Barcelona’s limp 0-0 draw away to Getafe is sure to lead to a barrage of criticism for manager Luis Enrique and the board. It was a damp squib of a game in which Barça: took 23 shots but only hit the target with 2; had 76% of the possession but rarely looked like a far superior side; gave Messi the freedom of the pitch to construct attacks and in the process removed his goal threat.
By contrast, Cosmin Contra's Getafe defended extremely well throughout, keeping Barça miles from their goal and repeatedly committing intelligent tactical fouls whenever their territorial control was compromised.
Of course this wasn’t a good result, but to criticise Barça for only drawing 0-0 here is to ignore the home side’s excellent performance and to discredit La Liga in general. It’s fine to be annoyed that Real Madrid moved four points clear over this weekend, but to assume that Barça will go play Getafe and win 5-0 without breaking a sweat is unrealistic and disrespectful. Sure, it’s possible to hope for a better performance than the one Barça gave, but to call their showing "shocking" and "disgraceful", is, well, shocking and disgraceful.
Moving on to the game itself, the tactical match-up was fairly predictable. Luis Enrique sent Barça out in the usual 4-3-3 with a slight twist on the usual strategy, while Contra’s side played with an extremely well-drilled 4-1-4-1, flooding the centre and attacking into the space behind the full-backs. The home side favoured bursts in behind Dani Alves to an absurd degree: 62% of their attacks came down his side. By and large though, this was the familiar ‘attack versus defence’ exercise.
While many elements of Barça’s tactics were familiar – the full-backs went forward, Busquets anchored the midfield and supplied Messi, Xavi and Rakitić supported the full-backs and gave Messi passing options ahead of the ball – Messi’s positional freedom and the dependence on him to create was extreme. With Pedro playing wide on the left and Suárez operating in the centre, it would have been reasonable to expect Messi to start on the right, but he played everywhere, which wasn't always helpful - his absence on the right was a key reason why Getafe attacked so repeatedly down that side.
In truth, the dependence on Messi to create hindered more than it helped. It is a common criticism when Barça fail to win that they rely on Messi to do everything and drag him too far from the opposition goal, but that criticism was valid in this game. Getafe’s high line and excellent defensive organisation behind the ball meant that he was constantly receiving the ball forty yards out, too distant from both the goal and the forwards to make any real impact. As the below map shows, the greatest goalscorer of all-time only received the ball in Getafe’s box twice in the entire match.
As painful as it was for Barça fans, the first half was intriguing for anyone interested in tactics. Barça quickly established domination of the ball and pinned Getafe back and their efficient positional rotation created space in the centre of the pitch and allowed them to advance. Messi was at the heart of everything, taking the ball close to the halfway line, while Xavi and Rakitić ventured further up to give him passing options once he received the ball. Getafe’s high line, smart positional play and happiness to foul, however, ensured that Barça never got very far.
After twenty minutes Barça hadn’t created much, just a few snapshot opportunities. The only real incidents of note were two penalty appeals that came in the same passage of play – a passage that demonstrated exactly how both sides were approaching the game: first, a patient and intricate Barça attack through the centre saw space created for Messi to dribble into the box, where he was dispossessed by the hand of Juan Valera; then Getafe countered into the space behind Alves and Ángel Lafita’s cross was blocked by the Brazilian full-back’s hand as he tried to recover his position. Both looked like obvious handballs, but referee Iñaki Vicandi Garrido awarded neither penalty.
The match continued in the same pattern. Barça took the ball, Getafe stood off and blocked Barça’s central passing options and tried to counter behind Alves. The home side rarely expended any energy trying to win the ball back, preferring instead to allow Barça to move it around, reach a dead end and turn it over. It was rare to see any of Barça’s deepest eight players put under concerted pressure. They had time and space to play simple square passes and they kept the ball.
The first time Getafe committed numbers forward came in the 37th minute and, almost inevitably, it led to a Barça counter that produced the best chance of the first half. Veteran left-back Alexis lost the ball in Barça’s half, Suárez was freed down the left flank and the Uruguayan played a glorious low cross into the six-yard box for the onrushing Pedro, who somehow failed to connect with it. It was the sort of high-tempo attack that Luis Enrique’s Barça thrives on, but one that even the lowliest opposition knows how to prevent.
Indeed, the easy prevention of Barça’s preferred attacks was the key theme of the half. Barça were obviously the dominant side but they had no obvious structure to their attacks and Getafe were comfortable. Advances through the centre were improvised, rushed and overly dependent on Messi’s genius, while the pairings on the flanks struggled to combine in any meaningful way. Alba and Pedro regularly exchanged passes on the left without gaining any ground or moving Getafe’s swarm of defenders out of position, while Messi was drifting into the centre too often to interact with Alves to any noticeable effect.
We are used to seeing Alves and, to a lesser extent, Alba rain down crosses on the opposition when they shut Barça out like this – the Villarreal away game comes to mind as a similar match in which Alves seemed to do nothing but cross – but the full-backs refrained almost entirely from gambling with high balls into the box here, only crossing once in the first half. The plan was clearly to keep the ball at all costs, tire Getafe out and wait for them to crumble.
Waiting was a risky strategy and towards the end of the half, Getafe grew into the game. They seemed to realise that they had successfully closed off the centre of the pitch and that Barça’s uneasy combinations on the flanks were unlikely to result in any great number of goalscoring opportunities. ‘Attack versus defence’ turned into a contest between equals and the match became bittier, with momentum tipping back and forth fairly evenly, until the half-time whistle was blown.
The second half continued as the first ended. Barça had the lion’s share of the play and attacked through the centre, with Messi taking the ball deep and looking to link up with Rakitić, Xavi and Suárez, while Getafe countered into space behind the full-backs (as below) and tentatively committed more and more men into midfield. Generally speaking, whenever Barça moved the ball out to the flanks, their attacks ended and Getafe could breathe.
Barça kept creating pot-shot opportunities. A couple of free-kicks on the edge of the box allowed Messi to go very close, first hitting the post and then forcing Vicente Guaita into a smart sprawling save low down to his left, but these were only good shooting opportunities for a genius like Messi. There was still nothing that could be termed a clear cut chance.
Around the hour mark, both managers made their first substitutions. Sammir came off for Álvaro Vázquez, purely to keep Getafe’s energy levels, while Luis Enrique replaced Rakitić with Andrés Iniesta in a bid to add a little more subtlety and guile to Barça’s build-up. Both changes made sense and indicated that we were heading into a tense closing half-hour in which one goal would settle the game. Barça became the protagonists again and Getafe retreated and played purely on the counter.
With Messi playing centrally and Alves pinned back by Getafe’s counters, Jordi Alba and Pedro assumed a lot of the attacking responsibility. They had a couple of good chances to power through acres of space on the left but, frustratingly, they both chose to pass square or to cross for a completely outnumbered Suárez.
Getafe’s attacks became increasingly predictable and lasted less and less time, while Iniesta’s movement was allowing Barça to advance more easily through the middle. Ground was still hard to gain, but the trend was clear: there was only going to be one side going for the win in the closing stages.
It was no surprise when Munir replaced Pedro with fourteen minutes to go. Barça desperately needed a moment of inspiration to break down a stubborn opponent and, simply put, Pedro wasn’t going to provide it. Adriano replaced Alves shortly afterward, presumably to make the threat from the right slightly more varied and to ensure that Getafe’s advances down that flank didn’t succeed purely because Barça’s full-back was tired. Around the same time, Contra used his last two subs, again making like-for-like switches by replacing Lafita and Yoda with Diego Castro and Pedro León.
Strangely, having built the platform for a late drive to win the game, none came. Barça’s midfield moved the ball as patiently as ever right until the final whistle. Messi took it in central areas and tried to force the issue but was often too far from goal for his dribbles to be genuinely incisive. The attacks down the flanks were slow and cautious and easily repelled by Getafe’s back four. Guaita claimed a couple of crosses and bouncing balls with the certainty that had steadily drained away from Barça’s forwards over the course of the game and the final whistle provoked global outrage on social networks.
Barça didn’t play well enough to deserve any more than a point, but this result should be seen less as the catalyst for a crisis and more as the spur for a reality check. Yes, Barça played badly and are now four points behind Real Madrid, but the fact is Madrid were always going to win La Liga this season. They have a squad full of brilliant players at or approaching their peak and a great manager who has been there and done it all. Barça have neither of those things.
They’re a work in progress and matches like this will happen while progress is being made. Any fan that can’t accept that should either get a grip or go and support another team. Goodness knows Bayern Munich could do with more fans.
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