Real Sociedad – Barcelona: Barcelona Run Amok Against Disjointed Sociedad (1-6)

Barcelona’s visit to Real Sociedad ought to have been a test of the away team’s title credentials. But this proved to be far from the case. Showcasing a fluid 3-1-3-3 system on the ball, Ronald Koeman’s men made sure this matchup was a one-sided affair, pulling clear in the second half.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.


Barcelona have slowly but surely crept into discussions for the title. Dropping only two league points in 2021, they sit in second place, just four points off the top of the table. As Atlético Madrid continue to falter, the summit is in sight; the onus was now on the hosts to confirm their intent.

On the contrary, the summit is a distant memory for Real Sociedad, who have slipped into the Europa League spots. Their frustrations persisted last week, as a defeat to Granada saw them lose more ground to Sevilla. But, holding onto hope, a result would be key to keep any realistic chance for the top four alive.

Imanol Alguacil set up the hosts in a 3-4-3 shape, moving away from his usual choice of a 4-3-3 setup. He also made four changes to the side that played last weekend. Two of these were due to injuries, as Aihen Muñoz and David Silva made way for Martín Merquelanz and Martín Zubimendi. Elsewhere, Ander Guevara joined Mikel Merino in midfield, while Portu played as a right winger.

Ronald Koeman set up the away team in a 3-4-3 formation, keeping the back three setup he has used since Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Sevilla. After a 4-1 rout of Huesca at the start of the week, he then chose to name an unchanged starting eleven.


Barcelona’s fluid offensive system

Given how athleticism has torched the hosts’ defense in the past, Ousmané Dembélé’s threat may have prompted Alguacil to use a back five. In any case, the hosts set up off the ball with three central defenders. Zubimendi stayed in the middle of the backline, leaving the two central midfielders ahead of him to secure the midfield. The manager also lowered the height of his team’s structure as their 5-4-1 shape dropped off into 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.


Barcelona’s flexible 3-1-5-1 offensive structure with a heavy focus on progressions through the left.


Controlling 70% of the play in the first half, Barcelona spent a lot of time camped in Sociedad’s half. Once they pushed into the middle third, If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the middle third is the most central area. Koeman’s side would often move into a 3-1-5-1 shape. Sergio Busquets sat in front of the back three, but this base ended up being quite flexible. 

Often Busquets dropped deep 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 the 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. to split the backline, pushing de Jong to the right and Mingueza into a fullback slot. In other moments, Frenkie de Jong would move higher into midfield, eluding the press through his classic marauding runs with the ball. The pair dictated the rhythm of the game, offering a platform for their teammates further afield to thrive.

The freedom on show in the backline continued into the midfield. Pedri and Antoine Griezmann drifted between the lines, dropping off to support the ball-retention or offering options to move into the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. The away team put an emphasis on building through their left side, inviting Lionel Messi to drift from the right halfspace to pick up the ball deep.

Ahead of them, Dembélé was a constant threat for the back five. The forward would usually sit in the gap between Zubimendi and Robin Le Normand, making multiple runs in depth to open space between the lines.


But patterns garner little productivity

However, for all their territorial control, Barcelona did not convert their play into chances. The guests only registered two shots on goal in the first half-hour, both of which were from the edge of the box. 

Indeed, the right side of the attack had some issues. Given Messi’s license to roam and the overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. on the left, Sergiño Dest ended up in isolation at times. The wing-back would usually push on into the final third, acting as a winger, and switch inside if Óscar Mingueza went higher up the sideline. Though if he picked up the ball deep, he sometimes lacked options to circulate the play.

Off the ball, Barcelona’s 3-4-3 press stymied Sociedad’s buildup, but the home team came closest to breaking the deadlock. Covering a pass down the line on the right, de Jong tried to play a backpass to Marc-André ter Stegen. But bodying him off the ball, Alexander Isak pounced, driving into the box. The striker took a shot from six yards out, but the goalkeeper was equal to the effort.



Barcelona steal a march on the hosts

Riding out the scare with Isak, Barcelona finally got the goal they wanted. From the right, Dest knocked a cross into the box that Álex Remiro fumbled onto the crossbar. The visitors then worked the ball around the box, finding a run from Jordi Alba in behind. The wing-back hared onto the ball, placing a cutback at Dembélé’s feet. The forward spurned his chance, firing straight into the goalkeeper, but Griezmann tucked home the rebound.

Six minutes later, a neat team play doubled Barcelona’s lead, pulling together several aspects of their attacking shape. After stepping into midfield, de Jong played the ball into Busquets, who split the lines with an incisive first-time pass to Messi. 

He drove forward through the right halfspace before feathering a through ball in behind to Dest. The wing-back composed himself, firing a shot to the left of Remiro and into the net. Two goals to the good, Barcelona were sitting in a strong position going into half-time.


Sociedad’s low block run ragged

Sociedad came out for the second half still in a 5-4-1 setup. However, they changed their defensive strategy, now looking to press much higher up the pitch. But before they could get any upturn out of this switch, the contest was over.

After the ball switched out to the left, Clément Lenglet played a pass into Pedri. The midfielder then rotated with Griezmann before finding Alba on the left. The fullback blew past Andoni Gorosabel, drilling a cross along the face of goal. On the back post, Merquelanz looked to clear the ball, but blocking the clearance, Dest bagged his second goal of the game.

Three minutes later, three goals became four. Deep in Sociedad’s half, Busquets picked his head up to scan the pitch. Zubimendi stepped up to close down Messi, while the rest of the back five failed to cover the center-back. Reading Messi’s run, Busquets clipped the ball in behind. The captain locked onto the pass, delicately lifting the ball over Remiro into the net. 


Sociedad’s nightmare continues

After the hour mark, Alguacil made his first few changes, bringing on Adnan Januzaj and Ander Barrenetxea. But the subs did little to turn the tide of the game, as Barcelona wracked up more goals. 

Dropping between the lines, Dembélé was free to receive a pass from substitute Ilaix Moriba. From here, the forward clicked into gear, waltzing towards the box with the ball at his right foot. He then switched the ball onto his left before unleashing a driven effort just inside the box, beating Remiro.

With a quarter of an hour left to go, Carlos Fernández came on in place of Zubimendi. The striker’s introduction led to a change in setup, as he led the line with Isak in a 4-4-2 shape. Within minutes of coming onto the field, the striker had already made an impact.

In the right back slot, Ander Barrenetxea cut away from Griezmann, then Alba, before picking out Fernández’s run in behind. The substitute paid back the favor by nutmegging Ronald Araújo to return the ball as the right back chased down the pass. Outdoing de Jong in a foot race, he rifled a shot into the roof of the net to beat ter Stegen all ends up.

However, Barcelona would have the last laugh. Mingueza raced onto a loose ball, playing a pass into Messi, who conducted his side’s advance to the edge of Sociedad’s box. The captain then switched the ball out wide to Alba before making his way into the penalty area. Mimicking the role of Messi, Riqui Puig played a return pass into Alba, who found the Argentine, and he, in turn, swept the ball home.



Takeaways

Sociedad’s tweak to a 5-4-1 setup ultimately proved futile. Opting not to impose themselves on the game, their defensive mechanisms were weak, allowing Barcelona to eventually strangle the contest.

On the other hand, this scoreline shows Barcelona’s growth under Koeman, with his team’s quality slowly rising as the season has gone on. Finding stability in the back three, optimal roles for players like de Jong and Griezmann can take this side to another level. They now look in prime shape to catch up to Atlético Madrid and hope to carry on their form in two weeks against Real Valladolid.



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