Football’s return is imminent, with the Bundesliga scheduled to resume this weekend. The situation in Spain requires more time and patience, but the intent to finish the season is clear. With teams slowly heading back to training, the Spanish league seems to be edging towards a return early June. But who may have a greater advantage to end up winning the La Liga title: Barça or Real Madrid?
The unprecedented suspension of football across Europe has surely put the various authorities concerned in a challenging situation. Though many deem sport as entertainment, it is an industry that amounts several billion euros in revenue. Instead of looking into the fact whether it is right to resume football or not, let’s shift the focus onto the neck-to-neck title race that awaits us in La Liga.
❛ I’d like it [the restart date] to be 12 June. But we have to be careful. It will depend on many factors such as a potential rise in infections, factors which don’t depend on football but on Spanish society ❜
La Liga president
After 27 rounds, holders Barça sit at the top of the table with 58 points, closely followed by Real Madrid at 56. It is essential to take a look at both sides, judge the form, squad depth, and tactical superiority, to predict who’ll come out on top in the end. Either way, the outcome of the league would definitely be in the air until the final matchday. Both sides have their own obstacles, players returning from injury, and exploitable areas. The Catalans are adapting to life under a new coach, while Los Blancos are trying to embed their summer signings into the squad.
A look at the calendar
Matchday 28: Mallorca vs FC Barcelona
Matchday 29: FC Barcelona vs Leganés
Matchday 30: Sevilla vs FC Barcelona
Matchday 31: FC Barcelona vs Athletic Club
Matchday 32: Celta de Vigo vs FC Barcelona
Matchday 33: FC Barcelona vs Atlético de Madrid
Matchday 34: Villarreal vs FC Barcelona
Matchday 35: FC Barcelona vs Espanyol
Matchday 36: Real Valladolid vs FC Barcelona
Matchday 37: FC Barcelona vs Osasuna
Matchday 38: Alavés vs FC Barcelona
Matchday 28: Real Madrid vs Eibar
Matchday 29: Real Madrid vs Valencia
Matchday 30: Real Sociedad vs Real Madrid
Matchday 31: Real Madrid vs Mallorca
Matchday 32: Espanyol vs Real Madrid
Matchday 33: Real Madrid vs Getafe
Matchday 34: Athletic Club vs Real Madrid
Matchday 35: Real Madrid vs Alavés
Matchday 36: Granada vs Real Madrid
Matchday 37: Real Madrid vs Villarreal
Matchday 38: Leganés vs Real Madrid
By taking a look at the remaining fixtures, it is evident that there’s a fair share of challenges up ahead for both sides. The road doesn’t feel easier for either team. The azulgranas have tough trips to the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán and Estadio de la Cerámica to face Sevilla and Villarreal, while also hosting Atleti in a potential six-pointer. Los Blancos will face Real Sociedad at Anoeta and host Valencia and Villarreal, who have hindered their title hopes in the past.
Luis Suárez is yet to play a game under Quique Setién | Photo by Enric Fontcuberta via Imago
That being said, judging by how inconsistent Barça and Madrid have been this season, it wouldn’t be surprising if they drop points on occasions where they are expected to win. The leaders have already slumped to sides like Granada and Levante. The chasers squandered their lead at the top by losing to Levante and Betis. Despite having the head-to-head advantage, Real Madrid need to remain consistent and opportunistic if they want to regain the top spot.
Here are some factors and issues that Barça and Madrid face that could go against their favour:
Barça’s deficit at the flanks
For a while, former manager Ernesto Valverde played Antoine Griezmann out of position at the left flank. Albeit Ansu Fati’s rise into the first team, the 17-year-old can’t play every game. Accumulating too many minutes may lead to unforeseen injuries, which would hamper his development. Unfortunately, with Ousmane Dembélé out injured, Ansu remains the only winger available in the squad. Griezmann was used out of position, and Leo can’t play every game.
It doesn’t need to be said explicitly that the board made a very poor decision in letting go of Malcom last summer, and Carles Pérez in the winter window. There is a definite lack of wingers and, as a result of this, Quique Setién has to compromise on certain tactical viewpoints. In addition to finding a way to readjust to the new manager, the Catalans need to continue with an insufficient number of players in certain positions.
Los Blancos‘ attacking adversities
In contrast to their usual ways, Madrid have a better defensive record, but their attacking output has taken a hit. Despite being the second-highest scoring side in the league, their woes go far beyond statistics. With Eden Hazard yet to hit full-throttle, and Gareth Bale a beta version of his usual self, most of the attacking contribution comes from Karim Benzema. Nevertheless, the Frenchman’s numbers aren’t adequate to compensate for the others who are misfiring.
Zidane has trusted youth, giving opportunities to the Brazilian wonderkids Vinícius and Rodrygo, who have shown glimpses of quality. Vinícius scored in the recent 2–0 win in the Clásico, while Rodrygo already has a hat-trick in the Champions League. The long-term injury to Marco Asensio has only made things more challenging.
Madrid will be hoping for Eden Hazard to return to his best form in order to fight for the La Liga title | Photo by Imago
Unlike Setién, Zidane has a plethora of options in the flanks. Bale, Vinícius, Rodrygo, and Lucas Vázquez are available. With the break giving sufficient time to recuperate, Hazard and Asensio have also recovered from their injuries. The only absentee will be Luka Jović, who suffered an injury while training by himself.
In spite of conceding just 19 goals, they have drawn 8 games this season, meaning that something is lacking in the attacking department. Zidane will need to find a way to increase the attacking output, as more stalemates would result in them falling behind.
Who has the advantage?
The question still remains unanswered: who is more well-equipped to win the title? Indeed, we have seen that there are a fair amount of issues for both parties. For Barcelona, it’s a player-shortage; for Real Madrid, it’s a matter of the form of certain key-players. With football resuming after nearly a 3-month break, it is obvious that fitness becomes a major factor.
An injury to Messi could further decrease Barça’s attacking options and put the madridistas in the driving seat. The Catalan outfit is in a stage where they need every player available to give his 100%, but also bear in mind their fitness levels. The break has given Suárez time to return from his knee-surgery, who will be crucial for Barcelona in the coming days.
The lack of players could prove to be the determinant factor that could give Real Madrid an advantage. However, we have seen them squander their opportunities on several occasions, so it isn’t a guarantee that they’ll make the most of it. Either way, despite the season resuming behind closed doors, there’s no denying that we are in for a grandstand finish.
Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal
FC Barcelona kicked off their 2020-21 La Liga campaign at home against Villareal in style. They won by a margin of 4-0, marking a very auspicious and positive start to the Ronald Koeman era.
The shape of the team
The starting eleven was, somewhat expectedly, the same set of players that started against Elche in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Neto started in goal in the absence of Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto started in defence, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong started in a double pivot, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann started as nominal wingers, Philippe Coutinho started as the nominal 10, and Lionel Messi as the nominal 9. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution (minute 70):
As can be seen, Griezmann frequently dropped deep and moved in – and he can be forgiven for that, for he is not a natural right-winger; he is an SS. Messi dropped less deep as compared to the Elche game, but he still had the freedom to roam.
The left side of the team was highly effective. Jordi Alba was a constant menace down the flank and combined wonderfully with Fati. Frenkie and Coutinho lent their support down the left whenever possible. In stark contrast, the right side was not effective at all. Griezmann had the least passes and touches among the outfielders and didn’t combine effectively with Roberto at all. Going ahead, this might be a headache to solve.
Barcelona were devastatingly good in offence in the first half. They scored 4 unanswered goals, had an overall of 17 shots in the game, 9 of which were on target. Here is a small data table compiling some stats at a glance for the game:
Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game; as shown, Villareal never really got a sniff at Barca’s goal and couldn’t assert themselves at any stage of the game.
All of this could’ve been possibly very different, had Paco Alcacer decided to take a first time shot instead of chesting the ball down in the path of his Villareal teammate early in the game. That didn’t result in a shot, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Barcelona’s goals came in all varieties. The first goal was a wonderful long ball over the top from Clement Lenglet to Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Ansu Fati to smash in a great shot.
This was very much reminiscent of how Messi set up Alba for the goal against Elche.
The second goal came from a quick break. Lenglet released Coutinho from deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Coutinho carried the ball upfield quickly, catching Villareal out with a fast break. A simple layoff and Fati took care of the rest with a brilliant near-post finish past Sergio Asenjo.
The third goal came from a penalty, won again by Fati with a burst of speed into the box, and getting fouled. There was a nice bit of buildup to that:
And finally, there was also the return of the own goal – a pass from Messi to the onrushing Busquets – yes, you read that correct – in Villareal’s penalty box led to Pau Torres poking the ball into his own net past Asenjo.
While the tempo dropped a lot in the second half, there were still plenty of shots taken by Barcelona that required Asenjo to pull off some wonderful saves to keep the scoreline down to 4-0. Most notable was the save from Francisco Trincao’s shot late in the second half. On the other end, Neto came up with a calm display to keep Takefusa Kubo’s shot away.
As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the productive buildup happened from the left side. Lenglet made a wonderful pre-assist and was assured in his passing in general. Alba was a threat throughout, with his brilliant off-the-ball runs and cutbacks to Fati, Messi, and Coutinho. Fati was a threat with his direct running and taking on defenders. Coutinho and Frenkie provided good support too. Here is a look at all progressive passes by all the starting outfield players:
Next we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):
The half spaces and the left wing were very well utilized, and there were quite a few passes into the box from zone 14 as well.
Villareal didn’t breach the box as frequently as Barcelona did, thanks to some abysmal crossing by Pervis Estupinan. It was only after Kubo came on that they could get into the box with some regularity from the left. But by then, it was 4-0 late into the second half, and Barcelona had taken the foot of the gear completely.
Something that’s easily noticed in the plots above, and is a definite bit of concern, is Griezmann’s struggles with linkup play. He could not combine effectively with Roberto, and bulk of his passes were back to Busquets or Frenkie or Messi back into the midfield. If he is to continue playing as a winger down the right, he has to strengthen his combination play along the wing a lot more. Being able to take on defenders will be an additional bonus too. Right now, the right side is very limited as compared to the left. It remains to be seen if and when Sergino Dest can change the dynamic there upon arrival.
As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, the PPDA recorded by neither of the teams were particularly impressive. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive actions. From Wyscout, Barca recorded a PPDA of 15 while Villareal had a PPDA of 22. In other words, Barca allowed Villareal to pass around for 15 times on average before trying to win the ball back with some defensive action like tackles or interceptions. Compared to the European pressing elites like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, these numbers are pretty bad. It was evident during the game that Barcelona didn’t go all out trying to press. They picked and chose moments when to. Same goes for Villareal as well. They showed too much respect to Barca, and allowed them to build from the back very comfortably. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:
Its very clear how Barca didn’t try to high-press for bulk of the game, and how Villareal spent of lot time trying to defend against the threat of Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati.
For Barcelona, Gerard Pique was a rock, and so was Lenglet. Neither of them allowed a Villareal forward to run past them, and blocked and cleared all shots and crosses into the box. Pique in particular was called into action many times because Roberto was caught way up the field in transitions. Belying his age, he put forth a magnificent defensive performance in sweeping up everything that came up his way.
Busquets and Frenkie, while mostly assured in passing, had their nervy moments as well. Busquets was particularly awful in the first 20-25 minutes. He repeatedly misplaced his passes and that led to repeated transition attacks against Barcelona. In the same vein, Frenkie, who played really well for the first 70 minutes, lost the ball at least three times in the last 20 minutes. Each of the resulting attacks by Villareal were threatening, and required timely interventions by Lenglet and attentive goalkeeping by Neto to snuff out. Going ahead, this is going to be a concern. Both of them need to clean their games up quite a bit.
Ousmanne Dembele, Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao and Pedri had short cameos in the second half. All of them looked decent. Dembele kept it simple with his passing, and I for one am glad about it. He is returning from a long injury layoff and needs to take it slow and simple. There will be plenty of time to watch his explosive pace and dribbling once he has regained confidence and has stayed fit for a reasonable chunk of time. Pjanic seemed to have shaken off his rust and did pretty well to win the ball back on a couple of occasions, and was very clean with his passes. Pedri was his usual bumbling self. He helped out defensively, connected well with the wingers in passing, and was always a threat with his runs. Trincao looked impressive yet again, and could have scored his maiden goal for Barca but for a magnificent save by Asenjo. He meant business; trying to take on defenders, and trying to shoot whenever he found an opportunity.
There is no denying that Villareal was abjectly poor, especially in the first half (surprising given the players they managed to buy in the transfer window). They left behind lots of space that was ruthlessly exploited by Barcelona. Not all Spanish teams are going to give up similar amounts of space to Barca in the coming games. In fact, it’s probably best to assume that none will. In such tight games, it will be interestingly to see how this fluid 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann as a wide player manage to perform. I was personally happy with the game, and only look forward to more good performances from the team.