Barça are back. La Liga is back. Football is back. The long, protracted wait is finally over.
The last time we saw FC Barcelona in action was in early March, in a narrow 1-0 win against Real Sociedad. Since then, the world has been gripped by a multitude of seemingly catastrophic events, including a global pandemic. Football has been, to put it mildly, on the backburner. Yet, with a trip to Mallorca only two days away, Barça are very much front and center in the news narrative in Spain. They sit with a two-point cushion at the top of the Primera Division and have been bolstered by the return of Luis Suárez. Good times, then?
Well, perhaps. But, Barça don’t have the easiest of fixture lists. Tough trips away at Sevilla, Celta Vigo and Villarreal remain alongside home games against Atlético Madrid, Athletic Club and Espanyol. Yet with the right set of tactical choices and *some* luck, Quique Setién should get Barça over the line. That starts with the trip to the Balearic islands.
RCD Mallorca currently sit in 18th, with 7 wins, 4 draws and 16 losses. Mallorca have racked up 20 of their 25 points at home and have endured a tough time on the road. Manager Vicente Moreno has mainly lined them up in a 4-4-1-1, which does revert to a 4-1-4-1 on occasion. The side musters up an xG p90 of 1.08 against 1 goal; consequently, their xG differential sits at minus thirteen. They also rank sixth in the league in terms of pressures applied whilst being eight in terms of successful pressures. So, nothing to write home about really.
Barça on the other hand have primarily lined up in their signature 4-3-3 and have averaged an xG p90 of 1.75 and an xG against of 0.93. Barça also lead the league (expectantly and comfortably) in the possession department with an average of 65.2%.
That brings us to the match-up at hand. How does Setién line up his team, both with the return of Suárez and with the new five substitute rule? It’s an interesting question. One option is, of course, to play it safe with the standard 4-3-3. This would see ter Stegen in goal, Alba and Roberto as the full-backs with Umtiti/Araujo (Lenglet is suspended) and Piqué at the heart of the defense. To combat the lack of a vertical threat and the heightened pressing by the home side, Setién would probably experiment with a midfield of Busquets, Frenkie and Vidal. This midfield retains a sense of balance for the most part whilst also offering energy out of possession (starting with Vidal also allows for the early blitzkrieg, to combat the five substitutes conundrum). With Busquets and Frenkie, Barça can line with a faux pivot (think Kimmich and Thiago), which then allows Vidal to move into advanced areas, where he can lead the press and progress the ball. Setién could, of course, opt to start Rakitić and/or Arthur instead although that may cause problems of penetration. The frontline, however, pretty much picks itself. With Suárez back, it is almost certain that we’ll see him up with Messi, as a secondary striker, and Griezmann as an auxiliary/inside forward.
Setién could also be more adventurous and return to his beloved 3-5-2 (with Piqué, Umtiti and Araujo/Roberto as CBs). His tenure in Catalunya began with this formation, yet it was quickly discarded after the 2-0 defeat at the Mestalla. While the system itself made sense; on paper ( it served to cancel out several of Barça’s structural deficiencies in terms of width and stretched centre-backs) it was plagued by a lack of coordination between the offensive lines and a very flat midfield three. Yet, with the right personnel, Setién could make that system work (and Barça would be better off with it). Granted, he’d have to move one of Arthur, Frenkie and Busquets out of the squad and bring in Vidal and or Puig (depending on the scenario and the opposition at hand). This would rectify the information breakdown, if you will, between the lines and the lack of penetration. With Vidal and a fit Suárez acting as runners for Messi, passing between the lines would not be a headache (as it was for much of Setién’s early tenure). Moreover, with three centre-backs, the defensive onus on Barça’s full-back pairing falls considerably. This is handy. With a narrow front line, Barça’s full-backs have often found themselves stretched too thin (look at the Clasico as an example).
Yet, more important than strict formations, is the imbibing of principles. We saw glimpses of improvement from the team under Setién, yet it was often patchy. Barça would press well, in patches. Barça would penetrate well, in patches. With the additional training, it is likely that the players have adapted further to Setién’s style and tactical quirks. This means, of course, that his instructions, in terms of zonal occupation, will be a lot clearer. That can only be a good thing.
In all, Barça should win this game. It’s tough to say by what margin, exactly, as factoring in the rustiness of the players renders any such prediction null. That said, there is cause for cheer! The boys are back!