This post originally featured on our comprehensive world football analysis sister site, totalfootballanalysis.com.
Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde said that it was very important to start the second half of La Liga with a win. As the league leaders, Barcelona had 43 points and six consecutive wins. Leganes, however, had 22 points and were placed 13th.
As one would expect, the leaders won comfortably 3-1. However, the battle on the pitch wasn’t reflected in the scoreline. Here, using statistics we analyse how this match played out.
Starting XI: Ter Stegen; Roberto, Piqué, Vermaelen, Alba; Arthur, Busquets, Aleñá; Dembélé, Suárez, Coutinho
Bench: Cillessen, Semedo, Murillo, Rakitic, Vidal, Malcom, Messi
Starting XI: Cuéllar; Tarín, Omeruo, Siovas; Nyom, Vesga, Recio, Silva; Rodríguez; Braithwaite, En-Nesyri
Bench: Juanfran, Gumbau, El Zhar, Kravets, Eraso, Santos, Lunin
Barcelona had won four out of their last five games against Leganes. The fact that they lost 2-1 in their last encounter this season just made this match more interesting. Considering Velverde’s conservative rotation, the lineup was a surprise. Lionel Messi not starting made things a lot more interesting.
The scoreline might suggest Barcelona put in a dominating display. However, the match was far from one-sided. Granted, Barcelona created a lot more chances and had the majority of possession. But had Leganes been more effective in their attacking, it would be a different story.
Leganes were wasteful with the chances they had, while even Barcelona weren’t particularly efficient either. However, the chances created were of a much higher quality and quantity, which made the difference. Like every great team, the Catalans made their opponents look worse than they actually played.
What went wrong for Leganes
Leganes put in a reasonable performance, considering they were facing the leaders of La Liga. The problems came down to a few factors, most notably lack of possession, inefficiency, ill discipline and failing to adapt.
Any team facing Barcelona knows that keeping possession will be a problem. A strategy in accordance with that is essential in trying to win. Leganes however only held 28% possession. This problem was caused by principally by the passing of Barcelona and the midfield of Leganes.
Barcelona always pass the ball extremely well. However, for Leganes this passing was too fast to stop. Barcelona made a stunning 683 passes with 88% accuracy. Compared to Levante’s disappointing 200 passes with 67% accuracy, it was clear why passing played a huge role.
Taking a look at Leganes’ midfielders, Rodriguez and Recio, their performance was lacklustre. Together, they made approximately 77% accurate passes, which was not all too bad. However, they played only one key pass.
Barcelona pass masters
When it came to Barcelona’s midfield, however, Busquets and Arthur made 141 passes combined with approximately 93% accuracy. The pair’s total accounted for more than 70% of the passes registered by the whole Leganes team. This quick and accurate passing kept Barcelona on the front foot.
The times that Leganes did get an opportunity to attack, it was through counter-attacking. With a very sub-par midfield, Leganes were unable to build up attacks. Brazilian midfielder Arthur won five out of his seven duels. Although veteran Busquets won five out of 11, he also made two interceptions to stop counters before they even started. The third midfielder, Carles Aleña, played a very attacking role. As we shall see later, he was one of the best performers.
Barcelona shouldn’t have conceded at all. A very simple mistake caused Leganes to regain hope. As with most of Leganes’ attacks, this was a counter-attack. Gaining possession in midfield, the ball came to En-Neyseri. Here, he crosses it into the box. Meanwhile, Braithwaite has been making a run into the box. His diagonal run behind Pique caught the Barcelona defender wrong-footed, making for a simple finish.
As seen in the example above, this could easily have been avoided had someone blocked the cross from En-Neyseri. But Jordi Alba plays too far up the pitch to do that, and Sergio Busquets is not the fastest of players to cover in time.
An interesting thing to note from this match was Leganes’ dominance when defending set pieces. As shown in the image, Leganes’ players did well to head the ball away at the near post. They also posted players on the edge of the box to make sure the ball didn’t fall to Barcelona. Due to this, the Blaugrana made only two successful crosses out of 11 attempts.
Barcelona did not need to be very incisive in attack, although they did create many chances. However, apart from the one Levante goal, the defence was very good. Scoring three goals from seven shots on target, the Catalans were effective in front of goal. Some trends were similar throughout their players. Here, we analyse them.
Carles Aleña’s intelligence
Carles Aleña was a surprise in the lineup. He has slowly been breaking into the first team. This was his chance to impress, and he did. Playing two-thirds of the match, Aleña looked very comfortable on the ball with a passing accuracy of 94%. His 100% dribbling completion was impressive, at times leaving the opposition with no option but to foul him. He was fouled twice excluding when advantage was given.
Aleña predominantly played quick, forward passes. Here, we have an example of his positioning. He would usually be on the edge of the box whenever the ball was with a winger. He was there to conduct play from one side to another, hence reducing the need to cross. As his positioning allowed, he had plenty of options upon receiving the ball. Whether shooting, passing, or sliding it through the opposition, his role was very important in Valverde’s midfield.
Leganes failure to adapt
Another trend popping up time and again was the pull-backs. On making a good dribble on either wing, Barcelona would pull back the ball into the box very frequently. This led to Barcelona’s first goal. It was very well worked but Leganes could have done better. It was clear that pull-backs were going to be a major threat early on. Leganes failed to adapt to this.
Whatever plan Leganes came to the Camp Nou with, it was a complete failure. With hardly any good build-up play or passing, their main problem was poor control in midfield. Whenever an attack came by, it was through a counter-attack. However, Barcelona effectively stopped any of them, and had numerical superiority too.
What made this possible was Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba pushing up and Busquets or Arthur dropping back a bit. There was a compromise though, as it made the league leaders vulnerable on the wings. As we saw, this was a reason behind the goal for Leganes.
Ousmane Dembele was without doubt the best player on the pitch. His dribbling was at a level Leganes could do nothing about. With Messi coming off the bench at 1-1 in the second half, Leganes knew what to expect. They would only be able to stop the Argentine’s wizardry if they were at their best.
Dembele made 11 successful dribbles out of 15, and each time he provided a great chance to score. It was a very mature display in the sense that he was aware of his limits. Unlike previous performances, Dembele did not give the ball away easily, misplace easy passes or lack an end product. His improvement has been very fast and well-rounded.
In the match against Levante, Dembele chipped the ball over to Messi. A few months ago, his passing ability and confidence to attempt such a pass was not enough. In this match the Frenchman also made a great pass to Luis Suarez, launching it over the defence delicately, reminiscent of the last match against Levante.
When Messi came on, Levante still had some hope because of the 1-1 score. However, a controversial Luis Suarez goal dismissed any chances of a comeback. Messi got the ball on the edge of the box, striking it towards goal. The powerful shot was saved and just as the goalkeeper gathered it, Suarez got a touch. In the process, he made contact with the goalkeeper and this caused some controversy.
The third goal of Barcelona was very well worked. The usual Messi-Alba combination proved lethal. On the edge of the box, Messi passed the ball to the full-back. Almost telepathically, Alba passed it back to assist an injury-time goal for Messi.
Leganes should have expected this. Time and again Barcelona made pull-backs and passes inside the box. This season, Messi and Alba have been one of the deadliest passing combinations. Watching Leganes not adapt and not know what to do was disappointing.
With the 3-1 victory, Barcelona are five points clear of Atletico Madrid. Leganes are now 14th. Barcelona played very well, but the match could have been much more interesting. Watching Leganes fumble around and watch disorganised attack after attack, it was not a real test for Barcelona. However, this victory was very important in extending the lead at the top of the table.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the January issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.