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La Liga 2021/22: Real Sociedad vs Barcelona – tactical analysis

La Liga: How Real Sociedad exposed Barcelona’s tactical frailties despite taking all three points – tactical analysis

Xavi Hernandez has rightly received plaudits for the resurgence of Barcelona this season.

The club was nosediving towards the deadly depths of disaster, staring down into the void of a midtable finish under Ronald Koeman. However, within a matter of weeks, the club legend has not just acted as a lifeboat to save those on board, he has singlehandedly pulled the vessel to the surface and back on course.

La Blaugrana were sitting in ninth in La Liga when Xavi was announced as the new head coach. They now sit in second. Nevertheless, it has not been all smooth sailing for the rejuvenated giants. After putting both Real Madrid and Sevilla to the sword in consecutive matches a few weeks back, Barca won merely once in their four subsequent games and exited the UEFA Europa League at the hands of Bundesliga strugglers Eintracht Frankfurt.

On Thursday night, they faced yet another difficult test: Real Sociedad at the Anoeta Stadium, a ground where they have picked up just three wins since 2007. La Real are still very much in the race for the top four while Barca’s Champions League certainly hasn’t been guaranteed.

There was a lot to play for in this match, but it was the visitors who earned the three points in a difficult outing, putting their poor run of form to bed.

This article will be a tactical analysis of Thursday’s clash. It will be an analysis, observing the tactics that were key to the end result.

Lineups and formations

Last season, Real Sociedad’s preferred formation under Imanol Alguacil was the 4-3-3. The side were no stranger to other structures, but this was used in almost two-thirds of their overall games.

However, in 2021/22, it has been anyone’s guess as to which formation Alguacil will deploy. The 4-2-3-1 has been utilised more than any by La Real but they have been far more tactically flexible this season.

La Liga 2021/22: Real Sociedad vs Barcelona – tactical analysis

Over their previous four outings prior to the fixture against Barcelona, Real Sociedad used four different formations including a 4-3-1-2 last weekend in a goalless draw with Real Betis.

Against Xavi’s men, the manager finally gave his side some tactical consistency, deploying the diamond shape once more.

La Liga 2021/22: Real Sociedad vs Barcelona – tactical analysis

Compared to their previous game, Alguacil made merely two changes. The suspended David Silva was replaced by former Manchester United youth starlet Adnan Januzaj in the attack while Joseba Zaldúa took the right-back berth ahead of Andoni Gorosabel who dropped to the bench.

Unlike his counterpart in the opposing dugout, Xavi has been quite rigid with his formation choice as Barcelona typically set up in a 4-3-3 under the new manager. It certainly will not have surprised anyone to see Barcelona lining up in the conventional shape once more on Thursday evening.

The ex-Al Saad manager made several changes to the lineup that was punished on Monday against Cadiz in a shocking loss at the coveted Camp Nou, mainly in the backline. Three of Barcelona’s four changes were defenders.

Xavi brought Gerard Pique, Dani Alves and Ronald Araujo and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back into the starting lineup to face Real Sociedad in place of Sergiño Dest, Eric Garcia, Clement Lenglet, and Memphis Depay.

It was an experienced and severely ageing backline with a combined age of 129 but La Blaugrana managed to keep a clean sheet in this crucial outing in San Sebastián. Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, the three defenders brought in for today’s game all went off with injuries over the course of the ninety minutes.

Alves’ interesting tactical role

Xavi was quite astute in the January transfer market when he brought Alves back to the club after the illustrious Brazilian departed almost six years ago. Many mocked, scoffed and sneered at the manager’s decision to do so.

However, Xavi knew that he would have the respect of the 38-year-old veteran given that they played together for the guts of seven years, devouring every trophy available to them during that time.

Xavi understood, even when nobody else did, what Alves would bring to the table and that he would carry out his tactical instructions like one of his disciples. Against Real Sociedad, the two-time Copa America winner was given a very clear tactical instruction to tightly mark La Real’s left central midfielder.

Barcelona pressed man-for-man against their opponents on Thursday and the shape resembled a diamond at times during this phase.

La Liga 2021/22: Real Sociedad vs Barcelona – tactical analysis

Gavi and Aubameyang were tasked with leading the press, closing down the two centre-backs and goalkeeper while Ferran Torres and Ousmane Dembele were instructed to mark the fullbacks too. Torres’ job was to also apply pressure on Real Sociedad’s right central midfielder as well depending on which player was closest to the ball.

Furthermore, either Sergio Busquets or Frenkie de Jong would then step up and man-mark Real Sociedad’s single pivot, Martín Zubimendi, in the high press in an attempt to prevent any passes into his feet.

Finally, Alves was instructed to step out of the backline to mark the left-sided central midfielder. As Alguacil’s side rotate quite a lot in the middle of the park, the Brazil international would simply go man-to-man on whoever was in this space while the hosts were trying to play their way out.

Alves’ role was fascinating though as, even if the player dropped extremely deep, he would follow suit.

La Liga 2021/22: Real Sociedad vs Barcelona – tactical analysis

Barcelona’s high pressing under Xavi has been radical to say the very least. It’s certainly a high reward strategy but is incredibly risky. However, having a right-back man-marking a central midfielder inside the opposition’s box at times takes the manager’s extremism to a new level. Perhaps Xavi is coming for Marcelo Bielsa’s ‘El Loco’ title.

Real Sociedad adapting to the press

Nevertheless, there was a downside to this intense and strict marking scheme. Within the first few minutes of the game, Real Sociedad were able to adapt to Barcelona’s tactical set-up and changed their approach during the build-up phase.

Because Alves would be dragged deeper, it would leave just three defenders at the back: the two centre-backs and the left-back, Jordi Alba, against La Real’s two centre-forwards in a 3v2 situation. To offer a progressive option up the pitch, the two strikers would pull wide from each other and play with their backs against Barca’s right central defender (Araujo, until his substitution) and Alba.

La Liga 2021/22: Real Sociedad vs Barcelona – tactical analysis

Both Alexander Sørloth and Alexander Isak possess an innate ability to hold up possession. Araujo held his own against Sørloth on the right as he was able to match him for physicality but there was a complete mismatch on the opposite flank when Real Sociedad went long to Isak against Alba.

Going direct to Sørloth, in particular, was a constant feature of the home side’s attacking play throughout the game. The following visual displays all of Real Sociedad’s most-utilised progressive passing connections on the night:

La Liga 2021/22: Real Sociedad vs Barcelona – tactical analysis

Alguacil’s men even created an excellent goalscoring opportunity within the first minute of the second half using this route.

As Araujo moved wide and tight to Sørloth to defend against the long ball from the backline, Januzaj made a dart in behind to exploit the space down this side. The play progressed and Sørloth got himself into a wonderful position to score but his first touch let him down before he could pull the trigger.

La Liga 2021/22: Real Sociedad vs Barcelona – tactical analysis

To paraphrase Linkin Park, in the end, it didn’t even matter. Real Sociedad could not capitalise on any situations where they could take advantage of the mismatch in physical prowess against Barcelona’s backline.

However, it was still a shrewd piece of tactical adaptation from the side. Being able to play through the thirds using short passes while also possessing the ability to go long is advantageous for any team as it makes them much harder to defend against.

On the flip side, that doesn’t necessarily mean Xavi’s set-up was weak. Ultimately, La Blaugrana stifled their opponent’s build-up play quite efficiently which forced them to play long.

Barca dropping off

Unfortunately, and for some strange reason, Barcelona’s pressing significantly dropped off, especially in the second half where it became incredibly noticeable.

The team’s Passes allowed Per Defensive Action on the night stood at 14.04 but it ranged from 6.3 within the first fifteen minutes before taking a gargantuan leap to 41.5 in the final quarter of an hour.

La Liga 2021/22: Real Sociedad vs Barcelona – tactical analysis

Essentially, after the 76th minute until the referee blew his final whistle, Barcelona were allowing Real Sociedad to make an average of 41.5 passes before trying to regain possession.

This coincided perfectly with Real Sociedad gaining a foothold in the match. Despite Xavi’s emphasis on ball retention at Barcelona, the visitors held just 44 percent of the share of possession in this game.

Real Sociedad were second best with regard to having the ball over the first fifteen minutes. However, they rapidly grew into the game and from minute 46 to minute 60, they boasted 70 percent of the ball.

La Liga 2021/22: Real Sociedad vs Barcelona – tactical analysis

It’s difficult to tell exactly why Barcelona had dropped off so much in the game. Maybe it was a strategic decision by Xavi but given how Barca have played so far under his spell, this is unlikely.

Another theory is just simply that Real Sociedad were the better side, especially after the interval. La Real kept the ball well and were able to create decent positional attacks, pinning Barcelona’s wingers very deep.

Alguacil did this by instructing the two centre-forwards to place themselves into the gaps between Barca’s fullbacks and centre-backs, while Real Sociedad’s fullbacks pushed high on the flanks to provide width for the narrow 4-3-1-2 shape.

By doing so, Barcelona’s fullbacks were unable to move out to close down their opposite numbers and so the wingers were forced to drop back into the backline at times to defend the wide spaces.

La Liga 2021/22: Real Sociedad vs Barcelona – tactical analysis

If just one winger dropped back, it would create a back five, but on numerous occasions, both had to move deeper to cover their fullbacks and so it formed a back six.

Barcelona’s defensive block in these lower areas was very aggressive and compact between the lines, suffocating any player that received the ball in the area between the midfield and backline.

This caused Real Sociedad to attack mainly through the flanks. Of their 39 total positional attacks throughout the game, 31 were in the wide areas.

Once they progressed further up the pitch, Real Sociedad’s fullbacks would look to play crosses to the back-post for Sørloth and Isak, two very tall strikers.

La Liga 2021/22: Real Sociedad vs Barcelona – tactical analysis

Unfortunately for La Real, they couldn’t convert any of their chances and their crosses were not the most precise either, completing just 6 from 27. Their combined xG accumulated to just 0.78 as well and so the team didn’t create enough high-quality chances overall.

Sørloth did latch onto the end of a cross early in the second half at the back-stick which was worth 0.28 xG but the Norwegian number ‘9’ fluffed his lines, a glorious opportunity that would have levelled the game at the Anoeta Stadium. However, it wasn’t to be for Alguacil’s army.

Conclusion

A header from Aubameyang in the first half after some beautiful off the shoulder movement by Torres was enough to grab all three points for Barcelona. Nevertheless, it certainly wasn’t a walk in the park for La Blaugrana

Alguacil exploited Barcelona’s set-up in a number of different areas and forced the Catalan giants to play in a manner which has been alien to them since Ernesto Valverde was dismissed from his duties back in January 2020.

Barcelona are far from the finished article. In fact, they are just the introduction for what’s to come. Xavi will undoubtedly be looking to improve the squad in a way that allows them not to get dominated so easily against more possession-oriented sides. Until then, they may be slightly inconsistent with their performances and results but another victory this week has now put them in a favourable position to reach the UEFA Champions League once again.