Barcelona finally brought some positivity back with an excellent 3-0 win over Levante on Sunday afternoon. While most of the post-match talk deservedly went to the triumphant return of Ansu Fati, the team played very well and gave us reasons to believe that they can be better than what we saw in the last few weeks.
When the team news were announced an hour before the game, though, Barça came out with a strange lineup, with players seemingly out of position and not a very clear idea of how they wanted to set up. Fans were understandbly worried about the game they were about to watch, but for the first time in a while we were all positively surprised by Ronald Koeman’s team.
Barça set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Nico González and Sergio Busquets as a double pivot and Gavi playing on the right wing alongside Philippe Coutinho and Memphis Depay, with Luuk De Jong alone up top.
But the interesting thing about that shape was how narrow it was. More specifically, how it overloaded the left side of Barça’s attack.
Look how, with the exception of right-back Óscar Mingueza, the entire team is playing on the left side of the pitch. Gavi was anything but a right winger in the game, acting more as a right interior midfielder to completely overload the central area. Levante were in a 4-4-2 shape, but their two central midfielders had very little help from the wide men and were simply overwhelmed by the sheer number of Barça players in the middle.
That’s how the Blaugrana established early dominance in the game, and that is how they were superior for the entire 90 minutes. Levante never adjusted, and Barça never went away from the plan. With Busquets and Nico as a double pivot and Mingueza picking his spots on when to make runs as a full-back, Barça concentrated their offense almost exclusively on the left, with Memphis and Sergiño Dest doubling up on the full-back and creating havoc on that side.
On the rare occasions in which they did attack down the right, Barça stayed very narrow with their midfield shape and there were always passing options all over the pitch to build effectively from the back.
Watching Barça play such a narrow shape gave me flashbacks to the wonderful 2018-19 Ajax team that reached the Champions League semi-finals that season. Erik Ten Hag’s side played in a very similar way, overloading a particular side of the pitch depending on the opponent and not worrying at all about keeping width. It was all about having possession and winning the numbers battle in the middle, which was crucial for a team that didn’t have world-class attackers and relied on midfield dominance to create as many chances as possible to try and compete with the best teams in Europe.
Sounds familiar to the current Barça situation, doesn’t it? And interestingly enough, Alfred Schreuder, Ronald Koeman’s main assistant and acting head coach against Levante on Sunday, was Ten Hag’s assistant at Ajax that season.
But the narrow shape overloading the left wing was just one of two crucial pieces to Barça’s dominance on Sunday. The other was pressing: the Catalans were absolute lions off the ball, but were also well-organized to press effectively on goal-kicks and constantly win the ball back high up the pitch to continue suffocating Levante.
Barça went with individual marking once again, but unlike the disaster pressing strategy against Bayern Munich the Blaugrana were much sharper and aggressive in their pursuit of the Levante players, denying space and forcing either long balls or bad passes through the middle. Óscar Mingueza and Sergiño Dest were especially effective in their pressing, following their designated targets all over the pitch if necessary and winning the ball back.
It wasn’t just about pressing on goal-kicks, however. Whenever they lost the ball, Barça would hunt in packs, sending as many bodies as possible to win it back instantly.
Levante couldn’t breathe on the ball, and Barça never ran out of gas and stayed committed to their pressing strategy for the whole 90 minutes. It was the most impressive defensive performance of the season by a mile.
The game is about the players at the end of the day, and Barça had several very impressive individual performances on Sunday. Gavi was amazing, Busquets and Nico shined together as a very effective double pivot, and Dest was absolutely brilliant with and without the ball for the entire game.
It’s also very important to point out how bad Levante were: there were zero adjustments to the midfield imbalance and they offered nothing in possession, especially since their best attacking players are all injured. Shkodran Mustafi was a disaster at the back (hello Arsenal fans reading this, sorry for all the PTSD I just gave you) and right-back Jorge Miramón was quite simply destroyed by Memphis and Dest and wasn’t given any help.
But Barça have faced other bad teams before and didn’t play nearly as well, and to me coaching had a lot to do with it. I don’t want to be unfair to Ronald Koeman and I think he was heavily involved in team selection and the gameplan, so I won’t make the easy joke that everyone on Twitter made that the only reason Barça played so well is because he wasn’t on the touchline.
Unlike several games under Koeman, Barça weren’t set up to fail. The attacking gameplan took advantage of the players’s strenghts instead of exposing their weaknesses. There was no Sergi Roberto isolated against Alphonso Davies this time.
Gavi isn’t a winger, so he didn’t play like one; he was asked to be himself and always be close to the ball even if it meant not being in his “original” position, and that’s why Gavi was praised by everyone for doing what he’s good at instead of criticized for trying to do something he can’t.
The defense is problematic, so Nico and Busquets sat back and Mingueza, a defensive full-back, only made timely runs into the attack. Barça still managed to be effective with the ball while offering solid protection to the center-backs, because the attack was well designed and players were comfortable playing in roles they know how to perform.
Sunday’s game, with the obvious caveat of how bad the opponent was, proved that there’s still a lot of talent on this squad, especially in midfield. If they are coached properly, Barça can put up a good fight against anyone. Yes, sometimes they will be outplayed by better opponents, but if they play with the same hunger off the ball and are continually given a solid platform to attack they can still make themselves and the fans proud of their effort.
Barça fans aren’t stupid. No one is arguing this team should play like 2011 or 2015. But it can be a lot better, and Sunday showed that being better is possible.