Barcelona – Athletic Club: Catalans Cruise Into The Top Four (4-0)
Ahead of kickoff, Barcelona’s revival under the management of Xavi was on the verge of a crucial marker. Threatening to break into the Champions League berths, more of the same was in order. And his men emphatically delivered. A dominant display, and an inspired showing off the bench, gave way to a rampant scoreline that signals hope of a fruitful end to a highly turbulent campaign.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Barcelona? The return of the iconic Xavi to the Camp Nou might have wooed the fanbase to put feelings over facts, yet the manager has swiftly set about imposing control with the same ruthlessness that he dictated affairs on the field. An active winter transfer window, coupled with new life from the dugout, has propped the Catalans onto the shoulder of reigning champions Atlético Madrid: bearer of fourth place in LaLiga. Take the three points here, and that position was theirs to claim.
A 4-0 demolition of Real Sociedad might be the peak of Athletic Club’s season, but stability has defined their campaign. Marcelino has quietly steered the Basque outfit to steadier shores. His men now boast a rearguard that have conceded 21 goals in LaLiga, a record only worst than the top two in the division. The standings in the league table at eighth place are more humble, though the outcome of their miserly work could bear bountiful fruit. Two points off sixth placed Villarreal, Europe is now in sight.
True to Blaugrana heritage, Xavi organized his men in a 4-3-3 shape. Sergiño Dest moved over to the left of the back four, letting Dani Alves fill the hole at right back. Frenkie de Jong dropped to the bench in the middle of the park, making way for Gavi. Elsewhere, the starting eleven did not change from the 4-2 win in the second leg of their Europa League clash against Napoli. Therefore, all the members of the front three, Adama Traoré, Ferran Torres, and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, had joined the club in January.
Marcelino lined up his men in their classic 4-4-2 system. Though his men were fresh off their derby day victory, the Athletic Club manager rotated his outfit far more heavily. Bringing seven new men into the fold, he might have had half an eye on the second leg of against Valencia in midweek. Mainstays in Iñaki Williams, Iker Muniain, and Dani García all missed out, trusting their teammates to run the hosts close.
Barcelona take the territory
As one would expect, Barcelona dominated control of the ball, pressing high up the field. From their initial 4-1-4-1 formation, Aubameyang stayed on the right, running down Yeray Álvarez. Pedri then moved out of the midfield to press Dani Vivian. Sergio Busquets filled the room behind the central midfielder. This man-oriented 4-4-2 system forced the away team to operate with long balls. Hence, the primary tactical battle was evident in a match where the Catalans hoarded 72% of the possession.
A steady start in possession
Xavi has sought to enforce a more orderly strategy in possession than his predecessor Ronald Koeman. Their progress in this area would face a tough test in the form of a compact 4-4-2 block. Athletic’s setup, where the wingers blocked easy access to the halfspaces, forced Barcelona to seek progression out wide.
Sergio Busquets dropped off to support the back four in ball circulation, working around Athletic’s shape. The defensive midfielder mostly received support from Pedri in the first two thirds of the pitch since he filled a lower role than Gavi to the right: a typical distribution of tasks in the middle of the park under Xavi. Indeed, the profiles of players and relationships on the two flanks also looked rather different.
Torres has warmed to the rigors of a stringent use of the ball given his time under Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola. Therefore, rotations on the flank were more frequent than to the right. The winger on that side of the field was Traoré, whose link to Alves has offered a productive connection. Once again, the right back roamed into the halfspace, leaving the wide channel for his teammate to operate freely.
30th minute: offensive sequence from Barcelona. Xavi’s men execute a pattern that became much more common around the midway point of the first half. Pedri drops deeper in the left halfspace while Dest rotates into the channel before making an underlapping run. Torres can now drive inward from the flank, picking out Traore on the ball far side. Note the dropping movement of Busquets and the brief diagonal advancement of Alves as a secondary switching link, creating even more space on the right wing.
Aspects of Barcelona’s strategy have taken forward strides, but the guests did not relent. Gavi earned Barcelona’s best opportunity to take the lead in the 17th minute, blazing a strike over the bar from a driven Torres cutback. This rare chance indicated it would take time for a threat to manifest.
Athletic push, Barcelona seize the initiative
Barcelona’s persistence finally broke the deadlock in the 37th minute. Alves bent in a cross from the left flank to the edge of the six yard box, where Piqué thundered a headed effort beyond Unai Simón. The ball crashed back off the frame of the goal, only to drop at the feet of Aubameyang. The striker contorted himself to guide a strike into the net: 1-0 thanks to his fifth goal in his last three matches for the club.
At a deficit at the break, Marcelino adopted multiple changes. Two new men came on from the bench: Oihan Sancet replaced García in the front two and Álvarez came off in place of Iñigo Martínez. But of equal note was the shift in approach. To that point, Marcelino’s men had been mainly content to sit off in a medium block. However, they pushed higher up the pitch at the start of the second half.
The front two pressed from the front against the central defenders, Mikel Vesga jumped from the middle of the park to cover Busquets, and the wide men chased down the fullbacks. The horizontal compactness and greater aggression of Athletic’s work off the ball posed a new issue, but the home team were closest to scoring the next goal of the match. Chaos reigned at the back, handing Torres a golden opportunity in front of goal. Unfortunately, he failed to tuck the ball past Simón, maintaining the opposition’s foothold.
Dembélé’s doubters get a stern riposte
So, in the 67th minute, Xavi plucked for fresh legs, making a double substitution. A pair of straight swaps saw de Jong replace Gavi and Ousmane Dembélé come in for Torres. Those substitutions soon paid off.
Barcelona made headway on the right flank, turning over the ball at the halfway line. Alves and Busquets linked up to work their way out of a tight spot, teeing up the central midfielders to sweep the play to the ball far side, where Dembélé lurked. The left winger squared up against Iñigo Lekue, sliding onto his left foot before cracking an effort into the roof of the net. And the Frenchman had not completed his work.
With a little under ten minutes to go on the clock, Dembélé switched to the right flank. Memphis Depay had entered the fray as the left winger, briefly before Luuk de Jong’s introduction in place of Aubameyang. Both Dutch attackers would be beneficiaries of their teammate’s service with a familiar pattern. On the brink of injury time, a switch from Pedri fed Dembélé, whose left footed cross met the head of Luuk de Jong. Effortlessly using his right boot after a switch from Frenkie de Jong, his delivery into Memphis was the route to the fourth goal. A superb 25 minute cameo had killed off the contest.
Xavi does not have a magic wand, rendering gradual markers of improvement of great value. Relatively harmless in the opening stages, their emerging threat over the course of the game deserved three points in the end. What will also please the manager is the output of his substitutes. Already sitting in fourth place in the table, with a game in hand on Real Betis, their extra firepower from the bench offered a timely reminder of what Barcelona have to gain within the context of their hunt for the Champions League.
After the final whistle, Marcelino spoke about the physical strain awaiting his men in the imminent cup tie against Valencia. Load management was evidently on his mind. Although Athletic’s offensive threat was marginal, the blowout in the dying embers of the contest reflects a little unfavorably on his side’s stake in affairs. Yet, the Basque team have a chance to validate their manager’s selections on Wednesday, where hopes of silverware, due credit to Marcelino’s latest project, might come closer to fruition.
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