Both Alaves and Barcelona had a very sloppy start to this La Liga season. Moving into this game, Barcelona were coming on the back of a humiliating defeat in El Clasico, a game they always so badly want to win, and a scrappy win against Juventus away from home in the Champions League.
Alaves entered this game with an amazing 2-0 win against Real Valladolid away from home, their second only of the season.
Nevertheless, this game was expected to be a one-sided affair with Barcelona cruising to a comfortable win, but that wasn’t the case.
Barcelona at first lined-up in a 4-2-3-1, as they have done in every game this season. But from the first kick, the shape shifted to a 4-4-2 with the above structure and personnel.
Alaves on the other hand went with a Bielsa-like formation of 4-1-4-1, contrary to the 4-4-2 they have used so far this season.
Barcelona’s build-up from the back
When in possession of the ball, Barcelona always looked to build from the back. The back 4 got converted to a two-man backline of Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet, with both Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba moving higher up the pitch. Roberto, though, was slightly higher than Alba as well, as Alba at times formed a back 3 with Pique and Lenglet whenever Alaves looked to press high.
In the instance above, you can see the back 2 of Pique and Lenglet. Observe how Alba (in the red circle) and Roberto (in the orange circle) are higher up the pitch, with Roberto slightly higher than Alba as well. Barcelona always resorted to this shape in their build-up play in the entirety of the first half.
The pass map clearly shows the position of the defensive line during the build-up. Observe the positions of Pique (no.3), Lenglet (no.15), Alba(no.18), and Roberto (no.20).
In the second half, Lenglet was substituted for Pedri and Frenkie de Jong took the role of the center-back alongside Pique. Since de Jong is not a natural center-back, Miralem Pjanic (substituted for Sergio Busquets during the half time break) dropped to cover for him and to give Neto and the defenders extra passing options. Also Alaves started to press higher up the pitch in the second half, so that is also a reason for Pjanic to drop so as to create a n vs (n+1) situation for Barcelona.
Since Barcelona looked to build from the back with as much depth as they can, naturally Neto had to make a lot of passes inside his own third. This is shown in the graphics given below. It is the pass map of Neto’s passing.
Barcelona’s high backline and compact shape
From the very first second only, Barcelona began pushing really high up the pitch. It is very clearly seen in the average positions of Barcelona’s players.
Barcelona’s defensive line was almost at the half way line. This high line was achieved due to Pique and Lenglet’s movements with the ball, especially Lenglet. Pique mostly passed it to Lenglet and then he took it forward. This is the reason Lenglet executed 26 forward passes of which 22 were successful earning himself an accuracy of 85%.
He also effected 21 lateral passes with an accuracy of 100%, 46 short passes of the 50 attempted with an accuracy of 92%, 2 long passes of the 3 attempted with an accuracy of 67%, 6 progressive passes of the 7 attempted with an accuracy of 86% and also 1 key pass and 2 deep completions. He also made 10 passes to the final third of which 8 were accurate. That earns him an accuracy of 80%.
His average pass length was 18.6m which is the second-highest among Barcelona players, only behind Pique’s average pass length of 18.8m.
We can also see Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto much higher up the pitch.
While defending, Barcelona resorted to a more traditional way of defending, getting numbers in front of the goal. While the defenders stacked up the box, the midfielders along with the attackers initiated a man-to-man press, that converted to a zonal trap whenever Alaves went too deep inside a flank.
This is a typical example of how Barcelona defended throughout the course of the game. Sergi Roberto, Gerard Pique, Frenkie de Jong and Jordi Alba formed a defensive line, while Pjanic (in the black circle), Francisco Trincao (in the red circle) and Pedri (in the blue circle) looked to press Luis Rioja (Alaves’ no.11) who has the ball.
Alaves’ conservative press
Looking at the scoreline, it may not seem so but Alaves, quite literally, were no match to Barcelona. They were on the backfoot throughout the whole game. The goal that they got was due to a lack of communication between Pique and Neto which lead to Neto fumbling and Rioja scoring for Alaves.
Most of the time, Alaves were inside their own half only, because they were unable to match up to Barcelona’s high line. This is seen in the average positions of Alaves’ players.
Only two of their players (no.16 Edgar Mendez and no. 14 Deyverson) spent most of the time above the halfway line and that too just slightly. The positions of Lejeune (no.22), Víctor Laguardia (no.5), Rubén Duarte (no.3), Battaglia (no.6), Ximo Navarro (no.23), and Martín Aguirregabiria (no.21) show that Alaves looked to create a solid block in front of the goal to absorb the continuous bouts of attack that Barcelona launched.
They are standing in a 2-3 formational structure to cover up the spaces in between the lines to avoid the central players of Barcelona to exploit those. And the disheveled shape of other players at the top of this block shows that those players were the men initiating the press.
This tactics of Pablo Machin didn’t quite work as Barcelona took a total of 25 shots out of which 8 were on target. 14 of those shots were taken from inside the penalty area.
Since Barcelona were able to cut through Alaves so easily, the clearances that Alaves made were hasty and full of panic. They ended up leaking 14 corners and 3 free kicks, one of those free-kicks was a typical sublime Leo Messi under the wall free kick that luckily was stopped by Lejeune’s boots.
Alaves’ negligible attacking threat – crunching the numbers
In comparison to Barcelona’s 25 shots, Alaves took only 4 shots of which 3 were on target. We look at the charts below.
Alaves clearly succumbed to every aspect of attacking criterion in the game last night. The developmental graph of the xG dynamics also tells the same story.
Towards the end of the first half, Alaves did have a surge in the xG curve. That was due to the last-minute free-kick they got at the edge of the penalty area due to a mistimed Sergio Busquets tackle on Luis Rioja.
Lack of creativity the core of Alaves’ problems
The lack of sharpness in Alaves’ attack is due to their lack of creativity with the ball. And the reason for that is the lack of possession which occurs due to the conservative press. Below are the possession and passing charts of Alaves and Barcelona from the last game.
The pass charts show that not only did Alaves made less than 1/4th the no.of passes than Barcelona, but whenever they did effect passing, it lacked accuracy. The only criteria where they did beat Barcelona is in long passes.
That is because Barcelona play a short passing style of football and Alaves mostly looked to go long to score in the counter. Those long passes were mostly panic clearances by Fernando Pacheco or the Alaves defenders.
This is seen in the pass map of Alaves which has no shape and structure at all.
Final third problems come back to hit Barcelona
Even after dominating so hugely in every aspect of the game, the reason Barcelona couldn’t put the game to bed is lack of sharpness in the final third.
There’s an analytical reason for this lack of precision. The reason being the 4-2-3-1 that Koeman lines up Barcelona in. In a 4-2-3-1, Barcelona are by default outnumbered in the midfield due to teams playing 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 these days. To compensate for that, the four forwards have to drop. And Messi, Dembele, Fati and Griezmann, all are creative-minded players, hence they all end up dropping which results in the lack of energy in front of the goal.
One another reason is the lack of pace in this squad. All the successful 4-2-3-1s of the past or present had/have very fast and agile players. And in the current Barcelona setup, except for Dembele, no one has the optimum pace to charge up and down the flanks. This is one of the reasons that many times even after having spaces to run into, Barcelona were not able to exploit those. Below is an instant of Barcelona opening up space but not exploiting it.
Griezmann has the ball and two very big spaces have opened up but there’s only Fati running into it. Not to mention there are very useful half-spaces as well in between the lines, one of which is exploited by Messi on the right flank. But other than that, nothing. And this is just one of the many instances that Barcelona ended up like this.
The lack of a true no.9 is also the reason for Barcelona’s final third problems. In a lone striker formation, a team needs an ice cold finisher at the end of the balls. Barcelona’s forwards, no doubt, have wonderful finishing abilities but since they are not true strikers, they don’t have the basic hunting instinct of a striker. Which is why Barcelona end up missing half chances.
Messi’s supernatural abilities have also seen a significant dip due to this 4-2-3-1. This formation requires fast and agile players. Technical players have little to no room in this and most technical players end up failing in it.
The downfall of Kaka in Real Madrid is a testament to the fact. Technical players, like Thomas Mueller, who do end up being successful in lone striker formations, are the ones that do the creative job and Barcelona currently need Messi – the goal machine far more than Messi – the artistic playmaker.
Both Barcelona and Alaves have serious questions to find answers to moving ahead. When on one hand you have Barcelona, for whom everything seems to be going right but yet something is getting wrong, on the other you have Alaves for whom nothing seems to be going right.
Barcelona will be more worried as they are way behind the top teams, but Alaves also will look to stack up some points and change their fortunes.