Is FC Barcelona at the end of a cycle? The appointment of Quique Setién, a disciple of Johan Cruyff, has given Barcelona’s fans renewed hope. Ernesto Valverde’s very pragmatic tactics were no longer convincing both in terms of results and style of play. The return of a coach who was very faithful to Barcelona‘s philosophy could only herald good things for the Blaugranas.
However, three months after his appointment, the results are mixed and Barcelona is no longer as fearsome as it used to be for its opponents. Most of the issues have been present for a few years but it definitely got worse with the arrival of Valverde in 2017. For a long time, this team has relied on its great individuals, especially the duo of Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez and is no longer the collective machine it was under Pep Guardiola (2008-2012) as we will see in this tactical analysis in the form of a scout report as we look at their recent form.
Off the ball
Pressing has always been an important part of Barcelona‘s game, with always the desire to retrieve the ball very quickly (5-second rule). Under Guardiola, pressing with mixed intelligence and intensity was always the key. Intelligence in the way you attract your opponent where you want, but also in the way you occupy space. The goal was to push the opponent to the fault and limit as much as possible his passing opportunities. To make this analysis, we are going to use data that is not always mentioned when we talk about pressing. A stat which is used to quantify the quality of a pressing, the PPDA (Pass allowed Per Defensive Action). It allows to judge the intensity of a pressing and it’s another approach than looking at the percentage of successful passes of the opponent.
OPPDA represents the number of passes a team completes in their own half prior to being disrupted by a defensive action, according to @Efaroh.
The stats come from the Understat site and go back to 2014-2015, the year Luis Enrique became the new Barcelona manager.
Luis Enrique was the coach of Barcelona B from 2008 to 2011, and therefore very much influenced by Guardiola’s philosophy and tactics. The PPDA is excellent until 2017 when Valverde took over as coach. After Valverde, it’s gone downhill as can be seen in the graph above.
The difference is very much noticeable and you can even see it with the naked eye. When you look at the pressure exerted by Liverpool, Manchester City or Bayern Munich, Barcelona suffer from the comparison. The intention is to have a high-pressure line on the pitch, but the pressing is poorly executed, partly because of a problem of intensity. That’s why the pressing is not as scary as it used to be and Barcelona suffer greatly from the transitions that offer many one-on-one situations to their opponents.
You get this feeling that the team can explode at every transition. Sergio Busquets often pushes very high to accompany the pressing and does not have the physical ability to make the defensive transition if the pressing fails. In La Liga‘s last game against Real Sociedad, Busquets was often beaten on defensive transitions, forcing Gerard Piqué and Clement Lenglet to stop the counterattack. The pressing is disorganised and some individuals do not make the necessary effort in terms of intensity.
In this phase of the game, Barcelona is very high in the opponent’s half, with six players in the pressing. Only Busquets actively comes out on the ball carrier, the other players are quite static. Remiro has an easy passing solution in Nacho Monréal, who sticks to the touchline and is alone, partly because Nélson Semedo is abnormally far away from him. The Barcelona team is cut in two, with a defensive line of four very far back. It’s an action among many others, but you can find a few in this match, with the feeling that Barcelona presses for the sake of it, without the real conviction to regain possession. The pressing is often disorganised and the fact that Messi is only involved in the defensive effort very little (pressing only when the ball is close to his area) doesn’t help. Piqué and Lenglet are also not as sharp as last year and less imperial in 1vs1 situations. We have seen the two central defenders very much in trouble in front of Alexander Isak’s mobility for example.
There’s a clear desire to get back to true Barcelona’s playing style and, above all, positional play. We’re seeing possession and passing success rates similar to what we used to see under Guardiola. Fast ball release, occupation of half-space, handling of high and low times. The image of a Barça who wants to control more of these games. Because if your team has the ball, you can’t concede a goal, that’s the fundamental principle of positional play.
Since Setien arrived, Barcelona has an average possession of 68.4% compared to 59.4% for Valverde in the first 19 games of La Liga. 82% against Granada in his first game at the helm of Barcelona, 63% in San Paolo against Napoli, but still a form of sterility can be felt in the attacking phase, with difficulty in finding space in the opposing blocks. The width is well occupied on the Barcelona side, with full-backs sticking to the line, but many difficulties in stretching the opponent’s block in the length. Very little verticality, and a rather slow pace in the last 30 metres.
The overall tempo of the team revolves around Messi. The passing patterns are fairly predictable as the Argentinean is constantly being sought after. He is the game leader and the only one who takes responsibility for creating the game. It’s simple, out of Barça’s last 14 Liga goals in 2020, Messi has played a role in 12 of them, with six goals and six assists The absence of Suarez at the attack is greatly felt, and Messi lacks a real physical and technical point of support. Suárez is also a worrying factor for the opposition defence and opens up a lot of space for Messi and his partners.
Antoine Griezmann has struggled to fit in with the Catalan collective and often occupies the same area as Messi. He’s no longer the essential component in creating the game he used to be at Atletico, because of a much more restricted position and freedom than before with the Colchoneros. He has to reinvent himself but it’s difficult for him to exist against a low and compact block. Where Suárez brings a lot compared to the French is in his ability to vary his off the ball movements, without being afraid to respond to the physical challenge imposed by his opponent. Griezmann prefers to position himself in the open spaces while Suárez seeks to attract adversity upon himself to open breaches for his partners and especially Messi. A perfect illustration of this relationship is Messi’s goal against Betis last year.
Messi finds Suárez in support despite a high axial density on the Betis side.
With an inward run, Suárez attracts all the opposing pressure, with no less than three players on him, freeing up open space on goal for the Argentinian.
He can easily serve Messi, who beats Pau Lopez.
When Griezmann is positioned on the wing, we see him moving a lot in the axis, he is naturally attracted to that space. Anyway, he doesn’t have the intrinsic qualities to play on the wing, he is not a percussion player and dribbled very little this season. He has only 0.6 dribbles per game, which is very little. Messi is by far the best dribbler in the league with 5.4 dribbles per 90 minutes, compared to 3.3 for the second Nabil Fekir.
Aside from Ousmane Dembelé and his ability to be dynamic and unpredictable, by always being a threat to opposing defences, there is clearly a lack of risk-taking in Barcelona’s side players. It is this verticality that is lacking in Barcelona ‘s game that dribbling or running forward can bring. Both full-backs and wingers (when Barça play in 4-3-3) are all too often seen to orientate their bodies towards the centre of the pitch, and Messi in particular, making their actions very predictable. Against Napoli, Júnior Firpo played almost all of his balls towards the back, while the wings were left free by Napoli and he could sometimes attempt dribbling, to make the Neapolitan defence doubtful and vary the attacking phases.
Firpo was at 1.3 dribbles per 90 minutes last year at Betis, he is currently at 0.5. Barcelona’s game has become too dependent on Messi, it is easily readable and it also serves the Argentinian more than anything else. A team capable of handling Messi, leaving him with little space to express himself, makes Barcelona sterile and even harmless. Dembélé is really missed, even though that he’s not a regular player, he’s a key player who brings a lot of verticality through his speed and its dynamism. Ansu Fati is very promising, but still young to fully assume a starting place. We mustn’t forget that this is his first season as a professional.
It is this verticality and depth that could allow Barcelona’s axial players to have more freedom. It is also not easy for Arthur and Frenkie de Jong to express themselves in front of such compact blocks. And since wings no longer seem to be a threat when facing Barça, there are quickly long periods of possession, where Barcelona struggle to manoeuvre the opposing team.
Barcelona also has a significant lack of depth in their squad, especially since the long-term injuries of Dembélé and Suarez. Carles Aleñá and Carles Perez’s loan to Betis and Roma is also a mystery given of the team’s weaknesses in the offensive sector. Aleñá and Perez are pure products of La Masia and their presence would do a lot of good in the team’s rotation. Perez’s departure on loan seems even more bizarre when you consider that the club paid 18 million euros for Martin Braithwaite, a player too limited for Barcelona and far less in tune with the club’s philosophy than Perez was. Especially since Perez completed a promising pre-season. Jean-Clair Todibo, on loan with a purchase option at Schalke04, could have benefited from playing time in the cup and from the possibility of injuries to central backs. His performance against Inter in the UEFA Champions League had been very promising with a lot of risk-taking, a lot of serenity, and the ability to carry the ball between the opposing lines (conduction).
The challenge for Setién will also be to gradually integrate Masia’s young players into the squad, particularly the talented Riqui Puig, who should get more and more time on the pitch. La Masia has been less successful in recent years, but there is also a feeling that there is less a lack of trust in the young from Barcelona B. Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitic and Braithwaite do not or no longer fit in with Barça’s philosophy and are only short-term solutions, given their experience. Setién needs to prepare for the future and build on what has been Barcelona’s strength for several decades, its philosophy of play and its training centre, the Masia.
The profile of some of the players is not adapted to what Setién wants to establish in terms of tactic, and the summer transfer window will be a turning point. Barcelona also lacks a winger capable of making the difference on his own and relieving Messi of the entire creation of the game. It’s a big challenge but it’s too early to say whether Setien is the right man for the job. Since Valverde, Barcelona’s style of play has moved away from the positional play that Guardiola introduced under Cruyff’s influence, and a lot of the automatisms have disappeared. A lot of things need to be rebuilt and adapted to the current demands in terms of intensity and rhythm that the big European teams offer.