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Second gear: A tactical analysis of Barcelona’s win over Leganés

Ansu Fati and Lionel Messi secured the win

FC Barcelona v CD Leganes - La Liga Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Matches come thick and fast these days. After the weekend win at Mallorca, Barcelona returned to action with a 2-0 victory over a tepid Leganés. Quique Setién’s side didn’t produce a vintage performance by any means, but they did enough to seal a result, with goals from Ansu Fati and Lionel Messi.

Setién lined the team up in the same 4-3-3 setup he used against Mallorca, although Arturo Vidal and Frenkie de Jong made way for Arthur and Ivan Rakitić. That midfield choice was uninspiring; Vidal and de Jong had attempted to occupy opposition defenders, Rakitić and Arthur don’t offer the same threat. Up ahead, Martin Braithwaite made way for Barça’s very own Golden Boy, Ansu Fati. Junior Firpo and Clement Lenglet also returned to the lineup.

Leganés, on the other hand, started the game in a compact 5-4-1 and looked to pin Barça in central areas. Aguirre’s team has tried to do this several times this season with only modest success. They were looking to curtail Messi and Antoine Griezmann early on, with a marker on each.

For much of the first half, Barça looked dull. With three deep midfielders, they were unable to stretch the field of play. Moreover, Arthur was often foraying into Sergio Busquets’s territory, which forced the latter to retreat into the defensive line. The Blaugranas were left with a 3-2-5 in possession, thereby. However, with no one splitting the centre-backs, that five up front was kept at bay by Leganés’s narrow defensive line.

Most of Barça’s chances in the first half, then, were arising from wider areas, where they could exploit space between Leganés’s midfield and defensive lines, or from threaded balls from deep. Griezmann was at the receiving end of three such balls although all were slightly overhit. In fact, Barça’s opener came after some wide scuffling from Firpo.

The goal came after Barça decided to pin the centre-backs more vigilantly, with Firpo and Ansu targeting Awaziem and Messi moving near Bustinza, who is often Leganés’s main progressor from behind. This curtailed their passing options and isolated Roque Mesa and co, up ahead.

Barça’s positioning map

However, the problems of central crowding were evident in the first half. The midfield was too flat and many of their movements were contradictory. As mentioned earlier, Arthur was often moving into Busquets’s spaces and was not allowing him to move into advanced channels. Moreover, with Messi staying central, Griezmann was forced to compensate. Compensate by what, you ask? Well, mostly by staying out of the game. The left side was, in fact, one of the few positional positives from the game. Firpo and Ansu looked good together and exploited the centrality of the Leganés back line.

Moreover, Barça looked extremely rickety at the back. And that’s putting it rather mildly. The defence was often caught out, either by balls in behind or via sluggish counters; Lenglet or Gerard Piqué were often left defending 2v1s. With Roberto and Firpo pushing up high and wide, Barça were left vulnerable at the back. The term “compromised centre backs” is oft repeated at this point, yet it’s relevance has not waned. Barça’s core remains vulnerable to counters, as it has all season. Hopefully Setién can rectify that, or parts of it, by the business end of the season. Ultimately, Leganés’s indecision is what cost them. They finished the first half with two big chances missed and an xG of 0.79.

With the start of the second half, came more positional awareness from Barça. The 3-2-5 stayed but it often folded back into the more familiar 2-3-5, with Busquets pushing up for the press. The arrival of Nelson Semedo, Luis Suárez and Arturo Vidal was a godsend for the tepid tempo that had been set in the opening forty five. With Semedo vertically stretching and holding width, and Vidal making runs in behind, Barça looked a much more agile side. Semedo’s constant runs in behind almost resulted in a Griezmann goal, in what looked like a replay of Barça’s lone goal against Napoli; Semedo moved in on the overlap and latched onto a searching Messi ball which he then squared for Griezmann. It was a delightful combination, albeit marginally offside.

Moreover, with the entry of Riqui Puig, Barça looked even better. Puig and Vidal combined often and created more direct passing channels. Moreover, their pressing up ahead eased the pressure on Rakitić and the defensive line and allowed Barça to play exclusively in the opposition half.

Barça finished the game with two goals, with Messi adding a penalty, and an xG of 1.67 against Leganés’s 0.99. In fact, they were edged out by Leganés on non-penalty xG. Was it a performance for the ages? Certainly not. In fact, this was probably Barça’s least convincing win under Setién. Most of the stalwarts such as Messi, Busquets and Piqué weren’t particularly good and neither were others such as Arthur. Moreover, many of the systemic deficiencies that have now become part and parcel of “Blaugrana” football were on show. Barça have been lucky in that their opening fixtures after the break were against two of the weakest sides in the division. That changes now; Sevilla, Athletic Club, Celta Vigo and Atlético Madrid beckon. Setién must be ready.

Hopefully, the troops are up to the task.

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