There isn’t much doubt now about the La Liga title. With Real Madrid grinding out yet another victory at Granada, making it nine in succession since the league restarted, they are on the threshold of a 34th La Liga triumph. Barca were two points clear before the season came to a halt, but three draws – away to Sevilla and Celta Vigo and at home to Atletico Madrid – since the restart means the Catalans are likely to finish the league four points behind their arch rivals.
However, in a more positive vein, the team has put together three victories in a row after the 2-2 draw against Atleti. The run has also seen the team string together two away victories for only the second time in the league this season. It is worth noting that under-fire manager, Quique Setien has experimented a little bit in this time with his formations and team selections. A look at the away victories from a tactical standpoint brings up a few important ways in which the renowned tactician has made an ageing team click in spurts, although they have looked dysfunctional at times during these two matches as well.
Let us take a look first at the 4-1 victory at Villarreal, which raised quite a few eyebrows. Barca dominated the match throughout, and looked energetic and driven. The passing looked sharp, the off-the-ball movement was swift and in addition, the front three of Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann and Lionel Messi linked up at will.
Villarreal’s formation at the starting of the match was believed to be a 4-4-2. The two backs of four generally make for a defensive formation that is tough to break down. In this case however, Villarreal provided Barca with plenty of space to exploit. Notice close to the top-middle portion, Jordi Alba has acres of space. Barca themselves went with a 4-4-2 in this match, abandoning the traditional 4-3-3. From this photo, the space the two Barca forwards close to the halfway line have to work with is also evident. Given the quality they possess, they could easily take a touch, turn and look up for one of the full-backs. Barca’s midfield is also not under much pressure; we see Messi has switched over to the left and has the ball at his feet with virtually no pressure on him at all. Setien’s 4-4-2 formation was perfect in this match given Villarreal’s tendency to not press hard for the ball. The space they provided Barca with meant the likes of Messi and later in the second half, Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati, could easily run into space and take their time before finding the ideal pass.
Now, we take a look at the Valladolid match which Barca edged 1-0 thanks to Arturo Vidal’s fantastic first-half strike from a clever Messi pass. Barca played an excellent first 45 in this match, constantly breaking Valladolid’s 4-5-1 formation down. Setien tinkered with the formation in this match as well, in a move that might just be the key for Barca in the UEFA Champions League in August. Sergi Roberto played as an auxiliary centre-back, playing in the position between Pique and Semedo (as seen in the photo below).
This meant Barca had three centre-backs to rely on while defending. Space opened up for Nelson Semedo to attack the Valladolid backline without suffering the burden of instantly tracking back if Barca lost the ball. The effect was positive as the Portuguese right-back had plenty of space to press forward and most of Barca’s attacking threat came from down the right. Semedo created quite a few chances with menacing low balls into the box. Had Griezmann scored one of those gilt-edged opportunities, the match might have been much simpler in the second half, but the Frenchman fluffed his lines.
However, this changed substantially in the second half. Griezmann’s half-time substitution due to injury meant Barca lost his positioning awareness and pace. Suarez, who replaced him, was slow and repeatedly lost the ball, handicapping Barca in the final third. Setien’s substitution of Rakitic for Puig further reduced Barca’s fluidity and with it, any possibilities of a match-clinching second goal. Barca reverted to a 4-4-2 with Roberto moving into midfield and both full-backs being forced to drop back. The team looked worn out leaving Pique, Lenglet and Busquets to repeatedly clear the ball against a spirited Valladolid side. Setien seemed to have figured out a winning formula in the first half, but his substitutions in the second half put a dampener on what seemed to be a flourishing Barca performance.
While Fati’s absence did weigh the team down, it’s difficult to understand why Setien did not throw the pace and incision that Martin Brathwaite brings into the mix. It is fair to say, then, that the experienced tactician still has food for thought even after six months in charge. The return of Frenkie de Jong from injury is a welcome sign, while reports are filtering in that Ousmane Dembele might also be fit in time for the Champions League’s return. If Setien can somehow conjure up a formula to bring the best qualities of the squad together, similar to what he did against Villarreal and especially, in the first half against Valladolid, Barca fans might just be enticed to hope again for brighter times ahead.