Barcelona, once famed for being the strongest team between 2009 and 2012 both defensively, have a growing problem in their defence. Mismanagement from the previous manager: Ernesto Valverde and lacklustre signings by the board had contributed to their problems. Along with a lack of depth of first-team quality has led Setien to play sub-par left-backs like Héctor Junior Firpo in the La Liga and Champions League.
Now, Barcelona is going through a transition phase with Quique Setien. The players are somewhat struggling to shift from Valverde’s pragmatic style of play to Setien’s possession-based style, emulating Guardiola at Manchester City.
This scout report helps provide an in-depth tactical analysis into Barcelona’s defensive strengths and weaknesses as an analysis. Also, we examine the differences in tactics between Setien’s and Valverde’s style of play. Finally, we aim to highlight some youth prospects in defence for the future in the form of a scout report.
Barcelona plays with four at the back, with Sergio Busquets playing as central-defensive-midfielder yet dropping into defence when needed. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet start as a centre-back pairing, with Jordi Alba starting as left-back and Nelson Semedo completing the defence at right-back.
Sergio Busquets shields the four-man defence. Setien plays the defence at a higher line, so to allow the defence to win the ball higher up the pitch. This is a jarring difference from Ernesto Valverde, who played with an immediate counter-pressing system, where the team wins the ball back deeper and counter-attacks.
Here, the four-man defence stays intact, with Busquets acting as a guard to blocking any central through balls. The creative midfielder (Arthur or Frenkie De Jong) presses the opponents and tries to win back possession from a higher position.
Setien plays a form of ‘total football’, where the most important concept is the utilization of space on the field instead of a disciplined structure like those employed by Valverde. The team presses incessantly to win back the ball, meaning that they lose structure in trying to do so.
This allows us to segue to ‘total football’s’ second feature; the fluidity of positions. The role of each player is not strictly confined to his position, rather he has to participate in both attacking and defending duties.
This is a sharp contrast from Valverde’s style, which focused on direct football, with a strong defence and a lacklustre attack. A style which did not conform to the famed ‘tiki-taka’ quick football that Barcelona fans were used to. In this system, there was Sergio Busquets sandwiched between the midfielders and defenders, and the centre-backs would only aid in switching the ball around the pitch instead of being involved in the attack.
One of the main transitions that have been noticed under Setien from Valverde is defending on the ball and defending under pressure. Like in the game against Liverpool, Jürgen Klopp’s incessant ‘gegenpress’ meant that Barcelona was pinned to the back under pressure, while Barcelona was happy to clear the ball out of pressure. However, under Setien, the Catalans were in control of the pitch and pressured their opponents on all parts of the pitch to suffocate them.
Counterpressing is an important aspect of Setien’s side as that is the major way they win back the ball when out of possession. A transition from Valverde’s side to Setien is that no player(especially Lionel Messi) is left alone. The team applies a man-marking system, which takes place when the attackers or midfielders are interested in overloading an area of the pitch.
Here, as soon as Messi loses the ball, the attackers and midfielders immediately press the man closest to them. Here, Isco chooses to pass the ball to the keeper, Courtois, so that he could clear the ball instead of risking the Barcelona press.
A classic example of a game where Barcelona had a weak defence was against Real Betis. Barcelona won the game 3-2, but only won because their attack was better than the defence. Nabil Fekir, the attacking midfielder, exploited holes in the middle of the midfield, with one goal and creating the penalty for the other. The team did as Setien’s tactics required and they were strong, but it was individual weaknesses that lead to the opposition scoring, something we will explore later in this tactical analysis.
Nelson Semedo arrived at Barcelona from Benfica in 2017, and immediately fit into the side. Valverde did not give him sufficient game time worth his quality, opting to go for Sergi Roberto instead. But, now that he is getting sufficient game time, he is showing that he is a complete full-back like Dani Alves, by being strong in attack and defence.
Semedo’s heatmap shows his role is important both offensively and defensively. Semedo tends to play a lot of short passes instead of long crosses and roams towards the centre as Messi drifts centrally instead of remaining on the right-wing. So, the entirety of the right side of the pitch is run by Semedo.
Defensively, Semedo has his strengths and weaknesses. He attempts 9.08 defensive duels in a game with a success of 60%. This is a high number for a right-back. His defending depends on his aggression and pace. Semedo presses heavily and makes most of his tackles in the middle of the pitch. 40% of his defensive duels won are by pressing and recovering the ball.
Semedo chases the Valencia attacker down from the opposition half and then tackles the ball from him. This is a routine that takes place a lot of times in a game and can start an attack immediately to catch the opponent off guard.
However, Semedo has one main weakness that needs urgent improvement – Positioning. When he goes up to attack for his team, he leaves a lot of spaces behind him. This problem takes place for any offensive full-back but is even worse for Semedo. So, opponents tend to exploit the space left behind in the right by overloading the right-centre-back.
Semedo( in Yellow) is behind the winger against Betis. This means that there is a huge space for 2 Betis players to exploit, with only Lenglet present to cover them. This causes problems for Pique as well as he is conflicted as to who to cover. This problem is minimized with Pique or Lenglet covering for his absence at defence, but Semedo might struggle to fit in elsewhere where he is required to be defensively disciplined and stable (Like Conte’s Inter).
Attacking wise, Semedo is a huge threat to the opponents due to his dribbling skills and ability to retain possession better than most players in La Liga. He attempts 3.87 dribbles a game, which is not a lot but has the highest success in completing dribbles.
Here, against Real Madrid, Semedo attempts to exploit the fact that the Real Madrid defenders are drawn to Messi and thus has full space ahead of him. An advantage of this is that if Ramos goes hunting Semedo, Vidal is left with a lot of free space. Semedo’s pace here is very advantageous, as he can beat Ramos to the ball and nick it past to play a pass to Vidal or Griezmann, putting Barcelona in a 3-v-2 situation.
Another impactful aspect of Semedo’s attacking is his link-up play and ability to play short passes with ease. This complements Setien’s tactics which makes Barcelona form passing triangles and essentially do rondos around the opposition defender. Semedo links up with the right-central-midfielder and the right-winger, which is generally Frenkie De Jong and Lionel Messi. Semedo makes 7.79 progressive passes in a game and plays one-twos with the midfielder to break through deeper defences. This is important to maintain possession, as Barcelona prefer to remain in control of the ball. Barcelona has an average of 62% possession in a game, which is the highest in the league.
Semedo has one weakness in attacking: Crossing. He has a 40% success in all crosses in the final third, which is lower than his right-back counterpart – Sergi Roberto. However, this can be attributed to the injuries of Barcelona’s target man – Luis Suarez. But, if he goes to teams that play a direct style and depend more on crosses, he may have difficulty breaking into these sides as a starter.
Nelson Semedo’s weaknesses and strengths compared to other full-backs on his level are perfectly highlighted on the radar chart. The most jarring stats are his dribbling and passing skills, which adds a new dimension to Barcelona’s attack.
Semedo’s problems are mostly improvable. His crossing improves with practice and decision making and positioning improve by playing more games for his team and learning from his experiences. However, the main problem in his case is the board. The board is looking for every opportunity to ship him out of the team. He is linked to Juventus and Inter on swap transfers with Pjanic and Lautaro Martinez respectively. The realization needs to be made that Semedo is one of the best in the world at his position, and can even play and suit himself at left-back. At 26-years-old he has a high ceiling and can become the best at both the offensive and defensive sides of the game.
Samuel Umtiti was a breakthrough centre-back from Lyon who joined Barcelona in 2016. After winning the 2018 World Cup, his role in the French side and partnership with Rafael Varane made him one of the best defenders in world football. However, after bad luck and misfortune, he is close to losing his place in the Barcelona side.
The main problem that has led to his downfall was his recurring knee injury. In the 2018/19 season, he played only 16 games and has played 12 games this season. His first-team spot was taken by Clement Lenglet, who started most of his games as a baptism of fire for the youngster in his first season. However, under Setien, Umtiti has gone back to the starting lineup, having started 6 games and coming on as a substitute in 3. This thoroughly indicates Umtiti’s technical and tactical quality and how he fits into a side that most defenders find difficult to play in.
Umtiti fits in well to the partial man-marking system that Barcelona do. This means that there is no consistent marking of players, but instead, the defenders immediately press the player when he gets the ball. This is crucial for Setien, as even when the pressing is unsuccessful in winning back the ball, the play is delayed long enough for other defenders to recover in an advanced position, and can also draw midfielders into the defending process. The process is indicated below:
After the right-back plays a long ball to the striker, Umtiti is on hand to press and waste some of the attacker’s time. If he wins the ball back, it is a bonus for the team. But if he does not, the rest of the team can come into position to defend better.
Now, the defenders have their man – right-back on left-winger, central-midfielder on central-midfielder and right-winger on left-back, with the centre-back is ready to cover for any through balls.
However, there is one particular weakness that could be present in this move- The intensity of his team-mates. This is not dependent on Umtiti but still is an important weakness to address.
If the defenders do not mark their man on time, or the opponent gets the better of the defender, the results could be catastrophic. The opponents can now launch a counter-attack with ease and will overwhelm the defence.
Since his return from injury, Umtiti has had his fair share of good and bad days on the field. In a 3-1 win against Borussia Dortmund this season, he won 100% of aerial duels, made 1 interception and 1 clearance. Attacking-wise, Umtiti is one of the elites. He makes 67.9 passes on average, the most for any centre back in La Liga. He has a pass completion rate of 94%, which is the second-best for centre backs in the world. Umtiti, like Pique, has been involved in the attack more with Setien than under Valverde as the play begins from Umtiti. Umtiti is heavily involved in link-up play with the creative midfielders like Arthur or De Jong.
Umtiti’s qualities can be summed up easily by this quote by Luis Enrique Scolari, ex-manager of Barcelona: “He’s adapted well because of his technical and tactical qualities, not just his physical attributes. In looking at his performance – it’s only something you can find out when you come to play for Barca. In overcoming different situations on the field and the things that he’s done. You can only see when he’s here.”
As seen in his recent games, Umtiti under Setien seems like a new beast. But, his consistent knee injuries means that the board is losing patience with him. Barcelona cannot consider letting him go now because of his performances when fit, but still require a backup for Umtiti considering that he is injured most of the time.
The final defender that regularly plays is Clement Lenglet. Lenglet signed from Sevilla in 2017/18 and was originally signed as a backup for the centre-back with Thomas Vermaelen. However, as Umtiti got injured and Vermaelen got sold, Lenglet became a starter for the side. Lenglet impressed with Sevilla and was so good that Barcelona paid out his release clause. In his first season, he had an initiating ordeal and had to play most games in the 2018/19 season. That year, he partnered well with Pique in Valverde’s system as he was mostly static and didn’t require much technical ability. He made 2 tackles per game, 3 clearances per 90 and 1 block in a game.
This season, however, Lenglet has been struggling in Setien’s new system, where he is a lot more mobile and is required to pass more. This new system brought out Lenglet’s main weakness – Pace. He is not very slow but still loses out to pacey strikers and wingers, especially on 1v1s. Thus, he has committed more fouls in a game while defending against quicker opponents. The best way to compare the 2 seasons would be by a histogram, which is indicated below:
In most defensive metrics, like clearances, tackles and blocks, Lenglet has a clear drop in the 2 seasons. He has also committed more fouls, which is also indicated in the graph.
But, Setien’s new system has also allowed Lenglet to bring out something he is very talented at – Passing. Now that the centre-backs are more involved in attacking and playmaking, Lenglet can finally make more passes, both long and short. This improves the playmaking process for the team. Roles and functionalities wise, Pique and Lenglet function very similarly and can play interchangeably as a centre-back pairing.
In the annotated image above, Lenglet plays a long ball to switch play across to Rafinha, who makes a run and creates havoc in the final third. With Valverde, Lenglet made around 49.8 passes per game in the league. This season, however, Lenglet has 72.4 passes in a game, with the second-most in the league.
As the graph above shows, Lenglet is a good centre back but is not starting level for a team like Barcelona.
The sharp contrast in passing numbers for all three centre-backs in the new system shows how dependent Setien is on these 3 as viable passing options and shows how the 3 of them are viewed as active participants in an attack.
With Lenglet, he is very talented and has a moderately high ceiling. But, for the next few seasons at least, Setien cannot depend on Lenglet to be a consistent starter due to huge weaknesses in the essential playstyle for Barcelona.
Barcelona has many youth prospects in their team, out of which two to note are Jean Clair Todibo and Moussa Wagué. Both of them definitely have the chance to break through Setien’s side, especially considering that they have the tactical and technical ability to play for Barcelona.
The main problem with the board is that the youth talents are rushed through the side, with Bartomeu wanting to sign more superstars for the team than patiently developing youth talent in the team. This means that the youngsters are being ditched in terms of development in the main team. But, Setien is trying to involve the youth players in his team, and I will talk about in detail as to why these defenders have the greatest chance to break through the main team and play regularly.
The 20-year-old centre-back arrived from Toulouse last season and has become one of the most in-demand centre-backs like Upamecano and Zagadou. However, due to mismanagement, Todibo has been unable to start games for Barcelona. Thus, he has been loaned out to Schalke 04 in the Bundesliga, for whom he has played eight games for. Even though Barcelona lacked depth in defence, with only two actual fit centre-backs, they chose to loan Todibo out, which was criticized by the public as well.
Todibo is a confident young ball-playing centre-back that is good at tackling and clearances, making him a strong ball-winning centre-back. Todibo, despite being 1.9m tall, is impressive at dribbling and has great potential at passing the ball and improving his passing range. Todibo makes around 65.6 passes in a game and boasts a pass accuracy of 86.7%. This is thoroughly impressive, but not yet at the level of Pique or Lenglet. However, there is a long time for improvement and is a technical ability that can be improved by both game experience and training. Another factor that puts Todibo at a disadvantage compared to his peers is that Schalke and David Wagner do not tend to play from the back like Barcelona, meaning that Todibo is not involved in build-up play.
Todibo’s strongest forte has to be his dribbling skills for a centre-back. Todibo makes 1.83 dribbles on average and has a success rate of 80%. This is one of the best success rates for centre-backs in the Bundesliga and shows his quality in dribbling even at such a young age in one of the best leagues.
While being strong in his ball-playing skills, Todibo is equally strong in his defensive abilities. Todibo makes around 2.2 interceptions in a game and attempts 5.37 defensive duels in a game. He is also fast and is able to intercept passes with relative ease, allowing him to stop attacking chances from the opponents.
However, he has a lot of areas for improvement. One of these is his game awareness. He is not great at awareness in the game around him and can get caught out for being out of position or in a bad spot. Even though he is very rapid, he will get punished against quality teams in the Champions League, La Liga or Bundesliga.
The chart above shows his tackling and dribbling prowess, but also shows his areas to work on if he wants to fit into FC Barcelona.
Todibo would be a great fit for Barcelona as he already has the traits required to become a ball-playing centre back. With an ageing Pique and Todibo gaining experience in a high-quality team at a high-quality league, Todibo should be ready to replace Pique and pair with Umtiti or Lenglet.
The decision regarding keeping Todibo ultimately comes down to the board. He is a quality player who definitely has the potential to become one of the best centre-backs in the world in the right partnership, coaching and tactical setup.
Moussa Wague, the 21-year-old Senegalese right-back that made the step-up from Barcelona B to the main team this season. He has always been an excellent full-back with an all-round ability but has not shone for his team or country yet. In the summer break this season, Valverde declared that Sergi Roberto would play more as a midfielder, and gave hope to the youngster that required game time. However, when Semedo was injured, Valverde did not trust Wague and played Roberto at RB, and Wague ended up becoming the third choice right-back. Wague ended up playing only 2 games, one against Leganes, and another in a Champions League clash against Inter, when Barcelona’s qualification was confirmed. So, Wague was sent on loan to Nice in the January transfer window.
At Nice, the full-back made 1 assist (A very crucial one at that) but failed to impact much else for his team. This was mainly because he could not fit into the first side. However, I would like to make a case as to why Wague has the potential to become a quality right-back, if not one of the best.
The three most important things to note here is his tackles won, passes into final third and successful pressures. He is on the 100th percentile for all tackles won. Even though the sample size is not very large for Wague, the number is still impressive considering his age. This shows his defensive strengths as he is good at pressurizing the opponent into getting the ball back and is important in stopping crucial attacks from opponents.
He is also talented in the attacking phase of the game, having made 4.33 passes into the final third. This is an indication of his ability to play short passes to the midfielders and wingers and his strength at link-up play. He also has a good pass completion ratio of 81%, which is very good for a player of his age.
All of these shows how Wague is an all-round player who does not stick out in any department of his game.
On the other hand, Wague is very weak at aerial duels and is more likely to lose an aerial duel with an opponent. This is a skill that is crucial for a full-back as he needs to be competitive in the air against wingers. Another weakness of his is his ability on the ball in terms of dribbling. He attempts a lot of dribbles in a game but has only a success rate of 45.5%.
Wague definitely has room for improvement but can play at the highest level in some time when he gets some game time in another team and allow him to learn the ropes in-game.
For next season, seeing that Barcelona is aiming to get João Cancelo, Wague will mostly get loaned out or sold. However, they must not sell him seeing he is a talented and balanced full-back who can fit well into the first-team. Seeing that Sergi Roberto is not especially trusted by Setien to play at right-back, Wague could well become the starter for Barcelona as Semedo might be shipped off to Juventus.
The board needs to prioritize their ideas and goals for the long-term. Teams like Real Madrid are replacing their older players with younger ones that bode well for the future. It is absolutely paramount that Barcelona doesn’t fall behind in youth development and stay up as a European giant in the long-term.
To any team, the defence is paramount, but the application of defensive tactics varies from manager to manager. Valverde brought some short-term defensive stability in defence with his tactics, but Setien is trying to apply his own, more attacking and possession-based tactics in the team. The old guards need to learn to adapt to the new tactics and may have to see themselves out if they cannot adapt to new circumstances. It is also thoroughly important to create a balance between the short-term goals involving superstars and long-term goals with signing and developing new youngsters into the first team. Signing sufficient and talented backups for every position is also important as players like Neto or Junior Firpo do not make the cut for Barcelona in case of important games.
Ultimately, it is a matter of continuing their legacy in football or run the risk of becoming like AC Milan if the defence is not fortified or kept fresh.