There’s no two ways about it. Barcelona were quite insipid last night. Tasked with breaking down a conservative Napoli side, the Blaugrana failed to create anything of substance, finishing with only one shot on target. While there were glimpses of brilliance from both sides, with Lionel Messi repeatedly dribbling past a host of blue shirts and Dries Mertens firing in from outside the 18-yard box, the game was a relatively dry affair on the whole.
Gennaro Gattuso came into this game with a clear plan: have men behind the ball at all times. He lined up in a 4-1-4-1 with Diego Demme as the single pivot and Mertens up top. This 4-1-4-1 became a very narrow 4-5-1 mid-block out of possession. In this mid-block, Demme was instructed to sit in front of the back four and occupy the central spaces that Messi usually does, thereby limiting the Argentine’s ability to dribble and pass between the lines. Occasionally, Gattuso allowed either Piotr Zielinski or Fabián Ruiz to push up and press alongside Mertens (in a 4-4-2) to ease the Belgian’s defensive duties, keeping him fresh for counters. It was clear that Gattuso did not want either Jose Callejon or Lorenzo Insigne to press alongside Mertens; he wanted them to stay wide and maintain a counter-attacking threat at all times. Moreover, not once did Napoli press the Barcelona centre-backs when they were distributing the ball from deep. They were operating with a man-oriented press and seemed content with sitting back, whilst maintaining a potent threat on the counter (from where they ultimately punished the Blaugrana).
Quique Setien on the other hand, lined up in a 4-3-3 with Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong and Ivan Rakitic in midfield and Arturo Vidal on the right-wing, who seemed to have been put there to preserve width when Messi dropped deep. Barça were operating with a relatively advanced interior in Frenkie and a deeper one in Rakitic, who was often staying with Busquets as a faux second pivot. When building from the back, Setien instructed Nelson Semedo to drop back and present himself as an extra passing option for the two centre-backs (Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti) and asked Junior Firpo to stay up ahead. Barça employed an aggressive press yesterday, with the midfield, alongside Vidal, often leading the charge in that regard: Busquets recorded six interceptions while Vidal made six tackles. Frenkie was tasked with occupying the opposing centre-backs, thereby, allowing Messi space to drop deep and receive.
So, why was it such a drab affair then?
Well, it was a familiar story. Barca were insipid in possession and lacked verticality. Setien’s men were conservative on the ball and seemed afraid to lose it. Even though they were pressing well, the players seemed risk-averse. Moreover, there was a lack of width and a lack of runners through the middle. With no real wide players on either wing, Barça were unable to create 1v1 situations through which they could capitalise. Instead, they were crowded out by Gattuso’s men through the middle. Vidal, who had worked well as a left-sided attacker against Eibar looked far worse on the right. He did not play off Messi well and offered no penetration whatsoever; Mario Rui was able to effectively shut him out of the game in the first half. Junior, who was the most advanced player on the left, offered nothing. He constantly passed backwards from advanced spaces, instead of advancing with the ball or playing it in. As a consequence, he finished with zero key passes and zero dribbles completed. So, no width. There also was a dearth of progressive passing through the middle. Frenkie, who was staying up high, was largely absent during the game and Rakitic did not offer anything in the way of attack. Setien’s decision to bench Arthur and Ansu Fati did not pay off. So, to recap: None of the interiors created through the middle yesterday and none of the wide players bombed forward on the wings. Not exactly a recipe for success.
The only real attacking threat came from Messi, who finished with seven dribbles, two key passes and three shots. However, without any runners (for the majority of the game) he could not offer much in terms of end product.
Barça did improve in the second half, as the game opened up and Napoli relented. They were more decisive in the final third. The addition of Arthur changed the complexion of the game; his offensive contribution was vastly superior to Rakitic’s. Semedo showed more initiative to run in behind on the right, as well. Barcelona also edged the game according to xG, with 1.52 to Napoli’s 0.70. Reassuring, in a way, considering their torrid form away from home. Setien can take heart in the fact that his team did not implode after going behind. Instead, they grew into the game after that Mertens goal.
All in all, a 1-1 draw is not the end of the world. Barça still go to the Camp Nou as heavy favourites, even in the absence of key personnel. After all, they have not lost there in the Champions League in seven years.