Despite staying in major competitions and top of La Liga in the new calendar year, Ernesto Valverde was sacked by Barcelona on 13th January. His replacement was former Real Betis manager, Quique Setien. The 61-year-old was famous for his intense pressing strategies at Heliopolitanos, including a tremendous 4-3 victory at Camp Nou last season.
Given the injuries to Luis Suárez and Ousmane Demebélé, the options of Setién have been limited. So far, in 12 matches under the new manager, Barcelona have recorded eight wins, one draw and three losses, scoring 22 goals and conceding 11. In the Copa del Rey, they were knocked out by Athletic Club; they sit second on the table, one point behind Real Madrid after the loss in El Clásico; in the UEFA Champions League, they secured a 1-1 draw against Napoli at Sao Paulo.
To begin with, we plotted a graph which demonstrated the pass allowed per defensive actions (PPDA) indexes (only included La Liga and the Champions League). As shown by the statistics below, the press of Barcelona remained at a consistent level, remained between 4.68 and 11.78. The average PPDA per game was 7.43, it hinted that they were pressing intensively on most occasions.
Setién deployed a high pressing tactic, instructed his players like Sergio Canales, Giovani Lo Celso and Loren Morón to man-mark the opponents tightly. However, in Barcelona, he had a very different team, especially with a bunch of attacking talents, Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann. Therefore, the Spaniard could not replicate everything to this squad, he had to accommodate based on the individuals.
Setién clearly understood that it was unwise to spend Messi’s energy in the high press, the Argentine should preserve his stamina in the offensive phases. On occasions, Messi was exempted in the high press, thus, affecting the pressing shape of Barcelona. It was between a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formation.
Barcelona could only achieve partial man-marking in the high press. They were limited by the insufficient mobility of ageing players such as Messi and Sergio Busquets. In general, they commit one midfielder from the trio to join the press at the frontline, depending on the positions of the ball. Even though they could not win the ball high, they still wished to force the oppositions to play long to reach their backline. In those cases, Barcelona had an experienced centre-back, Gerard Piqué, who had the ability to deal with most long balls. The Spaniard achieved remarkable defending stats under the new manager, he had 4.88 interceptions and 11.25 recoveries on average. In his recent eight appearances under Setién, the success rate of his defensive duels and aerial duels were 79.38% and 71.75% respectively.
This was an example from the game at Sao Paulo. In this scene, Barcelona tried to man-mark Napoli players to disrupt the build-up play, with Ivan Rakitić controlling Diego Demme. When Messi was approaching Konstantinos Manolas, Arturo Vidal already began his run to close David Ospina. His run also cut the passing lane to Nikola Maksimović. Since there was a yellow shirt around Demme and Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Manolas played back to the keeper, and, under pressure from Vidal, the Colombian had to kick long instantaneously.
Below was another example from El Clásico. As Madrid had Toni Kroos in the half-spaces as an extra man in the build-up, Arthur Melo stepped out to stay close to the German. Meanwhile, his teammates picked the corresponding targets (Vidal – Marcelo; Messi – Sergio Ramos). Griezmann tried to keep both Raphaël Varane and Daniel Carvajal under control by staying between them.
You can see in this image, we drew the lines to connect the pressing shape of Barca liked a 4-4-2, but you can also consider Frenkie de Jong as one of the front three as he was close to Griezmann, then it was a 4-3-3. What matters was the timing of the marking. By stepping out early, Setién wanted his team to shut the free player in the build-up phase as early as possible, which forced the oppositions to play long.
Maintaining a compact shape is the key to success for all defences. Given the limited mobility of individuals, Barcelona were not doing well in this criterion, it also affected the quality of the press.
On some occasions, it was a structural issue when Barcelona were pressing in a 4-3-3. They were overloaded in midfield. As shown in this image, Betis stretched the defence of Setién’s men, and the second layer of Barca’s defence was overloaded by five players. It was impossible for the midfield three to cover huge spaces, especially in the wide areas. In this scenario, Barcelona lacked compactness vertically; the horizontal coverage of the midfield was insufficient. As a result, Joel Robles found Carles Aleñá with a comfortable ground pass.
De Jong and Busquets were almost irreplaceable under Setién, the choice of the remaining quota was rotating between Rakitić, Arthur or Sergi Roberto. These midfielders had good techniques on the ball, but they lacked pace and stamina to sprint during the press. When Barcelona were pressing out wide, they were too slow to shut the half-spaces and those areas allowed the opponents to escape the press.
In this example, Napoli utilised their strength: combinations on the flanks to break the press. Barcelona were pressing high, but the players were separated into two segments. In this case, Mário Rui carried the ball within the block to progress the attack.
Below was another example. Barcelona had enough numbers in the press and achieved partial man-marking out wide (Semedo – Roger Martí; Busquets – José Campaña). Again, the block lacked compactness as the front players did not compress space. As a result, Gonzalo Melero was free to receive the pass from Campaña and Levante broke the press of Barcelona. Again, it was the spacing issue at the half-spaces that let Barça down.
For the Barcelona defenders, it was awkward to set the height of their defensive line. They lacked pace and were exposed when defending high. On most occasions, they stayed behind the midfield line, which was far away from the midfielders. Then, the block was not compact vertically.
In this scenario, though De Jong was approaching Carvajal, his run was too direct. Therefore, the Real Madrid right-back easily opened his body shape. Busquets was too far from the Dutchman and the defenders. Therefore, Karim Benzema exploited those spaces and Madrid’s attack progressed.
As mentioned, the coverage of Barcelona midfielders was insufficient during the press, hence, the intensity was weak. This example demonstrated the issue. Barcelona were man-marking Betis (De Jong – Canales; Busquets – William Carvalho; – Roberto – Álex Moreno), but De Jong failed to win the ball from Canales. Though it was a good pressing trap as the pressing players were staying close to each other, Barcelona still failed to win the ball high. In one v one situations, it seemed Setién’s pressing troops also lacked physicality and intensity to win the ball.
If possible, Barcelona also tried to counter-press the ball once they lost it. It was a man-marking scheme, which usually happened when they were overloading a certain area. Therefore, Barcelona did not isolate Messi in the offensive phases as they needed to counter-press in case the ball loss. This is part of their reason to stay close to each other offensively which we will elaborate on in the coming sections.
In this scenario, Messi loses the ball in a dribble but he had Arthur and Vidal behind him to provide an immediate counter-press. Both of them picked the closest option around Isco and dashed to mark the targets. This delayed the counter-attack, as Isco returned the ball to Thibaut Courtois after evaluating the risks of passing into the Barcelona block.
During the offensive phases, Setién had both full-backs attacking high on the pitch. This was not merely an offensive consideration, it was also a plan to increase the effectiveness of the counter-presses. Since the full-backs stayed high on the pitch, they could quickly join the press.
This was an example. Vidal loss the ball and it rolled to Maksimović’s feet. As long as the ball was out wide, it triggered the counter-press from Barca. Meanwhile, Rakitić was man-marking Piotr Zieliński. When Semedo dashed to Maksimović in full speed, the Serbian had to pass the ball away quickly, which triggered Rakitić to leave his position to approach Demme. These defensive actions successfully denied a quick counter, it was even better as Semedo intercepted Demme’s return pass and Barcelona regained the ball in the opposition third.
Control of the game
Since Barcelona were offensively better than defending, also, their press lacked intensity and compactness, Setién had to find a way to balance both ends. He could not fully replicate his man-marking scheme in this team. In hope of reducing the time defending, his team had to dominate the ball. The idea was simple, the longer the period you keep the ball, the shorter you were defending. Barcelona were trying to avoid losing the ball by taking the safer option.
Below is a graph showing the possession of Barcelona in La Liga and the Champions League. Apart from the Real Madrid game, Barcelona enjoyed more than 60% of the possession in all of them, and even reaching 78.8% in the first game against Granada. The average possession of these eight games was 68.64%.
In order to control the flow of the game better, Barcelona liked to overload the central areas. Despite playing in a 4-3-3, both wingers tended to invert and roam the positions. It was more commonly seen when they were playing a midfielder, Vidal, as the right-winger.
This system helped Barcelona to counter-press more efficiently. You can see the shape from Barcelona below, four layers at the centre and a pair of spared wide players. For the wide players, as explained, they were released and became the fresh legs to participate in the counter-press.
Apart from the offensive perspective, positioning large numbers at the centre was conducive to the counter-press. First, Barcelona’s counter-press could start from different heights; second, they caged Madrid players even when they lost the ball.
Below is an example. When Barcelona lost the ball in the middle, given the density of central players, they could immediately counter-press. Setién’s men quickly pushed forward in a compact manner to approach Carvajal and Varane. Meanwhile, Casemiro and Kroos were caged within the block as well. This showed how the overload at the centre could turn into a counter-press.
Apart from the counter-pressing strategies, Barça kept the ball by avoiding bold actions. They tended to pass to a visibly free option, leaving the difficult jobs to Messi. Setién’s team could not frequent ball loss and large scale of defence in a game. Therefore, we seldom see Barcelona attempt risky passes.
In this situation, you can see Busquets tried to break into the final third. He had some options, including De Jong, who was running into the huge spaces between defenders. It was a slightly risky pass as it required appropriate weight and direction, or else the keeper will come out to claim the ball, possibly leading to a Valencia counter-attack. Despite being an experienced passer, Busquets carried the ball and gave up the idea to pass to De Jong. Eventually, he found Semedo, who was totally free out wide. It was a suboptimal option but the risk is lower as well.
Another part of the control of game was reflected on the wing. Barcelona had the width to attack the flanks, but they seldom tended to move the ball back to the centre when the wide channels were unavailable. Despite possessing young and pacey players liked Ansu Fati, they were reluctant to exploit the one v one opportunities, unless that was Messi.
This was an example. Despite Barcelona having Semedo and Roberto on the right, they showed no incentives to combine and attack down the flank. A possible explanation was the presence of Betis players, as Barcelona wanted to control the game better, they chose to return the ball back and reorganise the attack away from the pressure.
It is not an easy job for Setién at Barcelona. He does not have the type of players he seeks in the team currently, so it has forced him to adjust his tactics a bit. Despite the pressing and counter-pressing elements remaining in the team, the more important point was to control the game. It is of the essence to be the dominant team, although this approach may slow down their attack. In order to increase the physicality and defensive coverage, Vidal was used as a right-winger instead of Ansu Fati in big games. This was a tough season for Barcelona, still in both La Liga and the Champions League, and Setién has to find a way to maximise their strengths and cover the weaknesses as much as possible.