Villareal – Barcelona 0:1
Barcelona wins against Villareal in the last minutes. The World’s flattest diamond nearly forced Barcelona on the wings and out of the game, but Lionel Messi’s run and the stability of Barcelona’s circulation provided the fundament for the win.
Villareal: Deep block and something between 4-3-3, 4-3-1-2 and 4-3-2-1
The hosts played with a deep block and tried to use the new aspects of Barcelona’s play under Luis Enrique to their advantage. Last season Villareal often played with a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 formation and quite position oriented, though they changed this according to the opponent. Against Barcelona for instance they played a 4-5-1 with a narrow flat five in midfield and lost narrowly with 1:2. This time it was something like a diamond but it was used with an extremely vertical compactness. The strikers were playing quite deep, the nominal #10 was going far back and sometimes even went into the midfield line when the shuttlers advanced to the wings.
The goal of this formation was probably to force Barcelona on the wings and isolate them there. So the midfield was really congested, the three central players behind the #10 created a numerical advantage and the two strikers also helped with that. It is interesting that the two strikers didn’t man mark the centrebacks of Barcelona but rather played deeper and in line with the #10 at the start of their pressing.
With that they let them have the ball and closed the centre even more as the #10 had less space to cover in his line and the three strikers in this short lived 4-3-3(-0) were very compact horizontally. The middle was extremely congested and the wings were open. As As soon as the ball went to the wings, the strikers (in an ideal situation) tried to close down back passes. Meanwhile, the #10 played deep in order to support the central midfielders, fill open gaps, and create a line infront of the three midfielders so Barcelona couldnt change sides easily.
The wings were then closed down situationally in different ways; mostly it was both the ballnear fullback who went out of the back four chain to attack on the wings, and the ball near centre midfielder who also went out to attack. This was down to the movement of the Catalan wingers and centre midfielders. If the centre midfielders advanced towards the wing and then went upfront, which both Rafinha and Rakitic did in the half spaces, the centre midfielders went more towards them.
When the fullbacks played quite high and the wingers went towards the middle to support Messi and be in goal near areas, then the centre midfielders went more towards the flanks and attacked there. Occasionally they also had centre midfielder vs. centre midfielder and fullback vs. fullback or the centre midfielders going into the back four to close down the opening gaps. This passivity paired with the intensity in moving laterally and the mixture of 4-3-3-0 and 4-3-1-2 with a deep supporting #10 and strikers closing down the middle and the central lines worked really well, while Barcelona didn’t attack the half spaces properly and tried too often to connect the hopeful cross.
Also Villareal tried to lure the fullbacks forward to be able to counter in the resulting spaces. With two strikers, the isolation on the wing through the balloriented movement of the collective and the positioning within their lines they were in theory able to attack all relevant spaces defensively and then counter with two players upfront for the first pass and up to five players at the second ball. Still, their counters and attacks in general only got dangerous in a few situations and later on in the game.
This organization of Villareal didn’t change much, especially not tactically. Strategically they utilized a higher and more aggressive press later in the game through which they had higher possession and more attacks with less space to cover towards the oppositional goal.
Barcelona dealt most of the time, at least until the end of the game, quite good with all of that. Although they were not directing their attacks ideally through the halfspaces, not creating many synergies in the last third, and didnt have many big chances until the time before the 1:0, they were easily the better team.
Barcelona: Stable circulation, wide CM’s, narrow wingers, no Iniesta and Busquets‘ genius
The Catalans were quite stable in circulation. The fullbacks pushed up but sometimes also drifted inside and were balanced by the central midfielders. As the opposition was quite passive in their high press, Busquets‘ didn’t have to move back and stayed in the middle. He sometimes drifted even towards the half spaces or pushed up, but mostly he covered the centre of the pitch while Rafinha and Rakitic were positioned mostly in the half spaces or even towards the wings.
Perhaps this wasn’t as much as a tactical plan but a fast improvisation towards the oppositional formation. Rakitic and Rafinha searched for open spaces and found them obviously beside the two 3’s of the oppositional formation. They got the ball in these spaces, had good diagonal angles towards the middle and could cover for the overlapping runs of the fullbacks. Additionally they could give width themselves and the fullbacks would try their luck with runs towards the middle, especially Alves went a few times into the halfspace in search for a combination into the penalty area.
Sometimes even the centre midfielders overlapped the fullbacks, as they were going diagonally towards the middle and the wingers were already narrow. Though mostly these attacks ended in crosses and while Barcelona was able to produce some chances, all in all they weren’t as consistently dangerous as they might have been able to be.
Yet in the end it was another defensive masterpiece of Busquets, and the lack of a player for tight areas who would be able to bring the ball to Messi to combine with him which were the most important aspects for understanding the game. Thus Barcelona was on the wing too much. But they were able to counterpress quite well, control the rhythm, and in the end of the game it paid off.
Another aspect was the pressing of Barcelona. They were fluidly changing between 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1 and a mixture of these two formations, as the ball near winger pressed back while the other stayed higher; sometimes it was even Messi on the right wing as Munir went inside. Though the Argentinian only pressed occasionally –when he did he was great as usual.
Luis Enrique’s changes were also interesting. He didn’t exactly tweak the system but brought in Neymar for Munir to have more presence in tight zones and focus on the left side more. He then brought Sandro in for Pedro, and Xavi for Rafinha as well, which was another intelligent substitution. With Neymar the few overlapping runs and wide position of Rafinha wasn’t needed and Xavi provided his usual great passing outlet and intelligence.
In the end it was a well earned win for the team and Enrique against a good, but not great Villareal side.