La Liga returned to the Catalan capital this weekend as Barcelona hosted Eibar at the Camp Nou on a lovely Sunday afternoon. As much as the guests showed energy and pure will, in the end, it did not matter much as they fell to the league leaders in a rather one-sided fashion.
That at least is the story that the scoreline has told us after the game. As if the case more often than not, things are much more complicated than that, and they indeed were in this clash of the first and 16th-placed teams in Spain.
This tactical analysis will use statistics and insight to determine how Barcelona overcame the initial resurgence of the away team and secured the three points in a sweet 3-0 victory.
Starting XI: Ter Stegen – Sergi, Pique, Lenglet, Alba – Rakitić, Busquets, Arthur – Messi, Suarez, Coutinho
Bench: Cillessen, Murillo, Semedo, Vidal, Aleña, Denis, Dembele
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Starting XI: Riesgo – Peña, Bigas, Arbilla, Cote – Orellana, Escalante, Diop, Cucurella – Jordan, Sergi Enrich
Bench: Dmitrovic, Sergio A., Cardona, Oliveira, De Blasis, Kike, Pere Milla
Coach: Jose Mendilibar
After a week of heavy rotation, Barcelona were back to their usual set-up as Ernesto Valverde opted for a more risk-free formation. The Ant fielded his gala XI with all the familiar faces gracing the pitch of the Catalan fortress.
Still, there were two differences to the Blaugrana puzzle this time around: Arthur Melo and Philippe Coutinho were back in the starting line-up, leaving Arturo Vidal and Ousmane Dembele on the bench in the process. The other matter was the choice of the right-back, with Semedo dropped in favour of Sergi Roberto once again.
The team operated in a 4-3-3 system but swapped to last season’s favoured 4-4-2 as the game entered its last phases.
Eibar have not tasted the sweetness of a victory for seven straight games having drawn the previous five before this away defeat. Still, Mendilibar made a couple of changes on his visit to Catalunya.
Bigas returned to the back four, and Barcelona boy Marc Cucurella was also in the starting line-up, playing against the team of his youth. With Charles injured, Enrich was the sole striker with Jordan playing close by just behind him. Escalante was also on the pitch, operating just in front of the backline.
Eibar swapped through multiple systems, but on paper they chose to play in a flexible and interchangeable 4-2-3-1 formation.
Many would maybe describe the first half of the game as slow or even boring. In essence, that wouldn’t be far off the mark, but it wasn’t without its moments. Eibar were actually the first to strike, albeit without palpable result.
The guests truly took the game to Barcelona and decided to stay true to their game plan. Pressing the opposition, staying extremely high up the pitch, contesting possession and being offensively minded did bring them some control, but did not yield the results they wanted or needed.
Notice how Eibar contest the ball by playing an extremely high defensive line, right in the face of the opposition. Suarez is completely isolated and other players are pressing whoever has the ball at the moment.
This was also not a one-off at all. That was the clear plan, and the guests stuck to their guns. Whenever Barcelona decided to play out from the back, Eibar immediately pressurised Ter Stegen, prompting a goal kick or hoping for a mistake.
The goal was, of course, to get the ball in the Catalan’s own half and ideally in their first third of the pitch. Usually, this tactic is implemented by Barcelona as well but was used to a really high standard by the away team, resulting in 104 losses, and 45% (38 in total) of them in the host’s own areas.
Here, once again, Eibar press extremely high up the pitch, making Pique clear the ball towards Jordi Alba without the much-needed precision. This costs Barcelona possession and provides Eibar with a great chance in an already dangerous position.
It seemed like whenever the Catalans tried building from the back, Eibar’s press was immediately triggered, for better or worse.
The sleeping giant
Eibar were always really compact in defence. As a result, they stayed extremely narrow, leaving little to no space in midfield for Barcelona to make progress. This did force the hosts down the wings, the left mostly, as the right was rarely visited.
Sergi Roberto overlapped but not nearly as much as Jordi Alba on the other side. With Lionel Messi cutting inside, the right wing was not of any real threat to the away team. Still, even though Eibar succeeded at somewhat neutralising the Argentine, the Catalan side had more than enough firepower to compensate.
We are talking about Philippe Coutinho, in particular. The Brazilian has spent a prolonged time on the bench as of late with his place stolen by Ousmane Dembele. Even after a lacklustre Copa del Rey midweek game though, Coutinho got another chance to shine and took it with both hands.
With one key pass, one big chance created and six duels won, the Brazilian danced around the pitch, dribbling (7/7 attempts successfully) and creating chaos in the opposition’s lines. His most notable action was for the first goal.
Even though the midfield was really dense, Barcelona’s personnel found their way through with some intricate passing, most notably between Coutinho and Luis Suarez. A couple of first-touch passes, back heels and a nice through ball was all it was needed to break through Eibar’s lines.
The Uruguayan finished the chance brilliantly, netting his and Barcelona’s first goal of the night. Unfortunately, that was, more or less, the last thrilling thing of the first half as Barcelona was happy to head to the break with a one-goal advantage. Eibar slowed down after their initial surge of energy as Barca regained control of possession and brought the half to a slow end.
The game breaks apart
Upon returning back to the pitch, the game still felt far from being decided as the away team continued exactly where they had left off in the first 45 minutes. Barcelona’s right side was not really active offensively but had to be vigilant defensively at all times. Cucurella pinned Roberto down and tried to beat his man at all times, but similarly to the rest of the team, he lacked the finishing touches.
The wings were still very much the focus of their attacks as they tried to find their wide men with long diagonal balls into the final third. Luckily for the hosts, their centre-back pairing was solid enough to keep the ball away from Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Once Ousmane Dembele and Arturo Vidal were introduced Barcelona were ready to really hurt Eibar. With their high defensive line, the pacy Frenchman was literally built for such a game.
The Catalans switched to a 4-4-2 system on paper but in reality, Suarez was the only out-and-out striker. He had Messi right behind him, and was backed up by Coutinho and Dembele on each wing respectively.
After Sergio Busquets left the pitch, Ivan Rakitić was once again seen in that defensive midfield position. Coutinho also began operating a bit deeper down the pitch, helping in the centre alongside the newly introduced Vidal.
Soon, Barcelona ran away with the game after some more Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez magic. The Argentine scored his 400th European top-flight goal, while he and the Uruguayan alone have a combined total of 31 this season. In fact, they have scored more goals than all other La Liga teams bar Sevilla and Celta Vigo, with those two only managing to equal the Barcelona duo’s tally.
For a good part of the game, Eibar were pretty much still in it, contesting, fighting and biting back at the Catalans. The stats themselves go in their favour but alas, it was not really enough to get a point; not even close.
Now we get back to some Copa del Rey action as Barcelona have a lead to overthrow at the Camp Nou. Fighting on all fronts, especially staying dominant in the domestic league, has never been more difficult and that makes the competition that much more attractive.
Long may it continue.
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