Barcelona's title challenge is over after a 2-2 defeat away to Sevilla, which means Real Madrid automatically win La Liga. Despite going two goals up inside half an hour, The Worst Manager In The History Of The World™ Luis Enrique showed again that he doesn't understand tactics, the Celebrity Formerly Known As Gerard Piqué gave away a terrible equaliser and The Dictator Lionel Messi made another attempt to get his manager fired by not scoring ten goals. Or not.
As ever, the Barça fanbase and Catalan press have excelled themselves in making a mountain out of a molehill. Frustration at throwing away a two-goal lead is acceptable, but it quickly boiled over and became melodramatic idiocy, as Luis Enrique once again found himself under fire. Never mind that getting a point at a ground at which the hosts haven’t lost in over a year is actually a good result – Barça didn’t win 5-0 so the match was a total bust.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that Barça generally dominated the midfield and defended brilliantly. Piqué and Mathieu handled everything that was thrown at them with ease, while Busquets bossed the midfield as usual, at least until the game’s frenetic finale. It just so happened that on the two occasions Barça made individual errors, they were punished by opposition goals. Sevilla scored with their only two shots on target.
The starting elevens featured no surprises. Luis Enrique named his strongest team in its usual 4-3-3 shape with Messi drifting inside from the right flank and often playing as a number ten, while Unai Emery’s only absentee was goalkeeper Beto, whose place was taken by Sergio Rico. He kept his 4-2-3-1 shape but re-jigged his usual midfield setup slightly, bringing Éver Banega back into a regista-like role, presumably to give him the space to lift his head and pass forwards, while moving the more dynamic Vicente Iborra forward to more naturally link defence and attack.
Emery’s midfield was well-configured to handle Barça: Banega did all the passing and creative stuff, while Grzegorz Krychowiak did all the defending. Banega played 42 passes and had 57 total touches of the ball, more than any other Sevilla player, while Krychowiak made 4 tackles, 4 interceptions, 3 clearances and 1 block, giving him more defensive actions than any of his teammates. Iborra gave an all-action performance, contributing heavily in defensive phases while giving Sevilla a useful outlet in attack – he and Busquets contested 10 aerial duels, winning 5 each.
The key to Sevilla’s success in the game was holding a high line. This kept Barça far from their goal and made them take stupid options in the final third (see the amount of red arrows in Sevilla's area below), regularly playing passes in behind the defence that the forwards were never going to reach, turning the ball over. It also enabled Sevilla to attempt short passing combinations to transition from defence to attack. Gameiro’s late equaliser came as a result of the kind of swift counter they had been attempting to build for the entire game.
The home side fouled intelligently too, always preventing Barça from breaking through their lines by sticking out a leg and stopping the play. Of course, this ran the risk of giving Barça’s uber-talented players loads of shooting opportunities from a favourable position, and Neymar’s excellent free-kick for 2-0 was a result of one such tactical foul that was made slightly too close to the area for comfort. However, the fouling strategy ultimately did its job by limiting Messi’s opportunities to arrive in the box and shoot.
The first time Messi did arrive in the box and shoot, he scored. It was a just reward for Barça’s domination of the first quarter of an hour, and although Sevilla had done well to limit them to hopeful shots from distance until that point, it was only a matter of time until they found a way through.
For a while it looked as though the floodgates would open: for half an hour Barça’s performance was frighteningly complete. The passing was crisp and accurate, the movement exquisite and the attacks purposeful. Whenever Sevilla came forward their advances were killed off almost instantly. The front three, which so often looks like a separate unit to the rest of the team, was in perfect sync with the midfield. A 2-0 lead was fully merited.
The game changed with Banega’s goal in the 37th minute. Although Claudio Bravo will take the lion’s share of the blame, it came as the result of a series of errors. In the minutes between Neymar’s goal and Banega’s, Barça squandered several opportunities in the attacking third by playing lax passes, or trying to force the ball through spaces that simply didn’t exist. It was almost as though the game had become too easy for them and they slowed down.
Equally, Banega had far too much time to take the ball, set himself and pick his spot before shooting. Iniesta’s attempted block was pretty embarrassing, but the midfield as a whole and also the attackers should have done more to rush Banega. It’s often been the case that Barça’s back four and midfield three has focused on defending the penalty area while the front three hangs around on the halfway line waiting for a clearance. It’s a stupid strategy, but this is pretty much the first time the space the forwards leave in front of the midfield has been exploited all season.
From that point on, the momentum was with the home side. The crowd noise intensified and even if it didn’t rattle Barça, it certainly gave Sevilla the courage and belief to tie the game. The rest of the first half was a frenetic mess and the second continued in much the same way.
After half-time, Barça did the right thing by trying to slow the game down, but Sevilla succeeded in undermining this strategy. Barça’s midfield sat five or ten yards deeper and Messi dropped into the number ten position to further overload the centre of the pitch, and several short triangular passes were exchanged in the centre of the pitch with no intent of moving up the pitch.
However, Sevilla’s physical intensity made it very hard for Barça to play at a slow tempo: they were always made to play quickly and forced to use angles that hadn’t really developed yet. Sevilla repeatedly won the ball on the halfway line and attacked quickly. Before long, Barça were coming under real pressure and they didn’t always have superior numbers back to guarantee security.
This was when Sevilla’s fouling strategy became invaluable. As they were committing more and more men forward, the danger of Barça counterattacking with Messi, Suárez and Neymar became very real. Whenever Barça cleared a cross and set off downfield, someone committed a foul and killed their momentum. When play restarted, Sevilla had men behind the ball and were safe.
It was clear that Luis Enrique needed to change something but he chose the wrong solution. It was a mistake to substitute Neymar: the Brazilian had scored, got an assist and registered 5 of Barça’s 12 shot assists in the game. Given that he sat out the game against Almería in its entirety, it surely would have made more sense to withdraw Suárez, who wasn’t having anywhere near as good a game as Neymar, and who has also played more minutes in recent games. Bringing on Xavi was also a mistake: it should probably have been Rafinha or Javier Mascherano – someone who could stand up to the physical power Sevilla were showing and nullify it.
By contrast, Unai Emery got his subs spot on. Just as Barça began to find themselves overpowered, they had to deal with Stéphane Mbia charging around the midfield, José Antonio Reyes finding pockets of space and playing incisive passes and Kévin Gameiro making predatory runs into the box. Their shape and strategy didn’t change, but the substitutes’ freshness combined with Barça’s tiredness and lack of steel to provide the equaliser.
On the subject of the equaliser, Piqué will take all the blame for giving the ball away but in reality, he had fewer options available than he should have and he was the victim of his team’s poor shape when he had the ball. Both Messi and Iniesta had drifted wide left, Suárez was pinned to a centre-back and the midfield was pretty much locked up by Sevilla’s. He had no option to play wide right, didn’t want to risk playing to Busquets and couldn’t pass to Alves because then Alves would have no passing options.
In the below shot, the Xs represent passing options unavailable to Piqué due to opposition pressure, distance or pointlessness, while ?s mark the space where he would have wanted to pass and the tick represents the pass he played – which Reyes intercepted and turned into Sevilla’s equaliser.
Luis Enrique’s replacement of Iniesta with Pedro was a last-ditch attempt to give his team some structure again, with everyone playing in their best positions, but it was too late and the two points were gone. Sevilla crowded out Barça whenever they went forward and protected their draw.
It was obviously a very disappointing collapse and the fact that Barça were basically bullied out of the game is concerning. The substitutions didn’t help but the biggest worry remains the configuration of the front three. While they were excellent in the first half, they were close to invisible in the second. They didn’t work hard enough defensively and Messi’s tendency to drift inside and play in the centre was extremely unhelpful, ultimately contributing to Sevilla’s equaliser by denying Piqué the passing option he would probably have taken.
All of the above said, a point away to Sevilla isn’t a bad result. The title race isn’t over and Barça still have the upper hand. They produced 30 minutes of scintillating football and did more than enough to win the game. Sevilla’s goals were essentially flukes and on another day, when Bravo tips Banega’s shot round the post and Piqué takes a quick pass to Busquets – and also when Suárez brings his shooting boots – Barça win easily. It certainly wasn’t a performance indicative of a crisis.