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Pressing matters: Investigating Barçelona’s leaky defence

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Looking into the Catalans’ defensive frailties

SSC Napoli v Fc Barcleona - UEFA Champions League Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If one was to think of some of the best pressing teams in Europe, many names come to mind. Barça is not necessarily one of them, at least not anymore. The Blaugrana have been defensively frail this season. An ageing core and suspect tactical decisions have ensured that the side cannot press quite like it used. Moreover, Barça has often found itself at the end of onslaughts, especially from energetic high-pressing teams, who attempt to pin Barça in their own half, in an attempt to stem the slow build-up and force an error.

In what can only be described as a tepid season thus far, the Catalans have lacked defensive solidity and have already conceded 31 goals in 27 games. In the first half of the season, under Ernesto Valverde, Barça were shocking. They often rode their luck (massively overperforming their xG) and were never able to impose themselves in games. Defensively, they were stretched, often conceding chance after chance, with little respite. While the arrival of Quique Setien has steadied the ship a bit (Barça’s xGA p90 has gone down from 1.2 to 0.9), Barça still remain vulnerable against width and pace.

This is where Barça’s pressing comes into the picture. Over the years, Barça’s PPDA (passes per defensive action) have worsened, especially under Valverde. Passes per defensive actions is a metric used to estimate the intensity of a team’s press, using the number of passes made by the opposition between every tackle, interception, challenge and foul by the team, as a standard. In 2014/15, Barca had a p90 PPDA of 5.5. That is elite. At the time, Barça had the work rate of Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets to fall back on. They were quick, mobile and among the best at closing down space. In Valverde’s last full season (18/19) Barça’s p90 PPDA had gone up to 8.9, after years of steady increase. The same players who had pressed relentlessly under Lucho and Pep, had grown older; becoming a shadow of their former selves (in terms of work rate at least). The legs were gone.

A PPDA chart from 14/15 to 18/19

While easing out of the intense press in Valverde’s first season might have been a conscious choice, (Valverde wanted his men to sit back more and soak up pressure) it certainly wasn’t one when he shifted back to the more expansive 4-3-3, which is inherently press-dependent. That was symptomatic of the larger problems with the squad: an ageing core. With more vulnerable legs, Barça were unable to pressure other teams quite so effectively as they had in years gone by. Consequently, opposition teams were able to sit on the ball longer and prise the Blaugrana defence open.

A worsening press has come with a worsening defensive record. In 14/15, Barça conceded just 21 goals. That number slowly went up as the seasons went by. Yes, 17/18 was an anomaly, but that was for reasons explained above; Barça sat deeper and played conservatively, in a 4-4-2. Apart from that season, the trend has been clear. Barça cannot continue to play in the same way as they used to, quite at the same level at least, with the current personnel.

Now.

Where does Setien fit in here? The Cantabrian has made some improvements to the squad he inherited from Valverde, even with the ‘injury crisis’ in full swing. Under Valverde, this season, Barça had a PPDA p90 of 8.5, which has gone down to 7.7 under Setien. The improvement is clearly visible on the field; Barça are pressing better and more intensely, in a more coordinated fashion. Lionel Messi/Antoine Griezmann often lead the press alongside Busquets, who often pushes up when the team is off the ball to win it back quickly. An improvement in pressing has been accompanied by improved defensive stability. Barça have conceded fewer goals per 90 (1 to 1.2) and have a better xGA, as well.

Barça’s PPDA this season (at home and away)

Barça’s total PPDA this season (Setien era is shaded)

It is clear that there are improvements. Setien’s emphasis on defensive possession has meant that the team has kept the ball with more diligence, and has won it back quicker when it is lost. But, again, Barça’s soft underbelly remains.

A leaky defence?

Yes.

Due to the unavailability of wide players, Setien was forced to start Arturo Vidal as a winger/wide-midfielder for a series of games. This resulted in a few problems. Because Vidal really wasn’t a wide player, he often drifted into the middle, making the team play in a narrow 4-3-1-2. This meant that the width had to come from the full-backs, who were stretched very thin as a result. Due to a lack of athleticism from Jordi Alba and unrealistic positioning demands on Nelson Semedo, Barça were often defending with two at the back, which proved costly against Real Madrid.

Seeing this problem, Setien decided to start Martin Braithwaite against Sociedad. This immediately paid off. With an actual runner through the middle/left, Barca were able to create quick chances and were able to distribute out wide, without compromising on the positioning of their full-backs. Moreover, after Rakitic made way for Vidal, Barça moved to a double-pivot, of sorts, with Frenkie de Jong operating much deeper than usual (in his natural position). This double-pivot allowed Barça to use its two best deep progressors in tandem, while protecting the backline. This may very well be the approach we see from Setien.

With Frenkie and Busquets operating from deep and Arthur/Vidal playing behind a front three (Messi/Braithwaite/Griezmann), the defense would be protected. Firstly, the full-backs would be relieved of some of their attacking duties. Secondly, even if they were caught in an awkward position upfield, one of the two deep pivots could slot into the backline to provide cover. This could prove key, especially with the front four pressing up high.

So. The Barça press. It’s worse than it once was, better than it was recently and is still comparable to the elite teams of Europe (8.05 PPDA p90 as compared to 8.8 [Real Madrid], 8.4 [Liverpool], 6.8 [PSG], 7.3 [Bayern]). With some new personnel, Barça could very well be the high-pressing attacking team it once was.

Just not quite there, yet.