Defensive fragility denies Barcelona-bound Xavi an all-happy Al Sadd farewell against 10-man Al Duhail – tactical analysis
Last Wednesday wasn’t just a normal matchday at the Qatar Stars League. Al Duhail (2nd, 21 points) faced Al Sadd (1st, 24 points) in the ninth matchday of the season. Apart from the rivalry between the two best clubs in the country, it was a special one as it’s expected to be Xavi’s last game in charge of Al Sadd before signing for Barcelona in La Liga.
Barcelona’s top decision-makers were present in the 3-3 draw in which Xavi showed how he manages highly competitive and relevant games, both for the rivalry in which we could call Al-Clásico and for the emotions involved in his highly possible farewell after almost 2.5 years managing the club and after six years from his arrival as a player at Al Sadd.
In this tactical analysis, we’ll focus on Xavi’s tactics in this game, covering his 3-2-4-1 structure, his high-tempo style, his high press and also his issues in defensive transitions and set-pieces.
Al Sadd’s unconventional structure
Al Duhail lined up in a very compact 4-2-3-1 in which Olunga was the only player who stayed up and pressed, the rest of the team forming two close lines to close down spaces down the middle. The formation changed to a 4-4-1 after Luiz Ceara was sent off in the 45th minute. Former Tottenham‘s centre-back Toby Alderweireld’s injury in the first minute was another big blow for the home side.
Xavi chose an interesting and unconventional 3-2-4-1 / 3-4-2-1 / 3-2-2-3 structure. The defenders weren’t truly centre-backs, with the wide ones having an active role in the attack. The two defensive midfielders were in charge of balancing the team and moving the ball from side to side as quickly as possible. The attacking midfielders moved between the lines and appeared in and around the box, while the wingers provided width and were closer to being forwards than wing-backs. Former EPL stars like Santi Cazorla or André Ayew were among the most recognizable names in the lineup.
Above, we can see a clear example of Al Sadd’s structure, with the three defenders in charge of the build-up, both defensive midfielders behind the first pressing player, the four second-line players between the lines and the wingers providing width.
In possession: directness, width and build-up variations
Al Sadd were a very aggressive team in possession. They didn’t have many long possessions in which they looked to move the ball from side to side, preferring to play forward passes and get into the final third as quickly as possible. This explains why their possession wasn’t crazily high at 53%.
Their wide wingers and the striker playing with his back to the goal were key to offer long passing options and spaces were taken advantage of as soon as they appeared. Cruyff’s principle of first looking for the far away man and then for the near one if it didn’t exist applied very well here and against a team that conceded spaces, Al Sadd were able to play lots of successful long balls.
Al Sadd acted as a coordinated unit. When they managed to break lines and play progressive passes, all the team advanced together. Doing this, Al Sadd made sure they always had plenty of options to combine and shoot in and around the box and also were in a good position to counter-press and recover the ball high up the pitch. We’ll see more about how being well-positioned to press after losing possession was one of the ways Al Sadd used to create chances further down this tactical analysis.
The above play is a good example of how Xavi instructed his players to first look far. Having four easy short passing options that would have kept possession safely for Al Sadd, the defensive midfielder decides to launch a long pass to the right-wing, where André Ayew is running in behind. After the pass, the winger gets support from the players around him so he can keep possession or create something.
The role of Bounedjah was very important to take advantage of the number of players they committed forward whenever they could. The striker played very well with his back to the goal, playing layoffs to the players coming from the second line and making sure the defenders found it difficult to win duels and clear the ball far away. Bounedjah contested the most aerial duels in the game (6) and second-most offensive challenges (20).
The role of the wide defenders was also interesting in the attacking phase. They played more as full-backs than as centre-backs, being wide and getting forward to create superiorities. Their coordination to not go up at the same time was good and when they couldn’t create superiorities high up the pitch, they were positioned in the half-spaces to support the man in possession and help the team move quickly from side to side.
Al Sadd’s wingers provided width and were patient to stay wide and wait for the correct moment to receive the ball in the best possible conditions to dribble in 1v1 situations. Both Ayew and Al Haydos are very good dribblers and they understood their role very well in this match. Just 25% of Al Sadd attacks came through the middle, very few compared to Al Duhail’s 64%. Barcelona fans have been expecting something like this from their team for a long time, especially with Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembélé being capable of creating a lot if used properly.
Once the ball reached the wingers in good conditions, Al Sadd looked to crowd the box and provide as many passing options as possible. Both attacking midfielders appeared in and around the box, Bounedjah made very good movements around the six-yard box and the winger from the opposite side got central and attacked the far post.
Al Duhail didn’t press too much in the build-up and even less when they were down to ten men from the 45th minute, but Al Sadd had good solutions when their three centre-backs couldn’t create superiorities.
In these situations, one of the defensive midfielders dropped between the central defender and one of the wide defenders, forming a much more recognizable 4-3-3. When this happened, the wide defenders provided width and the defensive midfielder who didn’t drop deep got central to offer passing options behind the first pressing line like Busquets would do at Barcelona.
We can see this build-up structure above. As Al Duhail attempt to defend with a higher line and press more, one of the defensive midfielders drops to get on the ball and form a back-four, with the rest of the team forming a classical 4-3-3. There’s a rational occupation of spaces with players behind each rival line, the wingers providing width and depth and the wide defenders offering simple passing options wide.
Out of possession: high press, fragility in transitions and set-pieces issues
If Al Sadd managed to have the possession for long parts of the game, it was mostly because of their press. We’ve already seen that they were quite direct in possession but their positioning to recover the ball right after losing it was very good and allowed them to have a lot of attacks. Al Duhail lost possession 16 times in their half (Al Sadd just 7) and it was a great source of dangerous situations for Xavi’s team. Al Sadd attempted six high pressings, recovering the ball in five of them, while Al Duhail only attempted two and succeeded once.
Al Sadd’s high pressing structure could be divided into two groups. First, the five attacking players – the striker, both attacking midfielders and the wingers – pressed very intensely, with the striker in charge of orienting the press and the rest of them trying to force rivals to play in tight spaces and make mistakes.
The other five players – the two defensive midfielders and the three defenders – have a more zonal approach, making sure the team stays balanced and only engaging in the press when there’s a clear opportunity to recover the ball. The wide defenders have the more proactive role from this group of players, often going wide to press or try to anticipate. The role of the defensive midfielders is crucial here as they need to cover the back of the defenders when they go far from their position. The central defender rarely leaves his position and acts as a sweeper or man marks the rival striker, often finding himself in a 1v1 situation.
The play of Al Sadd’s third goal is the perfect example of how their press worked. It starts with Al Duhail passing the ball wide, triggering Al Sadd’s press. Bounedjah, the striker, starts orienting the press so the Al Duhail player doesn’t have an option to return the ball to the centre.
Despite the good press, the man on the ball manages to escape pressure and finds the defensive midfielder, who has dropped to offer a passing lane. As soon as the pass is played, Al Sadd’s right attacking midfielder leaves his mark to go for the ball, trying to force al Duhail wide again.
Again, the man on the ball is forced to drive it wide and finds himself surrounded by three Al Sadd players. This press forces him to choose a pass to a pressed teammate.
The pass and the first touch aren’t good enough and Al Sadd’s press works to recover the ball in a promising position. Also, they’re well-positioned to quickly transition into the attack and take advantage of their numerical advantage in that part of the pitch.
Immediately after recovering the ball, two players overlap Bounedjah, who attracts a defender and then makes the pass. After the pass, Bounedhaj continues his run to get into a scoring position.
In the last picture of the sequence, we see how one of the overlapping players assist the other. Apart from them, Bounedjah is also in the box, another midfielder arrives at the edge of it and André Ayew is an option at the far post.
The goal is a direct consequence of Al Sadd’s pressing style. They forced Al Duhail into difficult positions, created numerical advantages there to force a risky pass and transformed that defensive numerical advantage into an attacking one, crowding the box and finishing the attack quickly and effectively.
While this press works very well when rivals try to play with short passes from the back, it’s vulnerable when they choose to play more direct long balls. The wide defenders join the press often and leave a lot of space on the sides of the central defender, which can be exploited with runs in behind.
The defensive midfielders need to be very focused to read these situations and cover the back of the defenders but they also get involved in the press trying to create numerical advantages higher up the pitch and aren’t always in a position to help in defending long balls.
This situation leaves the central defender in a high-risk situation, often defending 1v1 with a lot of space behind and around him. It requires a very complete centre-back to manage these situations. He needs the pace to cover distance quickly or the physicality to win duels before the rival can control the ball, needs to read the game well and don’t rush into tackle so his teammates have time to support him and also be quick both physically and mentally to decide whether to sweep or steep out and force an offside.
Let’s see some examples of how Al Duhail tried to exploit this weakness in Xavi’s tactics. In the picture below, we see Al Sadd’s positioning during a direct pass. The wide left defender and the left-winger are caught out of position. The defender has failed to read the striker run in time and is in no man’s land, while the left winger is also late to track the wide runner. A simple long ball creates a very dangerous 2v1 situation which the central defender solves effectively with his speed.
While it takes a risk to press high, when you have a defender who feels comfortable defending big spaces, it also has the advantage of being able to commit more players to the press and make it more effective.
The next sequence is another example of how Al Duhail managed to create chances and dangerous situations with very simple passes. It starts with Al Duhail recovering the ball in their half. We see Al Sadd are well-positioned to press any short pass, which is their first intention. both defensive midfielders and the right defender are positioned high and close to rivals. Al Duhail’s defender choice is to clear the ball away.
Next, we see how Al Sadd are positioned at the back. With both wide defenders and defensive midfielders quite high, the central defender is paired with the striker and has to race him from midfield. Against fast forwards, this is an even more dangerous approach.
When the striker controls the ball, he’s in a 1v1 situation against the central defender, who doesn’t have any support from his teammates. This time, the defender manages to force the striker wide and the play ends with a shot from a forced angle. We could argue that the goalkeeper could have been better positioned as the striker controls the ball just 10 meters away from the box but the conclusion still applies.
When they’re forced into a deep block, Al Sadd are quite flexible and adapt well. Either one of the wingers (mostly the left-winger Hasan Al-Haydos) drops deep and acts as a full-back or one of the defensive midfielders gets in a centre-back position and forms the back-four by pushing one of the defenders wide.
Defending in a low block wasn’t a big issue for Xavi’s team in this match and even if they tried to avoid it by pressing high, they weren’t troubled when Al Duhail managed to beat the press and had longer possessions.
Apart from the spaces at the back as a consequence of their aggressive press, the other defensive problem Al Sadd faced was in corner kicks as two of Al Duhail’s goals came this way.
Both goals came from mistakes in the marks. Al Sadd players consistently lost their marks and Al Duhail players could head in quite comfortable situations. Al Sadd defenders were quite small (1.86m, 1.82m and 1.80m) so they had to rely on midfielders and the striker to add some size. Oppositely, Al Duhail had Michael Olunga, whose 1.93m proved very hard to handle.
It was indeed Olunga who scored one of these goals and provoked the own goal. In both goals, he managed to escape the mark of Abdelkarim Hassan, Al Sadd’s tallest defender standing at 1.86m, and head the ball. Olunga also scored the third goal by winning an aerial at the far post against Pedro Miguel, the right defender, this time in open play.
Looking at Al Duhail’s corners, we can see they aimed at the edge of the six-yard box most of the time, knowing their aerial superiority. Indeed, Al Duhail won 67% of the 21 aerial duels contested in this game and Al Sadd struggled to stop them.
The analysis of Al Sadd’s set-pieces could go on but it’s not the goal of this tactical analysis. We can still point out that Xavi didn’t manage to stop Al Duhail’s set pieces in general and Olunga in particular. Even with smaller players, a solution like putting players over the goal line at both posts would have stopped both goals and it would have been a good alternative if Xavi knew their defenders were going to be beaten in the air.
The game was exciting and interesting for the neutral fan. Despite playing over 45 minutes against 10 players, Al Sadd only managed to get a draw but they displayed some very exciting things that Xavi could bring to Barcelona. Their press, their directness and their attacking style will be a blow of fresh air for Barcelona and certainly will excite the fans.
However, thinking about how Xavi could apply what we say in this game at Barcelona, we have some doubts. Will he stick to his 3-2-4-1 or opt for a more conservative and classical 4-3-3? How will he deal with teams that concede less space? Will defensive transitions and set-pieces still be an issue? We’ll have to wait to have an answer to all those questions but interesting times lay ahead for Barcelona for sure.