Barcelona Valverde tactics

Barcelona – Sevilla: Barcelona’s Forwards Are Still LaLiga’s Efficiency Kings (4-0)

It took a while due to Messi’s injuries, but the monster triumvirate of Ter Stegen, Luis Suárez and Leo Messi – who have ruled LaLiga with an iron fist for the last two years – finally got to play a full 90 minutes together this league season. And the results should terrify everyone else in the league, because the trio are back in full force. Barça bulldozed Sevilla in a match where the scoreline had absolutely nothing to do with the actual run of play. 

Tactical analysis and match report by José Pérez

Ernesto Valverde must still solve the key tactical conundrums of Barça 2019/20: what his midfield structure looks like and how to best accompany Messi and Suárez. Against Sevilla, Valverde tried the same lineup changes that gave him good results in their Champions League game against Inter. 

Valverde started Arturo Vidal instead of veteran mainstay Sergio Busquets, forming a midfield trio wherein Frenkie de Jong would play the holding role, while Arthur Melo and Vidal would play as left and right interior midfielders, respective. Up front, Ousmane Dembelé, having also overcome his injury setbacks, started instead of Antoine Griezmann, alongside the usual Messi – Suárez duo.

The Sevilla of Julen Lopetegui, on the other hand, already have a well-defined structure and plan with a 4-3-3 shape that aims to dominate opponents through possession and pressing. Their strong pressing game has allowed them to concede few shots per game and establish themselves as one of the better defensive units in the league. To progress through midfield, they often use long switches of play from the talented Joan Jordán and Éver Banega to one of the most in-form fullback pairs in the league: Jesús Navas and Sergio Reguilón.

Sevilla’s main issue comes forward  in their forward line, which struggles to convert all of that fullback and midfield play into goals. Dutch striker Luuk de Jong puts in a good defensive shift, wins many aerial duels and provides good link-up play outside the box, but he’s yet to provide a single goal or assist for Sevilla. Meanwhile, Luis Ocampos and Nolito, Sevilla’s starting wingers, also do good pressing work and even scored some vital goals lately, but it’s still hard to believe they can score and decide games consistently.

Sevilla wins the initial pressing battle but fail to score their big chances

Sevilla’s superior pressing game allowed them to initially overpower Barça and produce the better chances. 

Left winger Nolito and right midfielder Banega cannot cover as much ground as their younger teammates, so Sevilla used an asymmetric pressing scheme. On the left side, Nolito would often tuck inside, ready to press Sergi Roberto or Vidal, while Torres – the left-sided midfielder – would push forward instead to press center back Todibo. On the right side, Ocampos would push forward to press Piqué or left back Semedo as needed, while Banega would stay deeper and keep watch over Arthur. 

From the very beginning of the game, Frenkie tried to operate in between his center-backs to create numerical superiority against Sevilla’s men during Barça’s buildup.. Besides, Arthur Vidal, and even Messi would make support runs into deeper zones to provide help during buildup. However, with Barça midfielders and Messi often operating so deep, it became hard for the team to progress the ball into the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. The focused Sevilla defensive line often managed to recover the ball before Barça players could move into the box.

Barça’s 4-3-3 shape in possession against Sevilla’s 4-3-3 pressing block.

Sevilla’s possessions did manage to cut deep into Barça’s territory and reach the box. Unlike Sevilla, Barça forwards were not effective enough in their pressing work. Suárez and Messi cannot cover enough ground quickly enough while Dembelé has the legs but struggles to win defensive duels. Thus, Barça midfielders and fullbacks had impossible pressing tasks ahead of them. 

Since playing Messi means that Barça effectively plays without a right winger, Vidal often had to move wide right to press left back Reguilón. Vidal’s contribution prevented Reguilón from making his trademark powerful runs with the ball, but meant he had to leave the middle zones unguarded, leaving midfielder Óliver Torres free to move around. Torres was a thorn on the side of an outmanned Barça midfield, moving across the width of the pitch to create numerical superiorities and easy passing outlets that helped his team break free of Barça’s pressing attempts. 

To boot, Ocampos continued his great run of form, making life hard for both Semedo and Piqué on the left through his speed and dribbling. Sevilla could find him either through diagonal switches of play or through good link-up play with Luuk de Jong. From Ocampos crosses and a set-piece (a corner also won by Ocampos), Sevilla generated three big chances for striker de Jong in the first half hour. The striker was not able to score any of them, though we must say that the first big chance featured yet another Ter Stegen miracle intervention.

Sevilla slaughtered in less than ten minutes by their rival’s efficiency

Barça were in a tough spot, but unlike Sevilla, they would not miss their big chances. 

Furthermore, they had figured out a way through Sevilla’s press, which was getting less intense as time went by. Everyone on Barça’s left side – Piqué, Semedo, Arthur, Dembélé – started pushing back their opponents with ball-carrying runs that gave them an easy ball progression route into Sevilla’s half of the pitch. Finally, some good interplay among Frenkie, Semedo and Dembelé in the final third put Semedo in a good crossing position and Suárez would not miss his chance, scoring from a spectacular bicycle kick in the 26th minute. 1-0.

To open up the Sevilla defense, Suárez started moving wide left while Dembelé shifted over to the right side. This made opened up spaces in the middle so that Messi and especially Vidal could slip in behind Sevilla’s defensive lines. And with Barça creating longer and longer possessions in front of Sevilla’s box, Arthur and Frenkie finally had the chance to break down the opposition through their good dribbling and passing abilities. After another round of quickly moving the ball in front of Sevilla’s box, an Arthur through ball found Vidal, who had just darted between Carriço and Reguilón. 2-0.

And goals are often the best boost for a team’s intensity and focus. Soon after the second goal, Barça midfield line rushed forward to press and cut off Sevilla’s midfield from their defense, in a 4-4-2 shape that featured Dembelé and Vidal as wingers. Arthur stole the ball from opposing holding midfielder Fernando and passed the ball for Dembelé to do his thing, taking out Diego Carlos with a shooting feint and scoring. 3-0. Game, set, match in less than ten minutes.

Shockingly, Sevilla did not lose steam after this massive series of blows and kept attacking. At this point, the match turned in a more direct, come-and-go affair, with both teams pressing in a less consistent and organized fashion and attacking their opponents through quicker possessions with more vertical passes. Sevilla managed to progress through combinations on the wings and produce a few crosses into the box through Ocampos and their fullbacks, but Nolito and de Jong could not outsmart Barça defenders well enough to get into the ideal shooting positions.

Through increased pressing intensity and substitutes, Lopetegui tries to change the game

Lopetegui moved his bench swiftly and decisively to engineer a comeback. After half-time, Nolito and Torres were replaced by Munir and Joan Jordán, looking for more effectiveness and punch in the final third. Lopetegui instructed his team to start the second half by pressing even more aggressively than in the first, with fullbacks darting forward and pushing directly against Barça’s own fullbacks, and while the forward trio and Jordán and pressed against Barça’s center-backs and the Frenkie-Arthur duo.

Barça’s 4-3-3 shape in buildup against Sevilla’s ’sucide pressing’ block. Notice the gap between Sevilla’s defense and midfield lines.

This put Sevilla in a dangerous situation, because if a single overhead pass or through ball made it past the press, Barcelona’s attackers had tons of space to threaten the Sevilla defensive line. In the 48th minute, Sevilla’s gamble worked, with Ocampos and de Jong stealing the ball from Arthur right outside the box. However, the ensuing shot from de Jong hit the post, the striker failing to score his fourth big chance of the game.

Sevilla kept pushing, with Jordán and Banega quickly moving the ball around, Navas and Reguilón bursting forward, and the energetic Ocampos and Munir moving across the pitch to dribble opponents or produce the right cross or through ball. Apart from a Carriço header from a dangerous position in the 55th minute, Barça managed to clear most of the danger away from their box, but Sevilla clearly dominated the game. 

Sevilla could not keep up this intensity for long, however. Once Barça started racking up passes in Sevilla’s half – led by Frenkie and Arthur – it was hard for Sevilla get the ball off them. Barça used these longer possessions to defend with the ball and cool down the game. And thanks to Messi and the good movements of Vidal, it wouldn’t take long for these longer possessions to turn into chances. 

After the 60th minute, the game once again turned into a constant come-and-go, with both teams trading punches and neither really controlling the midfield area. Such situations usually benefit the team with superior firepower, and as expected, it was Barça who produced the best chances during this chaotic period. Valverde tried to improve his midfield control by subbing in Busquets for Arthur in the 65th minute and Rakitić for Vidal in the 70th minute. On the other hand, Lopetegui subbed out a bitterly disappointing Luuk de Jong for Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández in the 65th minute. 

The changes barely improved Barça’s ability to control the game. Midfield was still mostly a transition zone for both teams. The ball moving so quickly that defenders in both sides struggled to keep up and get into the right positions, often having to resort to rushed, emergency tackles. But once again, Barça’s superior effectiveness quelled any potential Sevilla rebellion, when an 80th minute Messi free kick turned into the fourth and final goal for the home side. On the other side, striker Hernández gave the Barça defense some trouble, even getting defender Ronaldo Araujo (who replaced an injured Todibo) red carded in the 87th minute of this crazy, crazy game. But ultimately, no Sevilla goals came about.


Do not let the scoreline fool you. Barça’s performance against Sevilla is eerily similar to what we’ve seen in the previous two league seasons, with Barça struggling to control a game yet still coming through due to their effectiveness at both ends of the pitch. 

Perhaps more worrying is that this lack of midfield control is happening despite both Arthur and Frenkie being in good form. Valverde still has several structural issues to solve if he wants this team to control games and not consistently expose his defensive line.

Sevilla is the exact opposite. When it comes to collective structure and tactics, it’s hard to demand more from Lopetegui and his men. The team presses with intensity, solidarity, compactness and intelligence, and this allowed them to outplay a superior rival throughout many phases of the game. Meanwhile, midfielders, fullbacks, and an enlightened Ocampos managed to progress the ball effectively and create a grand total of six big chances against this superior rival. At this point, the only thing Lopetegui can do is either keep rotating his forwards until he finds the ones who are most effective in front of goal or hope that de Jong and co. can overcome this bad streak sooner rather than later.

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José Pérez (31) writes and talks about anything football-related: players, tactics, analytics, the relationship between football and society. Whenever he is not working on high-power lasers, he tries to keep up with all big five European leagues, but focuses particularly on La Liga. Outside of Between the Posts, you can find him arguing with people and posting analyses on Twitter or answering questions on Quora. [ View all posts ]


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