Real Sociedad – FC Barcelona: Ansu And Raphinha Make Life Without Busquets Much Easier (1-4)

Xavi’s 3-4-3 experiment to replace a suspended Sergio Busquets presented several problems in pressing and possession. None mattered in the face of talents like Raphinha and a transcendent Ansu Fati, who came in the second half and decided the game within fifteen minutes.

Tactical analysis and match report by José Pérez.

LaLiga is back; with it, the game of expectations begins again. And perhaps no team in the league must lift heavier expectations than FC Barcelona. The Blaugrana have financially-levered their way into building a world-class squad that should be able to compete for every title once again. With the club board doing as much as possible in the transfer market, it’s now in Xavi’s hands to make the most out of this squad.

And Xavi still has some figuring out to do. In last week’s game against Rayo Vallecano, the team created enough chances to win the game, but some solid performances from Rayo’s keeper and the defense prevented their victory. However, their performance was not without structural issues.

Xavi’s Barcelona remains a very vertical and direct team that struggles to control games through possession. Their fullbacks did not contribute enough in possession and offense: left-back Jordi Alba has seen better days, while Xavi’s choice of center-back Ronaldo Araujo as his starting right-back is not doing him any favors. Meanwhile, the aggressive positioning of the eight roles in Xavi’s system makes it harder for them to participate in Barça’s possession phases.

On the other side, the Real Sociedad of Imanol Alguacil is in a tricky spot regarding expectations. They have played consistently well enough to land in Europa League spots for the last three years, but understandably, the club and its fans want more than this. They would like to mount a more serious challenge for LaLiga’s top four and a good run into Europa League knockout stages.

To achieve these lofty goals, the Basque team has made some meaningful investments in young talents: attacking midfielder Brais Méndez from Celta de Vigo, forwards Takefuso Kubo from Real Madrid and Mohamed-Ali Cho from Angers. Despite the financial struggles of many LaLiga teams, La Real is one of the few who can spend thirty million euros without pulling any financial levers or selling key players.

The Midfield Diamond versus the Square

Both teams came into Anoeta with some stimulating line-up choices. At Real Sociedad, Alguacil chose the 4-4-2 diamond he’s been using since the end of last season.  Alguacil deployed a center-back pair of Igor Zubeldia and Robin Le Normand, with Aihen Muñoz as the starting left back and Aritz Elustondo (usually a center-back) as the right back instead of Andoni Gorosabel. The midfield diamond featured Martín Zubimendi as the six, with Mikel Merino on the left, Brais Méndez on the right, and David Silva at the tip of the diamond. Kubo started as the second striker alongside center forward Alexander Isak.

Meanwhile, Xavi went for a 3-4-3 shape that featured a curious ‘square’ midfield structure in possession. The vertices of this square were Frenkie and Pedri at the double pivot, with Ferran Torres and Gavi as the attacking midfielders in the left and right halfspaces, respectively. Pedri would be the most mobile player of this quartet, moving forward and back, depending on where he has needed the most. Meanwhile, Ousmane Dembélé on the right and 18-year-old Alejandro Balde on the left (a surprise pick instead of Jordi Alba) were the genuine wingers in this setup. They provided width and operated ahead of the attacking midfielders. Out of possession, Barça maintained the 3-4-3, but the attacking midfielders (Gavi and Ferran) moved ahead of the wing-backs to lead the pressing.

The square versus the diamond: a snapshot of Barcelona´s 3-4-3 midfield square shape in possession being pressed by Real Sociedad´s 4-4-2 diamond.

These setups led to a fascinating matchup of Real Sociedad’s midfield diamond versus Barça’s square. Real Sociedad’s press was not man-to-man but relied upon zonal coverage and cover shadows. Instead of getting close to their opponents, the midfielders of the Basque side would position themselves to block the passing lanes to the midfielders of Barça’s midfield square. Given the constant movement of the Blaugrana midfielders, this zonal approach seemed like the right call.

This contrasted strongly with Barça’s pressing approach, where players aggressively marked their opponents instead of cutting off passing lanes. The Lewandowski, Gavi, and Ferran trio marked the opposition center-backs and six, while Dembélé and Balde stayed narrow to mark the opposition central midfielders. 

This approach proved far less successful because Barça’s pressing block lacked organization and compactness. There was a significant gap between the five pressing players and the five at the back (the three centerbacks and the double pivot). This gap made it straightforward for the midfielders of Real Sociedad’s diamond (Merino, Silva, Méndez) to sneak behind Barça’s pressing lines and offer their teammates good passing options and angles.

Real Sociedad’s 4-4-2 diamond in possession is being pressed by Barcelona’s more chaotic 3-4-3 structure. In this case, the wing-backs (Dembélé and Balde) stay narrow to cut off the passing lanes to the midfielders (Merino and Silva).

Defense of the Box Leads to a First Half Stalemate

The game saw a fun, chaotic start with back-to-back goals in the first six minutes. Real Sociedad´s pressing put Barça in trouble from the very beginning. However, the trade-off with pressing is that when it does not work, the opponent has plenty of space to run towards the goal. 

That’s precisely what happened with the Blaugrana goal in the first minute: Pedri did what Pedri does best and slipped the ball past four opponents trying to press him, leaving Balde with acres of space to run into and get the ball to Lewandowski in the box. The Polish striker quickly changed the direction of his run to trick Le Normand, get the ball, and score.

This initial setback did not deter the home side from pressing further. Even though Isak and Kubo were at a numerical disadvantage against Barça’s three center-backs, they did a good job using their cover shadows to block the passing lanes to Barça’s midfielders. Soon enough, the pressing paid off: in the sixth minute, Frenkie’s indecision on the ball was punished by Kubo and Silva, who stole the ball from him. Silva passed into space for Isak, and the Swede scored despite Eric García’s challenge.

Diagram of the Real Sociedad pressing sequence that led to Isak’s goal, with Kubo and Silva stealing the ball off an indecisive Frenkie de Jong.

Despite the superiority of Real Sociedad’s buildup over Barça’s pressing, the Blaugranas defended their box well, beating the opposition attackers most of the time. The home side’s most dangerous plays came from the rational mind of Silva and Merino’s runs on the left side. And in these situations, the away side was saved by Ter Stegen, who has been back to his best in the last two league games.

Despite excellent performances from an omnipresent Pedri in midfield and Lewandowski in link-up play, Barça also struggled to create shots. When defending deep, Alguacil’s men also formed a back three, with defensive midfielder Zubimendi dropping in between center-backs to combat the massive threat of Lewandowski. Even though Barça’s players sometimes beat the defenders one-versus-one, the home side’s back three cleared most of the incoming danger.

Fati and Raphinha Break the Game in Fifteen Minutes

The game state of the first half continued well into the first fifteen minutes of the second half. Xavi considered that his team’s pressing issues had more to do with execution than structure or tactics, so he made no changes to the plan at the start of the half. The most notable tactical difference compared to the first half is that Ferran Torres moved closer to the left wing. This move opened up better passing options for his teammates and gave him more time and space to receive the ball and run at defenders.

Barcelona’s passmap against Real Sociedad: Despite the first-half issues, the Blaugranas mostly continued using their midfield square structure in possession during the second half. 

In the 54th minute, one of Barça’s pressing attempts almost paid off. Gavi took advantage of a throw-in confusion and stole the ball from Le Normand, but he couldn’t finish before Zubimendi and Zubeldia threw themselves at him. On the other side of the pitch, another Merino run on the left led to another Ter Stegen save at the 58th minute.

Xavi knew he had to shake up things and had the ideal personnel to do so. In the 63rd minute, Raphinha and Ansu Fati replaced Balde and Ferran. Fati occupied the same nominal position as Ferran, and Raphinha became the right wingback, which made Dembélé switch to the left wingback role. Raphinha is a more associative player than Dembélé: he prefers to go for a pass or combination in cases where the Frenchman prefers to dribble. His presence on the right helped Barça’s offense progress quickly through on that side and have more continuity.

Just a couple of minutes after their entrance, the pair changed the course of the game. Raphinha found Fati with a tense pass from the right, and the brilliant Fati, with eyes on his back, assisted Dembélé with a stunning backheel flip that left the Frenchman in a perfect position to score.

Barça had renewed energy after the goal and substitutions, with Raphina pressing intensely and Fati’s off-ball movement increasing the threat level of the offense. Two minutes after Barça’s second goal, the presence of Raphina and Fati would lead to a third. Raphinha shifted to the left side and forced Real Sociedad’s defenders to clear the ball. Fati picked up the second ball and headed it over to Pedri. The ever-creative Pedri managed to slip a through ball through a sea of opponent legs to return the ball to Fati, who quickly flicked it over to Lewandowski for the goal. Barça turned around and killed the game in less than five minutes.

In response to the goals, Alguacil substituted Silva, Kubo, and Isak for Robert Navarro, Beñat Turrientes, and Mohamed Ali-Cho. While the starting trio was surely tired, it’s hard not to see this triple substitution as Alguacil’s way of relinquishing the match and thinking about resting his key players ahead of the next game. His team, completely deflated from Barça’s one-two punch, barely created anything in the last twenty minutes. We can see this fall-off in the expected goal plot below.

However, that one-two punch was not enough for the voracious Lewandowski and Fati, who wanted the game to be dead and buried six feet under. Raphinha got the ball to Lewandowski in front of the box, and the German striker battled for control of the ball amidst several opponents. Ultimately, the ball bounced off Brais Méndez’s boot into Fati, who positioned himself at the right place and time to take advantage of the bounce and score. In just fifteen minutes, the trio of Raphinha, Fati, and Lewandowski had decided the match.


It’s always hard to evaluate a team like Real Sociedad, who were crushed under the weight of world-class talent. Despite the four goals against, Alguacil and his men mostly got the game plan and execution right. Their zonal pressing approach made it hard for Barça to have any continuity and control in possession. Their box defense in the first 65 minutes of the game prevented big Barça chances outside of the first goal. However, they did not have the punch, composure, and efficiency to capitalize on their tactical superiority. All that’s left is to learn from this and look forward to the next game.

Barça had arguably more tactical struggles, but their world-class squad compensated for these deficits. Pedri became the glue that tied Barça’s disjointed midfield together. And in the second half, Fati and Raphinha combined with Lewandowski to overwhelm Real Sociedad’s defense in a flash of composure, quality, and efficiency. Xavi still has some work to do to fine-tune his team, but the talent of his players will buy him valuable time to figure things out.

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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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