FC Barcelona – RCD Espanyol: Espanyol Pose Interesting Questions But Barcelona Have Messi (2-0)
Espanyol genuinely made life hard for Barcelona at Camp Nou by playing in a very compact and well-functioning 5-3-1-1 formation. Only past the midway point of the second half did the home side find a way to score and this essentially ended the game, after what had been a very interesting, yet one-sided seventy minutes of play.
Tactical analysis and match report by Erik Elias.
If the traffic does not get in your way, you can drive from Camp Nou to Espanyol’s home stadium Estadi Cornellà-El Prat in fifteen minutes or less. As was questioned earlier in our Weekend Preview, it is hard to imagine the players getting truly worked up about the fact this is a derby, and they can beat a city rival. And maybe that is even unfair to ask of them, since in the modern era of club football, players hardly even have the time to become attached to their club or supporters, because the next club is already knocking on their door. For fans it is a totally different story of course.
Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde played in what can be considered his strongest starting eleven. Marc-André ter Stegen in goal, aided by fullbacks Jordi Alba and Nélson Semedo, while Gerard Piqué is partnered by Clément Lenglet in central defense, leaving a fit Samuel Umtiti on the bench. Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić and Arthur make up the midfield. As left ‘winger’, Coutinho gets the nod since Ousmane Dembélé is injured. Luis Suárez acts as the striker and captain Lionel Messi is fielded as the right winger, even though he seldom acts in that position.
When playing away at Barcelona or Real Madrid, you cannot play in your usual formation and style of play and hope everything works out fine. Therefore, manager Rubi ditched his usual 4-3-3 formation and went for a 5-3-1-1 / 5-3-2 hybrid. Just in front of the five-man defense, veteran central midfielder Víctor Sánchez was flanked by two shuttlers in the form of Esteban Granero and Marc Roca. Up front, Óscar Melendo played a key tactical role by playing as a striker-come-number-ten, next to the tall Borja Iglesias.
Match prediction, standings and implications going into the weekend.
Espanyol show benefits of five at the back
There is a difference between parking the bus and hoping for the best, and genuinely attempting to deny your opponent access to the most dangerous parts of the pitch with a well though-out plan. Against Barcelona, Espanyol did the latter. When Barcelona had the ball, they formed a 5-3-1-1 formation, with Melendo playing just behind striker Iglesias.
This is a great formation to combat Barcelona’s 4-3-3 shape. Barcelona’s fullbacks act as de facto wingers, as both Messi – complete freedom – and Coutinho – often in the left halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. – come inside. Barcelona’s attacking shape often ends up as a 2-3-5, with Suarez looking to stretch the opponent vertically and the wingers doing the same horizontally. Against a defense of two banks of four, Barcelona often is able to feed players ‘between the lines’, which is how most of their attacks start.
The way Espanyol defended on their own half against Barcelona’s 4-3-3 formation.
Because Espanyol’s midfielders were so close to their defense, there was no ‘between the lines’. The spaces that Barcelona could occupy best where just between the central midfielders and the fullbacks. If a Barcelona player would attempt to receive the ball there, one of Espanyol’s center-backs would step out to prevent that player from turning, while the other four defenders would narrow the defense.
One of the biggest issues when playing in a low block A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. like Espanyol did, is that the opponent has time on the ball to play diagonal passes over the last line. Throughout the game, Melendo functioned as a true anti-Busquets, meaning he was nullified. If Arthur, Rakitić or another player would have time on the ball in the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. the same dynamic would occur. Either Granero or Roca would step out, and if necessary, a central defender would cover up the space they left.
Espanyol press hesitantly
Very sparingly, Espanyol attempted to press Barcelona’s buildup, even though 5-3-1-1 is not an ideal formation for this. When they did so, this is how they went about their business.
The way Espanyol, incidentally, attempted to disrupt Barcelona’s buildup.
Melendo, being the anti-Busquets, would man-mark him, like he did all afternoon. Iglesias would stick to one central defender – most often Piqué, while a midfielder would step out to pressure the ball. Since Espanyol’s wing-backs seemed a bit afraid to commit themselves to Barcelona’s fullbacks, the press was not as effective as it could have been.
It is therefore a bit of a stretch to say this pressing approach really hindered Barcelona. More often than not, they re-circulated the ball through a fullback or Ter Stegen, and looked for the other side with an aerial pass. It delayed some of their attacks and resulted in one turnover, which Espanyol did not capitalize on.
All in all, Barcelona managed only six shots in the first half, even though they had over seventy percent ball-possession. Two of those shots came after erroneous decisions by the assistant referee and would have been ruled out by VAR if they would have ended up in the back of the net. Barcelona’s biggest opportunity came after Espanyol got to take their first corner kick. After a quick counterattack, Suárez went one-versus-one with Espanyol’s last defender, but could not beat him on the dribble.
Same game after the break
Both managers did not change anything about their team’s setup, which is defendable in both cases. Valverde knows what every manager coaching a top-tier team knows: opponents get tired. The opposing midfielders have to shift over on every switch of play, the center-backs have to provide cover every time. If you have to put in those little half-sprints of ten-to-fifteen yards, at some time, you will get tired.
Barcelona’s biggest chance from open play in the match came after 62 minutes. Malcom – he had been subbed into the match just three minutes earlier for Arthur, as Coutinho dropped into midfield – was put one-on-one with Espanyol’s goalkeeper. Even though the angle was awkward, it was genuinely a big chance, but it was fluffed.
So, the clock is ticking down, the match enters its fourth quarter, and you’re still goalless. In these kind of situations, it is helpful to have the best player ever on your team, eh? After seventy minutes, Barcelona were awarded a free kick at the very edge of the box. Messi stood up and more or less chipped the ball over the wall, in an effort that almost seemed Panenka-like. Espanyol’s captain Victor Sánchez – who played a very good game, mind you – made a comical attempt to save the ball off the line, instead heading it into his own net from two yards out.
Despite now having to score themselves, Espanyol kept demonstrating what they had demonstrated all game long. A very good defensive plan, combined with a very poor counterattacking approach. More often than not, Melendo proved unable to take advantage of the spaces Barcelona yielded on the counterattack, especially in the zone next to Busquets. Iglesias is a very useful LaLiga striker, but he is not really fast.
As a result, all of their offensive efforts were fruitless throughout the match, and they were in the final twenty minutes of the match, even though they made two or three genuine penalty area entrances that could have turned into goal scoring opportunities. In the dying seconds of the match, Messi scored another goal, meaning the match ended in a two-goal difference, which is harsh for Espanyol.
When watching games like these – a top club experiencing difficulty against a compact, deep defending opponent – one can always pose the question whether the top club was playing at their utmost intensity. In this game, especially in the first half, it looked like Barcelona were genuinely trying, but just could not break the deadlock Espanyol were presenting them with.
The away side therefore deserve compliments and respect, based on their solid defensive organization and work ethic, even though they lacked an offensive presence to seriously land a punch. Liberated of any pressure to win the league with a ten-point gap to trailing Atlético Madrid, the focus in Barcelona’s season now slowly shifts to the Champions League.
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær might rewatch this match, looking for clues on how to stop Barcelona. Espanyol’s 5-3-1-1 shape is perfectly suited for Manchester United’s squad, as it gives the fullbacks extra cover. All due respect to Iglesias and Melendo, but they are no Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, or Romelu Lukaku. When transitioning from defense to offense, Barcelona does yield space in the zone next to Busquets, which will be a key tactical point if Manchester United want to crush Barcelona’s Champions League hunt.
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