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Barcelona travelled to Leon in the first round of this season’s iteration of Copa del Rey. The Catalans are the defending champions of a competition that has been their’s to rule for the past four years, straight. However, Cultural Leonesa proved to be a tough opponent at home for a much younger Barcelona squad, as the Division 2B side challenged the La Liga giants, only falling in injury time to a well-placed Lenglet header.
Still, Blaugrana is poised to finish the job at the Camp Nou when the two teams collide once more in December. The road to the last-16 is already within Barca’s reach. This tactical analysis, along with some statistics, will provide an insight into how a rejuvenated Catalan side snatched the victory regardless of a sub-par performance in the kingdom of Leon.
Barça (4-3-3): Cillessen – Semedo, Cuenca, Chumi, Miranda – Vidal, Samper, Denis – Malcom, Munir, Dembele
Bench: Arthur, Rafinha, Lenglet, Sergi, Aleñá, Riqui Puig, Iñaki Peña
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Cultural Leonesa (4-4-2): Palatsi – Saul, Ivan, Nicho, Bernal – Ortiz, Sergio, Vincent, Liberto – Zelu, Aridane
Bench: Diarra, Diaz, Alonso, Samu, Toño, Hugo, Mancebo
Coach: Victor Cea
After a hard-fought win in El Clasico over the weekend, it was pretty obvious that Ernesto Valverde would give his star names some deserved rest. Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, Gerard Piqué, Ivan Rakitić, Sergio Busquets, Philippe Coutinho, Luis Suárez and Jordi Alba were given a day off, along with Lionel Messi still sidelined (but back in training) due to an injury, the same as Thomas Vermaelen and Samuel Umtiti. This resulted in a much younger, and inexperienced Barcelona but the reserves and some B players had finally been given a proper chance to shine.
Three players made their official debut for the senior team: Juan Miranda, Jorge Cuenca and Juan Brandáriz (also known as Chumi). Not everyone impressed but Valverde could draw some positives, as well as negatives, from those 90 minutes at the Reino de Leon. The Catalans lined up in an expected 4-3-3 system. Arturo Vidal, Denis Suarez, and Sergi Samper finally got their start in midfield while the front three was comprised of Malcom, Ousmane Dembele and Munir.
The hosts opted to field a more conservative 4-4-2 formation with their standard gala XI accompanied by little changes. The personnel was the same but the differences were noticeable in the very positions those players operated in. Zelu was moved higher up the pitch and formed a tandem with Aridane, while Ortiz occupied the position on the right of midfield. Sometimes, this would change to a 4-4-1-1 with Aridane actually playing the number 10 role right behind the striker.
Bernal was also deployed as a midfielder while Romero was picked as the left centre-back next to Garrido. After Romero left the pitch, Bernal shifted back to the back line.
It is not unusual that lower tier sides manage to surprise the “big boys” every once in a while. Although this Barcelona side were missing some of their crucial star names, the difference in quality (and price) was too substantial to be overlooked. Still, when you are playing such a big club in your own backyard, you usually give 200%. This was exactly what happened as the hosts were the more aggressive and more productive squad almost throughout the whole game.
Both teams usually practice similar playing styles that include building from the back and keeping possession. The only difference is that Barcelona is much better at doing those things. The home team expected this to happen so Victor Cea decided to let the Catalans enjoy their possession but was also betting on some jitters and inexperience within their lines.
When out of possession, Cultural Leonesa decided to gegenpress the visitors, forcing the back line to surrender the ball or just kick it higher up the pitch. This often resulted in Barcelona trying to switch sides quickly or toying with the ball long enough for a mistake to happen.
If Barcelona were forced backwards, which was often the case, the two attackers would stay in the opposition’s half, putting more pressure or waiting for a loose ball. In those moments, the switch to a 4-4-1-1 was made and it offered a congested middle of the park with enough attacking options if a break were to happen. As the visitors tried to move the ball up the pitch via their back line, Leonesa would overcrowd those spaces in an instant, making the only progress possible through very tight lines, something that the inexperienced centre-backs were not keen on doing in the entirety.
Something Barcelona was not really prepared for, nor expecting, was the aggression the hosts displayed in acquiring the ball, in the first place. A total of 23 fouls committed as opposed to only nine from the Catalan side is telling enough. One red card and a total of eight yellows were actually not that surprising, all things considered. The referee was being a bit lenient in the beginning but as the tackles became stronger, and Valverde’s reaction louder, his little book was full of the hosts’ names.
Leonesa was also aware of the lack of a clinical poacher in the final third so they were, for the most part, happy to let crosses land in the box. The four men in midfield meant that Barca’s three would be outnumbered unless Malcom and/or Dembele cut inside to provide an extra passing option. Since both attackers opted to stay wide most of the time, making progress through the middle was a tall task for Barcelona. The well-structured defensive block forced the Catalans out wide through Semedo and Miranda but both usually followed their runs with a cross. Those proved to be ineffective with no real target man in the middle.
It was not until the 70th-minute that Barcelona finally landed their first shot on target. Carles Alena was subbed in for the (again) injured Sergi Samper, which reinforced the midfield quite a bit, and the highly rated La Masia graduate was the one to put that stat in their favour. Still, the shot was not dangerous for the opposition’s net whatsoever as Barca continued to struggle in chance creation.
The goal to seal the deal for Barcelona came in the 91st-minute, and ironically, it was after a successful cross from Ousmane Dembele. The young Frenchman brilliantly found Clemont Lenglet in the box, and his countryman produced a great header to beat the keeper for the first, and the last time on the night.
Betting on inexperience
Both of Barca’s centre-backs were from their B team and although they both played a good game, it was visible that they were making some of the most basic mistakes. Barcelona’s defence was exploited a couple of times, simply by bad giveaways or fiddling with the ball without any real pass options. Still, the back line was mostly well organised, regardless of age, and once Lenglet was also introduced, and the midfield was stabilised, everything started ticking better.
Leonesa attacked in a similar way as the Catalans usually do. Their full-backs would often overlap, and leaving only three men in the back was also an option which meant more freedom for the men up front. Still, betting on mistakes on Barcelona’s side did not really pay off with the youngsters in the back being maybe the most impressive additions. Chumi won 10/15 duels and all three of his aerial ones. In addition to that, he managed two interceptions and only two lost balls in his own half.
Miranda was also solid in the left-back position. His more conservative approach makes him a clear opposite of the more aggressive Jordi Alba but 87.9% pass accuracy with one of those being key is a good start. He would often receive the ball out wide and then proceed to cross it into the box. Although this is not really one of Barca’s strengths, the young full-back was more productive in defensive tasks with three tackles and one interception to his name.
With an xG of 0.62 and only two shots on target, Barcelona can be happy with the result. The sheer possession domination yielded little to no result but a late “French connection” means that they already have one foot in the next round.
Even though there are more questions to be asked after such a display, Valverde definitely noticed some excellent signs from certain players. The centre-backs looked confident on and off the ball, Miranda needs polishing but has the potential, and finally, Carles Alena is a true La Masia gem.
The young midfielder is still stuck between Barcelona B, where he is probably at least one level above everyone, and the senior team whose call he is yet to fully receive. His 94.3 % passing accuracy, 8/8 longs balls, and three key passes suggest that he might be ready for the big step up. Everything about him also screams Barcelona: from the way he moves, asks for the ball and sends it away to the gentle touches and his football intelligence.
Arturo Vidal was also one of the more impressive ones on the field. Although this was “just” a Copa game, the Chilean showed character and leadership on the field, fighting for the whole 90 minutes like it was a final to be won. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Barca’s captain on the night, Denis Suarez, who might need a prolonged spell of games to start shining, or Dembele, whose price tag puts a huge burden on his shoulders. Apart from the wonderful assist, the Frenchman offered little, considering his true potential.
Malcom was “just” solid. He backtracked a lot and fought for any lost ball, which is definitely something that will help him win Valverde’s trust. On the other hand, his inability to impact the game more significantly might also be his downfall but considering that this was his first start, it is not surprising that he needs time to find his footing. One should not forget Jasper Cillessen who made a couple of crucial saves throughout the game.
At the end of the day, Barcelona got their win in a less flashy but still effective style. The performance might have been sub-par but the result is the thing that matters the most. This, and the fact that some youngsters finally got their chance might mean a lot going forward.
After all, a proper bench is the key to success, and Barcelona may yet find a way to get the best out their’s.