Analyst Lee Scott (@FMAnalysis) joins These Football Times to break down the biggest tactical battles of the season from around Europe. Providing coverage of key games throughout 2016-17 campaign, join him this week as he looks at Jorge Sampaoli and Luis Enrique as they clash in the Spanish Super Cup first leg.
The Spanish Super Cup is the traditional curtain raiser to the domestic football season. Usually at this early stage of the season, the tie has the feel of a late pre-season tournament with participants feeling their way towards full fitness and resting key players that may have been involved in international tournaments over the summer break.
This lack of a true competitive spirit can at times detract from the spectacle and the quality on show. This year, however, we were treated to an intriguing match between last year’s champions Barcelona and Europa League winner Sevilla. The Andalusians are still in a state of flux following the departure of their successful coach Unai Emery and the introduction of the Argentine Jorge Sampaoli for his first exposure to European football.
Sampaoli is renowned as a coach from the Marcelo Bielsa school who favours the same tactical concepts of the ex-Athletic Bilbao and Marseille coach. We should expect a high-tempo, attacking approach and a lot of verticality in terms of passing and movement, as well as a high press when out of possession.
The clash between this distinct style and the now established model of Luis Enrique and Barcelona would prove to be an intriguing one. There were changes to the positional structure of the Barcelona side throughout the game as they looked for an answer to the Sevilla set up. In the end, after a first half where both sides effectively cancelled each other out, the game was decided via two moments of individual quality.
Football is still, after all, a game where individual quality can trump even the most disciplined tactical setup.
Barcelona’s positional structure and pressing
With Brazilian superstar Neymar representing his country in the Olympics at the time of the game, his place in the team went to the experienced Turkish international Arda Turan.
Since signing from Atlético Madrid, Turan has struggled to integrate into the tactical structure favoured by his new coach. This may have led to the decision at the start of this match to field Turan in a more traditional left-sided midfield role, forming a central four-man system with Andrés Iniesta, Ivan Rakitić and Sergio Busquets,
The right hand side of the pitch was covered defensively by the ex-Sevilla player Rakitić, who shifted out to the right half-space when Sevilla were in possession.
Ahead of the midfield structure, Barcelona fielded Luis Suárez in his traditional striker role moving across the width of the pitch and pressing relentlessly. He was joined by Lionel Messi, who was floating in a free role between the midfield and attack with little tactical responsibility. The work-rate of the Argentine did, however, mean that when Sevilla were building play from the back then Barcelona pressed in something approaching a traditional 4-4-2 shape.
Here you can see the narrow shape of the Barcelona midfield as they press in a high block. On the right side of the pitch the space has been emptied by Ivan Rakitić moving infield to narrow the midfield structure.
Last season, in this moment of transition, we would have seen Busquets drop back into a more traditional defensive midfield position to add depth to the pressing structure for Barcelona. Against Sevilla, however, his movement and positioning was more like a traditional number 6 in that he moved forward into the final third when Barcelona were attacking. Strangely for one of the most assured midfielder in the game, there were times that Busquets looked decidedly uncomfortable in the more advanced areas.
It is at this point still unclear whether this tactical switch will be a continuous element of Barcelona’s game plan for the coming season or whether it was simply a solution to a specific threat that Sevilla posed.
Again you can see the clear midfield line for Barcelona. Arda Turan is tucked in from the left flank and Rakitić has narrowed the pitch by leaving the right flank and playing in his more natural central position. What is interesting from this example is that the player leaving the positional structure to press the Sevilla player in possession is actually Sergio Busquets, while Iniesta and Rakitić hold a more disciplined structure.
It may be that Luis Enrique is looking to evolve the role of Busquets and use him as more of an offensive weapon both in possession and out of possession with his capacity to read the game and press the ball.
In the third and final example we can see that Suárez and Messi are closely connected in the attacking strata with Messi continually looking for space. Once again, the player leading the press from the midfield strata is Busquets, who has left his midfield position to apply heavy pressure to the Sevilla player in possession.
These movements were a common occurrence for Barcelona in the first half of the match although in the second period we saw signs of them reverting to a more recognisable positional structure with Busquets dropping back from his normal defensive midfield role to split the centre-backs when in possession and support the team to build up from the back.
With Busquets more advanced in the first half, Barcelona had real problems building from the back.
Sevilla press high to disrupt Barcelona in transition
As mentioned, Jorge Sampaoli is a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, and one of the key tactical concepts in his game model is the high pressing of the opposition to disrupt them building up from the back. This concept was evident throughout the first half of the match and with the switch of position for Sergio Busquets, Barcelona struggled to build up effectively from back to front as they would normally.
With the ball at the feet of the Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo we would usually see the ball circulate through either one of the two central defenders or through Busquets when he drops deeper to split both the central defenders and provide an alternative passing option.
In the first half, however, Sevilla were brave in their defensive shape and committed at least three players in to press the Barcelona defence. This forced Barcelona to play a more direct style and prevented them from building through the thirds of the pitch and creating comfortable possession for themselves.
Here we see Barcelona trying to build up through their defensive third and normally one of the passing options would be open. In this instance, Sevilla have moved into position to apply significant pressure to not only the man in possession of the ball but also to the players that are in position to receive a safe, high percentage pass.
The first pressing player (Vietto in this instance) will angle his body to prevent the ball from being played back in to the goalkeeper safely. The other two closely connected players are already shadowed by Sevilla players and the slightly more difficult longer pass is covered by one if not two players who can move to quickly press the player who will take possession of the ball.
Sevilla stick to their model of play
As the second half progressed, and with the score tied at 0-0, we saw Barcelona shift back to their more established model of play with Busquets dropping deeper, although Messi still appeared to be floating in a free role in the 10 space. Sevilla, on the other hand, appeared determined to to stick to their game plan.
Despite the significant physical exertion it requires, we still saw Sevilla close Barcelona down relentlessly deep inside the Barça half.
The front three of Sevilla worked tirelessly to slow down the Barcelona attacking rhythm. Further to this, Sampaoli ensured that when they lost the ball the side was able to counter-press ferociously in order to put immediate pressure on Barcelona. Essentially they were trying to play the champions at their own game.
Sevilla have just lost possession of the ball in the final third. Immediately there are four Sevilla players moving to either press the man in possession or cover the easy pass to one of his team-mates. In this instance the only safe options for Sergi Roberto in possession is to turn the ball back to his goalkeeper or clip a low percentage pass up the field.
The Barcelona model would normally dictate that they would look for a close pass in the first instance before looking to build up through the thirds of the pitch.
In the final example we look at the shape that we saw recurring for Sevilla. Sampaoli likes to build up in a reasonably vertical fashion, favouring quick forward passes between the lines over keeping possession for the sake of it. They will also look to overload and overlap in wide areas, trying to stretch the opposition’s defensive unit out across the pitch to create gaps for their central players to exploit.
The three-man attack remains in place across the width of the pitch with a central midfield player joining the striker. The other midfielders split to occupy the half-spaces and then a deeper player moves forward into the central midfield zone.
The movements themselves are relatively easy to pick up but a zonal marking system will be stretched as they try to account for the passing lanes and passing angles that they create. This is what makes Sampaoli one of the most interesting and progressive attacking coaches.
In the end, this match was settled by two moments of magic. Despite all the talk of systems and movements within systems, Barcelona once again showed that they have the individual quality to settle any contest.
So what though did we learn from the contest? First of all, Luis Enrique may be experiencing the same tactical restlessness that plagued Pep Guardiola during his last season at the club. The changing of roles within the system seemed a little forced and unpractised. It may be that he is simply preparing a Plan B of sorts.
Sevilla, on the other hand, will be an extremely interesting team to watch this season. For all their squad turnover, they appear to be once again a side without a standout star player. Instead, they will stand or fall on the strength of the tactical game model that Sampaoli presents.
It promises to be another fascinating season for both sides.
By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis