Barcelona – Villarreal: Xavi Hits The Reset Button (3-0)

The pressure has not ceased for Xavi, but at least he got some respite. His men made light work of a tricky task to set the preparatory tone for what will be a crucial fixture in their campaign.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

High expectations put on pressure as soon as plans go awry. Barcelona sat at the top of LaLiga at the start of October, eyeing the knockout stages in the Champions League. In a fortnight, however, the Catalans have plunged themselves into serious trouble. Inter Milan have pushed them onto the verge of elimination for the second year on the spin, while a defeat in El Clásico reminded them of the struggle to return to the summit in Spain. Xavi’s mission was to get the ship back on track urgently.

Amid a rough stretch of fixtures, he had fair warning about the quality of the visitors. Villarreal might have entered the Champions League via the back door, but no one could have figured that out from their displays. At home among the European elite, they only bowed out in the last four by May. Yet, the week to week grind of the league is a different challenge. A lack of goals, without Gerard Moreno, continues to undermine their good work. So would the dynamics of this contest work in their favor?

Xavi’s men took to the field in their typical 4-3-3 formation. The starting eleven featured five changes from the weekend. Álex Balde and Eric García dropped to the bench, making way for Jordi Alba and Marcos Alonso. Ahead of them was Frenkie de Jong, sitting at the base of the midfield in place of Sergio Busquets. Gavi and Pedri completed the set in the middle of the park. Robert Lewandowski spearheaded the attack with the support of a different pair of wingers in Ansu Fati and Ferran Torres.

Unai Emery sent out the away team in a 4-4-2 shape, but injuries have culled his options. Juan Foyth was still on the sidelines with a knee injury, so Kiko Femenía stepped in on the right of the back four. More regulars were absent in the midfield. Pain in his calf ruled out Francis Coquelin, while Étienne Capoue and Giovanni Lo Celso had muscle strains. Álex Baena and Manu Morlanes deputized again. In the absence of Moreno, Villarreal’s manager picked Nicolas Jackson and Arnaut Danjuma upfront.

Slow suffocation

Camp Nou insisted on a dominant display from the Blaugrana, getting what they wanted. The home team dominated the control of the ball and territory, seeking to pin Villarreal in their half of the pitch. The guests duly relied on a familiar gameplan, sitting off in a 4-4-2 formation to set out their stall.

The first aim in a compact block was to keep the center tight. Once the play filtered its way to the outside of the front two, the midfield engaged. The wingers to either side of the double pivot stayed tight, offering cover to shield the passing lanes into the halfspaces that would break the lines. As attacks progressed, their job was to find the right time to shut down the deep, wide ball carrier or retreat to double up compactly with the fullback against the high and wide winger on the flank.

Barcelona gradually took apart this system. Pedri was the lower of the two central midfielders, reading when he ought to support de Jong deep in the left halfspace. He and Alba gained space and time in this zone outside the formation. Frailties began to open up in the center of the block, where Lewandowski and Fati could find room between the pivot as the front two did not always continue to support the midfield. On the right, Torres’ deeper width on the flank and Gavi’s higher positioning worked in tandem with Sergi Roberto’s more reserved role to break through from the outside.

5th minute: offensive sequence from Barcelona. Lewandowski rotates out to the left flank to support Alba, drawing pressure from Femenía, before returning a pass to the left back. As Pino prepares to close him down, Fati comes back onside in the halfspace. Femenía, Morlanes and Albiol all edge towards the forward. Since Danjuma lurks higher, Pedri is free to receive and switch to Roberto.

Barcelona’s switch in shifting scheme asserts their dominance

While the visitors hardly had any spells on the ball, Barcelona would be wise to respect the maturity of their buildup structure. Alfonso Pedraza roamed higher on the left flank, handing Pau Torres more freedom to drive forward with the ball at his feet in a chain of three. Parejo racked up the most passes from the middle of the park, and Baena rotated inside while Danjuma looked to roam into channels.

The home team still wished to press high up the pitch but changed tact. Their usual man-oriented 4-4-2 shape, with a central midfielder higher next to Lewandowski, made way for an asymmetric 4-3-3 scheme. Lewandowski tended to the left, Ferran Torres moved higher to take care of his namesake, and Roberto shifted out of the back four to press Pedraza. The change succeeded. De Jong screened the other defenders as the single pivot, and Villarreal’s possession sequences barely gained impetus.

10th minute: pressing sequence from Barcelona. The asymmetric front three and Roberto’s pressure force Pedraza inward. De Jong marks Baena, while Pedri is free to pick up the dropping movement from Jackson, forcing the fullback into a wide progression where Barcelona can retrieve the ball.

The floodgates open

At the half hour mark, the talisman broke the deadlock. Pedri instigated the danger, breaching the lines from deep to find Alba’s run on the left flank. The fullback drilled the ball across the penalty area into the path of Lewandowski, who pivoted away from Raúl Albiol and Pau Torres before slotting an effort under the body of Geronimo Rulli. 1-0. His work was far from over on the night.

His brace arrived within the next five minutes. Gavi and Pedri hounded Torres on the halfway line, enforcing a state of transition. Gavi picked up the ball, wriggled away from Parejo, and switched the play towards the edge of the box, where Lewandowski, on his left, lurked. He shifted inside, opened up his body, and wrapped a sweet strike into the side of the net. The three points were in sight.

But the hosts did not contemplate shifting into a lower gear. De Jong broke forward, dribbling into the final third. There, Lewandowski and Gavi kept up the pace of the play, stretching the field to access Torres on the far side. Free in acres of space, the right winger cut inside the lunging Baena and hit the ball into the six yard box. Fati drifted into the danger zone from the left, stumbling to miss the target at the first attempt, then bundling home the rebound with his heel. Xavi’s men were in their pomp.

Plain sailing

Making the most of a comfortable night, Xavi made all five rotations from the bench. Hector Bellerín took to the field for the first time in more than a month in LaLiga, filling in for Roberto in the right back slot. Veterans Busquets and Gerard Piqué then entered the fray to manage the final quarter of an hour. The reconfiguration of the attack featured Lewandowski making way for Ousmané Dembélé, Torres moving into the middle of the front three, and Raphinha ending the contest on the left flank.

It was Barcelona’s forwards that came closest to adding to the scoreline. In the 79th minute, Dembélé nearly assisted Raphinha for a fourth goal, but the Brazilian skewed his shot wide of the target from the edge of the six yard box. It was no matter for the hosts, on whom Villarreal could not lay a finger.


Xavi has pressed home that Barcelona cannot afford to go through a transitional season, rendering this victory mandatory. His men have now terminated a slump of form in which they have won one of their last four fixtures. The control of the display in the first half, through the calmer use of the ball and less erroneous work in defense, paved the way effortlessly to all three points. The side must now take confidence ahead of the visit of Bayern next week to try and stay alive in the Champions League.

On the other hand, Villarreal will be eager to move on from this loss as quickly as possible. The organization of Emery’s men had earned them the award of the tightest rearguard in LaLiga before kickoff, but by the end of the night, the number of goals they had given away for the season had doubled. Moreover, the lack of activity at the other end of the field will still be an area of concern for the manager. The visit of Almeria should be an opportune moment to get back to winning ways.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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