Barcelona opened the current La Liga season in spectacular fashion defeating a then highly promising Villareal side 5-0. Utilizing a new formation and integrating new players, Barca produced football that was both remarkably fluid and effective. Even within the standards of the Guardiola-era Barcelona project, that match marked a noteworthy highlight of dynamic, attacking play.
Five months later, Barcelona was thwarted by a doggedly determined Villareal team, one that has itself been depleted by players lost to injury and sales since that first Liga match. Villareal deserves a great deal of praise for their disciplined, hard working performance, particularly given the recent context surrounding the club (the impending sale of Nilmar despite lack of depth at the striker position in particular the most recent difficulty). First and foremost, the story of this match was Villareal earning a favorable result.
Barcelona, however, was clearly far from their best and not remotely close to operating at the level they achieved in the 5-0 match against the Yellow Submarine that opened the season. The 0-0 draw now sees Barcelona fall seven points back in the Liga race.
The debate for why Barcelona dropped points in this match and their recurring problems away from home will be one that will be vigorously debated from now all the way until the beginning of next season. However, one of the features of this match that I found particularly striking was the continuity in the quality of performance between this match the mid-week match against Real Madrid. Interestingly, this week demonstrated a Barcelona side exhibiting certain negative characteristics both home and away. We’ll examine a few of the factors which may have come in play in this review.
Context: Injuries and Lineup
As has been the story for much of this season for Barcelona, injuries set the context for how they would need to structure their play. With the injuries to Iniesta and Sanchez in the mid-week Clasico Barca entered this match with only twelve outfield player.
Unfortunately, in the morning it became known that Pedro has picked up a hamstring injury in training Friday and would be unavailable. In an emergency measure, Barcelona re-evaluated the Sanchez and determined that he could play with pain killers and was activated as “fit” to play.
As such, Barcelona entered this match with eleven healthy first team outfield players. That is an extraordinary figure, particularly given the importance of this match. Guardiola filled out his bench with newly promoted Isaac Cuenca and B team players. However, because the team had such little margin for error in the Liga race, using young players in a match on the road was going to be difficult.
Over the course of the season we’ve become almost acclimated, perhaps numbed, to the team playing short. But in this match the team literally came close to having the bare minimum number of experienced outfield players. The most experienced fully healthy player on the bench was Thiago, a young player himself newly promoted at the start of this season.
What intensified this situation was the fact that Barca played a grueling mid-week match against their biggest rivals only three days prior, a match in which the team was already looking visibly fatigued.
Given the lack of options, Guardiola’s initial line up almost wrote itself. He again elected to use the core group of players who were both healthiest and most experienced, a cohort which has been playing consistently every three days: Valdes/ Alves/ Puyol/ Pique/ Abidal/ Xavi/ Busquets/ Mascherano/Cesc Messi/ Adriano.
The only real surprise in the line up was Guardiola electing not to start Thiago. In the Madrid match, Barcelona looked fatigued in midfield, Fabregas in particular. Against Villareal, Guardiola elected to utilize that core midfield again, playing Fabregas, Xavi, and Busquets once more and adding Mascherano. Playing Busquets and Mascherano together rather than installing Thiago likely was motivated by playing away from home against a team that can be dangerous in possession.
The “Right” Tactics
The key to beating the Villareal system in terms of tactics is utilizing width. Villareal’s dynamic 4-4-2 requires the advanced midfielders, the interiores, to do double duty as wingers in a 4-4-2 when out of possession and as midfielders in a 4-2-2-2 when in possession. Attacking Villareal through width stretches the interiores and breaks the tight balance Villareal seeks to maintain. This is particularly true in transitions situations.
Guardiola utilized a 3-5-2/3-4-3 type of formation in this match with Alves and Adriano opening as modified wingers.
Tactically, this was the right formation in many regards. Adriano and Alves were both available as outlets for the ball. Adriano was the player who had the most time and space on the ball, often finding himself largely free on the pitch.
Unfortunately Tactics Alone Aren’t Enough
While the system Guardiola chose was fundamentally sound, his team lacked the dynamism needed to implement it successfully.
Again, as in the mid-week match against Madrid, Barcelona’s off the ball movement, ball circulation and pressing were severely lacking. At their best Barcelona play with a precision and crispness that are underpinned by dynami movement. It is that dynamic movement which allows a team with limited physicality to thrive and produce breath taking football. But when the movement is missing the Barcelona system breaks down.
Against Villareal this breakdown was best exemplified by the way the defense operated in the first half. Barcelona utilized a three man backline for most of the first half. While there is nothing “new” about using a three man backline and other teams do so now, the way Barcelona has implemented its three man backline is very innovative.
Rather than clustering the three center backs together towards the center of the pitch, Barca spread their lateral center backs wide and actively incorporate the entire backline into the possession game and “attack.” For example, in this match against Villareal, Puyol, the nominal R lateral CB, not only played close to the touchline but also got up field high almost as an attacking full back. Without these innovations, the three man backline can create significant inefficiencies.
There are of course trades offs in the way Barca structures its back three. Most important of these is the following. By spreading the lateral CBs so wide, large channels are opened up between the CB and the lateral defenders. The three backs aren’t able to defend as a tightly knit “wall” as other three man backlines do.
This large channels mean that the Barca three man backline can only provide solidity through energetic movement, pace and flawless positional reading of the game at the back. Even more importantly the backline can only remain intact if the entire team defends as a highly coordinated unit, pressuring the ball and winning it back.
Over and over in the first half, Barcelona lacked the dynamism to defend as it does when it is at its best. The advanced defenders didn’t pressure the ball aggressively enough. This left the back three exposed. This was made worse by a lack of sharpness at the back.
In turn Villareal was able to generate multiple dangerous chances in the first half that were stopped only by a very last minute intervention. Eric Abidal repeatedly made critical defensive plays to thwart dangerous attacks, often as the last defender.
If there was one play that captured the match in microcosm for me it was on in which Villareal attacked on a counter and Puyol had to close space to defend. Villareal’s attack stalled for a moment from a poor touch and Puyol had the opportunity to break up the attack. It wasn’t the easiest of chances but one he makes consistently. But in this game Puyol made a meal of the clearance and the Villareal regained its counter. It was only through a last minute intervention from a Abidal that a clear goal scoring chance was thwarted.
I bring this instance up not as a criticism of Puyol. To the contrary I bring it up for what it says about the state of the team as a whole. There’s no question about the Captain’s heart or his desire to to compete. There is no question that Puyol wanted to get to the ball and suffocate the developing danger. But he was simply a step slow in closing down the play – a step he usually has when he’s playing as we expect him to. Against Villareal, that step simply wasn’t there.
And again, this wasn’t only an issue of the backline or playing three at the back. Barcelona played three at the back against Villareal in their first encounter this season and dominated. When the team is right and playing at a high level, they are able to play three at the back and maintain solidity, as was well demonstrated by the first Clasico of this season at the Bernabeu.
In this second match against Villreal, however, the team’s advanced pressure defense was slow as well and not nearly as dynamic as it should be. The net result of this was that the backline had to absorb more responsibility then they usually need to. In this regard many of the problems at the back were more symptoms than cause.
Guardiola adjusted for these difficulties by converting from three at the back to four at the back in the second half. This decreased the space between the channels in the backline. The extra defender provided more cover and Barca defended much more solidly in the second half. Interestingly, when Guardiola elected to sub on Sanchez to augment the attack he removed Pique from the match and moved Mascherano to CB alongside Puyol.
Playing three at the back has been a controversial and much focused on tactic from Guardiola, one that is still in evolution. But on the whole what we’ve seen can be summarized as follows. Playing three at the back gives Barcelona tremendous flexibility and adds significant richness to how they can organize possession and orchestrate the attack. However, the formation entails certain risks as well. On the whole the team can afford to take those risks when it is playing at its best. Under those circumstances the team is able to maintain defensive solidity against the best of sides. However, if the team isn’t operating at its highest level, three at the back leaves open vulnerabilities . In a sense, the team operates with less margin for error and less robustness with three at the back.
Villareal Simplify their Gameplan and Defend Solidly
Villareal can struggle in transition situations because their formation has to switch between a 4-2-2-2 in possession to a 4-4-2 in defense. If the opposition can play the ball out widely with speed after dispossessing Villareal then the only defender the Yellow Submarine may have is the full back, who himself is required to push up field in attack (this is a reason why Villareal often seems to struggle with Real Madrid-transition defense along the flanks).
Against Barcelona, the Yellow Submarine enjoy less possession then they are accustomed to. That hurts their style of play, but one of the side effects to this is that is also reduces the number of transition situations they find themselves in.
In this last match, Villareal stayed more organized in a 4-4-2 block and playing on the counter. The interiores stayed wide to defend and pulled centrally in mostly to counter.
This meant that Barcelona’s attack was faced with the task of breaking down Villreal’s organized block. Maintaining shape generally isn’t a real strength of Villareal’s, but in this match they did it well and worked extremely hard. They stayed compact and clotted the middle while also making sure to track Dani Alves on the right flank.
Barcelona Doesn’t Respond Adequately
Barcelona simply lacked the rapid ball circulation and off the ball movement needed to break this shape. As in the Real Madrid match, the Barca attack operated at too low a tempo and was too static.
Watching this match the recurring words that kept coming to mind was, “faster, faster, faster.” But they were never able to play the ball with the velocity they usually do. The extra energy and sharpness were missing.
These problems were compounded by a lack of precision. Barcelona’s pass accuracy in this match was only 84%. For comparison, in the first match against Villareal this season the team’s pass accuracy was 91%.
The Left Flank a Lost Opportunity
When teams focus on defending Barcelona it’s nearly impossible for them to defend all of the players that need to be marked while also controlling space. Trade offs have to be made. In this match Villareal made sure to keep shape in the center while also tracking Alves and then Sanchez on the right.
This approach worked well as those areas were heavily defended. But in doing so Villareal had to concede space along the left flank. This is a strategy we see teams take recurrently against Barcelona, particularly in the wake of Villa’s injury.
And in many ways it makes sense. Abidal is a great defensive LB – but he’s not going to make too many aggressive forward runs. With Villa injured long term, Pedro lost form and Iniesta being more comfortable in the center than on the flank, it’s the left flank that makes the most sense to concede.
However, this means that it is imperative for Barcelona to create damage out of that area. The left flank players are often the only ones on the entire Barcelona team who have time and space on the ball. This match was no different.
Adriano was the Barcelona player with the most time and space on the ball in an advanced position. Barcelona’s best chance to create danger and score was through him. Adriano’s shown that he’s more than capable of doing this with his runs and crosses. Unfortunately, Adriano didn’t read the match well and isolated himself. He stationed himself high up the pitch. This is his tactical role. However, in this match, Barcelona was never able to fully exert control of midfield through its precision passing game. As such, Adriano isolated himself and the game was determined behind him. And by staying high up the pitch and wide, he was unable to support the quality of the possession game.
In addition, Barcelona fell into a pattern they will revert to when they aren’t playing well – they tried to force the ball through the middle via Messi (and Fabregas too often).
But it was that left flank where the goal needed to come from. And this became all the more apparent when Tello entered the match. Substituted on with roughly fifteen minutes to play, B team winger Cristian Tello had an immediate impact on the match. With his pace and explosiveness he was able to beat the Villareal RB at will. In the brief period of time he was in the match, he generated a number of strong scoring opportunities and was the most dangerous player on the pitch. Unfortunately, Barcelona couldn’t convert those opportuities into an end product.
The left flank was open all game long. If there was one thing I hoped Pep would have done sooner was make adjustments to how the team was going to utilize the space in that area as that was the region where Barcelona could have found oxygen.
A Handful of Opportunities that Weren’t Finished
In the end, Barcelona had three to four terrific goal scoring opportunities – one to Messi and two to Fabregas in particular stand out– none of which were converted.
Messi’s chip was indicative of the entire match. That’s a shot we’ve seen him make over and over. This wasn’t a case where he forced the chip and the keeper was in position to anticipate it or defend it. The keeper was perfectly set up for a chip. Messi just missed – but not by much. That play was just emblematic of the lack of cutting edge the team demonstrated all night long.
Fabregas’s miss at the end of the game was a golden opportunity for the team to salvage three points from a poor performance. But Fabregas scuffed his shot on what was close to an open goal and sailed the ball well over the cross bar. It was the culmination of what was Fabregas’s worse game in the colors.
It’s easy to lament and say that the game was lost because of poor finishing. However, most matches can be chalked up to a team “not taking its chances.” Football however isn’t a game characterized by efficiency in scoring. Even players considered to be great finishers don’t come close to scoring on the vast majority of their opportunities. The primary factor that drives scoring isn’t necessarily high precision scoring – it’s generating a large number of high quality chances. Eventually a few will go in.
This game wasn’t simply decided by the team not finishing a handful of high quality opportunities. It was decided by the fact that they generated so few strong opportunities to score in the first place. When you do that every miss seems cataclysmic. But when Barca is playing well – we wouldn’t necessarily have paid so much attention to those three to four great chances not being finished because others would have been created and they would have scored on some of them.
Team: A very disappointing performance in what was a match they couldn’t afford to drop points in. The squad was off in most phases the match: defending, possession, transition and attack. These are matches that happen to most sides during the season. But given the context of La Liga, it was an off match which the team couldn’t afford to have.
Guardiola: Set out to play with the team’s preferred system of aggressive attacking on a night where his players just didn’t have it. Pep’s preference is to stick with his players and let them save close games. He’s been through so much with them and they’ve produced so many remarkable moments this makes sense. But it also means that he tends to leave changes for late. And this was a match in which earlier changes were probably warranted given the team’s lack of tempo and rhythm.
Valdes: Was strong when called upon, making several excellent saves when needed, particularly one off of a shot from Senna.
Alves: An off day to say the least for Dani. He played high up the pitch for much of the first half but simply didn’t contribute a great deal in possession. His passing and touch were curiously off. Just a bad match.
Puyol: Showed great heart and determination. And he didn’t play poorly in any way. But he was just playing a step slower then he usually does. At the same time a great deal was asked of him in this match – especially the amount of space he was responsible for defending in the first half. At the end of the Madrid match Puyol looked like he’d completely emptied the tank. It was surprising to see him start again today. But once Barca converted to a back four and he moved to CB from RB, he was solid again. Not a bad match from the Captain – more one that was strange to see in some moments.
Pique: Not his worst match of the season. But not nearly his best. This continues a concerning trend in Pique’s play this season. What makes this particularly disappointing that at 24 it is Pique who really needs to be shouldering more and more of the burden of the backline from Puyol and Abidal. Instead, it too often continues to be those two older defenders who have to support Pique. In a match of this importance the team needed much more from Pique. He needs to turn things around.
Abidal: A draw was very disappointing. The team couldn’t afford to drop two points. But perhaps the primary reason the match was a draw rather than a loss was Abidal’s play in the first half. He shut down multiple dangerous counters covering for other defenders either being in poor position or getting beat. At his age it feels like he’s getting better. Man of the match for making sure Barca escaped with at least one point.
Mascherano: Defended well and his flexibility allowed Guardiola to make needed changes and convert to four at the back to stabilize the defense. Started the game in the holding midfield spot where he played deep – deeper than Busquets usually does (which may have been due to the dangerous counters Villareal was generating). Was fine in possession playing a relatively conservative game (completed 85% of his passes). Brilliant goal line clearance off of a Villareal set piece saved a goal and potentially a loss.
Busquets: An ambiguous match. Generally did the things he always does well at a quality level: maintain ball possession, act as an outlet, circulate the ball. However, he wasn’t playing as a pure holding midfielder today. The team could have used some attacking thrust from Busquets. At this point, the opposition defense almost assumes Busquets will do little of direct danger. Xavi needed more help to shoulder the load of the attack.
Xavi: A strained performance. Frankly, he looked taxed and fatigued. That he was subbed off with 15 minutes remaining in a 0-0 match spoke volumes to where Xavi was physically. We often talk about Dani Alves’s remarkable work rate and stamina. But in many matches it is Xavi who runs the most on the team. It’s difficult to notice because Xavi doesn’t go on direct vertical runs. Instead he’s the player who is in near constant motion. As the central midfielder he constantly has to run and find space within the interior of the pitch both to control possession and to make himself available for the other players to pass to. Right now he looks like a tired player – much as he did in the second half against Madrid. One of the slight disappointments of this season has been the fact that despite bringing in Fabregas and promoting Thiago, Xavi isn’t receiving any more rest than he has in the past. Midfield was the area where Barca actually went out and built a significant amount of depth. But it hasn’t lessened the burden on Xavi.
Fabregas: What’s to say? A brilliant player who had one of those matches. He was just outright terrible in this match. It wasn’t even the missed shots on goal. Fabregas played a slow, lethargic game. And in some respects it’s difficult to blame him – he likely shouldn’t even have been out on the pitch as he looked exhausted against Madrid. It’s easy to forget, but Fabregas has played relatively little football over the past three seasons because he’s been recurrently injured. Right now it looks like he may be hitting a physical wall as he’s been playing every three days in multiple competition for an extended period of time. His touch and passing were errant in this match. And usually Fabregas is exemplary in his work rate. That too was absent. He just looked exhausted. Completed only 78% of his passes. While that wasn’t the lowest on the team (Messi-77%; Adriano 78%) one expects much more than a 78% pass accuracy rate from a Barcelona midfielder.
Messi: Not his match. With the line up Guardiola had to go with, the key question that was very evident was where would the goals come from? Ultimately, there were only two goal scoring threats on the pitch. This made it easy for Villareal to overplay the center – that was the region both Messi and Fabregas like to play through. Messi is used to this – but he also was a step off and didn’t have the dynamism in his play needed to break down a defense structured to make any player other than Messi beat them.
Adriano: Played too tactically if that makes sense. Stayed wide on the flank and high, but in doing so isolated himself from the game. His teammates should have gotten him the ball more. But he also needed to read what was going on and become more aggressive in making himself available. Instead he played a somewhat passive match. This is a difficult position for a player like Adriano to be in. He was the player with the most time and space on the ball. The attack needed to flow through him if only to start opening up other parts of the pitch. He needed to involve himself more directly. Instead he waited for his midfielders to find him and direct the ball to him. It never really happened.
Sanchez: Gamely tried to play despite a sprained shoulder which was ruling him out of the match prior to Pedro’s injury. Had limited influence on the match overall. He played a brilliantly 1-2 to Messi at the end of the match in space so tight it almost wasn’t there that almost won the team the match.
Thiago: Surprised to not see him start – which again shows that while Guardiola believes as much in young players as almost anyone in the world – he believes they have to be given responsibilities in controlled situations where they are in a position to thrive. Thiago started the first match Barca played against Villareal this season and played extremely well. But on the road, in late January, Guardiola elected to go with more experienced players. When he did come on in this match did well, adding movement to midfield.
Tello: While on the pitch Tello was perhaps the most dynamic attacking presence Barcelona had. Using his pace and skill on the ball, the winger was able to beat the Villareal defense repeatedly. It became apparent quickly that Villareal backline simply couldn’t cope with Tello physically. He added an element of explosiveness that Barelona have in limited supply and that quality significantly expanded the nature of the Barcelona attack. His entry marked the first time when Barcelona really started to exploit the open space Villareal was conceding on the left flank. While Adriano also has strong pace the difference on the left flank when Tello came on was that he used the ball to run at the defenders and make them defend in open space.
A lackluster display sees Barcelona dropping two very costly points sending them further behind the top of the table. Barcelona have now dropped more points away from home than they did all of last season. That’s a remarkable statistics. However, perhaps what’s even more concerning, is the echoes between this match and the midweek match against Madrid at home. Both home and away Barcelona played at a much lower pace, less precision and less cutting edge then we are accustomed to seeing them play with.
Watching the Madrid match mid-week, what really concerned me wasn’t even the result – it was the relatively lethargic way Barcelona played. It reminded me of the match last year the team played against Arsenal in the first leg of the CL and matches in the second half of the season where the team struggled to play with the verve and energy they did when they were at their best. It’s easy to forget after winning La Liga and the Champions League Trophy, but this Barca struggled at times in the second half of last season. And it was only after the players got a full two week break after wrapping up La Liga early that they returned to playing at their top form in the CL finals. That rest rejuvenated them and had them back to playing the dynamic football that no other team in the world can play.
Prior to this match against Villareal I wrote the following on twitter:
Cules aren’t going to want to hear this. But we are going to have to temper expectations over the next several weeks.
The fact is the schedule is going to be brutal and the team is down to 12 first team outfield players. That’s just an enormous difficulty.
If team drops points or doesn’t win – it’s likely going to be influenced by fatigue (physical & mental) more than lack of hunger & effort
Now, I thought this would be a difficult match after the gruelling mid-week match with Madrid, but I expected Barcelona to win this match against Villareal. I had no definitive idea that the team would drop points so soon. But the fact is, the team is in a very precarious situation right now in terms of depth and the risk was there for them to not be able to respond physically given the schedule. It just so happened that.
We’ll discuss Barcelona inconsistent form in detail for a long time. At their best, this Barcelona team is as good as any we’ve seen during Guardiola’s tenure. They are just not maintaining those lofty standards with the same regularity. And our inclination will be to find “the reason” for why the team hasn’t been as even as they have been the past three seasons. But with most complex occurrences, there likely isn’t any one reason. Injury, squad depth, lack of hunger, etc. are all possible and may all contribute. Reasons why the team was inconsistent in the beginning of the season may no longer hold now or may have changed in significance.
So in trying to understand what’s happening and why it is, there are three directions we need to follow. First, to figure out what the range of reasons are. Second, to try to determine the influence each of the factors have. Proportionality is critical to this kind of analysis because not all factors are likely to contribute equally. Third, how are these issues changing over time? As with many things, the entire picture will only be clarified with time.
For right now, to me, the issues which are most definitive just due to their factual nature is the sheer number of injuries and the number of available players. I’m not saying that is the only reason – but as far as I can say with any confidence – those seem to be significant drivers. As we know this team has struggled in February for form under Guardiola. The mid-week match against Madrid made me think that February may be coming early this season. And the most direct reason for this is likely the mounting injuries on a squad that is small at baseline.
The team has looked exhausted this week. Fabregas was subbed off against Madrid with the match hanging in the balance. Puyol looked a step slow against Villareal. Xavi looked tired against Madrid and was subbed off against Villreal. When was the last time Xavi was removed from a critical match which was tied? Guardiola doing so is remarkable.
Hopefully, this current stage of fatigue is only that – a stage the players are passing through. A temporary issue that will resolve. The team has dipped in form in the winter before only to return to its highest level of play. Unfortunately, in the recent past Barcelona played from the top of the table. The team didn’t drop so many points, particularly away, so early. That gave them a cushion they don’t have now.
Adding depth will be a challenge. The club has shown little desire to add players from the outside and the transfer window is more or less closed. As such we’ll have to hope for a rapid return to health, avoidance of future injuries and surprise contributions from the B team players.
Another factor which we’ll need to face and consider is a difficult one to deal with because there’s no way to “fix” it: random chance. What this Barcelona project has accomplished under Guardiola has been breathtaking. And it’s breathtaking because it is so far out of the ordinary. Watching this squad week in and out – it’s easy to forget that this simply isn’t normal. No team is supposed to accomplish these things – never mind to do it for so long. And part of what makes it so difficult to excel for this long is that football is a game that his influenced significantly by random chance. To operate at the kind of level that this Barca has and to do so for so long means that you can’t be only slightly or even moderately better than the competition – you have to be significantly better. If not then just by random chance something would interrupt your success. This season – with the injuries – has that feeling.
To put this in perspective – the team that Barcelona is perhaps most often compared to is Sacchi’s brilliant Milan teams. How many Serie titles did that side win? One. That’s it. One domestic title. People don’t realize that because what lasts in the football memory of the world is a combination of accomplishment and how a side plays. But that a team as brilliant as that Milan side were to only win one Serie A title speaks so how difficult a task winning is at this level.
Many are already saying that the league is lost. This is simply not true. Until the math says otherwise – there is still a league to play for. This team will continue to push to win everything it can. That is its history.
This is not to say that dropping points doesn’t hurt. It does. It hurts a great deal. But that doesn’t mean the table is set in concrete. All we can we can say definitively is that dropping those two points against Villareal decreases the teams probability of winning the league, perhaps significantly so. But that’s all we can discuss right now – probabilities. What makes sports so wonderful is that they aren’t predetermined. And remarkable things can happen. Especially with a group of individuals as remarkable as this Barcelona team is.