Without Lionel Messi, Luis “Lucho” Enrique decided to play Sandro Ramírez along with Neymar and Luis Suárez as the front three. Behind them, Ivan Rakitic, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets were played in the middle line. Dani Alves and Jeremy Mathieu occupied the fullback posts, flanking the central defender duo of Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano.
Roger Schmidt lined up the visitors with his 4-4-2, which usually resembles a 4-4-2 box basic formation. Schmidt’s back four consisted of Giuliano Donati, Wendell, Jonathan Tah, and Kyriakos Papadapoulos. In front of these four were the pair of Christoph Kramer and Lars Bender, shielding the backline. These six players were flanked by Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Kevin Kampl on each wing. On the front line, Schmidt opted to play Karim Bellarabi and Javier Hernández as his striker duo.
In Barça’s first phrase of attack, the Spanish side built up play in a 2-5-3 shape with Busquets occasionally dropped slightly deeper and being the deepest midfielder. Meanwhile, Rakitic and Iniesta occupied the half-space at 8 slot or, depending on the situation, moved slightly higher occupying the 10 slot.
During Barça’s second phase of attack, Neymar and Sandro stayed wide, trying to stretch Leverkusen’s backline. In order to attack the danger zone through the central area, Lucho combined his 8 and central 9, particularly Luis Suárez, who provided vertical access up the pitch. Seemingly, Lucho instructed his 8 and 9 to occupy the central attacking pocket, exploiting the gap between Leverkusen’s middle and back line.
However, two problems emerged for Barcelona’s attacking scheme. First, Barça’s presence in the centrally-advanced area was reduced, which eased Leverkusen’s defensive burden. Second, Barça’s scheme nullified the involvement of the wide-forwards, Neymar and Sandro, who were often too wide, distancing them from the central area. Why did this happen?
When the ball was played to the attacking pocket, Suarez dropped off and used himself as a wall to create quick one-two situations, as the 8 ran from a deeper area into the box. Here, the staggered shape between Suárez and the 8s was a problem, as the 8s were often caught starting too deep, making it difficult for them to chase down Suarez’s through balls.
As you can see in the screen capture above, there were zero attacking outlets in front of Suárez, Rakitic, or Iniesta. Later, things got even worse as potential threats from Neymar or Sandro occupying more central areas was absent. Instead, Neymar and Sandro were simply too wide to get involved in final third attacks. This absence eased Leverkusen’s defending tasks.
There was actually space to exploit, but Barcelona just did not utilize it properly. This unutilized space was an issue for Leverkusen’s defense throughout the match, and could have been more costly for Leverkusen in the end, since the space was there to provide attacking access for Barcelona in the final third.
On the other hand, an effective feature of Leverkusen’s play was their pressing, which was run properly and stopped some of Barcelona’s play.
In Barcelona’s first phase, Leverkusen resembled a 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2 shape, as their two frontline players dealt with Barcelona’s ball-carrying defender. Meanwhile, Leverkusen’s four midfielders, behind the front liners, covered any passing to the central area or half-spaces. In their initial pressing, Leverkusen settled into a middle-block as they waited for Barcelona to approach the central line before increasing their pressing intensity, as their middle-line press was directed at Barcelona’s double 8s.
When Lionel Messi is on the pitch, Barcelona often rely on his ability to pick up the ball from the 8 and create an attack in advanced areas. To accomplish this, Messi often moved to the upper ball-side half-space or even to the far half-space destabilizing the opponent’s defense.
However on Tuesday, Barcelona obviously didn’t have this destabilizing option, because of Messi’s knee injury. Again, Leverkusen’s defensive burden was eased, allowing die Werkself to generate their pressing trap both wide and centrally.
As Leverkusen’s pressing was directed at Barcelona’s 8s, die Werkself‘s double 6s (Kramer and Bender) were assigned directly to cover Barcelona’s 8s.
In turn, this specific defensive assignment triggered some problems for Leverkusen by allowing the big gaps between Leverkusen’s middle and back lines. To some extent, the pressing reduced Leverkusen’s vertical compactness, creating the vulnerable spaces for Barça to exploit. Fortunately for Leverkusen, especially during the first half, Barcelona couldn’t exploit these spaces due to their poor, as I discussed earlier.
However, during the second half, Lucho adjusted his attacking scheme. Barcelona shifted to a 3-4-1-2 shape in their build-up phase. Busquets dropped deep to the back line, forming a three-man chain at back, allowing the fullbacks to move further forward (“la salida lavolpiana”). In this case, the “1” became Neymar, who Lucho instructed to occupy the space between the middle and back line of Leverkusen, while Suarez and Sandro stayed high up the pitch, waiting for the chances created by the line behind them.
The other key to Barça’s turnaround were Lucho’s substitutions, all of which positively impacted Barça’s attack. For example, Jordi Alba added pace on the flank, while Mathieu moved to the central defender post. Additionally, Sergio Roberto replaced Iniesta and added more vertical play into Barcelona’s attacking scheme, even giving his side the equalizer. Finally, Munir el Haddadi’s assist (replacing Sandro) to Luis Suarez turned the scoreline around to 2-1 for the home side.
These substitutions also Barça’s shape. For instance, Busquets was pushed higher up into the middle and Mascherano back to the back line as the central node in a three-man chain.
Lucho opted to play Neymar as the 10 behind the striker, which arguably provided better attacking access for Barcelona. This positional adjustment also allowed Neymar to cover more ground, enabling him to roam more freely.
In Barcelona’s first goal, this freedom of movement helped Neymar to make a recovery in the right half-space (by contrast, in the first half, Neymar was often staying wide to the left which nullified his involvement in centrally attack). Neymar’s occupation on the right half-space, in turn, dragged Kramer away from the central area which opened a crucial space for Sergio Roberto to occupy.
In the image below, Busquets played a simple but brilliant square pass from right wide to Sergio. After preventing Çalhanoğlu from moving forward with ball, Busquets made a brilliant square pass to Sergio Roberto, which allowed the youngster to play wide to Alba resulting in the equalizer.
Minutes later, the winning goal was sparked by Munir el Haddadi, who occupied the attacking pocket on the right half-space. He received a pass from Pique and made a one-two combination with Alves. Poor positioning from three Leverkusen defenders allowed Munir to keep the ball on his feet and pass it to Suárez who slotted home the winner.
In the match against Leverkusen, we can clearly see how Barcelona was affected by the loss of Messi, especially his ability to pick up the ball from the deeper area and bring it high up the field; in turn, this loss meant the further loss of the diagonal play Messi used to provide. In future matches, Lucho might consider setting things up to give Neymar more freedom in Barcelona attack, as the Brazilian might generate some promising situation by making use his individual brilliance.
On the other side of the pitch, Leverkusen’s middle line pressing-orientation on Barcelona’s 8 allowed some defensive pocket space for the opponent. Barcelona were trying to exploit it throughout the match and proven to be case in the final goal as it played a huge part in the early phase of it. On the other hand, it didn’t mean that Leverkusen were completely bad in dealing with such issue. There were more than 10 times Leverkusen managed to stop Barcelona progression from attacking pocket. But sadly it ended up to nothing as Barcelona gained their winning goal from exploiting that space.
Whatever the result was both team had shown a promising future as they lined up some youngsters with the formation. The average age of Barcelona’s players of their final line up was 26.5 years old, whilst Leverkusen were even younger, as the average age of their final line up was 23.9 years old. Give both manager the needed time to develop their team and we might see some new star in years ahead.
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