After the departure of Dani Alves, Barcelona’s first-choice right-back finally seemed to have settled upon Nelson Semedo. Competing with Sergi Roberto, he made the place his own after joining from Benfica in 2017 with his complete and offensively strong displays on the right of defence.
Now, perhaps unexpectedly, it looks increasingly likely that Semedo’s future could lie away from Camp Nou, with Juventus and Inter both having been strongly linked. Financial obligations will force the club to consider swap deals more than ever before and the Portugal international is a man in demand.
This scout report will provide a tactical analysis of Semedo at Barcelona. It will cover his performances in 2019/20 in La Liga, the Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League. It will provide an analysis of how he fits into the tactics used by Ernesto Valverde and, more recently, Quique Setién.
On the right-hand side of the backline, Nelson Semedo plays an essential role in both attack and defence within the Barcelona set-up. As pictured in his heat map below, he plays a key offensive role when going forwards. This is because Semedo is given real license to roam as Lionel Messi starts on the right and drifts centrally, opening up space on the right for Semedo to exploit. He does so freely and has free reign down that flank to take advantage of, being able to drift centrally more akin to a winger than a typical full-back would, relying more on wider positions on the overlap.
Equally, he has few defensive responsibilities which mean that he largely remains in a wide position when defending and is not required to move centrally in the same way as a typical full-back. Here, his defensive side of the game largely takes place in the middle third, reflecting the high-line that Barcelona has played under both coaches, though this has dropped slightly deeper under Setién.
Earlier this season, with both Junior Firpo and Jordi Alba ruled out by injury, Semedo did fill in on the left. In this role, he was evidently weaker defensively, feeling uncomfortable being forced onto his weaker foot, but he did fare well when on the offensive and adapted his game accordingly. As can be seen here, he instead focused his game on his attacking threat and looked to press forward more when on the left than he usually would on the right, with 2.58 touches in the box per 90 minutes whilst on the left, as opposed to 1.48 per 90 on the right.
Semedo’s main role on the right-hand side is to provide a key asset in transitional play. he will focus upon moving the ball forwards quickly, as shown by his ranking as the fourth-highest full-back in progressive runs at 2.58 per 90 minutes. Alongside his movement on and off the ball, Semedo’s technique is evident as is considered in this analysis.
Within this play, Barcelona continues to rely upon their triangles and rondo style passing movements to move the ball forward quickly, rather than direct running. That is the case now more than ever as crucial figures in defence and attack age and lose their pace. On the left, Jordi Alba will typically do this with individual late runs into space, but on the right, Semedo links up the play with midfielders and forwards ahead of him.
In fact, 27.9% of Semedo’s passes are forward passes, marginally higher than Sergi Roberto who plays in a similar role at full-back. Many of these are in a quick one-two, similar to this approach from Semedo against Getafe. With Getafe pressing closely in a rigid defensive structure, the defender identified a narrow opening to make a play with Frenkie de Jong and was rapidly in a one on one situation with Marc Cucurella, rather than facing two Getafe midfielders.
Whether it is De Jong drifting wide or Messi in a central role, Semedo performs this kind of manoeuvre regularly in order to find space against teams who defend deep. This is essential in a team like Barcelona who dominate possession: averaging 63.43% of it this season. It would also be equally suited to Serie A, where teams often defend with a deeper defensive line and more rigid midfield structure.
However, Semedo doesn’t require support and has shown that he can go it alone. Here, his dribbling and his movement are essential to add an attacking threat. Semedo ranks alongside some of La Liga’s most offensive full-backs for dribbles at 3.87 dribbles per 90 minutes, similar to the likes of Sergio Reguilón, José Luis Gayá and Yuri Berchiche.
In this action against Real Madrid, Semedo pushes forward and looks to exploit the Real Madrid defenders being drawn in to surround Messi in a triangle, a regular tactic used by opponents. This gives him space to exploit the left-back position which is often left vacant and also allows other Barcelona players to two on one against the remaining central defender, in this case, Arturo Vidal and Antoine Griezmann against Raphaël Varane. To really show his skills, Semedo’s pace is crucial to beating Sergio Ramos as he nicks the ball past him and he finds himself cutting into the box before passing back to Vidal who skews his shot.
His dribble success rate of 68.25% is the fourth-best in La Liga and the second-best of a full-back, only just behind Sevilla’s Jesús Navas, himself more of a wing-back and a former winger. This offers a crucial outlet to Barcelona’s more typical passing game and allows Semedo to attack a position which is often left weak as opponents drift players from their left to track Messi as he drifts centrally, making this attribute particularly valuable.
Semedo is strong in the final third, but his main strengths lie in getting the ball into that area. It is once in the danger area that he struggles to produce the final ball which can lead to a goal. That is why he records just one assist for every 10 games played. Equally, he also has defensive concerns which hold him back from being classed as a truly world-class defender.
Once in the final third, Semedo does lack the cutting edge that is required when it comes to the final ball. Often, his final pass or cross into the box will be the decisive element after good work in the transition but it will also be the element of his game which lets him down.
In total, 25% of his crosses find their target, 9.8% lower than Firpo, 10.6% below Jordi Alba and a significant 19.7% less than his right-back alternative Sergi Roberto. It dropped as low as 20% in 2018/19 as he was a far more precise crosser in Liga NOS with Benfica. This reflects how Barcelona rely less on a crossing game, particularly without Luis Suárez in the side, but also how his crossing must improve if he is to cut it in a side, like Inter, who rely on a more direct style.
Often, it comes down to his decision making. Rather than taking his time in the final third to deliver a more accurate ball, he will rush into delivering a ball into the danger zone and frequently his crosses fail to beat the first man as a result. This example against Valencia shows just that and is evidence of how Semedo can particularly struggle when looking to deliver crosses against a team defending with a low block.
Concentration & positioning
Despite that, all of his attacking threat does mean that there is a risk defensively and it is one of Semedo’s greatest vulnerabilities. While any offensive full-back will leave spaces in behind, Semedo’s weakness means that it happens more regularly than is required. His keen nature when going forward means that he will often look to exploit his freedom almost every time that Barcelona progress into the opposition half. That does mean that there are defensive weaknesses left in behind.
The perfect example is shown here in the game against Real Betis. Here, Barcelona advanced the ball centrally on the right, with Semedo bombing forward to offer another option when it was not entirely necessary. Possession was turned over and Rubi’s Betis side was clearly looking to target the gap in behind Semedo as soon as the ball was won. Two Betis attackers looked to attack the right of Barcelona’s defence, forcing a two on one situation for Clement Lenglet and dragging Gerard Piqué over, leading to a gap opening through the middle.
At Barcelona, such defensive concentration slips can be tolerated with Lenglet and Piqué providing cover, but this may not always be tolerated so much in other defensive systems. The likes of Juventus rely upon defensive discipline that Semedo may have to work on if he is to adapt to a similar role elsewhere.
Semedo is a player who continues to develop and improve and finds himself in the ideal setting at Barcelona in a role where he is afforded the freedom to attack without the same defensive duties. The Portugal international is strong in his attacking movement and links up well with his team-mates, giving them an alternative which is essential to their side.
His defensive frailties and lack of a killer ball do hold him back from being classed as a truly elite defender. These are areas of his game which he continues to work on, but it is clear to see why Barcelona may be reluctant to fork out big wages to keep him at the club with these challenges to overcome.
Inter, Juventus and any other interested parties are right to be looking into Semedo, a player of immense talent who could fit in well elsewhere. His attacking abilities are well-suited to such styles. However, they must be aware that he will have his work cut out to adjust to the defensive requirements of the Italian game which are less essential in the Spanish La Liga and explain why he has struggled to excel in the UEFA Champions League.