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Barcelona 3-1 Napoli: Tactical Analysis (Champions League)

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The Catalans won, but not that convincingly

FC Barcelona v SSC Napoli - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Quique Setién still has his job, but Barcelona didn’t look entirely convincing in their 3-1 win over Napoli.

Lionel Messi is most of the reason the scoreline was comfortable, as he scored a wonder goal and won a penalty single-handedly. Clément Lenglet also deserves praise for his goal off a corner and his defensive work. Gerard Piqué also did well in clearing a few dangerous balls, and the fullbacks performed to standard, too. Frenkie de Jong was the best midfielder for the Catalans.

Setién surprised no one by picking Antoine Griezmann and Sergi Roberto in midfield, rather than Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig. But it was quite curious that he did not bring either from the bench, and indeed, used the bench very little. Monchu was given a first team debut, and then Junior Firpo was brought on in stoppage time.

Barcelona were quite narrow, in a 4-3-1-2 formation that sought to give Messi options to play off of in the middle. With no wingers, the fullbacks had to provide width, and to their credit, Jordi Alba and Nélson Semedo had pretty good games. Napoli conceded the flanks and focused all their attention on clogging up the middle. Unfortunately the fullbacks were quite isolated, often afraid of being overloaded 2-vs-1 in defense or of leaving the opposing winger unguarded if they make runs beyond the opposing fullback. They had to hang back or else Napoli could break forward with complete superiority down the flanks.

Alba in particular got down far a few times and led the team with 3 chances created, although none were goals. Still, you have to wonder if this formation sacrifices the wings too much, both in the attacking and defensive sense, and whether you can keep doing that as the matches get harder.

The Catalans did do a fine job of stopping progress through the middle, thanks to a midfield diamond which had Griezmann dropping in as a fourth man without the ball.

After halftime, Barcelona went down a gear and could have paid for it. Napoli missed a couple of big chances, had a shot hit the post, and had a goal disallowed (although to credit the defense, it was thanks to them playing the offside trap well.)

Setién should have reacted to his team being put under pressure, and putting on Fati to exploit the wings would have been an interesting choice. Puig could have also done a job, even though he is a bit slight and not the most defensive player, he does have an engine that allows him to cover a lot of ground. Given the manager prevented the duo from playing in Barcelona B’s promotion play-off, it’s hard to understand why they didn’t see the pitch at all.

Rino Gattuso made a sub right at half time, and then made four subs between the 70th and 79th minute. Napoli were starting to control the match, and Barcelona only made their first sub on 84 minutes. Monchu came in for Griezmann, playing as a fourth midfielder who would join the attack. He wasn’t a bad sub, but it wasn’t enough, and the Catalans were still under pressure. Setién’s last switch was to move up Monchu to play as a forward and put Junior Firpo in (for Luis Suárez) to play as a left-back, moving Jordi Alba to left-sided midfielder in a 4-4-2. This was parking the bus, more or less.

Napoli outshot Barça 18-7, and had 49% possession. This game could have gone differently, particularly if Messi didn’t have a few huge moments.

For all this, Barcelona are clearly second favorites to advance against Bayern Munich. The German champions have an amazing team, with Robert Lewandowski firing in top form and some very fast players on the flanks.

For Barça, they will recover Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal, which will be key. But it remains to be seen how this formation (if kept) will work against higher-quality opposition. For now, it seems Barcelona’s chance of winning the UEFA Champions League comes down to two things: Messi, set pieces, and good defending. If they can keep it tight, they can nick a few goals and win - although this is not necessarily a reliable strategy.