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Granada 1-3 Barcelona: Tactical Review

A midfield masterclass from Ivan Rakitić gave Barça the momentum they needed to get through a tough game to Granada. The title race is back on.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Barcelona’s 3-1 win away to Granada was just what they needed after last week’s defeat at home to Málaga seemed to all-but confirm Real Madrid’s status as La Liga champions. Incredibly, Madrid’s draw at home to Villarreal means that the title race is back on and Barça sit two points off the top with a home Clásico to come. This wasn’t a vintage Barça display but they exploited Granada’s obvious tactical deficiencies to good effect and deserved to win.

The starting eleven was more-or-less as expected, with Claudio Bravo returning in place of Marc-André ter Stegen in goal and well-rested centre-backs Marc Bartra and Jérémy Mathieu coming in, allowing Gerard Piqué a break. Dani Alves and Jordi Alba continued at full-back, while Javier Mascherano, Ivan Rakitić and Xavi Hernández made up the midfield. Lionel Messi started on the right of attack, Neymar the left and Luis Suárez played as the number nine.

Relegation certainties Granada came into the game with only one win in their last fourteen games and missing several key players, including top scorer Youssef El-Arabi. Manager Abel Resino sent his players out to mimic Málaga’s approach, pushing the defence high up the pitch, swamping the middle of the park and hassling Barça into making bad decisions.

Unfortunately, his players didn’t have the physical or tactical quality to keep the strategy up for the whole game, although they did impress during the first forty-five minutes, penning Barça pack and matching them for shots on goal. The below map of Barça’s defensive actions shows just how hard Granada worked them, but also confirms that they put in a complete showing at the back.


Barça’s first half showing wasn’t good. It was difficult to know whether the original plan was to invite Granada to attack, but Barça certainly ended up absorbing lots of pressure before attempting to counter using quick combinations and long, vertical passes into space. Most of Barça’s most promising attacking situations were ruined by players running offside or by the side’s narrow positioning meaning they essentially crowded themselves out.


It said a great deal about Barça’s first half display that of their seven shots, four were taken by the midfielders – including Mascherano, still waiting for his first goal in the blaugrana – and only three by Messi and Suárez. Neymar finished the game having taken just one shot on goal, a badly shanked effort in the 53rd minute.

For both sides it was an ugly, bitty half that didn’t flow well. While Granada were always going to play a physical, positionally conservative game that focused mainly on containing and frustrating Barça, Luis Enrique’s side left a lot to be desired as well. Neither side could establish a rhythm and both hit lots of long balls into the final third – Granada simply to put Barça under pressure, Barça to release their forwards into the space in behind.




Barça’s main problem – besides the fact that Granada rarely gave them much time or space to play – was Javier Mascherano’s positioning and passing in the pivote position.

Whether or not Mascherano should supersede Sergio Busquets as Barça’s pivote has been a constant topic of discussion among culés this season and it has been addressed in this column before. However, while it’s undeniably true that Luis Enrique’s less regimented system has meant that the languid and occasionally cumbersome Busquets has looked out of place at times, the fact remains that no-one else is anywhere near as good as him tactically, technically or positionally.

This first half was a perfect example of Mascherano’s deficiencies in the pivote role. The first problem is that he’s not a natural pivote: he’s a classic Argentine cinco, a destroyer whose job is to protect the back four, break up opposition attacks and give the ball to more talented teammates.

If you’re thinking "hang on a minute – that’s what Busquets does!" you’re right, but Busquets does so much more than that. Perhaps the crucial difference between a cinco and a pivote, and consequently between Mascherano and Busquets, is the order and speed of their thoughts on the pitch.

For example, someone like Mascherano identifies danger, makes a tackle, looks around for options and then plays a pass. The process works, but it takes time. Busquets always knows where his teammates are, so he doesn’t need to look after he wins the ball. When he has to make a tackle or an interception, he will very often step in, win the ball and play a forward pass all in the same movement. It’s all done and dusted in the blink of an eye and Barça are back on the attack.

Another crucial difference between a cinco and a pivote is their positioning when the defence has the ball. Someone like Mascherano will come towards the ball, take it from a centre-back and play the first pass out. It doesn’t really matter if the centre-back can play the pass himself or not: football in Argentina is rooted so heavily in routine that the cinco’s right to play the first pass out is never questioned. He just does it, as Mascherano does here.


Yes, Busquets often comes deep, dropping in as a third centre-back, but more often than not he trusts the defenders’ ability to play the first pass and stays ten to fifteen yards ahead of them. This actually makes defenders’ lives easier: not only is he usually open as a passing option himself, simply by standing there he attracts opposition players’ attention and this creates space for the interiores to receive the ball, be they Xavi, Rakitić, Iniesta or Rafinha. It also means those players have another passing option in close proximity as soon as they receive the ball, which speeds up Barça’s play.


Time and time again on Saturday, Mascherano dropped deep to start moves and ended up passing square to the full-backs, which meant Barça very slowly gained precisely zero ground. By moving so far away from the midfield, Mascherano left himself with no options. Rakitić and Xavi were never going to drop back with him – he should have done as Busquets does, staying a few yards higher up the pitch and trusting the centre-backs to select the right option themselves.

Contrast Mascherano’s passing in the middle third of the pitch here to Busquets’ in Barça’s recent away game to Athletic Club. The differences in quantity and in variety say it all.



So slow and ponderous were Barça when Mascherano had the ball that within the first 28 minutes of the match Messi had become frustrated and dropped back to pivote himself. This meant a pretty much complete collapse in team structure and attacking co-ordination: with Messi so deep, the front three was a man down and the midfield had to adjust to fill that space. In this mood Messi tends to make somewhat silly decisions and after the below screengrab was taken, he tried a hopeless Hail Mary pass over the top for Suárez that was easily cut out.



In truth, Barça weren’t sure how to break Granada down. They quickly identified the high defensive line as a weakness and tried to play over it, but for every chance this strategy created, it led to two more offside calls against them. They tried combination play in midfield but turned the ball over constantly.

Their play wasn’t exactly predictable – Messi, Suárez and Neymar varied their positions smartly and several times Rakitić and Xavi tried to run beyond them to overload the defence, which hasn’t happened often since Luis Enrique took charge – but it was certainly uneasy. Credit must go to Abel Resino for devising a system that almost completely shackled Barça.

The key word in the last sentence is ‘almost’ because, despite all the negativity above, Barça did go in at half-time with a 1-0 lead. The goal was the result of a very intelligent team move, which saw Xavi and Neymar occupy the left flank to create space for Jordi Alba. Alba’s pass over the top found Suárez, whose cross was stopped on the edge of the six-yard box by the unfortunate Granada centre-back Cala, which left the arriving Rakitić with a simple tap-in. [Spanish speakers will definitely enjoy Axel Torres’ breakdown of the goal, viewable here.]

Barça’s second half showing was much better. Within three minutes of the restart Suárez had made it 2-0, thanks to Rakitić’s exquisite dink over the top of Granada’s defence. It appeared that the home side was still in the changing room mentally: it was very hard to imagine them giving Suárez or Rakitić as much time in the first half as they did during the build-up to the goal, during which they had plenty.

So charitable were Granada in allowing Barça to make it 2-0 that Barça promptly allowed them to pull a goal back. Left-winger Lass Bangoura drew a foul from Marc Bartra, Fran Rico scored from the penalty spot and suddenly the home side were back in it. While Bartra’s foul was clumsy and he should have known better, far more crucial to the concession of the penalty was Lass’ domination of Dani Alves throughout the afternoon. Simply put, if Barça had a right-back who could deal with opposition forwards then the centre-backs wouldn’t get exposed as Bartra did.


Barça had the better of the next ten minutes but the game was still too vertical and end-to-end for them to establish dominance. On 65 minutes Rafinha replaced Xavi, a move that made sense given the physical and scrappy nature of the game. If Barça wanted to fight fire with fire, the energetic and dynamic Brazilian was a better fit than the metronomic Catalan magician.

Just a few minutes later it was 3-1 and Messi’s name was on the scoresheet. Once again Granada’s high defensive line was their Achilles heel – Rakitić once again took the ball in space in front of the back four and chipped an easy pass in behind for Suárez to chase. The Uruguayan rounded Granada goalkeeper Oier and selflessly squared for Messi to roll home the clincher.


In the 75th minute Busquets came on for Mathieu, which put a merciful end to Mascherano’s time in midfield. Immediately, Barça were more fluent in possession. As if to underscore the difference between himself and Mascherano, Busquets intercepted a cross and started a counter that went the length of the pitch and ended with Rakitić stinging Oier’s hands with a twenty-yard drive.

Shortly afterwards, Suárez was replaced by Pedro, presumably to rest him ahead of the Villarreal game. As he did in the recent game against Levante, Pedro played as the nominal number nine and occupied Granada’s centre-backs while Neymar and Messi saw more of the ball in deeper areas.

Even though the game was pretty much over as a contest, Barça’s hunger for goals was never satisfied. The pass over the top was always on and several counter-attacking opportunities were spurned due to poor passes in the final third. The biggest chance to make it 4-1 fell to Messi following excellent work by Neymar, but he somehow hit Oier with a right-footed effort from point blank range. Eventually the final whistle went and put Granada out of their misery.

For Luis Enrique, this was yet another reminder that his methods are finally working. While this wasn't Barça at their finest, there was enough steel and invention in this second-half performance to suggest that Barça’s form away from the Camp Nou will be good enough to ensure that they match Real Madrid until the end of the season. An individual performance as complete as Rakitić's is an added bonus.

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