Barcelona went into the encounter against Real Sociedad at the Anoeta, winless since 2007 against the Basque side at their home. Barcelona have endured a dip in form in recent weeks compared to their high standards while Sociedad have been finding themselves in the top 5 in the league table, performing really well.
Real Sociedad: (4-3-3): 1.Rulli; 2.C.Martinez 22.Navas 6.I.Martinez 19.Yuri;4.Illarramendi 17.Zurutuza 10.Xabi Prieto; 11.Vela 12.Jose 18.Oyarzabal
Barcelona: (4-3-3): 1.Ter Stegen;20. Roberto 3.Pique 14.Mascherano 18.Alba;5.Busquets 21,Gomes 4.Rakitic;10.Messi 9.Suarez 11.Neymar
Relentless pressing from Sociedad:
Barcelona have recently shown a vulnerability against teams that press them high up the pitch. This, added to the absence of Iniesta in the midfield has rendered them weak against teams that have a coordinated high press. Sociedad were absolutely brilliant throughout the game and showed great energy levels to press Barcelona. Lining up in their recently used but effective 4-3-3, they adopted a clever marking scheme to stifle Barcelona’s build up play.
Similar to what Sevilla did in their game against Barcelona , Sociedad covered their left wing( Barca’s right wing) in the initial phases of build up, making sure that Barca were not able to pass to Messi. Whenever Ter Stegen was about to take a goal kick, both the Barca central defenders split wide with the full backs further up the pitch. As is the usual situation with Barcelona, Busquets usually doesn’t drop too deep to receive the ball, due to the ball playing capabilities of the central defenders. Both the defenders were marked by Vela and Willian Jose pressing high up. Mikel Oyarzabal slotted into the half space with Xabi Prieto following suit on the other side. This made sure that the passing lanes to the central midfield were blocked. The full backs from Sociedad also were high up the pitch and almost head to head with the opposing full backs. Forcing ter Stegen to kick high up the field, Soiedad won the aerial duels and won back possession. Alba’s 73 touches(match high for Barcelona) shows how the play was forced to take place in the left side. Having averaged 62% possession and 86% passing accuracy this season, Barca had less than 50%possesion and a season low 76% passing accuracy in the match, testament to Sociedad’s excellent pressing.
This pressing from Sociedad led to Barcelona losing the ball a lot in their own half. Below we see the loss of possession from Barca.
(The pitch map shows Barca attacking from right to left) Courtesy- whoscored.com
There are a lot of interceptions in Barca’s half, with high degree of the losses coming in the left hand side of the midfield. Making Barca play to their left and limit Messi’s influence, Sociedad won possession high up the pitch and committed a lot of turnovers in play.
The striking feature of Sociedad’s play was that they dominated possession, rather than ceding it to Barcelona. Sociedad showed high energy levels to make sure that they went up and down the pitch and had sufficient numbers in both phases of play. This possession game also meant that they spent lesser time pressing the Barcelona side and saved their energy levels. This game happened to be the first time this season that Barcelona have enjoyed lesser possession than their opponents. With Sociedad enjoying 52% of the possession, they made more passes than Barca in the attacking third (134 to Barca’s 97) and also had more shots and corners than the Catalan side.
Barcelona’s ineffective midfield and the space between midfield and defense:
The midfield trio of Andre Gomes, Rakitic and Busquets struggled to influence the game and failed to form any sort of a link up during their build up play. Rakitic suffered a miserable first half, unable to deal with Sociedad’s pressing. The aspect that affected them the most was that they were taken aback by Sociedad’s build up play. Sociedad played a passing game and held possession well. This was unexpected from a Barcelona point of view and they did not have a proper pressing scheme to press and win the ball from Sociedad. The shape of the Barcelona midfield was also varying with the midfielders unsure of who and when to press.
Two stark features from Barcelona’s setup when defending was that Neymar dropped back into the midfield and almost played a flat four. The system was however disjointed with Busquets usually moving forward to press the ball carrier in the midfield. This 4-4-2 shape from Barcelona was lopsided with frequent disorientation in the midfield bank.
Another feature which was greatly exploited by the Sociedad players was the space in between midfield and defense. Both Vela and Oyarzabal drifted into this space frequently while the full backs bombed forward with Yuri especially foraying forward frequently. Roberto could not directly deal with Yuri as Oyarzabal wandered in the zone. Despite Neymar dropping back into the midfield, this did not necessarily mean that Barca had the zones covered as the midfield trio were a bit compact and Rakitic wasn’t exactly a right midfielder. This lack of cohesion in the Barca structure meant that Sociedad could build up easily.
Busquets has slightly declined from his immaculate standards in recent weeks and the absence of Iniesta affects the game play. There is no dynamism in the midfield as Rakitic and Andre Gomes are not the best carriers of the ball. This is even more exposed when a team presses with a high block. While without the ball, as shown in the pitch map above, whenever Busquets moved to press the ball carrier the other two midfielders remained somewhat similar to a double pivot, as was the case when Rakitic moved to mark the other zone. This passive and flat shape meant that there was space behind the midfield to be exploited and also highlighted the ineffective structure in defensive phases.
Barca looked to beat the press, again in a similar way to what they did in their Sevilla game, with Busquets dropping into the back line forming a temporary back three. This in turn effectively created a overload in the initial phase of build up. This also led to Sociedad being unsure as to whether to follow Busquets, which would mean either Gomes or Denis Suarez( substitute for Rakitic in the second half) would be free to receive the ball from the back. Suarez’s substitution was also to make sure that they had a good dribbler to be able to carry the ball out in tight situations.
Messi drifted inwards and swapped positions with Suarez to influence the game. He also frequently dropped into the midfield, overloading the center so that the play could be built up. With either Zurutuza or Illaramendi in the center as the deep lying midfielder, this created a problem as they were unable to follow Messi too deep or stay with him and let the Barca midfielders receive the ball without pressure. The goal for Barcelona came from a situation as seen above with Neymar able to receive the ball in the wing in the middle of the pitch and generate a 1v1 against Martinez. Using his skill Neymar made it to the 18 yard box and Messi, who had dropped deep while initiating the move, scored the goal after a late run into the box. By scoring from the only time they bypassed the press, Barca fashioned a few more chances later on but credit must be given to Sociedad to have made sure that such opportunities were limited. Despite equalising, the general set up from the Barcelona side did not change and Sociedad continued to take advantage of this.
Real Sociedad were hugely impressive on the night and bossed Barcelona. What made this even more impressive was that they dominated possession and enjoyed more possession than Barcelona.(Sociedad had 458 passes compared to Barca’s 427 and 675 touches compared to Barca’s 636, according to whoscored.com) They were unlucky to not take all the three points as Carlos Vela hit the woodwork twice while also having a goal wrongly disallowed. Barcelona scored with their individual quality on pitch with Neymar and Messi linking well. The way they played, more than the result, would have worried Luis Enrique as the Classico looms nearer next week.