Barcelona’s season started in turmoil after picking up just 17 points from the opening 12 games under Ronaldo Koeman this season. But under new manager Xavi Hernandez, they have found a new lease in life. Since Xavi’s appointment, only Real Madrid (39) have picked up more points than Barcelona (34) in the 15 league matches. In the same period, only Getafe (11.97) have given up lower non-penalty xGA than Barcelona (12.32) in the league. In the same period they have accumulated the third best non-penalty xG in the league behind Villarreal and Real Madrid.
Real Madrid come into this game on a five game win streak against the Catalan side. The game carries significance not only due to the rivalry but because a win would mean Barcelona secure their position in the top-four race after a horrid start to their campaign, while for Real Madrid, it’s about solidifying their position at the top of the table.
Let’s take a look at how Barcelona behave under Xavi
Tactics under Xavi
Xavi has managed to imprint his identity on the team in the way they play. Barcelona line up in a 4-3-3 under him that usually morphs into a 2-3-5/3-2-5 in possession (depending on the fullback pairing). The wingers usually stay high and wide, stretching the field horizontally with the interiors operating in the half-spaces and making runs from midfield. The striker drops slightly deeper as compared to the wingers, this allows them to have multiple options in between the opposition midfield and front lines. The interiors (usually Pedri) and the striker move well in relation to each other thus offering fluidity and causing problems. These are some basic principles on which Xavi’s side operate.
Under Xavi, the side has seen improvement in both the intensity and the volume of the pressures they apply. Barcelona have recorded 135.9 pressures per 90 compared to 128.5 under Koeman. The passes per defensive actions (PPDA) metric has seen a drop from 7.22 previously to 6.62 under Xavi.
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High and wide wingers and crosses into the box
One key facet of Barcelona’s game since Xavi took over has been in how they use their wingers now. Under Xavi, Barcelona consistently look to isolate their wide players against the fullbacks trying to maximize their 1v1 potential. Ousmane Dembélé, Adama Traoré and Ferran Torres are all very good in 1v1 situations and this allows them to take on players and create space to then cross the ball into the box.
Here we see the ball reception heatmap for Dembélé and Traoré and their touchline hugging nature immediately stands out and this is by design. Both the players are proficient at receiving the ball wide and carrying it into the box and near the touchline for a cutback opportunity or beating their man and creating space for crosses. With Ferland Mendy out with an injury, Real Madrid will have to be weary of not getting isolated against their tricky wingers.
This brings us to another element of Xavi’s side: Crossing.
Since the managerial change, Barcelona have attempted 332 crosses in La Liga of which 86 were successful and 63 of them resulted in a shot. They are currently the side that attempts the most number of crosses in the league. It looks like a go-to attacking pattern for the Blaugranas. With only Eder Militão having the aerial prowess between the two CBs for Real Madrid, multiple crosses might cause problems for Ancelotti’s men.
Usage of fullbacks
The use of fullbacks under Xavi has been interesting to say the least. Inverting the fullback and using them as an auxiliary midfielder in sustained possession has helped Sergio Busquets thrive as a lone pivot as he isn’t asked to cover acres of space by himself after the interiors push forward. This has resulted in him having a higher influence on Barcelona’s overall possession game and become a vital cog of this side.
Dani Alves’ eventual transformation into midfield during his time in Brazil has seen him emerge as a perfect candidate for this role. Starting at RB, Alves is often seen inverting inside and providing an extra body in midfield, supporting Busquets and creating a 2-3-5 shape during buildup phases.
This can be seen in his territory plot based on touches. There are a lot of central touches and his location on average is away from the touchline. Alba has been increasingly doing the same on the other side but after being an explosive overlapping fullback for a large part of his career, he does so to a lesser extent when compared to his fullback partner.
A major advantage of using Alves in the midfield is that it allows him to use his impeccable passing ability to pick out players both on the outside and inside.
As we can note from his pass map from central areas, Alves doesn’t just have the range on the ball, but is also capable of pulling the strings from midfield to switch play or pick out runners in behind. This makes him very valuable for the team’s offence.
Sergiño Dest, who was in and out of the side before, is also good in this role. Dest’s powerful ball carrying, 1v1 ability allows him to progress possession from central areas and he is capable of pulling off some good passes as well although to a lesser proficiency compared to Alves. (Although, at this point, it seems like Dest’s place in El Clasico is a doubt due to injury that as suffered in Barcelona’s game vs Galatasary on Thursday.)
With the fullbacks providing the extra man in midfield and supporting Busquets (lone pivot), this allows for the #8s (Pedri and Frenkie de Jong) to operate in half spaces and make darting runs into the box. While these runs may not always be successfully executed, the idea is clearly visible and it results in multiple opportunities.
Vulnerability from set-pieces
One of the things Barcelona has struggled with on multiple occasions this season is their defending from dead ball situations. Barcelona have a habit of switching off during set-pieces, allowing the opponent to get the shot off.
This vulnerability surfaced yet again against Galatasaray in their Europa League tie, where they conceded from a corner due to what was loose marking in the box by Ferran Torres. Barcelona are often suspect of poor man marking and failing to track opposition runners in these situations allowing the opponent to get a shot off.
Real Madrid do have the tools to exploit this with Militão, Casemiro and Benzema (doubtful for the game) being good in the air and Toni Kroos having excellent deliveries from dead ball situations.
Besides the changes in play style and improvements in number and usage of different players, one of the significant changes under Xavi has been the return of the competitive edge. The group is coherent again and the mood in the dressing room has improved, especially after a spectacular February.
For all the potential matchups and misses on either side, this Clásico promises to be a cracking fixture.