What seemed like a routine three-pointer for Barcelona ended up being one of the most intense matches the Catalans have played in a rather long time. Not many have challenged the Blaugrana the way relegation-bound Villarreal did at the Cerámica stadium on Tuesday night. The game started exactly as most would have expected but no-one could have predicted a four-all goal fest given the difference on paper between the two competitors.
Still, the Yellow Submarine really came out swinging and did not stop until their opponnents were on the floor. In the end, Barcelona had to turn to their big guns to bring a point home in a sour visit that, in a way, turned into a heroic comeback, and ultimately heartbreak for Villarreal.
This tactical analysis will use statistics to try and put some logic behind the chaos that ensued at the Cerámica when two extremely attacking teams who seemingly forgot to defend met.
Starting XI: Ter Stegen – Sergi, Lenglet, Umtiti, Alba – Vidal, Busquets, Arthur – Malcom, Suarez, Coutinho
Bench: Iñaki Peña, Piqué, Semedo, Aleñá, Rakitić, Boateng, Messi
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Starting XI: Asenjo, Mario Gaspar, Alvaro, Funes Mori, Victor Ruiz, Iborra, Pedraza, Toko Ekambi, Cazorla, Morlanes, Samu
Bench: Andres Fdez., Caseres, Bacca, Raba, Bonera, Ivan Martin, Quintilla
Coach: Javier Calleja Revilla
You could say that the mileage in Barcelona’s legs has finally taken its toll on their stamina and fatigue is definitely kicking in. Whether it was the hectic schedule, the all-important Champions League clash against Manchester United next Tuesday or simply confidence in the bench getting the job done, Ernesto Valverde has opted to do what he has been called on for so long: rotate.
And rotate he did. To be more precise, he decided to remove a single pillar from each of Barcelona’s three lines. Gerard Piqué, who until this game had officially played every minute in the current La Liga campaign, was rested and replaced by the returning-to-fitness Samuel Umtiti, Ivan Rakitić was also sidelined in favour of Arturo Vidal, and finally, the biggest omission of the three included none other than Lionel Messi. The little Argentine was rested and out-of-favour Malcom was given a shot right from the start.
The rest of the team was unchanged as we saw a lot of familiar faces on the pitch. Still, to remove three giant pieces of the Barcelona jigsaw at once was a bold move from Valverde, and one he almost paid the ultimate price for.
The team operated in their standard 4-3-3 system throughout the game and it saw no big changes until the very end.
Even though in normal circumstances a 4-4 draw for the relegation-bound team against the defending champions and current league leaders would be a small dream come true, Villarreal could very well see it as heartbreak. Dropping a two-goal lead in injury time is nothing short of exactly that.
What gives this accomplishment even more prestige is the fact Villarreal had a lot of important pieces missing from their starting lineup. The likes of Manuel Trigueros, Pablo Fornals and Gerard Moreno were all sidelined for various reasons and they weren’t the only ones as their list stretches to six names in total.
Even with all of that on the table, other stars, both rising and well-established, rose to the occasion to give their fans at the Cerámica an absolute gem of a game to watch. The only on-pitch change Calleja made from the last game was actually Xavier Quintilla who was dropped in favour of Ramiro Funes Mori and a tactical swap that saw Mario Gaspar play a bit higher up the pitch instead of at the back.
Villarreal operated in a 3-4-2-1 formation but made slight adjustments to 5-4-1 and finally to 5-3-1 when they were a man down in the last stretch of the game.
A hectic start and Barcelona’s defensive slip-ups
It was 19 January six years ago, at the ‘cursed’ Anoeta stadium against Real Sociedad that Barcelona last blew a two-goal lead. This bit of information paired up with the fact that the Catalans had a 19-game unbeaten streak against Villarreal, which was extended to 20, made most of the public believe it would be a stroll for the favourites and league leaders. We all could not have been more wrong.
But apart from bravery and some tremendous football displayed by the hosts, there were a couple of other tactical aspects that did play a role in this match. Villarreal immediately asserted themselves and let Barcelona know they would not sit idly while the Catalans ran circles around them.
Within the first 10 minutes, the hosts managed to force Marc-André ter Stegen into two fabulous saves. One was a set-piece header, which is a weakness for Barcelona in general, but the other was a weapon the Yellow Submarine utilised to full effect throughout the whole game: forcing Barcelona into mistakes and executing deadly counters.
There are a couple of key things to note in the image above. Firstly, Barcelona traditionally set up a high defensive line, which is a fairly risky tactic. Since they dominate possession and minimalise errors, it works well in pinning the opponent into their own half. However, notice how Villarreal push forward with numbers, blocking Samuel Umtiti’s passing channels that lead into the midfield and the flanks extremely well.
The midfield trident is cut off, and the French centre-back has two options: go back to the goalkeeper, or try to play across to Clement Lenglet. He opts for the latter, which turns out to be a mistake as Villarreal can intercept it fairly easily due to a well-organised press and sheer numerical superiority.
The counter leads to a direct shot on goal but ter Stegen manages to block it with a great save. This occurrence was somewhat regular on the night. Barcelona had a total of 80 losses compared to Villarreal’s 69. Two of those directly lead to dangerous counters which resulted in shots on goal.
Capitalising on Barcelona’s mistakes worked extremely well for Villarreal as five out of their eight counters ended with a shot on goal. That makes a total of 62.5%. What also played a great part in that was the pace and skill the players in yellow brought to the table. Since both of Barcelona’s full-backs were positioned higher up the pitch, that left only the centre-back pairing to cover for the team’s blunders.
In fact, when analysing all four of goals conceded by Barcelona, one can find uncharacteristic errors in the Catalans’ defensive setup that was taken advantage of by Villarreal. For the first goal, Barcelona’s midfield does a decent job of man-marking the opposition, but notice how Santi Cazorla is left completely free as there is no pressure applied on him at all. As a result, he can send a fantastic ball into the path of his speedy forward.
Granted, the cheeky back-heel is something that doesn’t necessarily work at all times so that could be taken into account, but it’s still not an excuse to leave an opposition player all alone between the lines. Barcelona failed to cover the entrance to their final third and they paid the ultimate price for it. The second goal was due to similar mistakes being made once again.
With eight out of their 10 outfield players being in the opposition’s half, only Lenglet and Umtiti are left to cover for a fast break. Traditionally, Barcelona struggle in fast transitions due to the lack of sheer pace in their ranks. If the opponents can progress the ball quickly, chances are Barcelona won’t have the time to get back into their defensive shape.
In the example above, which is the second goal for Villarreal, one through-ball is enough to eliminate all of Barcelona’s outfield players and put the defenders and Sergio Busquets in a foot race with two speedsters. The result is the inevitable goal which also came after a wonder shot by Karl Toko Ekambi, which caught both ter Stegen and the audience off guard.
While most are still debating if that was deliberate or not, I think it’s fairly safe to assume he meant it as he was not looking to find his teammates in the middle and his eyes are focused on the goal.
The man between the sticks left his near post unmanned since he, just like almost everyone else, expected a cross into the box. It was cheeky from Ekambi, followed by a wonderful finish.
The third goal was once again the result of Barcelona’s midfield getting bypassed far too easily. Notice in the image below the positioning of the Blaugrana trident, and the free space they afford Villarreal when entering the final third.
This puts the opposition in a fantastic position to progress the ball into the box and set up a one-on-one situation which Iborra will exploit all day, every day. Apart from the midfield falling asleep or just not analysing the situation thoroughly enough, once again we have to get back to the centre-back tandem of Lenglet and Umtiti. Both are left-footed and for that reason rarely used together in a lineup, which could be an excuse for the basic mistakes that were made on the night.
The absence of Gerard Piqué’s presence is also highly noted here, as well as Rakitić’s in the middle. Usually, the Croat covers those exact areas of the pitch in all defensive transitions, making sure the way into the final third is blocked, and his flank covered. The duo at the back allow too much space between themselves, which was a regular occurrence on the night, and the ball gets past them quite easily.
Finally, the lack of pressure on the ball-carriers combined with some of what we’ve mentioned above is what got Villarreal their fourth and final goal on the night. In the image below, you see how none of Barcelona’s players engage Cazorla. Instead, they allow him the space and time necessary to play the ball to his forward, resulting in yet another clear-cut chance that is used to the fullest.
Even though Barcelona were a mess defensively, Villarreal’s attacking prowess is definitely what got them over the line during those chances. Santi Cazorla, in particular, was the man to watch. He alone has set up eight of the 11 chances for his team while the flare, pace and skill of Chukwueze and Ekambi applied the beautiful finishing touches.
Villarreal make mistakes of their own
For the first parts of the game, and the whole first half in general, it felt like Villarreal were chasing Barcelona and hoping for a part of the spoils. They did start on the front foot and managed to create dangerous chances but they were the ones who conceded first and did so twice in the span of four minutes.
In general, when they managed to set up their defensive setup deeper in their own half, Villarreal were successful in repelling Barcelona’s attacks. But they were not always in that defensive mindset throughout the game. In fact, for the vast majority of the game, they opted to come out of their shell and contest Barcelona by being aggressive off the ball.
If we just take a look at the challenges they won across the pitch, which can be seen below, we notice that a lot of those 50/50 chances and duels actually went their way. Of all 173 they attempted, they have won 40.46% of them, as opposed to Barcelona’s 38.73%.
They also made 54 recoveries, just three shy of Barcelona’s 57, which is also quite a telling sign when directly comparing the two taking into consideration on what they thrive on and what their strengths truly are. Barca’s strategy is always to get the ball in the danger zones and their recovery numbers are usually always high. Being so close to them in this regard is an achievement for the Yellow Submarine.
But there’s also the other side of that defensive coin which was not as shiny as the first. These attacking setups in which Villarreal wanted to challenge Barcelona ended up working well moving forward, but also left them exposed when going the other way.
Notice how Villarreal pile everything on one side, collapsing on Sergio Busquets with multiple markers as the whole of Barcelona’s left flank, which is their primary source of attack, gets overcrowded easily. The difference this time was that the Catalans had Sergi Roberto, and probably more importantly, Malcom on the pitch.
The Brazilian was used as a more traditional winger. Even though he did cut inside and interact rather well with Roberto in the latter’s overlapping and underlapping, Malcom was primarily used to provide width and as a pacey option to get in behind the defence. In the image below, you can see how stretched out Villarreal’s backline is, and the default relationship between Malcom and Roberto in the attacking phases.
Malcom would eventually go a bit narrower, as would Coutinho on the other side, just to let the full-backs overlap consistently, which they did. Apart from stretching the defensive line of Villarreal, the Brazilian’s incorporation into the team also reinvigorated Barcelona’s right side of the pitch.
As a result, the Catalans actually used their right flank more (36%) as opposed to their left one (30%), which is a novelty in itself. The balance between the two sides can also be seen when taking a look at Barcelona’s pass map, which is presented below.
The biggest detail from Villarreal’s pass map is the connection the midfield had with the forwards. Clearly, the biggest link is to Chukwueze, who was the most important presence up front for the hosts. Santi Cazorla and Mario Gaspar had nine and eight passes between them and the speedy forward respectively, always finding him in dangerous positions, which was key for their attacking outlets.
Still, their most evident weakness was when they exited their compact shapes and ventured forward openly. Their high press was efficient but also left them vulnerable to Barcelona’s ability to bypass it through various different means. Apart from 57 recoveries, Barcelona also made 33 interceptions, 10 of which happened in Villarreal’s final third, as can be seen below.
The key to successful interceptions was a well-organised press by the Catalans. In the example below, we can see how Villarreal are forced backwards but none of the options presented to them are safe, and it quickly turns into a deadly mistake.
Villarreal’s midfield and defensive line were not as compact when they tried putting numbers forward, which resulted in a lot of gaps and chances for Barcelona to recover the ball high up the pitch.
In the end, it still wasn’t enough to break the hosts down, and Lionel Messi, Ivan Rakitić and Carles Aleñá were pulled from the bench in the hopes of changing the result. It took an incredible Messi free-kick, his sixth this season in La Liga, which also saw him surpass Cristiano Ronaldo as the player with the most goals in the history of the top five leagues with 415 to his name, to set the comeback into motion.
That was also his third game in a row in which he scored from a free-kick. Suárez was also a big influence on the game and his stoppage-time goal crowned him the top Uruguayan scorer in La Liga with 129 goals, surpassing Diego Forlán. To make things even more poetic, it was a goal against Forlán’s ex-club that saw Suárez overtake his compatriot in this race.
Who knew a battle between the first and the 17th placed teams in La Liga could be as intense as the one we witnessed on Tuesday night? Barcelona and Villarreal shared the spoils of war in a game in which both sides blew two-goal leads, ending in a rather fair fashion.
Still, the hosts were at the end of a yet another heartbreak after Celta Vigo did the same thing just days before when they overturned a 2-0 deficit only to win all three points against Villarreal in a 3-2 comeback.
If this game is any indication of what kind of a La Liga finale we are in for, we better buckle our seatbelts tight because it could very well still be quite a bumpy ride.
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