This article originally featured on our dedicated football analysis site, totalfootballanalysis.com.
As we might have expected prior to the game itself, Barcelona cruised past Cultural Leonesa in a convincing 4-1 display that saw them through to the last 16 in Copa del Rey. What was interesting was the fact that 76 398 people arrived at the fabled Camp Nou to watch the game, which is a big number considering it is “just” a cup game.
The Catalans struggled in the away fixture, what for the lack of trying and what for the surge of their Division 2B hosts that gave all they had. Sadly for La Cultu, it was not enough, on both occasions.
This tactical analysis will use statistics to determine what tipped the scales in Barcelona’s favour and how the Blaugrana secured their spot in the next stage of the tournament.
Starting XI: Cillessen; N. Semedo, Chumi, Vermaelen, Miranda; I. Rakitić, Oriol Busquets, Aleñá; Denis Suarez, Munir, Malcom
Bench: Ter Stegen, Vermaelen, Busquets, Riqui Puig, Guillem, Coutinho, Dembélé
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Cultural Leonesa (4-4-2)
Starting XI: Palatsí; Alonso, Albizua, Bernal, Díaz; Señé, Yeray, Romero, Mance; Rodríguez, Ortiz
Bench: Escalante, Diarra, González, Capilla, Zelu, Aridane, Martínez
Coach: Victor Cea Zurita
Ernesto Valverde made a total of four changes from last time these two teams faced off and decided to give a chance to some, as he put it, “less prominent” names in the team. Carles Alena, Chumi, Ivan Rakitić, and Oriol Busquets were the changes from last time.
The biggest surprise was the inclusion of the Croat but it was a forced substitution at the last second due to high fever Arturo Vidal experienced before the game. Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Jordi Alba were excluded from the team and given a well-deserved rest.
The team operated in a standard 4-3-3 formation with Munir as a striker and Denis Suarez and Malcom as wingers. The captain on the night was Ivan Rakitić, operating as one of the seniors in the squad.
Cultural Leonesa’s Setup
It’s safe to say that the visitors knew this was an uphill battle, one that they would most likely not win. Zurita decided to deploy his second team to the field and was here to soak the atmosphere, and as funny as it may sound, rest some players for the far more important games to come.
With promotion battles for the second division looming in the near future, Leonesa were mostly focused on their domestic struggles than a possibility to upset the four times in a row champion of Copa del Rey.
Only five players remained from the last encounter with the Catalan giant so we can also be talking about an alternative squad that still wore their hearts on their sleeves but were not expecting much to happen, anyway. They opted for a standard 4-4-2 formation which sometimes looked like a 4-1-4-1.
The Rakitić Show
The game hadn’t even started yet, and the fans were already at Valverde’s throat. Why? Well, the man obviously has difficulties properly rotating the squad. That was evident last season, and it is basically the same in this one so far. Come the second part of the campaign, whether it’s La Liga or the Champions League, the team usually falls off just a bit to give the edge to opponents who can utilize it best.
Seeing the name of Ivan Rakitić in the starting line-up, even though the Croat played every minute of the season so far, with the exclusion of the period where he was injured/ suspended, really did not sit well with the media or the fans alike. Until he started setting the pitch on fire, that is.
The Croat was Barcelona’s best man on the field, even with playing only one half of the game, it was his show from the first until the last second he spent playing. Three assists to his name before the half-time whistle, and 88% passing accuracy to round up a well-deserved man of the match performance. In the end, it went to Denis Suarez, who scored a brace, but only because Raki was subbed off at the start of the second part.
The captain’s armband seemed to give more power to the Croat but it was also Cultural Leonesa’s setup, to begin with. Sure, they contested the possession, and sure their 4-4-1-1 formation allowed them to move higher up the pitch but they made some basic, and yet crucial, mistakes.
Two of the four goals they conceded happened due to too much space they left for Barcelona to exploit. When you don’t pressure players like Rakitić or Denis Suarez and you give them time to settle and think, you will get punished. And that is exactly what happened to the third-tier visitors.
Notice in the image below how instead of immediately man-marking Denis, Cultural’s line of defence fall back instead, giving the young midfielder the time and space he needs to get the shot away.
Only when Denis gets into an ideal position to make an excellent shot do the defenders react, but it’s too little, too late, and Palatsi has no chance. Seconds after it’s Barcelona 2, Leonesa 0, and the game was pretty much done and dusted.
Fighting The Windmills
Maybe the away team knew what they were in for even before the game started but that did not stop them to come to the Camp Nou and give everything they have. This was not as evident in the final scoreline but to say that Leonesa rolled over would be false.
When the scores were level, and Barcelona’s lead was only a minimum one, the guests were lively and energetic but most of all – proactive. This was visible in the way they decided to approach the game.
We already stated that they contested the possession by pressing and coming out of their defensive shape and pulling the defensive line higher but the most interesting part was how they managed to secure prolonged periods of time on the ball. Against Barcelona of all teams.
The trick was to bypass Barcelona’s high press and to recycle possession. This is usually, of course, the Catalan team’s forte but Leonesa was fairly good at it at some points during the game. Always having a free man to pass to is an extremely difficult feat to accomplish but whether it was due to a bit of inexperience in Barca’s ranks or pure skill, the away team went toe to toe with the hosts at their own game.
The result was “only” 53% total possession in Barcelona’s favour, which is pretty low for their high standards. Another possible reason for low possession was the difference in style for the Catalans.
As much as they tried building from the back, and playing their own game, we saw different tactics working better against a team with a pretty similar style in this particular game.
They still defended in a 4-4-2 formation if their press was broken and the opponent started advancing higher up the field but this time, they had different tools at their disposal. With the introduction of a pacey Malcom and Denis, as well as energetic Alena in the middle, they had a chance to counter, and transition really quickly.
Rakitić was usually at the core of this once again. The Croat was making a lot of one-twos with his teammates, especially Alena and Denis, and then he would proceed to either break the lines or switch sides as fast as possible to catch the opposition off guard.
This worked wonders, and was effective, especially considering Leonesa would often set up high up the pitch, leaving tons of free space behind their backs. Barcelona was basically countering their counter. And it worked wonders.
Notice how Barca quickly transitions from defence to attack, and how quickly they outnumber Leonesa who fail to take advantage of a cross into the box. Numerical, as well as pace, superiority spells trouble for the away team.
How Rakitić starts and finishes the attack is still to be explained properly but the Croat manages just that. Again, he is left with enough time and space to send a beautiful cross, telegraphed right onto Malcom’s head. Game, set and match Barcelona.
At the end of the day, it was still “just” a Copa game at the Camp Nou against lower-tier opposition but it was nice to see some youngsters play and shine in front of the home supporters. Again, some of them really made the best out of it, like Alena, Oriol and especially Riqui Puig.
We already said a lot about this 19-year old La Masia gem who is a “one to look out for”, but yesterday evening he made his official debut for Barcelona and celebrated it with a beautiful assist to Suarez’s second goal.
Some other players, like Miranda, were a bit shaky in a couple of instances and this might be especially problematic. Juan is definitely no Jordi Alba just yet but he is, at the moment, the only sub for the pacey Spaniard Barcelona have at their disposal.
All in all, the game basically went as expected. Stress-free, and entertaining. Just like we are used to.
Here’s to many more.
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