Barcelona vs Real Sociedad: Tactical Analysis

Montanier made the unusual choice of beginning the game with the club’s joint top scorers from last season both on the bench alongside him. Griezmann started in attack alongside Illarramendi with new signing Castro making his debut on the left wing.

Sociedad adopted a 4-4-2 formation at the outset of the game.

Real Sociedad Starting Line Up

Real Sociedad Approach

Whilst examining the Barcelona performance in closer detail, it must be remembered that this was a Sociedad side that were prepared to use two strikers and tried to attack. It’s doubtful if many opponents will arrive at the Camp Nou this season with such an outlook. The approach was tempered somewhat after the half time interval when Illarramendi dropped deeper to form a midfield five to stem the tide flowing towards the Sociedad goal. A 4-5-1 formation was utilised from this point onwards with Griezmann becoming isolated as the lone striker.

First Half

The game began in explosive fashion with four goals in the opening fifteen minutes. What was most interesting though was the intensity which Barcelona were displaying. The side appeared reinvigorated and pressed Sociedad as soon as possible, forcing the Basques onto the back foot. The passing was quick throughout as Barcelona seemed to rediscover the hunger and desire that had been lacking during parts of last season. Barcelona also sought to open up the play with crossfield diagonal passing occurring to both full backs and wingers, stretching their opponent and turning the Sociedad defence.

With a 4-1 half time lead, the second half revolved around retaining possession for Barcelona, mindful of the upcoming Super Cup fixture against Real Madrid. The final goal was scored by Villa who made his first competitive appearance since his injury in December 2011.

Given that this was as straight forward an opening fixture for Barcelona as you are likely to witness, it is worth considering a few key points which could be indicative of how Vilanova wants his Barcelona side to play. Clearly, these are early days in the Vilanova regime and we must not make any rash judgements nonetheless there are learning points here.

Tello

Speculation has surrounded Tello during the close season and he still retains a B team squad listing although he has been advised he will feature for the first team. Whilst his starting role may have surprised many, it was entirely justified following an excellent performance which witnessed two assists in the first half.

Making the breakthrough at the same time as his colleague Cuenca inevitably leads to comparisons despite both being very different players. Tello was able to thrive against Sociedad as the Basques were very attack minded which allowed Tello to use his pace to good effect. Holding a wide position, there was ample space behind the Sociedad back line for Tello to drive into. Against a deeper lying defence, Tello may find his pace is not as useful with limited space on offer. He provided snapshots of close control and played a lovely cross for Pedro’s goal. His decision making and final ball are two areas needing further development if he is to be considered as something other than just an extremely fast player. Last night suggested he may have a role to play in the longer term.

Full Backs

Both Dani Alves and Jordi Alba pushed high up the pitch and supported their respective winger especially Alba who impressed on his home debut and overlapped Tello on a few occasion when the opportunity arose.

Over the past few seasons we have become accustomed to witnessing Alves bomb forward on the right whilst Abidal adopted a more conservative position on the left alternating between holding the left back position around the halfway line or forming a defensive trio by slotting in as the left sided centre back. With Alba playing, this option of conservatism is removed.

Whether such an approach would be encouraged against higher quality opposition remains to be seen.

Sociedad scored the equalising goal when Castro moved in behind Alves, hitting the ball high into the roof of the net. The space existed not because Alves was caught high up the pitch but due to poor positional play. Alves moved infield, far too close to Puyol which provided Castro with the space to control the pass from Illarramedi before scoring.

Will the left flank of Barcelona prove to be stronger than the right flank this season? Given the role which Dani Alves has fulfilled over the past few seasons, it seems inconceivable but last night Alba provided evidence of his attacking ability allied to the defensive side of his game which he learned under Unai Emery.

Furthermore, can Barcelona really play with both full backs being so attack minded?

Will the midfield need to compensate?

Midfield

There were two interesting features in the Barcelona midfield. Firstly, Fabregas was in the team as a midfielder and in place of Iniesta. This required Fabregas to drop deeper on occasion which he did although he still linked with Messi when permitted. There appeared to be greater fluidity between the three midfielders.

This was aided as, secondly, Busquets played in a fairly high position on occasion especially during the first half when he pushed up to lend support to the trio of Xavi, Fabregas and Messi. Although still ostensibly the defensive midfielder in the team, there was greater movement between Busquets and the other two midfielders.

This increased movement was necessary as the duos of Alves and Alba and Pedro and Tello were holding very wide, high starting positions. Without Busquets pushing on, Barcelona would have been left numerically outnumbered in the centre of the pitch.

The impact of pushing Busquets further forward meant that Barcelona only had Maschearno and Puyol defending.

Are Barcelona going to play more aggressively this season?

Conclusions

There are relatively high hopes for Sociedad this season. Coach Philippe Montanier has a talented, if mainly youthful, squad at his disposal and coaxing the maximum from those at his disposal could reap rewards. The disappointing result from last night must not be allowed to adversely affect team morale.

The first step in the Vilanova era for Barcelona and one which hinted at some subtle alterations whilst demonstrating that the side has lost not of the hunger and desire which drove them to such success over the past few years. This was no tactical success in this game. Simply, Barcelona had vastly superior players to their opponent.

The upcoming Super Cup games against Real Madrid will provide a significantly sterner test of Vilanova’s tactical acumen.

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el clasico: Tactical Analysis

And so the league title is almost certainly bound for Madrid after a fine 2-1 win at the Camp Nou. With recent clasico’s providing a fair dose of play acting, melee’s along with a very high degree of technical quality, this game was something of a disappointment, missing all of those ingredients which make them such gripping viewing.

It was tense and the crowd were subdued for much of the game. As were the technical areas. Mourinho stayed sitting for most of the game, he would have been extremely happy with how things panned out whereas Guardiola never showed any urgency towards his team.

After clawing back the deficit from 10 points to 4 points, perhaps he knew it was just too much and the team could not sustain the level of effort required any longer.

Barcelona

Guardiola is known for throwing a curveball in his selections and tactics for clasico’s but I doubt anyone saw his selection or formation in advance. Tello and Thiago starting with Pique, Fabregas, Sanchez, Pedro and Keita on the bench. Cuenca did not even make the squad.

A 4-3-3 when defending but switching to a 3-3-4 when in possession and moving forward. As I had suggested in the preview, Puyol initially tracked Ronaldo meaning Dani Alves started higher up the pitch on the right. On the opposite flank, Tello provided the width. Thiago operated at the base of midfield with Busquets moving between midfield and central defence as required.

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Real Madrid

Mourinho kept faith in the team which lost to Bayern and went with his usual 4-2-3-1 formation resisting the temptation to switch to a 4-3-3 and adopt a more conservative approach.

Real Madrid Starting Line Up

Madrid did not press as heavily or as coordinated as they have done in previous clasico encounters. The front four were pressing but nowhere near as aggressively and the remainder of the team were dropping off. This “false” pressing from Madrid was adversely affecting Barcelona though as they made a number of forced and unforced errors in their passing.

Have Busquets, Thiago and Iniesta ever made so many incomplete passes in the same game?

This was a game that Barcelona had to win to keep alive their hopes of winning the title. The onus was on Barcelona to take the initiative whereas Madrid would have been content with a draw. As such, all of the interesting features arise from a Barcelona perspective.

Nothing that Madrid did was unexpected or unusual. They did their jobs very well with discipline, organisation and a high workrate.

Lack of Central Focus

With Messi dropping deep and Tello and Alves wide, there was no player to occupy the Madrid central defensive pairing of Pepe and Ramos. Subsequently, when Messi took possession and tried to run with the ball, he was easily crowded out centrally.

Barcelona enjoyed 78% possession but much of it was in a central area and in front of the Madrid backline. Busquets, Thaigo, Xavi and Iniesta were all central and only on a few occasions did anyone break further forward ahead of the ball offering a passing opportunity into the Madrid penalty area and pulling the Madrid defence. Too often the passes were across the pitch.

Barcelona needed much more vertical movement from their players and in this respect the late arrival of the subs was very surprising.

How much has Barcelona missed not only the goalscoring of both Pedro and Villa this season, but the movement and finishing that they offer?

Alves Starting Position

Dani Alves played the entire game as a right winger and had little impact on proceedings.

The strength of Alves is when he breaks from deep and at pace, attacking the opposition full back and also providing an overlapping outlet for Barcelona and linking with his team mate higher up the pitch e.g. his link play with Messi previously and now with Sanchez.

On his own and from a standing start, he is not going to beat his opponent so Barcelona were left with Alves on the right, either failing to get around Coentrao or turning back inside.

There were also a number of occasions in the first half when Alves received the ball wide right and no Barcelona player was near him. Each time, Alves was forced to turn back infield. If Sanchez or Pedro had received that pass, Alves would have been overlapping and providing an outlet.

Removal of Xavi

Barcelona have played a slightly more direct fashion at times this season due to two key factors.

1. Sanchez and Fabregas are willing to make more vertical runs, particularly Sanchez coming from out to in and off the shoulder of the deepest defender. As a consequence, Barcelona will look for both players more often and play slightly riskier passes as a result.

2. Xavi has missed some games due to injury. With Xavi, no other player in the Barcelona squad can fulfill the same role. Without his controlling and measured approach, the other midfielders will play more direct passes.

The removal of Xavi after 68 minutes has been misinterpreted in some quarters. Xavi has been struggling with an Achilles injury for some time. He is also severely fatigued now. This has implications not just for Barcelona but also for Spain at the Euro’s.

Also, that Messi was more effective, making the run which led to the goal after Xavi was removed, has also been misinterpreted. The removal of Xavi and the run from Messi are not related. The introduction of Sanchez was key. He occupied Madrid’s central defenders and pulled Pepe wider when Messi broke allowing him enough space to drive towards the Madrid penalty area. The goal resulted after a few deflections.

Focus on the Champions League?

Mourinho went with his strongest eleven. It was clear were his priority lay.

For Guardiola it is not that straightforward. Tello made only his third senior start and Thiago at the base of midfield was also unusual. Why not Keita who provides a stronger presence? Why does Pique remain on the bench?

Fabregas and Sanchez were clearly being rested ahead of the Chelsea game.

It’s an extremely risky strategy which could backfire if Chelsea manage to emerge from Tuesday night with a positive result.

Conclusions

In the clasico preview here, I listed 5 key factors which I considered would have an influence on the game.

Will fatigue be a factor?

Madrid surprisingly kept the same eleven who had started the game against Bayern and the team performed well including Di Maria who put in a considerable defensive effort. If anything, it was Barcelona and Xavi especially who looked tired.

Will Madrid press?

Yes, for the first 25 minutes or so they pressed and held a relatively high defensive line. At 1-0 up, they dropped deeper and looked for quick counters.

Will Madrid continue to be so direct?

Madrid continued their recent direct approach both in terms of hitting some longer passing and also by moving directly towards their opponents goal when they won the ball. Barcelona are always much more considered when the regain possession.

Ronaldo’s role

Ronaldo did his share of defence duties and also scored the winning goal. All in all, a very successful night for him.

Barcelona will dominate possession.

And they did with 78% to Madrid’s 22% but as at Stamford Bridge, the possession was in a comfortable zone for their opponent. Barcelona passed and passed in front of the Madrid backline.

How can Barcelona retain width?

The use of Tello and Alves high and wide failed. Tello in only his 3rd start showed glimpses of his pace but against a deep backline, he could produce little. Alves, as outlined above, is not a winger.