A beardless Lionel Messi, vintage Jordi Alba and a thumping victory. Surely this is 2015? Well, not quite. But it’s close enough. Last night, Barça returned to La Liga action with a resounding 4-0 victory away at Mallorca. The Blaugranas were the dominant side throughout and edged the xG (expected goals) battle 2.45-0.8, whilst also (expectantly) dominating possession and having more shots on target than the Balearic side.
Quique Setién lined up in the regular 4-3-3 although it was very loosely defined. Sergio Busquets would often drop into the defensive line, between Gerard Piqué and Ronald Araujo. Arturo Vidal, who was the initial goalscorer, was floating in and around the right side, often near the touchline. Sergi Roberto was equally loose in his positioning, often dropping into the back three. When Vidal moved inwards, Roberto would take up the space on the right wing. It was largely fluid positioning, on both wings. Setién had also tasked his full-backs with maintaining width, even more so than usual. Both Alba and Roberto were pushing up high and wide and were attempting to take advantage of the subsequent central overloads. This did work for the most part. After all, the opening goal came from a lovely lobbed ball from Alba, who also added a goal later on. Both full-backs finished with a cumulative five attempted crosses, one key pass, three interceptions and six clearances.
Setién persisted with the two higher interiors (as he had previously), with Frenkie de Jong and Vidal often pushing up high, looking to overload the central spaces. Vidal was the more dynamic of the two and was constantly looking to make runs in behind the Mallorca back line. Their heatmaps are indicative of the same.
With Vidal and Frenkie moving into advanced space alongside Martin Braithwaite, Messi and Alba had room to play in passes into the middle. As a consequence, Barça were looking good in attacking transitions, especially compared to previous games.
As the game wore on, Mallorca tired in the press and Barça took advantage of space left behind (perhaps, somewhat expectantly). Whilst Mallorca had set up to exploit wide turnovers in the first half, tired legs ensured that they could not do that so effectively. This is why Setién decided to keep Alba on the field throughout, and even added Junior Firpo and Nelson Semedo later on. The wide spaces were ripe for the taking, and adding pace made sense.
That brings us to the problems. It’s slightly weird to point out problems when the team has won a game by four goals, yet here we are. It was not so much individual errors that were the overarching problem. Instead, the same systemic issues persisted. As shown by the map above, central crowding remains an issue for Barça. Whilst the full-backs were high yesterday, the midfielders were lacking in terms of their spatial awareness. Yes, there was verticality, but that usually came at the expense of a detachment from the backline. At other times, the three midfielders were often camped behind the opposition’s second pressing line and were often caught flat-footed in attacking transitions. There wasn’t much movement between the lines.
Due to this, and the proficiency of Alba and Roberto, most of Barça’s chance creation was delegated to the wings. Yet, with the front three moving into central channels constantly, the team is left with no fast carriers on the wings, who can progress the ball and play off the full-backs. This is why, as mentioned earlier, Mallorca were constantly overloading central spaces throughout the game and easily regaining the ball once it was pushed out wide. Stretched full-backs have been a problem throughout the season. Much the same ensued at the San Moix. Barça were often capitulating in defensive transitions, with Piqué and Araujo left to defend against three attackers.
Moreover, whilst the fluidity on show was often a positive, it often looked erratic. Many players were just floating into spaces where they did not belong; certain areas where overloaded, thereby, whilst others were left relatively open. This curtailed passing options. While Setién has made some progress in terms of spatial awareness, his men still need to become more disciplined in their overall positioning.
In all, there were tactical positives. The press, whilst somewhat erratic, looked good for the most part (Pass per defensive action [PPDA] of 8.41 compared to Mallorca’s 21.05). The players looked far sharper than most expected, too. Perhaps, that was to do with the fact that this wasn’t quite an off-season and players were staying fit at home. For many, it seemed like there had been no break at all. Business as usual, then? Perhaps. Barça now look on course to win their 27th La Liga title, with a five-point lead at the top of the table.