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Barcelona hosted a struggling Villarreal side at the weekend and picked up all three points that saw them reclaim top spot in La Liga. Although it was somewhat a shaky performance against a team that is battling to stay afloat amid the teams facing relegation, the full spoils are something that cannot be taken for granted this season in Spain.

But alas, all is well with the world as every top team drops points but Barcelona and Real Madrid win their games. Just like the olden days, you might say. The manner in which it was done is a different topic altogether.

This tactical analysis will use statistics and insight to dissect the match that saw Barcelona move to the top of the table once again.

Line ups

Barcelona (4-3-3)

Starting XI: Ter Stegen; Semedo, Piqué, Lenglet, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Vidal; Coutinho, Dembelé, Messi.

Bench: Iñaki Peña, Denis Suárez, Malcom, Munir, Aleñá, Miranda, Chumi

Coach: Ernesto Valverde

Villarreal (4-3-2-1)

Starting XI: Asenjo; Mario Gaspar, Álvaro, Víctor Ruiz, Pedraza; Cáseres, Cazorla, Trigueros; Fornals, Chukwuezey; Gerard Moreno.

Bench: Andres Fdez, Funes Mori, Bacca, J.Costa, Toko Ekambi, Raba, Morlanes

Coach: Javier Calleja

Barcelona’s setup

After a questionable performance away in Eindhoven, Ernesto Valverde had a lot to think about going into the next game. In the end, the Basque coach did what everyone expected him to do – nothing much.

The same 11 that graced the pitch against PSV, played at the Camp Nou in front of the home supporters and the results were, again, mostly as expected.

The team played in a 4-3-3 formation throughout the whole game but the players swapped positions regularly as it suited the situations more. Vidal was once again in a free-roam role in the final third as well as in midfield. We saw Messi as a number 10, and Coutinho interchanging between the wings and the left part of the midfield trident.

Barcelona Villarreal Tactical Analysis

Villarreal’s setup

Calleja opted for a slightly non-traditional 4-3-2-1 system to face the Catalan giant inside of their fortress, and it proved to be a solid option. In the end, the result may not show it but the Yellow Submarine provided a good performance against the new (old) league leaders.

The return of Asenjo between the sticks and Alvaro at the centre-back position injected additional optimism in their ranks and the injury list is not ideal but also not critical with only three names missing out on the game as opposed to eight on Barcelona’s side.

Villarreal fluctuated between the initial setup to 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 in defensive transitions, providing extra men in midfield and even leaving only three players in the back for additional support moving forward.

Barcelona Villarreal Tactical Analysis

Familiar themes

Not much has changed at all from the midweek game in the Netherlands as Barcelona’s setup, both in personnel and tactics, was identical to the game plan they had against PSV. With Arthur Melo and Luis Suarez still sidelined, it was up to Arturo Vidal to compensate for both.

The Chilean was once again given the free-role in midfield which saw him swap places with both Lionel Messi and Philippe Coutinho when needed. On paper, it should have been a simple 4-3-3 but in more instances that transitioned to a 4-2-1-3 with Vidal operating as a number 10 in between the forward and the midfield trio.

Barcelona Villarreal Tactical Analysis
Barcelona’s 4-2-1-3 setup with Vidal in a free-roam role. Rakitić and Busquets form a double-pivot in the middle.

It was interesting to see the contrast between the two wings for Barcelona. While the connection between Semedo and Dembele seems to be consistently growing with each game, the same cannot really be said for their counterparts in Coutinho and Alba.

The missteps from the last game were once again there to see. Alba’s presence was somewhat diminished with the one of the Brazilian forward but Valverde seems to have noticed that as well.

Since it is difficult to fully reap the benefits of Alba’s attacking prowess if Coutinho stays in front of him, the Ant instructed the Brazilian to drop deeper into the midfield, swapping places with Vidal and allowing more freedom to Jordi on the left flank.

Barcelona Villarreal Tactical Analysis
A recurring theme in this Barcelona setup: Coutinho drops to midfield to allow Alba freedom on the left. Vidal takes up a free-roam role in-between the two thirds, often operating as either of the wings or as a number 10.

While this compensated for Coutinho’s winger shortcomings, it also meant that there was one threat less to deal with for the away team’s defenders. In case Vidal was in a number 10 position, as pictured in the image above, and Coutinho was on the left side of the midfield trident, Villarreal could easily nullify Alba’s presence since the Spaniard was mostly tasked to stretch the field all by himself.

The guests would usually line up in a narrow 4-3-3 formation when defending but this was more fluid with the full-backs often leaving the back line to move a bit forward and press for the ball.

Barcelona Villarreal Tactical Analysis
When defending, Villarreal would usually set up in a narrow 4-3-3 formation higher up the pitch.

Barcelona enjoyed longer spells of possession but not without any contest from the opposition. Villarreal would regularly go out of shape to high press the opposition and move the whole defensive line further up the pitch to do so.

Notice in the image below how Calleja instructed his team to be more direct and proactive instead of turtling up and waiting for a mistake. In those latter cases mistakes rarely happen in Barcelona’s side but when pressed, as Betis or PSV did, mistakes can (and did) happen more often.

Barcelona Villarreal Tactical Analysis
Villarreal deploying a high defensive line and contesting the possession with a press.

Similar tactics

Villarreal would press when out of possession and play through the wings when attacking. Sound familiar? It should because those were the same tactics Ernesto Valverde relies on in most of the games.

When they lost the ball, Barcelona pressed tremendously in order to regain possession within the next couple of seconds. The most important thing was to make sure lost balls only happened in the opposition’s half, which was mostly the case with 46% of lost balls happening in the final third.

Barcelona Villarreal Tactical Analysis

Barcelona would press instantly after losing the ball. Villarreal operated in a similar manner. Still, Villarreal was persistent with their tactics as well. Mostly they revolved around fast transitions, which is something that hugely troubles this Barcelona side. Fast brakes would then be orchestrated through the right wing where Chukwueze was constantly getting the better of Alba and Lenglet.

The Nigerian international completed 5/6 dribbles and made eight progressive runs which then resulted in five touches in the box and two shots on target.

The idea was to either get him in a 1v1 situation with one of Barcelona’s defenders or to make him cut inside, occupy that half-space and open up the right side of the field for Mario Gaspar to exploit.

Barcelona Villarreal Tactical Analysis
Standard Villarreal tactic when moving forward. Chukwueze cuts inside, freeing up space for Gaspar to overlap. Since all midfielders crowd him in, the left side also gets some freedom.

In this case, Samuel drifts inside, pulls numerous defenders on himself and with that one move frees both wings to attack the free space behind the lines. Fortunately for Barca, his pass get intercepted and the attack breaks off.

Villarreal managed to hit the post once in the first half through Moreno, and that was a combination of sloppy defending and once again penetrating through the right side of the pitch.

While it is usually the opposite side that is more vulnerable, the left was more exposed this time due to Alba’s high positioning and Coutinho’s lack of defensive contribution. It was a similar thing that used to happen when Dembele and Roberto combined on the right but this time, that was patched up nicely.

Semedo would often stay behind Ousmane for cover, and if the Portuguese overlapped (like below), Rakitić would slot into that free space in case something went wrong.

Barcelona Villarreal Tactical Analysis
When Semedo overlaps, Rakitić slots back to the right to cover for the missing Portuguese.

The Philippe Coutinho Dilemma

The most expensive purchase in Barcelona’s history is still trying to find a place for himself in the Catalan capital. Coutinho is to a certain extent “forced” to play in the position of a left-winger but that spot is not suiting the Brazilian as much as it did the player he is trying to replace.

Neymar was a natural winger while Coutinho loves the half-space and the position of an attacking midfielder.

We already mentioned how he did drift back to midfield throughout the game but as much as it did make him more comfortable, the attack suffered due to the reason we also explained. It seems that Ernesto Valverde will have to find a different solution for his most expensive player in the team as Coutinho’s impact on the game was next to non-existent.

Barcelona Villarreal Tactical Analysis
Barcelona’s pass network.

Still, a lot has to be attributed to Villarreal as well. Notice how Messi is cut off from the rest of the team, and how Coutinho and Dembele struggled to find him with passes. Even the midfield was not properly connected to the Argentine which resulted in less impact from Barcelona’s most important player.

Faith Restored

There are many setbacks in this tactic used by Valverde but we should also mention the positives, and there are a lot of them as well. The first one is a glaring one – Ousmane Dembele.

The Frenchman was probably the only positive attacking outlet for Barcelona for the whole first 45 minutes of the match. The youngster finished the game with 10 completed runs, four key passes, two big chances created and eight dribbles completed.

It seems that he is growing with every chance he gets, and so is his partnership with Nelson Semedo. All positive signs on that right side of the pitch.

Still, as much as he was dangerous for the opposition, his final product after a great run is still questionable as he struggles with those sideways passes. In those situations, he still loses a lot of balls which can cause a quick counter, something Barcelona is really vulnerable to.

Dembouz lost 16 balls, which is far too many, but luckily, none happened in his own half.

Barcelona Villarreal Tactical Analysis
Graphic of Ousmane Dembele’s lost balls.

Another positive was Pique, who was once again back to his best, both in attack and defence. His second goal in two consecutive games meant that the Geri is the second best defender in scoring goals, only one behind Sergio Ramos who leads the pack with five to his name.

Still, his defensive contributions were far more important as he mustered six clearances, 12 recoveries, and eight interceptions. He lost only three balls throughout the whole game and looked really sharp in most instances.

As a result, Barcelona kept a clean sheet in La Liga for the first time since August 25th.

Of course, Carles Alena has to be mentioned as the La Masia graduate finally scored his first goal at the Camp Nou on Sunday.

Once again it was the brilliance of Lionel Messi to find the youngster with a beautiful through ball but the midfielder finished the attack with class.

Barcelona Villarreal Tactical Analysis
Messi finds Alena with a beautiful through ball.

Honourable mention also goes to Arturo Vidal, who was excellent and energetic but also once again replaced which annoyed the crowd and earned Valverde thunderous whistles.


It could be said that this Barcelona side plays for the result and not for the performance. Not much can be taken away from the latter but it is the former that counts the most. Or it should, at least.

La Liga has never been more competitive than it is right now, and that is great. Still, extremely slow and conservative games from the club that used to be the most entertaining in the world is unfortunately disappointing.

The points count the most, though, and these three points mean that Barcelona is back on top of the table.

At the moment, that is the only thing that matters.

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