This post originally featured on our comprehensive Barcelona analysis sister site, barcelonaanalysis.com.
It was September 10th, two years ago, when Barcelona last yielded to an opponent within their own fortress of Camp Nou. Alaves surprised the Catalan giant and took away three points with a 2:1 victory on that night. And it was truly a mesmerizing night. But ever since them teams have come and gone through Catalunya no one managed to return back home with a win under their belts. Until Quique Setien and his Real Betis side, that is.
After a true goal-fest, and after the “green and whites” put four goals past the uninspired home side, while conceding one less, the Camp Nou was conquered once again.
This tactical analysis will use statistics to explain how Betis toppled Barcelona in a truly dominating display and a night Blaugrana will not easily forget.
Barca (4-3-3): Ter Stegen, S.Roberto, Pique, Linglet, Jordi Alba – Rakitić, Sergio Busquets, Arthur – Suarez, Messi, Malcom
Bench: Cillissen, Semedo, Umtiti, Denis, Vidal, Alena, Munir
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Real Betis (3-4-1-2): Lopez – A.Mandi, Marc Bartra, Sidnei – Tello, G.Lo Celso, Carvalho, Guadrado, Firpo – Joaquin, Loren Moron
Bench: Joel Robles , Barragan, Feddal, Canales, Inui, Sergio Leon, Sanabria
Coach: Quique Setien
There were some murmurs before the game about a certain number 10 coming back after a serious injury, and all of it turned out to be true. Not only was Lionel Messi included in the squad, but he also started and finished the game at the Camp Nou. And what a game it was for the little magician.
There was one more change for Ernesto Valverde’s usually standard 4-3-3 setup. With the injury of Philippe Coutinho and the exclusion of Ousmane Dembele, the young Brazilian, Malcom, finally got his first start in La Liga.
It’s safe to say that he probably wished for a different outcome on the night but he did show some good signs in 57 minutes that he got to play.
Quique Setien had an extremely difficult match in the Europa League just four nights before, so for the big clash at the Camp Nou, he understandably had to shuffle the cards a bit. He still remained loyal to his 3-5-2 formation, although with some slight variations, he truly came to Barcelona to play football.
Loren Moron was back in front alongside Sanabria and Guardado replaced Canales in the middle of the park. Sidnei occupied the left-back position instead of Feddal, who featured against AC Milan on Thursday.
Betis ended up playing one of their best games under their brilliant coach and the end result was a historic win in the Catalan capital.
There is no doubt that Valverde got completely outfoxed by Setien in his own backyard but this was only made possible because the latter did his homework properly. After the game on Sunday, Barcelona have now conceded a total of 18 goals in just 12 games which results in a staggering 1.5 goals per match!
It should also be noted that in six out of those 12 games the opponents have been the first ones to score a goal (Huesca, Real Sociedad, Athletic, Valencia, Rayo, and Betis). In two other games, the opponents would come from behind to overcome the one-goal deficit (Girona and Leganés). Finally, in games where Barcelona was behind, the end result stands at three wins, three draws and two defeats.
Quite a sudden change considering that Barcelona of last season when they conceded only four in 12 games (0.33 per match). This is really surprising because, in order to find such a poor defensive start to the season, we would have to travel a long 44 years in the past to Rinus Michael’s Barcelona in 1974/75, who had the identical result.
Setien knew that the return of Lionel Messi spelt big trouble for his defence, but also knew that Leo’s presence, as huge as it is, would be missed on the other side of the pitch when Betis had the chance to strike.
Betis would use their ability to do quick transitions to catch Barcelona off guard and with Messi mostly staying up front and rarely tracking all the way back, the visitors would almost always have the numerical advantage over their hosts.
Combine that with an extremely pacey and skilled winger in Junior, who played a masterful game, and take into account the slow Barcelona midfield and you have a winner. Literally.
Sergi Roberto couldn’t match Junior and the cracks reappeared. Once again, his defensive shortcomings were exploited to the extreme. Setien knew the weak spot of Barca and used it to his advantage.
Notice how Betis have Barcelona outnumbered (6 – 4) and they have a good couple of seconds before the midfield trio of Busquets, Rakitić, and Arthur finally show up in their own box. Naturally, a couple of seconds is more than enough in this certain situation, and Betis soon double their lead. The gap between defences and midfield was simply too big.
It’s tough to say whether a more conservative or more defensive-bound winger like Rafinha would have changed this, but in this particular system, and with this particular personnel, Barcelona’s right side remains their bane.
This was not the only instance in which that statement was confirmed. Roberto lost a 1v1 with Junior numerous times throughout the game. The first goal started in the same way, Firpo beating Sergi and sending a ball inside the box. At the half-hour mark, the same thing happened, but Betis missed a clear chance to make it 2:0.
About three minutes after that, the situation from the image above happened, and finally, for Betis’ final goal in the 83rd minute, Firpo beats Roberto one last time on the night and with it, clinched the three points for the visitors.
He who dares…
Ernesto Valverde was highly criticised for not utilising the 4-3-3 system last season and providing their fans with “dull” and “pragmatic” football. But it brought great results, and that cannot be overlooked. Sure, that night in Rome will not be forgotten, but La Liga was where Barcelona really shined.
Only one lost game throughout the season with the best defensive record in years. The Catalans were never really famous for their great work in the back but they would always compensate that with a extremely potent firepower up front.
Still, whether it was his own choice or the pressure from the club, but Valverde reverted back to a 4-3-3, although he would probably stay with his preferred 4-4-2 if things went his way. Clearly, they did not, and a more attractive and fluid attack-minded 4-3-3 brought about clear pros and cons.
While Barcelona have the right players to bring the best out of a 4-3-3 system, it is also a really dangerous formation if you don’t invest as much in defending as you used to.
There’s no denying the fact that having Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in your team gives you great advantages throughout the game, but this is only in an offensive mindset. Both of them are in their 30s and Barcelona cannot really count on them tracking all the way back all the time.
The lack of back-tracking was already explained earlier but having only three players in midfield is also dangerous when playing against teams that know how to exploit it. Betis was clearly one of them.
When off the ball, the visitors matched Barcelona’s intensity and pressed high up the pitch. This, combined with tight man-marking in the middle, was how they managed to dominate the game without having more possession of the ball.
Guardado was on Arthur, Lo Celso stuck to Busquets and Carvalho followed Rakitić. Taking into consideration how instead of having traditional full-backs, Setien opted for wing-backs, who added two extra men in midfield and provided necessary width, Barcelona was constantly outnumbered and on the backfoot.
If only Valverde dared to stick to his original plans when they do fit the game better, things might’ve been different.
This is a clear example of an attack that starts all the way from the back with the defenders. The three centre-backs stay deeper while the wing-backs provide width. A fluid 3-5-2 or 3-1-4-2 which would turn into 3-4-1-2 when carrying the ball from midfield to the final third.
Betis had a simple yet effective tactic in mind: Outnumber and regain control over the midfield. Again, Setien did his homework and knew that in order to win the game he had to first win the battle in the middle of the park. And win it he did, by a huge margin.
The Battle for Midfield
A usually exceptional midfield trident of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić and Arthur Melo had a particularly bad day at the office. All three midfielders had a poor display and left the field before the final whistle. Melo was subbed off at the start of the second half, Busquets soon followed and Rakitić saw red and was forced out by Lahoz, the referee in charge of the game.
Still, whether it was fatigue or simply being outclassed, all three of Barcelona’s Musketeers failed to impress. Barcelona never had control of the midfield area while Betis, on the other hand, had all of it to themselves.
The key was in multiple short and pinpoint accurate passes and excellent first touches. Even when going from their own back trio, Betis would build their way up the pitch. We’ve seen no vertical long passes or switching the play. Everything was extremely methodical and on point. To put it into simpler words: Barcelona “got out-Barcelonad” by Betis.
One or two passes were enough to get past the three in midfield and great movement and shielding of the ball by Loren Moron meant that the midfielders could move up step by step. Moving the ball to the wings was the priority after reaching the final third. The end results were astonishing, to say the least.
The Return of the King
Lionel Messi has finally recovered and when he entered that pitch, it was like he was never injured at all. Granted, it was an arm injury which makes the recovery somewhat easier and the loss of form was less visible, if such a thing even exists for the little magician.
However, with his return, Barcelona also got back into their old mindset: Let Messi be Messi, and wait. The vast majority of the team underperformed, bar Leo and Arturo Vidal. Not even Messi’s two goals and six key passes weren’t enough to make the comeback possible.
The Argentine was all over the pitch again, creating chances and dropping deep to help the build-up. Whether the problem of the team truly does lie in a wrong mindset, prioritising the Champions League or the system itself, it’s still not entirely clear.
At this point, it could be the combination of all of the above. With Messi back, the team could simply count on him on winning the game by himself. And he nearly did but alas it was not enough to get the point(s). The difference in intensity and will is also visible when the team plays in La Liga and the Champions League, respectively. And last but not the least, tactical disadvantages when playing with less pressure and defending with eight men were apparent once more.
If there is one thing worthy of notice then those were the subs Valverde made. Maybe he could’ve reacted faster or made a change in the starting 11 in the first place but those are all “what ifs”, which don’t really matter that much at this point.
Arturo Vidal, Carles Alena, and Munir were the chosen ones and they replaced Arthur, Busquets, and Malcom respectively. The Chilean was probably the best man on the pitch after Messi. His aggressiveness, both in attack and defence were visible from the start.
Vidal even scored a goal and was really close to his second but miscommunication with Gerard Pique cost them what maybe could’ve been a crucial moment.
Munir was also impressive but overlooked for the most part. His pass to Alba put the Spaniard in a favourable position, which directly led to the penalty kick soon after. His good awareness and movement followed by an unselfish pass gave Vidal his goal, and finally, he got the “pre-assist” in the build-up for Messi’s brace that set the final scoreline.
Alena was less noticeable but simply his inclusion means that Valverde is finally starting to trust him a bit more. Also, the fact that he got the nod in front of Denis Suarez and Rafinha is a big sign as well…
Quique Setien became the first manager to get a win at both the Camp Nou and Santiago Bernabeu in the last 10 seasons, and also the first one to beat Barcelona in a game in which Messi scored twice or more (157 games unbeaten!).
Needless to say, history has been written on that Sunday afternoon, and Barcelona go into the international break on a back of a loss, and only one point lead on the domestic table.
May 3rd, 1998, was the last time Real Betis defeated Blaugrana in Catalunya (3:1) and they decided to break the fast right on Valverde’s 50th game as Barcelona manager. He won’t forget this one any time soon.
Although this wasn’t a great game for the Catalans, it was indeed a footballing spectacle, and a joy for any fan to watch. Barcelona will face off against Atletico Madrid when the break is over, and what better way to make amends than to beat one of your biggest rivals in the league.