Football Features

Barcelona have some tactical changes to make if they want to stop Real Madrid winning La Liga

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 11:16, 22 June 2020 | Updated: 9:58, 30 March 2021

Barcelona have thrown away their advantage at the top of La Liga and now face an uphill battle to retain their title.

The Blaugrana looked an old and broken side in their 0-0 draw with Sevilla, capable of solid defending and little else. Creatively it was a stagnant pool of nothingness and felt like something of a culmination for where the club have been headed this season. Or perhaps a second culmination, after the club somehow managed to draw 0-0 with Slavia Prague back in November.

This is where all the bad transfers have led. All the times they ignored the warning signs and retained the services of Ernesto Valverde. All the youth-team players they shunted out for a quick profit instead of developing into credible first-team squad members.

Barcelona are a club with many, many problems. They need some surgical work done in the summer transfer market. Not a complete overhaul, but two or three players who are exactly what is needed, two or three to elevate the squad back to the very top of the game.

But they can’t do that before the season ends, and there’s still a league title to try for as well as a Champions League to contest in August. So what can Barcelona do before the transfer window opens? What tactical tweaks can they try in order to give the side the spark they haven’t had for a while now? From the obvious to the ludicrous, we’ve come up with a list of ideas.

1. Suárez the super sub

Luis Suárez is a spent force at the elite level. The Uruguayan has been a player in decline for a couple of years now, but has still been able to produce by virtue of his unshakeable iron will as well as world-class technique. But time defeats all opponents, and Suárez has been beaten.

Suárez’s display against Sevilla was awful. Despite his telepathic understanding with team-mates and great link-play, he was still a huge hindrance to Barcelona’s attack because he couldn’t keep up athletically. That has to change.

Obviously Suárez can still contribute, so shouldn’t be dropped altogether, but he shouldn’t be starting anymore. Keep him to late cameos, where his excellent understanding with Messi will energise the Argentine for the game’s final moments and where his lower athletic levels won’t be a problem up against tired defenders.

2. Emphasise width

With Suárez on the bench, Barcelona can really emphasise one of their greatest weapons that they’ve moved away from: width. All the best Barcelona sides had great wingers who played wide to stretch opponents, but nowadays the Blaugrana are a much narrower side.

Messi obviously comes narrow but neither Barcelona right-back is the kind of offensive powerhouse Dani Alves was to replace him out wide. On the left Jordi Alba does play that role but can’t always bomb on, so the attack has to help out.

With no Suárez, you could play Messi as a false nine, allowing him to be central all the time without unbalancing the team shape. Then you can play the likes of Ansu Fati, Martin Braithwaite and perhaps even some La Masia youngsters out wide. Players who can start and stay wide if need be, but would also be comfortable making those deadly outside-to-in diagonal runs into the path of midfield passes.

3. Use the squad more

Barcelona became obsessed with the idea of a “Gala XI” around a decade ago after their Champions League win at Wembley. Back then it made sense as they had arguably the greatest XI of all time, and when it had a resurgence in 2015 this instinct again was understandable.

But in 2020? There is no Gala XI. And running the same small group of players into the ground when most of them are over 30 is absurd. Barcelona don’t have a squad on-par with Real Madrid’s, but it’s good enough to be used more than it has been this season.

Junior Firpo has enormous potential if he would just be given more starts, and the added rest would help Jordi Alba stay at his peak for longer. In the centre of defence, Ronald Araujo has shown that he can perform in La Liga and with his combination of athleticism and technique is actually a better partner for Gerard Piqué or Clement Lenglet than they are for each other. He definitely should be regularly involved, spelling either one of the two starting centre-backs to gain experience.

Midfield is obviously a minefield. Sergio Busquets still has class but his legs are going fast, Ivan Rakitic looks a spent force in Blaugrana, and Arturo Vidal… well he’s kind of irreplaceable really given the attacking thrust he provides.

Frenkie de Jong plays well either side of Busquets, but he really should be getting minutes in that central pivot role. That’s where he’s going to end up and using him there would make Barcelona more athletic in the middle and help keep Busquets fresh. Besides him, Arthur should definitely be playing more than Ivan Rakitic as the Brazilian has proven how good he can be when given the chance.

Riqui Puig is obviously the main candidate for more minutes. A fantastic creative midfielder in the Iniesta mould, using the young Catalan in concert with De Jong and Vidal would give the Blaugrana their most dynamic midfield since Andrés Iniesta left the club. The La Masia graduate makes everyone around him better and is the kind of player who, were he playing for another club, Barcelona would spend countless summers and tens of millions of Euros pursuing. They already have him… use him!

4. Experiment with Griezmann’s position

Antoine Griezmann has not worked out at Barcelona. That’s kind of understandable, since they needed a No.9 or a No.11 and instead signed a No.10. Perhaps the original idea was to change shape and play Messi and Griezmann as an attacking duo, but that’s not what happened under Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién tried 3-5-2 but the club lacked the defenders.

Griezmann doesn’t work as a wide-forward, nor as a lead striker. And perhaps he will be moved on in the summer, but until that happens why not try and find a way to use him? The Frenchman is a great creative player and a genuinely elite defensive presence, so move him deeper on the pitch into spaces where his role becomes less complicated.

You could try him at left-back if you wanted to be really cruel, but playing him as the attacking midfielder Barcelona have missed since Andrés Iniesta’s departure sounds strange but it could really work. The Frenchman has great experience of working hard tracking back thanks to years under Diego Simeone, so the work-rate required in midfield wouldn’t be a problem.

Positionally he already spends most of his time coming to the back and playing a linking role, so why not make that his role full-time? That way Griezmann can play deeper and play safer and have it actually benefit the side rather than removing a forward from the attacking zones. Of course there would still be chances for him to burst forward into the box and threaten goal, but he would primarily become a facilitator from deep, using his superb passing and crossing skills to put more dynamic forwards into goalscoring positions.