Following their 2-0 defeat in El Clásico, Barcelona found themselves in need of a win to keep up with rivals Real Madrid in the title race. Barcelona, just one point off top spot, had won four of their last five in the league, while opponents Real Sociedad had an identical record over the same period.
After initially utilising a three-at-the-back formation when he was first appointed, manager Quique Setién set his Barcelona side up in their recently favoured 4-3-3 system. Clément Lenglet was chosen to take Samuel Umtiti’s spot as Gerard Piqué’s partner in defence, while Arthur was replaced by Ivan Rakitić on the right side of the midfield three. Martin Braithwaite, meanwhile, was handed the opportunity to make his Barcelona debut, favoured over Arturo Vidal to provide an attacking threat on the left side.
Imanol Alguacil made several changes from his side that overcame Real Valladolid at home in their last La Liga game. Most notably, regular starter Mikel Oyarzabal was dropped for 18-year-old Ander Barrenetxea, who, prior to this match, hadn’t started a league game all season. Two of the brightest young talents in La Liga, Alexander Isak and Martin Ødegaard, retained their places in the starting eleven.
Barcelona’s offensive organisation against Real Sociedad’s defensive organisation
Real Sociedad were brave in their defensive organisation, preferring to position themselves in a high-block in a man-orientated system.
Alguacil decided to matchup man-to-man with Barcelona’s attacking structure when playing from the back. As shown above, the right-back (Andoni Gorosabel), moved up into the midfield line to form a line of four, while Portu would block the passing lane from Marc-André ter Stegen to Lenglet. Isak blocked the passing lane to the other centre-back, while Ødegaard’s job was to stay tight on Busquets to prohibit Barcelona’s central progression. The result of this was that ter Stegen was often forced to go long, evidenced by his attempted 22 long passes. Because of Barcelona’s lack of height in the front line, this strategy was seldom effective for Barcelona at progressing the ball up the pitch while maintaining possession.
Barcelona’s organisation when building up was that of a typical 4-3-3 system. Setién evidently wanted his full-backs to provide the width, enabling the wide-forwards (Antoine Griezmann and Martin Braithwaite) to stay narrow. This decision would’ve been made to allow the forwards to operate in spaces as close to the goal as possible. Had they been positioned wide, it would’ve placed an onus on midfielders Rakitić and Frenkie De Jong to act as goal threats, which neither are particularly capable of excelling at.
Here is an example of ter Stegen being forced to go long due to Sociedad’s compact high-block that cut off all possible passing lanes, as explained earlier.
So, how were Barcelona able to progress the ball into Sociedad’s half?
The role of Lionel Messi in Barcelona’s build-up play
After about 25 minutes of Barcelona struggling to play out from the back, Setién made a tactical change. He recognised that, while Sociedad were matching Barcelona man-to-man, they wouldn’t be willing to risk leaving a backline of just two defenders.
To occupy Sociedad’s backline of three defenders, Griezmann positioned himself between Monreal and Le Normand, while Braithwaite’s job was to stay slightly wider in order to pin Llorente. As a result, Messi was able to drop into the midfield without a defender following him, creating a 4v3 overload in the centre of the pitch.
Here, Sociedad are set up in their typical man-orientated defensive structure. We can see already that Messi is drifting towards the midfield, away from backline of Sociedad. However, currently, the ball is deep enough for Monreal to follow Messi in-field, as the space behind could only be exploited by a long ball from ter Stegen which could likely be dealt with by the two Sociedad centre-backs.
Sergio Busquets drops into space to receive the ball facing his own keeper.
De Jong makes a blindside run to receive the ball ahead of Ødegaard and plays a first-time pass into the space vacated by Ander Guevara whilst pressing Busquets.
This simple give-and-go allows Busquets to face forward, which is obviously key to being able to play the ball forwards into teammates in more advanced areas of the pitch. On this occasion, he chooses to pass to Messi.
Mikel Merino is forced across to quickly block any passing lanes that could put Barcelona’s attackers through on goal, which is one of Messi’s strengths. In doing so, he frees up space for Rakitić to receive the ball on the half-turn in between the lines.
Barcelona now have a 4v3 situation attacking Sociedad’s goal, after playing just 5 passes to get from back-to-front. Rakitić opts to play Braithwaite through on the left, who dribbles towards goal and forces Remiro into a save.
Braithwaite ideally would’ve cut the ball back for one of the Barcelona players free in the box, who would’ve had a far better shooting opportunity.
How Barcelona manufactured chances when Sociedad defended deeper
When Barcelona had possession higher up the pitch, which happened more frequently after the decision to drop Messi deeper, Sociedad defended with a 4-4-2 structure.
Tactically, Messi’s positioning created a serious dilemma for Sociedad: Barrenetxea was left isolated 1v2 against Messi and Nelson Semedo. Monreal was unable to step out to cover Semedo, as Messi would have a huge gap to run into behind the defence. With the two Barcelona central midfielders pinning the two Sociedad central midfielders, Busquets saw much more of the ball as he had a 3v2 alongside the two centre-backs in build-up against Ødegaard and Isak. This was key to Barcelona’s success in creating chances on goal.
In this example, we see the 3v2 overload in build-up present that enables Busquets to turn and face forwards. With the two central midfielders pinned, Semedo and Messi create a 2v1 on Barrenetxea. The 18-year-old doesn’t know which player to mark and ends up positioned between the two, leaving passing lanes open to both players. In this example, Busquets decides to pass to Messi.
This allows Messi to play a simple pass into Rakitić who receives the ball in behind the midfield line.
As Sociedad’s midfielders have shifted across to try and deal with Barcelona’s overload on the right side of the pitch, they have left a 3v2 situation on the opposite side in an advantageous position for Barcelona.
This tactical concept is called overloading to isolate. In the context of this match, Barcelona frequently overloaded the right side of the pitch, through the positioning of Messi, which pulled Sociedad midfielders across towards that side. In doing so, the Sociedad defenders on the left-hand side were isolated in either 2v2 or 3v2 positions against Barcelona attackers.
As this graphic shows, Barcelona only had three attacks on the right side of the pitch, resulting in less than 0.01 xG coming from this side. Instead, the chances themselves were through the centre or the left, where Barcelona looked to attack once they had isolated the defenders in these areas by overloading the right.
Above is another instance where Sociedad committed their midfield to the right side. With a switch of play, Alba is in a good position to drill in a low cross.
It results in a very good chance for Messi, which on this occasion, he doesn’t convert.
Sociedad in possession
Barcelona pressed Sociedad’s 4-2-3-1 attacking set-up high up the pitch, usually in a 4-2-4 man-orientated structure.
Here is a clear view of how Barcelona’s pressing looked when put into action. Barcelona matched Sociedad man-for-man in the first phase of build-up. The front three of Barcelona, joined by the ball-near central midfielder, would press Sociedad’s backline. Busquets and the remaining central midfielder would then push up to mark Sociedad’s double pivot of Guevara and Merino.
This often worked well, as evidenced by Barcelona’s 7.5 PPDA pressing intensity in the first half. So, Barcelona were often able to regain possession and build from the back as Sociedad were forced long. Despite this, on occasion, Sociedad were able to break through the press and create chances.
This graphic shows one weakness of Barcelona’s pressing strategy. Since Busquets pushed high up the pitch to press one of the pivots, Ødegaard was often left with lots of space between the lines.
Here is an example of how Sociedad managed to bypass the press. Merino notices Ødegaard in space behind the midfield press.
Merino then drops momentarily to force Busquets even further up the pitch, before accelerating into the empty space that he created with this movement. He does this because he has seen that the passing lane from the centre-back to Ødegaard is open, so knows he will have the opportunity to receive the ball in between the lines. Ødegaard plays a one-touch pass to Merino, who can now drive at the heart of Barcelona’s defence.
However, Sociedad were not always able to perform this pattern of play.
Here we see an improvement in terms of Barcelona’s central compactness. This is achieved through better positioning from the player pressing the centre-back. In the previous example, Messi wasn’t blocking the central passing lanes. However, this example shows Rakitić keeping both Ødegaard and the pivot in his cover shadow, therefore blocking central ball progression.
Barcelona’s victory was well-deserved and possibly should’ve been by a greater margin, exhibited by their xG of 2.36 to Sociedad’s 1.00. This tactical analysis has hopefully conveyed how Setién demonstrated tactical ingenuity to overcome Sociedad’s tactics, especially in possession. He had possibly expected Real Sociedad to set up in their more commonly used 4-3-3 shape, however, he quickly adapted his tactical set-up to overcome the opposition.