out of their box very effectively. The game indeed was gruesome to watch and ended in Getafe eking out a narrow 1-0 victory – their first over Barcelona in the league since 2011-12.

The Shape of the Teams

As the team returned from the international break with many of the players having played 180+ minutes, Ronald Koeman rang in some interesting changes. However, one could always argue if there were, in fact, enough changes and whether they made a lot of sense. Neto, Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Sergi Roberto at right-back, and Sergino Dest as the makeshift left-back formed the back-five, with the usual double pivot of Sergio Busquets of Frenkie de Jong.

Ousmane Dembele was back in action on the left-wing, Antoine Griezmann started in a false 9 role, and Lionel Messi as the nominal ‘right-wing’. The biggest surprise perhaps was the first start handed to 17-year-old Pedri at central attacking-midfield.

From the pass-maps and the following touch-based heatmaps, you can see that Messi did stay a lot wider than the “false RW” role he had under the previous two managers. Still, he kept interchanging slots with Griezmann quite a bit as well, especially in the deeper zones. The Frenchman had a lot of touches in the wider zones while tracking back. As such, and combined with his highly ineffective combination play with the midfield and the forwards, it does the beg the question as to whether it makes any sense to put Griezmann up top, or for that matter, as a starter in the team at all.

Also, de Jong’s role and influence in the game was in sharp contrast to the previous games and Busquets’ as well. Busquets influenced a lot of the central zones, while Frenkie tried to rattle wider, and deeper areas more, partly due to the absence of Jordi Alba.

Getafe came up with a highly asymmetrical 4-4-2, with very distinctively different lines of midfielders in possession, and very different roles of the wide players on two sides:

It was former La Masia youngster Marc Cucurella, playing as a left wide-mid, who was really the most adventurous of the lot and showed the most attacking prowess. In midfield, Mauro Arambarri had the freedom to drift around a bit while Nemanja Maksimovic stayed deep and patrolled in front of the defence, seldom venturing up.

Offence

This was a game with very little quality and very few clear cut chances. Getafe didn’t allow Barcelona to create a lot with extremely compact and physical defending. Barcelona enjoyed the lion’s share of the possession, but to no avail. They could have easily scored at least once in the first half through Antoine Griezmann, where they were clearly the better side. The biggest chances they conceded came in the second half – the unfortunate penalty, and counter-attacks in the late stages of the game.

Apart from the shots shown here, there was a dangerous moment where Cucho Hernandez had the opportunity to take a crack at Barcelona’s goal but slipped at the vital moment.

As for the goal, it resulted in a really unfortunate foul in the box by Frenkie de Jong. It came from a set-piece play pattern, and after the ball had pinged inside and outside the box a few times, de Jong tripped Djene Dakonam in the box as they both went for the ball.

Getafe, as was shown in the pass-map before, were not interested in deep build-up at all. They constantly went direct, staying true to their style of play. The attack pattern of swift transitions is clearly visible in the buildup to some of the shots they took, as shown below. These shots either came from forcing high turnovers or from speedy breaks from their own half with just a handful of passes only to transition over a large vertical distance:

In contrast, Barcelona were rambling, slow and sometimes clueless in the buildup, especially in the second half. There were two opportunities following two gorgeous buildups. The first one was intricate and involved a beautiful turn by the youngster Pedri to set up Dest, who cut the ball back for Messi. The Argentine’s left-footed precision shot evaded the Getafe goalie David Soria but cannoned off the post.

But the best opportunity of the first half fell to Griezmann. Yet again, the creator was Pedri, who met the World Cup winner’s wonderfully timed run with a delectable through ball. Griezmann raced clear of Getafe’s defensive line and with only the keeper at his mercy, shot high into the stands. The buildups are shown below:

(To be noted: neither Antione Griezmann’s shot nor Cucho Hernandez’s shots were on target – they blazed over the goal-post. The visuals above should not confuse the readers.)

The majority of the rest of the shots that Barcelona took came from set-pieces or hopeful crosses into the Getafe box. Apart from the cross that was almost turned into his own goal by Erick Cabaco late in the game and the one where Lenglet failed to connect properly with Messi’s freekick, the rest aren’t even worth discussing.

Barcelona did manage a lot of successful takeons, way more than Getafe, but most notably perhaps, none successful in Getafe’s box. The bulk of these duels were restricted in the wide areas, where Dest and Messi showed good feet. In the central zones, only Messi and Pedri were skilled and silky enough to beat their marker.

Passing

Barcelona’s progressive passing took a bit of hit this game. Here is a compilation of the successful progressive passes by all Barcelona players shown below. Something that strikes out immediately – there was almost nothing down the middle. Frenkie could only exert his influence through passing in the wide areas. Both centre-backs heavily sprayed out the ball wide. The characteristic dagger balls from Lenglet that we have grown used to seeing was missing this game:

Next we take a look at the assortment of most threatening passes that Barcelona put together:

Just like the game against Sevilla, there were barely any successful entries into the box. Many passes were sprayed out wide, which only halted the progress till that point. Simply put, Getafe were just too compact and physical to allow anything constructive to happen.

Shown below are Getafe’s progressive passes by all players, and their most threatening passes. They were either mostly pinging long balls into Barcelona’s third or launching counters from the deep bypassing the entire midfield and trying to catch Barcelona out. Unlike the visitors, there were a lot more entries into the box mostly coming from wide areas.

The two passes that standout are Cucurella’s pass to initiate a fast counter, and Pedri’s ball to Griezmann. Cucho Hernandez led the Getafe side with 3 key passes, with Cucurella and Enes Unal with one each. For Barcelona, Dest had two key passes, and Messi and Pedri had one each.

 

Next we look at switches of play. There is an amazing distinction between the two. Getafe’s switch passes from the wide areas were mainly to attack Barcelona’s 3rd and the box. Barcelona’s switches mainly came in buildup phases, attempting to open up Getafe, almost exclusively in the middle 3rd.

The quantity used here to compare passes into the final third is called field tilt – it’s the number of final third passes completed by a team, divided by the sum of final third passes completed by both teams, expressed as a percentage instead of a fraction. It’s a stat introduced by Statsperform (previously Opta) to measure territorial dominance.

Barcelona completed a greater number of final third passes than Getafe, and yet had a lower number of box entries – this is simply unacceptable in the future. Shown below are the mean field tilts as well as the time evolution. Barcelona overall had much higher territorial dominance with 67%. The only times Getafe enjoyed a better share of the territory was in the first 15 minutes of each half, and they made their territorial dominance in the second half count with a goal within that 15 minutes of the restart.

Defence

As a short side note, PPDA serves as a proxy of pressing intensity. It tells us how many passes the team in possession is allowed to make in their own 3-5ths of the pitch before disrupted with a foul or a tackle or an interception by the defending team. Lower the PPDA numbers, roughly speaking, higher the pressing intensity upfield. Getafe are known as notorious pressers, but they didn’t try to press too high or too much against Barcelona – recording a modest PPDA of 11 as compared to Barcelona’s 5. Also shown is the PPDA time evolution below:

Getafe exhibited their best press between the 15-30 minutes of the first half, and then at the beginning of the second half. It was 15-minute slot when the second half started where they dominated territory and pressed extremely well, and eventually scored. Next, let’s take a look at the defensive activities heatmap:

Barcelona’s pressurizing defensive actions were mainly concentrated on the left courtesy of Dest, Dembele, and de Jong. In the box, Pique and Lenglet held their own for the most part, and Neto was a safe pair of gloves. In fact, the Brazilian stopped a great shot from Cucho late in the second half to prevent Barcelona from going 2 goals down.

Getafe pressured the middle third to great effect and targeted Dembele’s wastefulness on the left flank and Roberto’s lack of support on the right. The unsuccessful passes tell the story of very curious pass weights by several Barcelona players, but most notably Dembele who couldn’t seem to get anything right in the first half. Misplacing so many short passes – for a team like Barcelona- should be a crime.

In terms of turnover creations, Barcelona managed a few handfuls on the left flank, helped by a reasonably good left-back outing by Dest. Getafe created turnovers in the middle and defensive thirds mostly.

Of course, you can’t describe a Getafe game without mentioning fouls. Fouling is an extremely effective strategy by Bordalas’ men, and an obliging referee meant they got away with almost everything. Getafe committed twice the number of fouls as Barcelona – 20 to 10, and yet had only one more yellow card than Barcelona. Allan Nyom should have easily seen the red card – if not direct, at least by accumulation – but escaped with just yellow.

Issues

There were several issues. The passing weight remains an issue. It was an issue against Sevilla, at the Camp Nou. It was an issue against Getafe. Dembele had a torrid showing. This was his first start and the first bunch of meaningful minutes. But nothing on display was encouraging, and it remains to be seen how much faith Koeman puts in him in the upcoming matches.

The midfielders were mostly solid – and that’s about it. They failed to influence the game with incisive passes. De Jong was pushed deep and wide. Busquets had one good pass, and the rest were all simple.

In the absence of Alba, the left side is almost as dead as the right. Dest tried a lot, and he was along with Pedri, the only standout performer for the travellers. He had two key passes, and a couple of really admirable dribbles, going toe-to-toe with Nyom. But he wasn’t nearly close enough to being the marauding Jordi Alba. The Messi-left wing connection has been a super fruitful one over the last few years, and that was sorely missed yesterday.

Speaking of, Messi was not utilized well at all in this game. He wasn’t allowed to drift as much and stayed wide a lot more. He was also not a part of the buildup as much as Barcelona would have preferred. If this was a conscious tactical decision not to involve Messi too much, it is much better to let him rove near the goal so he can make the most of his stellar finishing.

One way or the other, Messi looks really uninvolved and it’s costing Barcelona. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

Griezmann continued to be underwhelming for Barcelona. He did nothing notable from the right-wing in the previous games, and he did nothing notable as the false 9 against Getafe. Barely involved in possession, he did make a good run only to smash a shot into the stands. At this point, it’s a fair call to try other attackers on the wing, especially with Fransisco Trincāo and Konrad de la Fuente waiting for quality minutes.

The refereeing was questionable, to put it mildly. Cucho Hernandez ran into Pique’s elbows and won a foul, with the Spaniard on the receiving end of a yellow. To even things a bit, the referee gave Mata a yellow for a soft foul on Lenglet. But nothing was more contentious than the elbow in the face of Messi by Nyom, who amazingly enough, escaped any card at all. He kept committing several fouls and was only shown a yellow after his 7th foul of the game, when in fact, he was lucky to survive that long.

The substitutes

For the first time, Ronald Koeman’s substitutes made no sense and brought no spark to the game. In theory, bringing Ansu Fati for Ousmane Dembele made sense, but it changed nothing in the broader context of things. Pedri did not deserve to get yanked before Antoine Griezmann given how well he was playing. Pique moving up to play striker late in the game meant there was no midfield bar Riqui Puig (getting his first minutes of the season) and Barcelona were easily countered. The subs were too late and made little sense.

Conclusion

It was an ugly game and required real motivation to keep watching. Barcelona needs to be much more direct – like the first two games. The Griezmann experiment probably needs to stop, and the excessive fluidity is coming at the cost of too many people trying to do the same set of things and occupying the same zones.

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