This piece was originally published on our flagship football analysis site, totalfootballanalysis.com.
Barcelona proved exactly why the Copa del Rey means the King’s Cup as they beat Levante 3-0. Using statistics, this tactical analysis will show how this match progressed.
After the 2-1 loss in the first leg Barcelona returned to the Camp Nou to face Levante. A late converted penalty by Philippe Coutinho had provided the away goal. Right from the moment the squad selection was announced, it was very apparent that Barcelona had decided to step up their game.
Unlike last time, a very strong team was announced. Nobody was selected from Barcelona’s B team, unlike the first leg. With Barcelona having made their intentions clear well in advance, let’s analyse how this match played out.
Barcelona have been on excellent form in La Liga. Winning their last six league games with an aggregate goals tally of 18-1, Barcelona are league leaders, five points ahead of Diego Simeone‘s Atletico Madrid. Barcelona should have been able to turn over this 2-1 loss easily.
Levante are a completely different story. Winning only one game in La Liga in December, they trail on aggregate 14-10. Barcelona have always found Levante to be tricky opponents. The infamous loss to them this year lead to the atmosphere being very tense.
There was much anticipation to this match. This match was fought on and off the pitch. Barcelona played Barcelona B defender Chumi, in the first leg. According to Levante, this should be illegal as he had picked up a suspension in the Segunda Division. But Barcelona were sticking to their side saying that is not applicable.
Coutinho had not been in the best of form recently. His previous match was very good however, and it was set up to be a turning point for him. Whether Valverde would start him remained to be seen.
This looked to be an important match for Enis Bardhi. The Macedonian was one of the worst players when Levante last lost to Barcelona. Here, playing against Barcelona’s first team, it would be important for him to prove himself. Cillessen has consistently been excellent when given a chance. He is not a selection problem for Ernesto Valverde right now, but this match could change it.
The line-ups were announced and as expected Barcelona put out a very strong team and so did Levante.
Manager: Ernesto Valverde
Barcelona went with Jasper Cillessen in goal. In defense, Lenglet was joined by new boy Jeison Murillo. On the right was Portuguese right back, Nelson Semedo. Jordi Alba retained his spot at left back. In midfield, the trio of Artur, Rakitic and Vidal looked very strong. The front three were Dembele, Messi and Countinho. Some key players were clearly rested. Suarez, Pique, Busquets, Sergi Roberto were on the bench, as was youngster Carles Aleña also made the bench.
Manager: Paco Lopez
Levante had gone with a very defensive option. In goal, Fernandez had the back three of Rober, Postigo and Cabaco in front of him. The midfield of five was with Enis Bardhi, the freekick specialist, to the left of Prcic along with Simon. Campaña and Coke played to the right of Prcic. The front two were the real threat. Ex-Real Madrid player Mayoral along with last season’s hat trick hero, Boateng.
Messi naturally was one of the key players. Along with La Pulga, Brazil’s Arthur was bound to be a key player initiating many forward passes and key passes.
For Levante, young striker Emmanuel Boateng was very important. Despite having the lead, Boateng’s hold up play and fast dribbling was essential. Borja Mayoral had been in good form and he was also counted on. Bardhi would be very important in midfield.
How it unfolded
For the first 15 minutes, Levante had no say in the game. Having a lot of possession, Barcelona were strong in attack through Ousmane Dembele. Surprisingly, Leo Messi lost possession numerous times. Barcelona’s new signing, Murillo was very calm when needed.
Levante were very compact and looked to apply immediate pressure. Whereas for Barcelona, Ivan Rakitic dropped between the defence to transition the ball. Levante created a few chances but always lacked an end product. The tempo of the match was slower.
This period was the most eventful. Dembele’s speed was a constant problem. In the 30th minute, Messi played a pass to Dembele who had made a great run. Levante tried to clear it but it came off Dembele and went in. The second goal was another stroke of luck. The French youngster made another great run which resulted in a good pass and a chip over the keeper. The ball would have gone out of play if not for the goalkeeper’s legs hitting it.
Half Time (2-0)
Early into the second half, Coutinho latched onto Messi’s ball and puts it into the net. Unfortunately, the goal was disallowed due to offside. In the 54th minute, Dembele picked up the run of Semedo superbly. Semedo pulled it back to Messi who delicately chipped it over the keeper’s legs.
Levante enjoyed a bit of possession here. Both teams made substitutions. Suarez came on for Coutinho who put in a great performance. It was a very slow period for Barcelona as they neither looked threatening nor threatened. Levante created a few chances.
Suarez got a chance to score which was saved. Cillessen showed his dominance in the box by punching away the ball. In the 92nd minute, Levante got their best chance on goal as Boateng hits the woodwork. The match finished 3-0 as Barcelona comfortably progressed to the next round.
Barcelona transitioned into a 3-4-3 with Semedo moving up into midfield. His pace allowed him that freedom. The key men were very clearly Leo Messi and Arthur. As shown in the figure below, Messi was his usual self by unlocking the defence at will. Always making the right decision was what made Messi valuable in open play. Meanwhile, Arthur was very much the orchestrator. Without Busquets, Arthur was the one recycling possession along with Rakitic. This duo proved to be more than a handful for Levante.
Levante played in a very defensive 5-3-2. Boateng was the lone striker up front. Enis Bardhi and Mayoral were almost like attacking midfielders. Levante played very compactly up the pitch. Enis Bardhi passed the ball around and dictated his team. Levante were not very effective at keeping possession throughout.
Barcelona had 65% posession in total. Sustaining their attacking was what they built play upon. Upon losing possession, Barcelona would immediately press. This resulted in Barcelona recovering 80 balls to Levante’s 60.
This aggressive pressing did make a difference. But what mattered was how Barcelona made use of this situation. Barcelona made eight counter attacks in this match, three of which resulted in shots. They also made 43 progressive passes with a 71% accuracy. Throughout the match, Barcelona constantly looked to pass the ball forward and into the final third. This caused Levante to be very defensive minded. Boateng was a lone striker and Bardhi played as an advanced playmaker.
Barcelonamade 199 passes into the final third. This huge number caused the chances to be created. It was no wonder Barcelona had more than one shot on target per 10 minutes.
The X Factor
Ousmane Dembele was very impressive in this match. The French winger scored twice but could have scored even more. Levante’s defence was no match for his pace. In the example shown, we see how even though Barcelona were outnumbered, they created chances. The perfect run by Dembele was such that Messi could slide the ball to him. Simultaneously, his speed made it impossible for defenders to tackle him fearing a penalty.
Dembele was very impressive throughout. His chemistry with Nelson Semedo was astounding. Playing on the right, both are very quick and agile. Many times, Dembele slid the ball between defenders just as Semedo overlapped him.
This caused a number of problems. Such a play resulted in Messi’s goal. In the image shown, we see the advanced position Semedo is in. He pulls the ball back through two defenders and Messi finishes the job.
Another example of Dembele’s skill is shown. He executed a perfect chip over the defence to free Leo Messi.
Levante lacked this x factor horribly and it was a very disappointing performance from an otherwise lively team.
Movement off the ball
For Levante, either Bardhi or Mayoral would transition between midfield and attack frequently. As shown in the image below, had Barcelona tried marking the player that dropped back, Levante would have played the ball to Boateng. This tactic failed to work as Levante immediately lost possession during transition.
Arturo Vidal often joined the attack. Some conditions for this were very clear. Whenever Messi or Coutinho got the ball at the edge of the box, Vidal would move up. Dembele and Vidal would be in the box and this even resulted in a few good opportunities through headers. Vidal also played on the edge of the box during attack. Joining most attacks, was an important part of numerical superiority in many passing combinations.
Arthur was an important cog in the midfield. With his great passing ability, he usually stayed back on attacks. With plenty of open space in front of him, he was able to play precise passes to teammates. Usually he took his time on the ball but when needed, playing quick passes was no problem. With these, he could also start attacks.
Levante came with a great game plan. At the rate which Barcelona moved up the pitch though, they were helpless. The quick recycling of possession by Barcelona combined with organised play was not manageable for Levante.
After such a performance, a 3-0 win to Barcelona was more than enough for them to advance to the semi-finals as they look to win the Copa del Rey for a record fifth consecutive time.
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