In a night full of goals, Barcelona – Slavia Prague played out a 0-0 draw in their fourth group stage match in UEFA Champions League. Barcelona came into the game on the back of a disastrous result, losing 3-1 to Levante, which meant they are level in points with their arch-rivals Real Madrid while Slavia Pague thumped Baník Ostrava 4-0 in their league game.
Ernesto Valverde had to reshuffle his starting XI due to a calf injury to Luis Suárez. Valverde for the first time this season started with a 4-2-3-1 with Lionel Messi leading the attack. Arturo Vidal who started as an attacking midfielder often interchanged position with Messi, who dropped deep occasionally. Frenkie De Jong and Sergio Busquets acted as a double pivot and hardly influenced the game. Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé donned the flanks.
Jordi Alba had an awful outing and was subbed at the start of the second half. Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet were the centre-back pairing who were tasked with breaking the opposition defence with key passes and long balls from deep. Piqué and Lenglet strived to break the deadlock with seven through balls in the match. Nélson Semedo had a terrific game starting as a right-back and then was shifted to the left flank once Sergi Roberto was introduced in the second half.
Jindřich Trpišovský came out entirely with a defensive approach. Trpišovský changed his formation from 4-3-1-2 to 4-1-4-1 from his last outing against Barcelona. Peter Olayinka started as a left-winger who was tasked with marking the Barcelona right-back throughout the game and Lukáš Masopust was the lone forward. Petr Ševčík had a similar role to Olayinka. He started as a right-winger and marked the Barcelona left-back throughout the game. Trpišovský kept faith in his regular defenders and they had a huge task of keeping the skilful Barcelona attackers at bay.
Six-man defence vs Six-man attack – ‘Positional Marking’
Valverde came out with an attacking approach and as usual, pushed his full-backs high up to overlap the wingers. Vidal was pushed up and acted as a forward along with Messi, who occasionally dropped deep to receive the ball and break the opponent’s defensive setup. Griezmann and Dembélé moved infield to give the full-backs, Alba and Semedo, space to overlap. Busquets acted as the only midfielder. De Jong dropped deep to form a three-man defence with Lenglet and Piqué.
In response, Trpišovský tinkered with the position of his players. Olayinka and Ševčík acted as the wing-backs and formed a six-man defence during Barcelona attacks. Olayinka was tasked with man-marking Semedo in the first half and then the subbed-in Roberto in the second half. Ševčík kept tabs on Alba in the first half and the make-shift Semedo in the second half. Vladimír Coufal marked Griezzmann who drifted infield and the left-back, Jan Bořil marked Dembélé. The centre-back pairing Ondřej Kúdela and Michal Frydrych marked Vidal and Messi respectively.
Bořil and Coufal, the attacking full-backs who love overlapping the wingers and create overloads during attack hardly did so in this game. The change in approach by Trpišovský is clearly evident from the heat maps of both the full-backs against Barcelona in the home and away game.
6 vs 6 was a completely different ball game. The intriguing characteristic of a 6 vs 6 was that Slavia defenders marked their position and not the man. Messi and Vidal constantly tried to disrupt the Slavia defence with interchanging their positions. Since Slavia defenders marked their position and not the man, Barcelona attackers could not disrupt Slavia setup by interchanging their positions. Slavia’s defenders stuck to the man in their position blocking the forward pass by the Barcelona defenders to the attackers. It resulted in Barcelona playing 244 lateral passes compared to 184 in their last game against Slavia.
The Barcelona attackers continuously tried to disrupt the setup by drawing out defenders. It was constant throughout the game.
Dembélé drops deep to receive a pass from Piqué and tries to free up space for Semedo to overlap. Bořil marks him coming out of the defensive setup until and unless he makes a back pass to De Jong. It does not disturb Slavia’s defensive tactics since Olayinka is there to mark Semedo.
In the same sequence of play, Messi drops deep to receive a pass from De Jong and draws out Frydrych. De Jong is unable to pass the ball to Messi since Frydrych is lurking behind the Barcelona striker and so he looks for other options and then passes sideways to Piqué.
At the same time, Griezmann tries to attack the space left behind by the Slavia centre-backs in marking Messi and Vidal. Coufal is well aware and marks Griezmann. Ševčík sees Alba making a run and marks him. De Jong is left with no option but to pass sideways to Piqué again.
The game of drawing out Slavia defenders didn’t do the trick for Valverde and the score remained 0-0.
The best example of Slavia’s man as well as position marking is best depicted by this image.
When Barcelona tried to build the attack from the back, the full-backs are not pushed up to form a 6-man attack. In that situation, Olayinka and Ševčík moved up and marked both the full-backs. Slavia changed their pressing approach too in this game. They sat back and marked their players rather than going for aggressive pressing. Slavia allowed 14.7 passes per defensive action (PPDA) this game compared to 7.33 in the previous game against Barcelona. This clearly depicts the pressing style of Slavia in this game.
Complications of the setup
Six defenders on six attackers meant any player failing to do his task might result in grave consequences. Barcelona’s attackers were technically gifted and they tried to use it to their advantage.
Griezmann’s faint run towards Alba to receive the ball draws out Coufal. The French star instead made a run towards the space that was left behind by Coufal. The pass was slightly overhit and the ball was cleared by the Slavia goalkeeper, Ondřej Kolář.
Another problem to the defensive setup was the change in position of the wingers during the transition.
Slavia’s corner was intercepted by Marc-André ter Stegen and during a corner, Olayinka and Ševčík’s position was such that they had to change their flanks. Olayinka was now at the right flank and Ševčík manned the left flank. Ševčík couldn’t match the sudden pace and overlapping run of Semedo, which prompted Piqué to play a perfect through ball to Semedo which resulted in highest xG of 0.17 from an attack.
Semedo constantly troubled the Slavia defence in the first half. His pace troubled the man, marking him. Olayinka did a fine job in marking Semedo and kept him at bay most of the first half except from one occasion. But when he marked a different player and Semedo was left with another Slavia player, he tried to take full advantage of the situation. Semedo had a 0.17 xG, only second to Messi who had 0.22 for the night.
If Slavia had their problems at the back, Barcelona had their own issues to sort out. Too many players creating an overload during an attack meant few players were left at the back in case of a quick counter.
On one such occasion, Barcelona were left bewildered by the pace of Slavia attack. Barcelona lost the ball in the final third and could not fall back in time. Slavia beautifully interchanged passes in their defensive third and counted on Olayinka’s pace to produce some result. Olayinka’s pace created a 5 vs 4 situation with Busquets and Semedo finding it difficult to fall back. Unfortunately for Slavia, it did not result in a goal.
Barcelona too changed their pressing style in contrast to Slavia. Vidal who came in place of Suárez led the press with Griezmann and others acting as deputy. Barcelona’s PPDA for the game was 5.92 compared to 11.19 in their previous game against Slavia. Barcelona pressed high trying to prevent Slavia from playing out from the back.
The problem to this was that the Barcelona defenders were not aligned with their attackers. When the forwards and midfielders pressed high, the defenders sat back and did not form a high line. It resulted in too much space in the middle of the park.
Vidal tussled with Kolář and seemed to win the battle against him but the goalkeeper fought back and made Vidal mispass the ball to Ševčík, who started a Slavia counter. It resulted in a 5 vs 3 situation in favour of Slavia. The Slavia forwards were too slow on the ball and could not take advantage of the situation.
Trpišovský’s change in tactics and mode of attack
Trpišovský came to Camp Nou with a sole purpose to defend and hit Barcelona with counter-attacks. What makes them different is that they defended with a high line. Generally, opponents who have a sole purpose to defend and hit back with counters sit deep and then take the game to the opposition but it wasn’t the case for Slavia.
Slavia Prague had just 15 positional attacks in the return leg at Camp Nou compared to 36 positional attacks at their home. They had seven counter-attacks in this fixture compared to just two in their previous game against Barcelona. If Slavia’s numbers for the season is noted, it vividly describes the way they attack. Against Barcelona, Trpišovský completely changed his tactics and adjusted to the one which he deemed perfect against Barcelona.
Valverde relied more on individual brilliance from his players than a change in tactics. He continuously overloaded the final third with six attackers and relied on the centre-backs to produce the killer passes. With almost no midfield, Barcelona could not trouble the Slavia defence.
Trpišovský completely nullified the effect of Alba and Semedo with his tactics resulting in most of the attacks from the centre.
With Slavia’s midfield being compact, it hardly resulted in clear-cut chances for Barcelona.
The pressure mounts on Valverde who looks clueless with his tactics when the results are not going in his way.
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