Barcelona have finally broken the deadlock, secured a win to their name after four failed attempts and took the first place all for themselves once again. Sevilla were resolute, and aggressive in their approach but a hectic first 20 minutes of play blew the away team out of the water and down the pecking order, all the way to a (still good) third place.
Although Barcelona continued their brilliant run against Lionel Messi’s favourite victim, the little Argentine wizard was the ultimate sacrifice for the return to winning ways. Leo suffered a tough injury and will be out for at least three weeks, as was already confirmed, meaning that he will miss a total of six games, including the El Clasico next week, and two Champions League fixtures against Inter Milan. Here is the full tactical analysis of Barcelona’s (not so) celebratory night with some statistics to back it all up.
Barça (4-3-3): Ter Stegen – Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba – Rakitic, Busquets, Arthur – Messi, Suarez, Coutinho
Bench: Cillessen, Dembele, Rafinha, Munir, Sergi, Vidal, Chumi
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Sevilla (3-5-2): Vaclik – Kjaer, Carrico, Gomez – Navas, Banega, Vazquez, Arana – Ben Yedder, Sarabia – Silva
Bench: Soriano, Mesia, Nolito, Vidal, Muriel, Promes, Mercado
Coach: Pablo Machin
There were not many surprises in the starting line-ups for both teams. Barcelona opted for their traditional 4-3-3 system with Coutinho as a left winger, and Arthur Melo securing his spot in the starting XI alongside Ivan Rakitić and Sergio Busquets. With Sergi Roberto just getting back from injury, Ernesto Valverde decided to leave him on the bench with Ousmane Dembele keeping him company, and Malcolm once again being snubbed and left in the stands. (Then) League leaders were happy to accommodate so Machin organized his troops in a rough and compact 3-5-2 formation with the emphasis on outnumbering Barcelona in midfield, taking control and then breaking the lines up the pitch. The players he decided to field were the same 11 that faced Celta de Vigo the match before. The game can basically be divided into two major parts: Barcelona pre-Messi injury, and post-Messi injury.
The first 20 minutes were extremely tough for the visitors to handle. Barcelona pinned Sevilla down into their own half, preventing progression or any chance making by the Andalusian squad. With just two minutes on the clock, the scoreboard changed for the first time that night. Semedo was crucial to this attack and the Portuguese international continued this exceptional display throughout most of the 90 minutes he played at the Camp Nou. One simple flick to get rid of his marker was enough to set up a quick one-two from Messi and Suarez, followed by a short line-breaking pass by the Argentine to Coutinho, who finishes it with a lovely shot past Vaclik. And just like that Barcelona was one up against the away team. Early aggression did leave Barcelona open in a couple of instances, and Sevilla was there to punish. However, the post left the visitors wanting more but all they got was a swift Messi response on the other side of the pitch which left them two down with only 12 minutes passed on the night.
The crucial thing to note here was the setup Sevilla used and what led to the second goal. Although the visitors lined up in their faithful 3-5-2 formation that did bring them success this season, that formation did slightly change according to possession and phases of attack and defence. When out of possession, Sevilla would play it aggressively and use their high block to force long balls out of ter Stegen. The German is usually the first man to build attacks for Barcelona but with Ben Yedder, Vazquez and Sarabia getting in his face, he was forced to do a long goal kick instead of passing it to one of his defenders or Sergio Busquets who would drop almost to a CB position. The second goal was actually a combination of a (literal) slip-up from one side, and individual brilliance from the other. Sevilla’s setup forced a goal kick from MAtS, and after winning the aerial duel with Barca’s attackers (just as planned), in this case, Suarez, five men in midfield meant that the Andalusians were sure to get to the ball first. In theory, that should’ve worked perfectly but Banega slipped after a bad backwards pass by Navas which made the attacked that followed possible.
Barcelona was relentless at this point and momentum was hugely in their favour. Around that time, they were enjoying the highest percentage of possession recorded in the whole game: A solid 57 % which is good but not really surprising for the Catalans. Suarez was looking good and Messi was poised to strike again while the opponent is still on the ropes. However, fate had different plans and the breaking point happened around the 16th minute. Messi went down after a physical duel and landed awkwardly on his right arm, resulting in what was later diagnosed as a fracture of the radial bone. The rest of the first half went by without any major events since all the eyes and ears on (and off) the stadium were focused on Messi and Messi alone. Barcelona changed drastically after that moment and it was Sevilla’s time to strike.
As fiery as the first half was, the last 45 minutes were just that much hotter. The visitors felt the change in momentum and Barcelona was, for the first time that evening, inferior and, for the most part, out of control. The tables suddenly turned and Sevilla was the one enjoying higher possession with Barcelona dropping as low as a meagre 39% at the start of the second part. Ousmane Dembele was the one who was subbed in when Leo suffered that injury and in many ways, the young Frenchman was part of the problem. Dembele lost possession far too many times, winning only five duels (out of 17) and losing the ball a total of 10 times (once in his own half). Just for comparison’s sake, he recovered the ball only once throughout the game. Still, that wasn’t the only problem on Barcelona’s shoulders. Sevilla was much braver in attack.
Both teams seemed to forget all about defending, which resulted in too much space between the lines. Getting to the final third was suddenly easier than anyone had imagined. Sevilla was advancing through the right side of the pitch, and Alba was having real trouble with Navas. Was it not for ter Stegen’s phenomenal double save (on two occasions), the game could’ve ended much differently. To make things worse, while Sevilla was not capitalizing on Barca’s mistakes, their opposition did just that and suddenly Suarez was converting a penalty and the hosts were three goals up.
Ernesto Valverde had a comfortable lead while having zero control over the game but that didn’t really stop the cracks from appearing again. His decision to put in Sergi Roberto instead of his best midfielder of the day, Arthur, resulted in a complete collapse. The Brazilian made a total of 37 passes with 97 % accuracy, recovered the ball eight times and created three big chances. Roberto did not really have much time to make a true impact but it was visible that he not yet fully game ready. Sergi won only 33 % of all his duels (3/9), lost the ball two times (both in his own half) and made only four recoveries (none in the opposition’s half). Still, the 27 minutes he got also meant he was limited to show more. Luckily for Barcelona, Ivan Rakitić pretty much put the game to bed with a wonderful volley to make it 4-1 but Sevilla deservingly got at least one back in stoppage time, ending the game at 4-2.
It was truly a game of two halves and the end result might seem a bit unfair for the away team. Sevilla came to Camp Nou to play and that was evident. Still, when Messi was on the pitch the Catalans were much superior. Yielding the midfield control proved fatal for Valverde’s side once more but this time, luckily for him, it did not come back to bite him. You could say that individual performances saved Barcelona and helped them take the throne back and the visitors, although they did everything they could in a tactical sense, were outclassed individually.
Barcelona will also be happy that their stars like Pique and Suarez were back to their best once more after a “dry spell”. The Uruguayan was at the centre of everything once Messi was subbed off, netting a goal and an assist to his name. The Spaniard defender was finally back to being himself after a long time of absence. Pique recorded most recovered balls (12), lost only one and made a total of 13 interceptions. This time around, he won 80 % of all his aerial duels (4/5).
In the end, it was an open game between two attacking sides and another goal fest. Both teams have lots to take out from it but Barcelona will also take all three points, which, at the end of the day, is all they came for.