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Analysis

Why Barcelona should play with natural wingers

Lewis Shankie

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Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Barcelona slumped to a disappointing 3-1 loss against Real Madrid at the Camp Nou. After a promising first-half, the Catalans crumbled in the second period. One of the issues was the lack of width as the hosts failed to create anything from wider areas of the pitch.


As the line-up was announced, Culés were excited to see three teenagers start in El Clásico. Ansu Fati started as a striker, Pedri on the right-wing and Sergiño Dest at right-back. Fati led the attacks well and pressed the Real Madrid backline relentlessly. He was rewarded with a goal and was one of the livelier players for the Blaugrana.

Sergiño Dest, too, had an impressive display and showed he has the talent and mentality to succeed at the club. However, after several steady games for Barcelona, Pedri and Philippe Coutinho looked uncomfortable playing as wingers on the right and left respectively. The latter had his least effective game since the season started.

What El Clasico taught us

Ronald Koeman went into the game without a clear plan, reshuffling a system that was working for Barcelona for the most part. Barça were limited going forward because of the lack of creativity coming from the wide areas. On the wings, it was only the full-backs that offered anything going forward. Both Jordi Alba and Dest deserve recognition for their excellent performances against Madrid. Coutinho and Pedri struggled to produce much in areas that do not play to their strengths.

“The plan was to be in control, to have Ansu as a reference for his pace, and in that aspect I think we played a good game.”

Ronald Koeman | Post-match press conference

Koeman has still not found the right balance on the wings since taking over. Antoine Griezmann and Sergi Roberto have offered little on the right when played together. Ansu and Alba have performed well on the left, but the manager changed this partnership on Saturday.

The team lacked proper width and Los Blancos were able to close out space in the middle of the pitch too easily, thanks to Federico Valverde’s mobility, Casemiro’s strength and Toni Kroos’ intelligence. Madrid played with natural wingers in Vinícius Júnior and Marco Asensio. Though they were kept relatively quiet in the final third, they allowed Madrid to stretch the game and create spaces, a tactic that always works against Barcelona centre-backs. Their defenders always had a passing option available to the wide areas which helped transition defence into attack quickly.

Barcelona do not learn

Almost three years after Philippe Coutinho was signed for a club record fee, he is still being played out of position. Coutinho started the season as one of Barça’s best players after Ronald Koeman moved him to the centre of the pitch. He looked in better shape mentally and physically form his time in Bayern Munich and was more involved in the games and linked well with others around him. He dictated play and took some of the creative burden from Lionel Messi.

On Saturday, however, Ronald Koeman decided to change this and play Coutinho and Pedri as the wingers as Barcelona hosted the El Clasico. It is a position that has been proven not to suit the playmaker. In the 2018/19 season, his confidence was shattered after being fielded there game after game by Ernesto Valverde.

Glimpses of 2018/19 Coutinho were seen on Saturday. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Another of Barça’s expensive signings, Antoine Griezmann, is currently suffering the same fate that Coutinho did two seasons ago. The Frenchman’s confidence is at an all-time low from being played on the wing instead of centrally. His performances have dropped, and his form is worrying.

Unsurprisingly, Pedri looks like the latest victim in the long line of central players playing as wingers at Barcelona. His best position is clearly through the middle as he possesses all the attributes to succeed there. However, for some reason, the manager chose to start him on the right.

Potential Solutions

Although Ansu Fati had a great game as the striker for the Garnet and the Blue, he should return to the left-wing. This frees up a central position and also keeps Fati in his natural position.

As for Philippe Coutinho, if is selected to play, it should be as the attacking midfielder, where he performs best. In addition, Antoine Griezmann should play in a central area. He would be best suited as the false nine or in behind the striker. Lastly, Pedri must return to the middle too and can serve as the deputy for Coutinho.

Barcelona have two gems within their ranks but need to be managed carefully. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Barcelona are not short of wingers within their ranks. Fati, Francisco Trincão, Ousmane Dembélé, and Messi can all play out wide. Konrad de la Fuente is also a back-up option in this area. These players are all more suited to the role and have the skill set to excel in this area.

“When we were losing, we first tried to create goal opportunities with those on the pitch. Then, with the changes, we looked for more presence and speed on the wings and playing 1×1 behind, it’s risky but it doesn’t matter if you lose 1-2 or 1-3.”

Ronald Koeman | Post-match press conference

Fati has been one of the standouts of the season and adds a lot of pace to the team and a goal-scoring touch. Trincão has impressed in his cameos and has great dribbling and vision. If Barcelona can get Dembélé back to his best, he would be a real asset to the team and can decide matches on his own. This will only come with regular game time as he tries to recover his form after a long injury.  

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

Detailed Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

In collaboration with Anurag Agate.


Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.


A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.

Barcelona structure and formation

Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.

Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.

Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.

Atletico structure and formation

Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.

Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.

The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.

Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.

Game Stats

The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:

Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :

Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.

Buildup to shots and goals

Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.

Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.

Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.

Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.

In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:

Passing Characteristics

Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.

Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.

For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.

Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.

Defence

The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:

Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :

Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.

Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.

Conclusion

The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.

Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.

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