In one of the most entertaining (and important) matches in recent memory, Barcelona defeated Sevilla 5-4 in the UEFA Super Cup. Here is a short, more general tactical analysis.
Barcelona played their treble winning 4-3-3. Jeremy Mathieu replaced Jordi Alba and Rafinha Alcantara (Thiago’s brother) replaced Neymar (out due to mumps).
Sevilla played with multiple formations- with 5 midfielders in a variant of 4-5-1. Off the ball (especially later on) they morphed into a 4-4-2.
For all the talk of a combative Sevilla, they played a particularly tame first half. Unai Emery looked to unsettle Barcelona by having his side press heavily early on. Historically, particularly in the Guardiola era, Barcelona have been prone to early spells of pressure, often conceding early goals. Not this time.
Ever Banega’s brilliant free kick overshadowed the large amounts of space Sevilla was conceding in the first half. A high line gave away too many chances, be it free kicks or from open play. That and Lionel Messi. The Argentine looked extremely fit despite his late return from the Copa America, exploiting the spaces given to him with relative ease. The same combination of Messi and space downed Bayern Munich earlier this year. Surely Emery would know better?
Too predictable? The only surprising part about this first half is that Barcelona didn’t put the game to bed earlier. With their opponents looking like fools defending, a surfeit of chances were handed to the Blaugrana. On a plate. Just that they didn’t take them.
As a side note, its worth noting that while Messi was impressive, it was all of Sevilla’s doing. Their strategy left Messi with so much space, and it wasn’t the other way around.
This half belonged to Sevilla. Just like the first half did to the Catalans. Luis Suarez’s confidence-draining goal was an anomaly as Emery’s men laid siege on the Barcelona goal. Now clearly a 4-4-2 off the ball; Sevilla defended deeper and better, transitioned extremely well into attack and flipped the game on its head. Now Barcelona looked toothless.
Defensively, to beat Barcelona (the Atletico model), a 4-4-2 off the ball is fairly standard. The surprising (not-so surprising?) aspect was that Sevilla defended incredibly well in this shape. Barcelona were left frustrated even with all their men forward. They resorted to last ditch crosses and lobs, unable to break through. If Messi was at his explosive best in the first half, he was extremely frustrated and contained in the second. Sevilla’s change in plan kept him (and the entire Barcelona side, for that matter) in their pockets.
Attacking transitions are key for any side looking to play counter-attacking football. Sevilla, once again, did this extremely well. Be it through one-twos or brilliant through balls, the Barcelona defense was being opened up with ease. A near role reversal. With Barcelona on the receiving end. Considering how solid this same defense was last season, one wouldn’t expect the Catalans to look so porous. Luis Enrique in particular cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines, watching his defense collapse.
Barcelona had contributed to their collapse as well. After the 50 minute mark, they looked to kill off the game as they slowed down their tempo. This played into Sevilla’s hands, as it smoothened up their transitions, allowing them to hurt Barcelona even more.
The lineups had been altered after the introduction of substitutes by both sides, but the game remained fundamentally the same.
Barcelona didn’t return to their first half exuberance, they never could considering the way Sevilla were playing, but as fatigue set in they attempted to impose themselves once more. Messi tried to force things through. Alves pushed up his flank. But Sevilla’s 4-4-2 held, for the time being at least.
As for Unai Emery’s men, they had heavy legs after 90 minutes. Understandably. Ciro Immobile remained an engine on and off the ball, while summer signing (free transfer, that too) Yevhen Konoplyanka looked lively going forward. Considering their level of organisation, one would be surprised to know that this side went through a mini-overhaul of sorts this summer. Nevertheless fitness levels were in a state of decline as the Europa League holders were content with a slow game. The energetic midfielder Vitolo was among the men who cramped up later on.
At 4-4 during extra time, 4 goals had been scored from set pieces already. Barcelona’s fifth was a result of the same. Yet it also sparked a revival from Sevilla of sorts. They created 2 more chances- seemingly at will- towards the end. Enough for the win in fact. Were it not for a header glanced wide and a volley kneed out, Sevilla could have been European Super Cup winners.
Barcelona’s only positive attribute in this game was their fighting ability. They picked themselves up and managed to win late in the match, but surely Luis Enrique has to be worried about their defense. Pique in particular was the leader of last season’s defense. This match, and this preseason for that matter, he has looked anything but that man. We all know Barcelona can attack, but their defense is what set them apart last season.
Sevilla could take much more from this game. For starters, holding a high line and not conceding goals simultaneously is tough to do against Barcelona. But playing a clean 4-4-2 off the ball and counter-attacking certainly has its benefits. Unai Emery in particular should be proud that his side could play toe-to-toe with Barcelona (the treble winners) when they are at their best. While both sides did eventually regress to the mean, Sevilla did create more than enough chances to win the game.