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Tactical Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Villarreal 1-1 Barcelona | Los Cules held yet again by another masterful defensive display

Miles Olusina writes a detailed tactical analysis about the La Liga match that ended Villareal 1-1 Barcelona.

Two of La Liga’s top sides clashed in this encounter as the Yellow Submarine looked to continue their promising start to the season and cement their place in next season’s Champions League. In contrast, Barcelona came into this game in what could only be described as disappointing form in comparison to their usually high standards. 6 points off leaders Real Madrid who had a game in hand, a win was essential if they wanted to maintain any chance of winning their third straight league title.

Patchy league form and the lack of goal-scoring consistency from two thirds of their deadly front three, with Neymar and Suarez not as prolific this season as the two previous ones, this game was always going to be a challenge for Barca. The Yellow Submarine far exceeded expectations in this game with a world class defensive showing to keep Barcelona at bay for almost the entirety of the game. They remained well organised and compact, overloading the central areas and denying Barcelona any space in the final third. Their efforts were rewarded with a goal at the other end as they took the lead in the 49th minute through Nicola Sansone. As the game reached its dying embers, a win looked like it was on the cards until a typical stroke of genius from Lionel Messi saved the game for Barcelona as his free kick whistled into the top corner, leaving goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo stranded.


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Villarreal (4-4-2): 1. Asenjo // 2. Mario Gaspar, 5. Musacchio, 6. Victor Ruiz, 11. Jaume Costa // 8. Dos Santos, 14. Trigueros, 21. Bruno, 20. Soriano // 18. Sansone, 10. Pato

Barcelona (4-3-3): 1. Ter Stegen // 20. Sergi Roberto, 3. Pique, 14. Mascherano, 19. Digne // 5. Busquets, 21. Andre Gomes, 8. Iniesta // 10. Messi, 9. Suarez, 11. Neymar

Substitutions: 75’ Castillejo (Pato), 82’ Hernandez (Soriano), 86’ Gonzalez (Musacchio) // 67’ Denis Suarez (Andre Gomes), 70’ Turan (Digne)

Goals: 49’ Sansone // 90’ Messi

Villarreal’s well conducted spatial control in defensive third

The home side’s game plan was evident from the start and proved to be effective for much of the game as Barca struggled immensely to create chances and open up the Villarreal defensive block. As the ball progressed into the final third, they formed a very organised 4-4-2 defensive block, occupying the half spaces and centre well which resulted in Barcelona struggling to gain a presence in these areas. Instead they had no choice but to construct attacks from the wide areas in an attempt to open up spaces in the centre.

Barca’s more advanced players in particular, would drop off or move into wide areas and rotate positions with teammates to disorganise the Villarreal defensive structure. This did not prove effective though, as very rarely was their reference point the opposition players, which meant they were not easily dragged out of positon as the primary focus of individual players was occupying their position within the defensive block and aiming to win possession if there was access.

We can see in the scenario above how they opted to defend as a team in deeper areas of the pitch. Both strikers would drop to form the third line of the block, providing an additional shield of cover which allowed the central midfielders to remain in their position and not have to constantly vacate the block to apply pressure on the ball. In addition, they were always sure to cover shadow Busquets as Barca were intent on constructing play through him but instead had to rely on Iniesta line dropping to circulate possession.

The inability of the Barca players gain any presence in the centre and half spaces is clear also, as they are constructing play around the defensive block as opposed to through it. The Villarreal midfield was key to this as they were quick to condense the space between the lines when the ball approached the final third and would block passing lanes of Barca forwards who looked to receive possession from the midfielders.

The wide men in their midfield played a huge role in creating defensive overload for their side as they were always on hand to support the full back when Barca attempted to isolate him on the wing. This predominantly occurred on the left hand side for Barca, something which has been commonplace since Neymar’s arrival at the club. An excellent 1v1 dribbler, he was unable to use his qualitative superiority in these scenarios in this game as the overload was in favour of Villarreal. Not only that, the nearest centre back would also come across to cover the space vacated by his full back when moving out of the defensive line to press.

To combat this, the Barcelona full backs would constantly make runs into the final third to create numerical equality and allow their wide man to isolate the full back. Although the opposition wingers would rarely track the full back all the way; when it did occur it would lead to situations such as the one above, where the wingers would be dragged so deep that a back 6 would be formed leading to the half spaces being exposed and Barca being able to overload the centre and force the two 8s of Villarreal to leave the 6 space, allowing one of the forwards the opportunity to drop and receive the ball between the lines.

In most instances the home side’s wingers chose to hold their position, leaving them susceptible to 3rd man runs from the full backs into the final third. With their primary reference points being the ball and their position within the defensive block, they would be unable to pay attention to the run from the Barca full back, making a last ditch attempt to halt his progression into the final third. We see this here when Neymar plays a through pass to Digne who has made a vertical run into the final third. Before the ball was played both the winger and full back were focused primarily on ensuring Neymar does not beat either of them and make his way into the box. They are oblivious to the run being made by Digne as it occurs on the blind side of Neymar in possession, only when the ball has been released by Neymar into the path of Digne do they spot his run; however by then the ball is already at the feet of Digne who plays a ball into the box, luckily for Villarreal there is no one on the end of the cross and they do not concede from this attack.

Barca struggle in 1st phase, Villarreal’s situational man coverage

One of the keys to Villarreal’s solid performance today was ensuring Barcelona were unable to construct well organised positional structures for ball circulation in midfield and combinations in the final third. Typically in the build-up phase, Barcelona transfer the ball into the next phase through Busquets who provides a link between the midfield and defence due to his intelligent positioning and high press resistance as well as his ability to function in deeper areas of the pitch.

Initially, the front two of Villarreal did not take up very advanced positions in Barca build-up phase, opting to be passive when the centre backs were in possession and instead focusing on the subsequent pass and blocking off passing lanes into Busquets to force Barcelona to play through the much less effective wing areas. Forcing Barca to play through their full backs was sure to make them more susceptible to pressure as the field of view of the full backs would be severely limited as would the amount of passing lanes and thus the combination possibilities.

In the image above, Mascherano has possession but is unable to play to Busquets as he is being cover shadowed by Sansone. The Villarreal striker was attempting to apply light pressure to the centre back but needed to curve his run in a way that would allow him to block off the passing lane of Busquets through cover shadows yet at the same time allow him to press the opposition centre back. In response to Villarreal’s pressing scheme, Iniesta was required to drop onto deeper lines to allow his team to circulate possession and give vertical passing options to the centre backs.

This had a negative knock-on effect in the final third however, as it meant Barca were lacking a player capable of functioning in tight, central spaces in the final third and could not gain any presence between the lines. Messi was on hand to compensate for this, as he roamed centrally constantly throughout the game looking to create numerical superiorities and open up spaces within the Villarreal defensive block. It was when Messi began making these central movements that the opposition then were faced with a predicament as they knew giving him time on the ball to turn would give him the option of being able to run at them or play one-twos with one of his teammates and create overloads in other areas of the pitch.

As he moves centrally in this scenario, both Villarreal 8s follow him leaving the 6 space wide open, which Barcelona could capitalise on. Had Suarez chosen to drop or Andre Gomes chosen to move between the lines, Villarreal would have had serious problems as other players would have been forced to move out of position to apply pressure on the ball, completely compromising the organisation of the defensive block. Had Suarez dropped into the 10 space, the centre back would likely have followed him, allowing the opportunity for a 3rd man run from Gomes, should he react quick enough to the movement of his teammate.

Villarreal began to take a much more aggressive approach as the game progressed, looking to put pressure on the centre backs, becoming much more man oriented in Barca’s build-up phase. Mascherano is in possession again but is devoid of any options besides Ter Stegen in goal. Iniesta has dropped onto the same line as Busquets yet again to receive possession but is being cover shadowed by Pato and in addition, is being tracked by the Villarreal 8.

He is unable to play to Digne also as Jonathan Dos Santos has access to him and will come under immediate pressure if the ball is played to him. They were also sure to stop them from building from the other side if they switched play, with Pato man-marking Busquets and Gomes being occupied by Bruno and Soriano. In this instance, Barca appear completely out options and were unable to find a way out of the excessive pressure of Villarreal. However, one of the front three could possibly have taken up a position between the lines and allow for combinations between the full back Digne and Iniesta. Had Neymar, for example, dropped behind the midfield line it would have given the players an opportunity for pressure relief and provided an escape pass for Iniesta or Digne.

Here again we see Villarreal attempting to inhibit Busquets’ ability to circulate possession for his side. He receives the ball from Ter Stegen and cannot play the ball into Mascherano as he is being cover shadowed by Sansone. He shows his world class ability to play under pressure here as he receives the ball in between all three Villarreal attackers and pauses momentarily, inviting the pressure. As he soaks in the press, it allows Gomes more space on the blind side of Bruno whose only focus in this phase is the ball and Busquets. By inviting pressure from Bruno, Gomes is now able to move out of his cover shadow and receive the ball completely free of pressure.


The spoils were shared but the moods will certainly be contrasting following this game, a massive result for the home side who could have had an even better one but for the genius of Messi. An incredible performance from Escriba’s men, one that has surely sent a message to the rest of the league that they are more than capable of challenging for the top 4. With only one point separating them and 4th place Atletico, a Champions league place is well within their grasp. More defensive performances like this one and consistent goal-scoring from Pato and Sansone, and they could be looking at their first season in the Champions League proper since the 08-09 season.

For Luis Enrique’s side, the feeling will be completely different as Real Madrid could potentially stretch their lead at the top to 8 points, a position which appears insurmountable considering their incredible form. A sub-par performance from the usually brilliant Barcelona did little to silence the critics as Suarez and Neymar went missing yet again. It could be said that they have become too dependent on moments of individual brilliance from the three superstars, which can only be sustainable for so long. It appears that they are lacking the ability to circulate the ball and play cohesively at the same level they did under Guardiola. All is not lost though and once all three attackers are firing on all cylinders again as they inevitably will be, we can be sure to see the best of la Blaugrana once again.

Read all our Tactical Analyses here.

Miles Olusina

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