Sevilla FC against FC Barcelona, number 6 in the league vs number 1 in the league. Usually Sevilla vs Barca means a Barcelona victory, with Messi dominating, but this time Messi was injured and on the bench. This happened to be the key of the match, not that every not knows Messi always will be decisive when he plays but Barcelona lacked a clear style without him, in which Sevilla utilized really well, right until the moment Messi entered the pitch in the 58th minute.
The last 9 matches, Barcelona was victorious 8 times with Sevilla only one time, back in 2015.
Sevilla has had two massive games against Manchester United, in which they proved to be the better team, especially the midfielders, Banega and Nzonzi was important in the game at Old Trafford, by controlling the central space, helping the first-defenders to put on pressure in order to win the ball when United in their construction played forward passes central, by making pressing-traps.
It’s always difficult to talk about formations, because there are so many lines in each team both defensively and offensively, therefore I drew the lines in which the players normally moved. I think in general it’s more important and interesting to talk about the roles of the players, than their starting position, in which formations shows.
In this game it was very clear that Barcelona needed Busquet as a pivot, because no other player in the world closes space in front of the back-four like him, furthermore he is one of the best to play out of high pressure, which was a phase Sevilla controlled almost throughout the game.
Valverde has in his Barcelona tenure, worked with a concept that has been very disciplined, not allowing the opponent that many shots therefore the amount of goals conceded was until this week fixtures, only 13 goals, fewest in LaLiga.
Sevilla’s main priorities were attacking in the channels behind Alba and S. Roberto, on the outside of Umtiti and Pique, because they knew Rakitic isn’t as good a pivot as Busquets is. The way they did it, was playing in the back four, using also Banega and Nzonzi in the space behind Suarez, to get Barcelona further up the pitch, so Dembele and/or Coutinho would go into pressure, which causes Alba and/or Roberto to go up. Sevilla was doubling in the wide areas, with Muriel coming out from half space creating local-overload, in their locational-play, part of the positional-play.
How could Barcelona prevent this from happening? They had the possibility of doing two things, either go in with high pressure, letting Dembele and Coutinho covering one and a half opponent, by being in-between the full-back and centre-back, but having a longer pressure distance to the full-back, closing the passing-lane to him, meanwhile having Paulinho and Iniesta covering one and a half opponent as well, between Escudero and Nzonzi/Mercado and Banega.
The second thing is to have their first defender, Suarez, have a starting point lower on the pitch and therefore closing and controlling the space behind and in front of the back-four line. This doesn’t necessarily mean Barcelona would lose their aggressive style of play in the pressure but closing different passing-lanes than in high pressure, a better control of space than the high press option.
Steven Nzonzi had a fantastic game against Manchester United in the Champions League, at Old Trafford. He possesses great intelligence and the ability to know when and how to split with Banega in order to apply pressure and win the ball from his nearest opponent, also in case of intercepting the ball and thereafter playing the ball on the break forward.
I’ll like to highlight the two goals, Sevilla scored because I think that Paulinho played a huge role in it, unfortunately for him and Barcelona, it was for the wrong things.
In this situation, the first goal for Sevilla, Pique closed the possibility for the low cross on the right side of S. Roberto. When he does that, which he has to, and Umtiti is both covering his zone and has a hand on his opponent it’s a mix of zonal and man marking, Paulinho has to go man vs man on Vazquez, because of Vazquez position in the box. Dembele comes down, to close Escudero as a possibility, therefore there’s only one player for Paulinho to take care of. But it’s difficult for Paulinho to know, because his perception is in best case inadequate in this situation, he’s only covering an angle of 180, when he has to cover 360.
The second goal, Sevilla couldn’t penetrate Barcelonas defense, and Umtiti won the 1vs1. Then Paulinho chose to pass the ball to Alba, which had pressure on him from both the in- and outside, when Paulinho had the possibility of making a forward pass to Iniesta, a pass to link-up player Rakitic, but chose the wrong option to play Alba, which gave the possibility for Sevilla to go into high pressure with 1vs1. Certainly, Rakitic and Pique could have done more, when Sevilla ten seconds later got through the defense in the other side, but it started with Paulinho making a wrong decision.
Now it was clear to Valverde he had to bring Messi, in order to have any chance at a comeback in this match. As I wrote on my Twitter, as soon as Messi entered the pitch, his teammates got 20-25% better, just because of his presence and knowing his abilities. It was also a blessing for Suarez, who throughout the match had been left alone in-between Kjær and Langlet, with no teammate using the space in front and in the back of them.
Right until Messi entered, it became clear that Barcelona lacked opportunities and most of all a plan to break down Sevilla. Coutinho was too far from being a threat in half space in zone 14, Iniesta had to be in the same space as Rakitic because he couldn’t control it alone, the same way Busquets does it. Sometimes Sevilla closed down Iniesta, because they knew he was the key to get out of the pressure, with his decision-making and passing abilities. Because of this, Paulinho sometimes got down in the same space as Iniesta, only on the other side, which was performed when he was away from doing his runs through Sevilla’s defensive lines. The game plan for Sevilla worked perfectly.
When Sevilla was in possession, their positional play was perfect because of the pressing distance in which they made Barcelona’s players run in.
In this situation, Correa has taken the role as a central attacker, standing in-between Umtiti and Alba, which makes it difficult for both of them to choose what to do, and therefore making it a great situation for J. Navas in wide area and potentially in the half space as well.
How much did Messi influence the match
According to ‘11tegen11’(Twitter) and Opta, Sevilla clearly was the favorite to win the game, throughout the match, even with Messi entering the pitch. He didn’t influence the expected goals that much, as you can see. This just shows, what world class players can do against very good players in LaLiga.
Image courtesy: @11tegen11
But Messi changed the way Sevilla played with and without the ball, or you can say that Sevilla adapted to Messi. The fact is, according to WyScout, Sevilla had 2 counterattacks in the first half, in the second they had 11. This happened because Barcelona was pushing up higher on the ball, and Sevilla released two or sometimes three players in the preparation for the offensive transition, one/or two player(s) to be wide and the second/third player to remain in the center to be a passing opportunity early in the transition.
The defensive positions from Sevilla, gave Alba the opportunity to be higher up the pitch, which forced Iniesta to be a link-up player for him and controlling the possession in half space, with the opportunity to pass to Suarez in the space behind Sevilla’s back-four and Messi just in front of, in zone 14.
The corner kick which FC Barcelona scores it first goal, it shows the importance of having a player to hit just behind the first zonal marking defender, because of the possibility to get a header at goal and to pass it on to a player in the back, which they did, and Suarez scored on the opportunity.
60 seconds later, Barcelona have a 2vs2 on the left side with one-two combinations between Coutinho/Alba, Coutinho a nice cutback to Messi in zone 14, and that’s a goal these days. This meant the end of the game, Sevilla dropping 2 points, Barcelona winning 1.
Sevilla, didn’t look like a team that was fighting for a spot at the Sevilla League next year, but most of all Champions League, Barcelona with the ability to do a comeback, again, just shows they will win LaLiga, but not in the usual FC Barcelona way, of dominating the opponent.