Can’t remember the last time Barca executed a comeback like that.
What a thrill. What a promising sign of resiliency from a young team.
But are there any takeaways from a tactical perspective?
Barcelona started the game with their traditional 4-3-3. This is a formation that dominated Real Betis and Royal Antwerp in the last two 5-0 victories in which new signings Joao Felix and Joao Cancelo led the way.
But this time around, it looked sluggish from the beginning up until half-time, when Xavi decided to change personnel and the formation, with the team trailing a well-organized Celta Vigo 1-0 at the break.
Rafa Benitez is a different type of manager than Manuel Pelligrini or Mark van Bommel. In many ways, Benitez is made to challenge a side like Barca and take advantage of their vulnerabilities. Barca’s highline was a liability, especially with Ronald Araujo and Alejandro Balde starting the game on the bench.
The other side of the coin is that a team like Celta will sit back, stay compact in front of goal, and be more of a challenge to break down.
Joao Felix looked frustrated for the first time in the Barca colors, and Ferran Torres was totally invisible.
The only player who looked lively in search of solutions was Frenkie de Jong.
And that’s where things get murky going forward.
Barca already had their most creative midfielder in Pedri sidelined with a significant injury. Now Frenkie will join him.
That means Oriol Romeu, Gavi, and Ilkay Gundogan pick themselves, unless Xavi goes with a formation change.
So that’s the question, if Xavi stays with a 4-3-3, is that likely to be an effective midfield? Especially against teams that are content to sit back and ask questions of the playmakers?
In my opinion, if Xavi goes that route, he’s flirting with danger.
Romeu can put in a good, disciplined shift at CDM, so long as Frenkie is by his side to take risks and push things forward, and from time to time, drop deep to pick up the ball from the backline.
Gavi and Gundogan have their strengths, but neither is ball dominant. Gavi does good work off the ball, and his hard work also pays off in the final third. He’s capable of scoring a goal, or making a final pass, as he demonstrated with the game winner to Joao Cancelo.
After years under Pep Guardiola, Gundogan is wise enough tactically to help connect the game, but he can’t progress the game forward directly the way Frenkie and Pedri can.
So what’s the alternative?
We got a glimpse of it in the second half when Xavi introduced Ronald Araujo, and played with three center backs.
In order to make the change, Romeo and Marcos Alonso were sacrificed.
On a side note, it’s also worth saving time and pointing out the problem of selecting Marcos Alonso. Barca are simply a stronger and more creative side when he isn’t playing, and Xavi pays a price every time he features.
At this point, Lamine Yamal came on, providing width on the right side, with Ferran Torres switching to the left, with Joao Felix playing towards the middle (these two had the freedom to alternate as they saw fit).
Joao Cancelo meanwhile was inverted to help compensate for the missing midfielder. But in a way, that’s too much of a simplification. Cancelo goes where he wants to go. At times, he was a midfielder. Most of the time, as an inverted full-back. He would also push to the wing. And even, as we saw with the goal winner, he got forward to provide an extra number in the box.
That’s what I like about this “formation.” It’s unpredictable, and it gives the players control, because it tears down the rigid structure that you get with a classic 4-3-3.
It implores the players to find the solutions in the moment.
Now, we must concede that most of the second half, Barca didn’t look particularly dangerous.
They were at their best when Alejandro Balde and Raphinha came on, and especially after they got the first goal, and were able to put real pressure on a Celta Vigo side that was nervous and tiring out.
But what if they had started this way from the beginning?
Against Celta Vigo, I think it would have been more effective.
Against other opponents who are more open, maybe the 4-3-3 is fine.
But with Frenkie and Pedri out, it changes the calculus yet again. While they recover, I’m not optimistic that the remaining three midfielders have the skill set to make Barca more effective than it could be with three in the back, and an extra forward up front.
Cancelo is showing the benefits of setting your talented players free.
Barca will almost always have the better players on the field. Don’t stifle them with overcoaching and rigid structures.
Let them put the pressure on the opponent. Let them have fun and play the beautiful game that they love, in a way that has gotten them this far in their careers.
Big questions will now be asked of Xavi.
There aren’t easy answers, but after the escape act against Celta Vigo, hopefully he gathered valuable information about his players, and the systems he selected.
There won’t be much margin for error over the next few months. This is where the manager sinks or swims.