After landing onto Quique Setien after a lacklustre start to the season under Ernesto Valverde, Barcelona are currently going through a transitive juncture. The adaptation to possession-based tactics from a pragmatic approach has been tight for the Catalans but are doing quite well under the new manager. After 12 games in charge, one thing that has been troubling Setien’s Barcelona out of a few has been their defensive lapses and we will pin-point during this analysis.
After Quique Setien’s arrival following a Supercopa de España loss to Atletico Madrid, Barcelona have played with a similar defensive set to this point of the season. The centre-backs, Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet have been the regular starters, whereas the full-backs have been out due to injuries. Junior Firpo occasionally started ahead of injured Jordi Alba when he was out injured, while Sergi Roberto’s injury has cemented Nelson Semedo’s place in the right-back position lately.
Sergio Busquets, the defensive midfielder shields the four-man defensive line. The structure under Setien has been a high-one, meaning Barcelona do not defend deep and are looking to win the ball in midfield, if not higher in their half.
However, Barcelona’s defensive shape also depends on the midfield starters. As always, Busquets takes the central spot, whereas the inclusion of Ivan Rakitic makes it a three-man defence, with a mobile full-back and shielded by two deep-lying midfielders. This is done in an attempt to use either of the full-backs in the press and the two mid-fielders to maintain the shield for the back three.
On the other instance, when Barcelona opt to play with a creative midfielder like Arthur, the defence maintains its four-men shape as the midfielder is regularly advanced and only Busquets provides the shield. This is done in order to compensate for the opposition counter-attacks.
The issue comes on with this very feature of Setien’s applications. When Barcelona play against sides that like to dominate spaces and are comfortable without the ball, they are frequently caught by the high-press, making them more vulnerable playing out from the back.
While it heavily depends on individual attributes rather than the system, Barcelona’s defending players have struggled to keep-up against this problem. As an alternative, Setien’s Barcelona use their keeper, Marc Andre ter Stegen as a passing option, aiming to take a numerical advantage while defending.
In the above instance, Rakitic reaches out to ter Stegen to release the pressure applied to him by his marker. While this might seem like an easy solution to the problem, this instead has been hectic for Barcelona, considering their centre-back’s forms. Similarly, while the opposition man-marks all the near-by options around ter Stegen, the German is forced to play long, thereby increasing the chances of losing possession. The move results in Barcelona losing the ball in a dangerous position, forcing a save from ter Stegen.
Similarly, not having an abundance of nearby passing options can halt Barcelona’s attempts to build from the back, as shown in the instance below:
Pique passes the ball to ter Stegen, who is being chased by an opposition, pressing the keeper. Since the man closes in and no other options are free vertically, ter Stegen launches the ball long, ultimately losing the possession.
Issues with full-backs
Barcelona line-up with a four-man defensive, allowing the full-backs to make runs to maintain numerical superiority in the forward set-up. Barcelona have never been known for using their full-backs to land crosses inside the box, and that is the exact case under Setien too. Barcelona’s full-backs look to cut inside the box, showing their attacking prowess frequently.
Alba and Semedo – two frequent starters’ heatmaps show how they’re heavily linked to moving forward than tracking back and limiting cut-ins.
Although it is normal for a possession-based side to flood in full-backs, it becomes necessary for full-backs to track back in this case as forwards are not required to contribute to defence. This is where the actual problem lies – Barcelona are vulnerable when they are caught in possession from the broader side of the pitch. The run-making full-backs look to be ineffective on defence, due to their inability to cope-up with teams that rely on their pacey wingers.
The use of full-backs to attain numerical advantage on the opposition half makes it difficult for them to transit back and defend, which has been a familiar sight for the Catalans. In this instance, Karim Benzema spots Vinicius’ run and takes advantage of the void created by the movement of the full-back. With a pass, Benzema opens the space for Vinicius to make the run forward, creating an attack from the flanks.
These kinds of moves have haunted Barca lately and caused lapses, considering they leave spaces wide and to cover up, they give out spaces in the centre. As a result, the centre-backs look to go out wide to defend the incoming run, and the void left in the centre is looked after by the defensive midfielder. This is where Busquets becomes vital for Barcelona, recovering balls as well as acting as a false centre-back when necessary.
Busquets’ central occupancy has been vital and the heat map suggests how he has been used. However, on a 4-4-2, Barcelona like to defend wider and Busquets fills the gap, as shown below:
Busquets’ role here, is to maintain rigidity and support the central defenders to deal with incoming attackers.
Things have worked for Barcelona this way mostly, but there have been issues with this adaptation too. Playing practically with a three-man defence waiting for the full-backs and midfield players to come to support, sides that make quick-transition from the centre have been able to capitalize on the half-spaces left void by the shift.
In this scenario, the left full-back has to cover the run-making player and the space he’s got to create chances. This will allow the players on another side to position themselves according to the run-making player as he’ll have enough time until the full-back closes in.
Centre-backs’ worrying form
Barcelona’s overall squad was struggling under Valverde and still look to be far from their best under the former Real Betis manager. The worrying thing here is the form of their centre-backs, who are rustic compared to their previous seasons’ performances.
A lot of goals that Barcelona have conceded this season has been due to individual errors and players not being able to instinctively make decisions to minimize the number of shots that ter Stegen concedes.
The two starting centre-backs, Lenglet and Pique have been decent yet ineffective when it comes to collective efforts. Pique, unlike his recent days, has been struggling to maintain his positional discipline, hence getting beaten by moves frequently. On the other side, Lenglet has been struggling to keep up with his 1v1 abilities, as the Frenchman has committed a lot of fouls and set-backs defending in such situations. Not being able to play their part positionally has forced both the players to make more tackles at the last moment, which has been pretty ineffective so far.
As a consequence, Barcelona have conceded 11 in their 12 matches under Setien despite getting hold of healthy ball possession and attack ratio.
Ever since Setien arrived at Barca, injuries have been the significant issue. Similarly, few outgoing transfers have proven to be substantial for Setien, who’d been left with 16 first-team players before the pause of the season.
Ideally, there are no reliable substitutes for the two centre-backs that start for FC Barcelona right now. Samuel Umtiti, after his recovery, looks to be rustic, not being able to contain the opposition forward like he used to before the knee injury. Similarly, Umtiti has been relatively slow with the ball, allowing oppositions to limit Barcelona’s efforts to build-up from the back.
Jean-Clair Todibo, looked by most as a promising talent to boss defence for Barcelona, was loaned to Schalke after Setien’s arrival, leaving Setien with no other choices rather than Umtiti to work. Any injuries could’ve made things difficult for Setien, who had Ronald Federico Araújo, the Barcelona B centre-back in his armoury.
The switch-off periods
Any Barcelona fan that has closely monitored Setien’s Barca play can spot the switch-off periods that FC Barcelona have occasionally, typically after taking the lead. The oppositions flood FC Barcelona with attacks during this 5-10 minute of switch-offs and have been able to take some goals out during this phase. FC Barcelona, who always struggle to defend corners and set-pieces, are seen nagging and struggling to build-up, allowing spaces for the opposition to capitalize.
As we can see, Barcelona switch-off post 60 minutes mark, allowing Madrid to attack more and hence concede both the goals in the same period. FC Barcelona look to enjoy possession but are strangled inside their own half, forced to make mistakes and give oppositions a chance to equalize or lead.
Quique Setien’s side have managed to show their signs of change but are still evolving after a pragmatic hangover. First and foremost, Barcelona’s attack not functioning well might be the main cause of why their defensive is frequently exposed. After all, you have to score more goals than the opponents at the end of the day. With a relatively low amount of goals coming compared to the possession that Barcelona are enjoying, improving the finishing boots might cover the topic but not permanently.
With that being said, as this LaLiga side’s scout report analyzed, the majority of issues seem to be originating from the process of transformation and it’s up to Setien and company to improvise the squad and make Barcelona’s defence win matches, not only Lionel Messi.