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Tactical breakdown of Barcelona’s 2-1 win against Real Sociedad

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The champions secured a tough win

Real Sociedad v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

Fresh from the first international break of the season, Barcelona traveled to San Sebastian in the Basque country to face Real Sociedad.

Heading into the fixture, Barcelona knew that this was going to be a game that they would have to battle it out for the full 90 minutes. This is not because Real Sociedad have a high-octane attack or a shutdown backline but rather because Barcelona have had a history with poor performances at the Anoeta Stadium. From the 2010-2011 season when Real Sociedad returned to La Liga to the 2016-2017 campaign, Barcelona were unable to pick up a win at Anoeta. Last season, Barca were finally able to end the streak and beat Sociedad as they came back from 2-0 down to win 4-2.

The other major storyline heading into the fixture was the dilemma with resting players. Many of the players were coming off an international break where they featured in heavy minutes for their country and the team also have their first Champions League group stage matchup against PSV this upcoming Tuesday. Last season, this topic was an ongoing talking point throughout the season so it was going to be interesting to see how Valverde handled it this time around.

Ultimately, Valverde decided to leave Philippe Coutinho and Sergio Busquets on the bench as Rafinha and Sergi Roberto started in midfield. Now at this point in the season, there is no issue at all with resting players as Barca have a couple of critical games upcoming but rather the dilemma is centered on how Valverde would work around the starting lineups, especially for an away game. By electing to go with Roberto and Rafinha, Valverde knew that this was going to be a risky gamble. Roberto made his only start in midfield during the opening fixture of the La Liga season against Alaves but was subbed off at halftime. Rafinha featured during the Spanish Super Cup against Sevilla but was also subbed off at halftime. Both players struggled to get anything going in the midfield during their respective performances.

With Roberto and Rafinha making the start, this in effect had Valverde elect for Nelson Semedo to be starting right back while moving Ivan Rakitic to the central defensive midfield role. While Rakitic has played the CDM role multiple times for Croatia, he has rarely played the position for Barcelona as Sergio Busquets has been the starter for the majority of games over the past couple of seasons.

Barcelona still maintained their traditional 4-3-3 formation but as shown here, Rakitic played much deeper at times during the first half

Playing Rakitic as a CDM would essentially deteriorate his ability to distribute passes in the midfield and decrease his contribution in the attack due to his positioning. If Rakitic moved higher up the pitch while playing as a CDM, it would leave Pique and Umtiti vulnerable in situations where Real Sociedad are orchestrating a quick counter-attack. Neither Roberto nor Rafinha have proven to be decisive ball distributors nor have they shown to be effective against the press so this was a risk that could either pay off or hurt the team.

Now if Valverde was truly set on resting Coutinho and Busquets, the move should have been to play Arturo Vidal as the central defensive midfielder, which he had done countless of times while with Bayern Munich, and play Rakitic on the right side of the midfield instead of Roberto. Arthur would have also been an excellent choice to factor into the starting lineup but he was not included in the squad list.

Meanwhile, Real Sociedad responded with a hybrid formation as they played in a 4-3-1-2 formation that switched to a 4-4-2 when defending with strikers Junami and Mikel Oyarzabal pressing throughout the game. Real Sociedad manager Asier Garitano did not have many options considering the injuries to Sandro Ramirez, Willian Jose, Martin Merquelanz, Diego Llorente, and Adnan Januzaj.

Throughout the early portions of the game, it was evident that Real Sociedad were not going to be aggressive in their press. Their game plan was simply to man-mark and look for any possible way to disrupt Barca’s play in the midfield. When Barca were in possession, Real Sociedad dropped eight players back to defend while Junami and Oyarzabal free-roamed up front with a plan to press.

As seen in this play, Rafinha is able to recover possession but his running lane is halted with two Sociedad players beginning to press. Rafinha hesitates and distributes a backwards pass that is immediately intercepted by Junami.

Typically, Barcelona are able to exploit space in the midfield when their opponent does not implement an effective press. In this game, Barcelona lacked this due to the non-existent precision in Rafinha and Roberto’s play in the attacking third. Rafinha did not link up well with Dembele on the left while Roberto struggled to make threatening runs with the ball on the right.

Real Sociedad took advantage of this by scoring an early goal off a poor aerial ball defending by Barcelona, which has been an early season concern for Valverde. So down 1-0, how does Barcelona respond? Well, with more of the same.

Due to the stagnant play in the midfield, Barcelona were reliant on the wingers and fullbacks to accelerate play upfield in order to approach the box. But still, this was ineffective as Barcelona constantly lost possession and were unable to string together passes upfield.

On this play, Dembele receives a pass in the half-space and follows it up with a quick run but he immediately loses possession seconds later.

On this sequence, Rafinha’s lack of creativity on the pitch is on display as he passes the ball backwards and makes a run up the pitch even though he had a multitude of space in front to push the ball upfield or to attempt a through ball. Seconds later, Messi and Roberto link up on the right side of the pitch but their ineffective chemistry results in a loss of possession.

The slow and ineffective build-ups from the midfield forced Messi to drop even deeper. As shown here, Messi left Roberto and Semedo isolated on the right side of the pitch as he moved over to the left to facilitate more purposeful build-ups.

The first half of this game was a lot like their performance in the opening 45 minutes against Alaves last month. Barcelona lacked the creativity to penetrate and open up space for the wingers out wide. With Rakitic playing deep as the central defensive midfielder, the two-man midfield of Rafinha and Roberto was essentially holding back Barca’s productivity when in possession. Rafinha and Roberto combined to create zero goal-scoring chances in the first half.

Against Sociedad’s man-marking system coupled with a soft press, Barca surprisingly spent most of the first half in the middle third of the pitch while in possession. This was not the type of game where Barca had numerous goal-scoring chances and were unable to score but instead a contest where they could not even challenge Sociedad’s backline. Barca finished the first half with just three shots with two coming from Gerard Pique. The fast-paced Barca team from two weeks ago that scored eight against Huesca was nowhere to be seen in the first half.

It was evident that Valverde made the mistake in starting Rafinha and Roberto. Both could not get much going in creating goal-scoring chances nor were they effective in getting the fullbacks involved in the attacking third. To begin the second half, Valverde made the change to sub off Semedo for Coutinho, which moved Roberto over to his traditional right back role and Rafinha over to the right side of the pitch.

Right from the get go, Coutinho made his presence felt with his pace and off-ball movements on the left flanks. For a midfield that was congested inside for much of the first half, Coutinho opened up play in the attacking third by using his speed to force Sociedad’s defenders off of their defensive line.

On this play, Coutinho receives a pass from Rafinha and attracts a defender. He immediately makes a run into the box, passes to Rafinha and sprints inside in an effort to get a shot on goal but the relay pass was off. This was something Barca struggled to execute during the first half.

Still, Barcelona were unable to record a threatening goal-scoring chance so Valverde made the second change of the day by bringing on Sergio Busquets. This moved Busquets into his usual central defensive midfield role and Rakitic over to the right as a central midfielder. The two substitutions were needed as Barcelona finally were able to facilitate and be more fluid when in possession. But the one area that Barca still were not able to contain were Real Sociedad’s quick counter-attacks. Since Barca played such a high line with both fullbacks adjacent to the wingers, this left Barca vulnerable to counter-attacks that featured three to four Sociedad players.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen was able to relieve the pressure with a couple of sensational saves, including the one in the 61st minute that kept it at 1-0.

On the other side of the pitch, Coutinho was still pacing down the flanks and inside in an effort to get involved with the attack. Throughout the opening 20 minutes of the second half, Coutinho was the most active player and most willing to penetrate into the box to finally bring some pressure to Sociedad’s backline.

On this play, Coutinho links up with Dembele as he distributes a pass to him and follows it up with an off-ball run that unsettles Sociedad in their box.

Barcelona were finally able to break through with goals by Suarez and Dembele as they took the 2-1 lead. From there, Barca had to battle for every loose ball and for possession as Sociedad began to bring pressure. Valverde responded with a logical move by subbing off Dembele for Arturo Vidal to play a more central 4-4-2 formation. Dembele had struggled throughout the game with maintaining possession so Barca could not afford to continue to lose possession and subsequently defend counter-attacks to close out the game. Even with the substitution, Barca continued to lose possession in critical moments and had it not been for Ter Stegen’s outstanding saves, Barca would not have come away with the win.

In the end, Barca survived for a 2-1 win. The match was really a game of two halves as Barca struggled to create in the attacking third during the first but became more fluid in the secnd half. Coutinho arguably changed the entire complexion of the game when he came on in the second half as his pace and movement into space opened up play for the front three. His immense talent brings in an entirely new dimension to Barca’s attack that has proven to be a valuable component to the team. With the addition of Busquets later in the second half, Barca executed more purposeful combination passes and their rhythm of play was overflowing in the attacking third. The midfield began to play with more cohesion and it led to a massive away win.

The comeback win is even more significant for Barcelona as both Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid dropped points in their respective games.

Next up for Barcelona is their first Champions League group stage match of the season as they face PSV on Tuesday.