Real Sociedad – Barcelona: Second-half midfield reshuffle helps Barcelona rally against an organised yet wasteful Real Sociedad (1-2)

A rethink from Ernesto Valverde between the half-time break and the hour mark at Anoeta made for a marked change in the poise and purpose of his Barcelona side during their 2-1 fightback against Real Sociedad. After an attempt to rest key players ahead of Champions League action, Asier Garitano’s intelligent game plan forced Barcelona to revert to type with their substitutions.

Real Sociedad play host to Barça at Anoeta, just eight months after Ernesto Valverde’s side managed their first league win over them since 2007. In January, the away side came from 2-0 down to win 4-2, and have started off the new LaLiga campaign brightly with three wins from three. A similar fightback was required on Saturday afternoon.

Asier Garitano is the new man in the hosts’ dug-out, after impressing as Leganés boss in multiple divisions in Spain, and his start to life with Real Sociedad has been a mixed bag. Although their opening three league clashes have been away from home, owing to the completion of building work at their stadium ahead of this particular clash, the hosts have thrown away multiple chances to seal further points.

Real Sociedad was missing some key players, like Willian José, Sandro Ramírez and Diego Llorrente. Garitano chose to set his team up in a 4-4-1-1 base formation. Because of the heavy defensive duties by Oyarzabal, sometimes Sociedad operated in a 4-4-2 diamond or even a 5-3-2. FC Barcelona played their trademark 4-3-3, albeit with a lot of positional freedom for the wingers and Jordi Alba. The positioning of both teams is displayed in the diagram below. The ball is at the feet of Nelson Semedo. 

Situation when Nelson Semedo got on the ball

Real Sociedad’s first-half pressing masterclass
Former manager Eusebio Sacristán proved to be a scourge of Barça during his several years in San Sebastián, but the arrival of Asier Garitano as coach has ushered in change. Real Sociedad now place more weight on analysis and the defensive side of their game management, with Aritz Elustondo admitting during preseason that their new approach asks for plenty more finer details than they have been recently accustomed to.

A clever defensive set-up in the first half against Barcelona was the first big statement made by Garitano in his new role. Looking to frustrate their opponents and protect goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli carefully, Real Sociedad managed to limit Barça to just a solitary attempt on goal in the opening 45 minutes – and that came courtesy of a Gerard Piqué header following a corner delivery.

When Barcelona had possession, it was clear as to where Asier Garitano wanted the opposition to play: into Nélson Semedo. Well aware of the threat of Jordi Alba overlapping down the left-hand side, he deployed Mikel Oyarzabal out on the right flank, an unusual position for the young attacker, and ensured that he would track the movement of the opposition wing back.

As Oyarzabal dropped deeper, keeping close tabs on Alba, it allowed for natural right back Joseba Zaldua to tuck inside as a third central defender, giving central defenders Hector Moreno and Aritz Elustondo the utility of a spare man against the likes of Luis Suárez and Ousmane Dembélé.

Rubén Pardo, a central midfielder by trade, had been used by Garitano during preseason in wider areas. Versus Barça he had a different job entirely, helping lone striking presence Juanmi to lead the press from the front. Perhaps seeking to nullify the supposed threat of Sergio Busquets, but met instead with Ivan Rakitić in the deepest midfield role, Pardo ensured that Barça’s pivot was under constant observation in a move that saw the Croatian drop ever deeper.

By strangling the possibilities for Barça to switch play out to their favourite left wing back, as well as pressuring the main visiting playmaker with a full view of the pitch to rush and offload possession quickly, Garitano achieved what he wanted: funnelling play into Nélson Semedo at right back.

The Portuguese defender is a talent, but hasn’t quite found his identity at Barcelona. When gifted time and space to advance, as planned by Real Sociedad, he lacked the confidence, drive and options to even begin to make them regret their pressing ploy. More often than not, Semedo would look to be positive and play a forward pass, before a quick evaluation and a wistful backwards ball instead.

By forcing Barça to look to Semedo far more often than they would like, the absence of Sergio Busquets in central midfield was painfully clear. Rakitić is a great midfielder, and yet he doesn’t have the same kind of decision making or the ability to consistently act on what he sees on the pitch quickly under pressure. While Real Sociedad enjoyed their best half of LaLiga football so far this season, Barcelona endured by far their worst. Dull, predictable and blunt.

Reshuffle back to a known formula and improvement
Ernesto Valverde could not sit back after an odious 45 minutes and stick to his guns. Rotation was thrown by the wayside, as Philippe Coutinho was brought on for the second half for Nélson Semedo. During Semedo’s only other appearance of the league season (versus Alavés) he was also replaced at half time. It is becoming clear that his input at right back is currently not up to standard.

Sergi Roberto was switched back to wing back, allowing for Coutinho to slot into Barça’s midfield three. In the first half, the away side had only threatened to open Real Sociedad up or unbalance them slightly on two occasions.

On one, Luis Suárez managed to spin his man and drive with the ball, while Dembélé managed to force a good sliding tackle when attempting to do the same in a central area. Coutinho’s introduction immediately promised more vertical interplay, as needed. Barça needed to cause panic between the lines, forced an organised unit to be pulled around by needing to step out of position and address a direct threat.

The Brazilian offered more of what Barça needed to get upfield, and yet the away team still lacked the right platform from which to play. Before the hour mark, Busquets was finally introduced, replacing Rafinha and allowing Rakitić to push up into his more familiar central midfield role.

Busquets was able to do what Rakitić could not. Immediately there was further authority in midfield for Barça, as the Spain international was deployed without fear against a tiring Real Sociedad press. Rather than finding himself pushed deeper and deeper like Rakitić, almost dropping in as a third central defender when his side had the ball, he stepped out and positioned himself higher, resistant to the press.

Busquets was capable of setting the tempo, opening up play and the return of Sergi Roberto to right back offered great balance. No longer could Real Sociedad rely on the blunt attacking play of Semedo to stall their opponents, and the game was no longer in their control. Barça had controlled the ball and yet for an hour of football at Anoeta, they didn’t have the upper hand.

A lack of composure, Ter Stegen and a more infamous goalkeeper costs Real Sociedad
Before Barça had managed to truly settle after the introduction of Busquets, Real Sociedad had golden opportunities to put themselves two or even three goals in front. On 58 minutes, the hosts broke at pace, as Rubén Pardo managed to slide Oyarzabal in down the right-hand side. A lack of composure from the young forward saw him blast a terrible attempt over the crossbar.

Around a minute later, Theo Hernández burst into the Barça penalty area and hammered a low strike into the body of Marc-Andre ter Stegen, before Sociedad made it a hat-trick of wastefulness as Juanmi failed to beat the German goalkeeper in a one-versus-one situation. Real Sociedad’s direct, vertical approach in possession did its job of catching an increasingly desperate Barcelona off-balance.

Ter Stegen had come up big twice for Barcelona in the space of a few minutes. Just two minutes after his second one-vs-one save of the second half, Luis Suárez capitalised on some poor goalkeeping from Geronimo Rulli to equalise. The Argentine is notoriously ineffective when commanding his area, while both of the Barça’s goals in this contest arrived from set-piece situations.

A few minutes after Suárez had made it 1-1, Dembélé was gifted the chance to make it 2-1 to the away side as Rulli flapped at an aerial ball once again. For all of Garitano’s excellent tactical work in setting up Real Sociedad, two clear errors from his goalkeeper had undone the lot.

The Argentine shot-stopper was not alone in his culpability, as Juanmi, Oyarzabal and Theo had spurned chances to put the hosts further ahead, and yet his performance stands as the only reason as to why Real Sociedad were unable to see out a narrow 1-0 victory.

In the first half, their pressing had been so impressive that Rulli was not tested. In open play, he had been safe. From set pieces, where he was asked to be directly involved, he showed his nerves yet again for the Basque club. Miguel Ángel Moyà is waiting in the wings after injury and will surely be handed the first-team gloves again before long.

For all of Real Sociedad’s good organisational work and pressing, Ernesto Valverde managed to level the playing field and balance his midfield courtesy of two second-half changes. With Coutinho and Busquets on the field, Barça looked far more accomplished, but a mixture of top goalkeeping from Ter Stegen and horrendous handling from Rulli sees the Catalan giants take home three points that they did not truly deserve.

Simon Harrison (23) is a freelance football journalist. Writes for FourFourTwo, WhoScored and Tifo Football. Specializes in Spanish football. Also host of Talking La Liga podcast. [ View all posts ]


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