It has been five years now since Barcelona last lost a Champions League game at the Camp Nou. Bayern Munich was the last team to achieve this enormous feat back in 2013 when they crushed the Catalans with three goals in the back of their nets.
Tuesday’s clash against Tottenham Hotspur was definitely a game to forget for Blaugrana, but also one that was meaningless in the grand scheme of things. One side was out on an exhibition, testing some young players and resting the rest, while the other was on a wild hunt for a chance to feature in the knockout stages of this fabled competition.
Surprisingly, both sides got what they wanted from the match, and a 1:1 draw saw both teams advance further in the tournament.
This tactical analysis will use statistics and insight to determine how Tottenham dominated a, it has to be said, fairly weakened Barcelona side but only managed to rattle the net once, allowing the hosts to keep their undefeated streak alive.
Starting XI: Cillessen – Semedo, Vermaelen, Lenglet, Miranda – Rakitic, Arthur, Aleña – Dembele, Munir, Coutinho
Bench: Ter Stegen, Pique, Busquets, Denis, Messi, Alba, Vidal
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Tottenham Hotspur (4-3-1-2)
Starting XI: Lloris – Walker-Peters, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose – Sissoko, Winks – Eriksen, Dele, Son – Kane
Bench: Gazzaniga, Davies, Dier, Skipp, Lamela, Lucas, Llorente
Coach: Mauricio Pochettino
It is safe to say this won’t really rank as the most important game Barcelona had to play in the Champions League. Having already secured their spot among the elite in the knockout stages of the tournament, Ernesto Valverde was free to do what he so often opts against – rotate.
And rotate he did, fairly heavy, it has to be said. The Ant made a total of six changes to the usual gala XI as Jasper Cillessen was the man between the sticks, and Juan Miranda, the Barcelona B youngster, and Carles Alenya, the newly promoted La Masia gem, got their CL debuts.
Aside from them, Valverde gave Munir a chance instead of Suarez, Arthur was back from injury, and Vermaelen was the final change to sum up a rejuvenated Barcelona side which operated in a familiar 4-3-3 system throughout the game.
Tottenham Hotspur’s setup
Mauricio Pochettino did not really have the commodity and leisure of Ernesto Valverde. For the Argentinian coach and his troops, this was “do or die“, “win or go home“. At least, that was the initial expectation when he was entering the Camp Nou, and many were worried about how they might fare.
In the end, Inter did them a huge favour by drawing with PSV Eindhoven at San Siro but Poch’s full strength line-up was more than enough for this Barcelona side. Still, Mauricio made a total of four changes to his last formation.
Both fullbacks were replaced as Danny Rose and Kyle Walker-Peters featured on the night, as well as Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen returning to the team after a needed rest before the big and decisive clash in Catalunya.
Spurs operated in a 4-3-1-2 system throughout the whole match with subtle changes in certain situations on the pitch.
For the vast majority of the game, the away team had complete control of all proceedings but the very start was shaky, to say the least. Tottenham Hotspur needed about a quarter of an hour to find their pacing, and to adapt to Barcelona‘s style of play.
The first couple of minutes were calm but the hosts controlled the tempo, as they usually do, especially at the Camp Nou. We saw a couple of slips, bad passes and even worse giveaways from the Spurs’ team which was eventually punished by the Catalans.
Ousmane Dembele had to wait seven minutes to get his first proper chance, and he took it extremely well. After he snatched the ball away from the young Kyle Walker-Peters, the Frenchman proceeded to dazzle with his dribbles, high pace, and a signature fake-shot to get a clear shot at goal. He did not miss, and just like that, Spurs were in an even bigger hole than before.
Although it could be said that Barcelona capitalized on their opponent’s mistake, it was more so an individual brilliance than a team effort from their side. As far as the hosts go, this was the recipe for the entire night. Cohesively, though, they were not really on the same page.
The same cannot be said for Tottenham, who were a team on a mission, and it was clearly visible from the get-go.
The tides shift
After the initial Barcelona lead, many would crumble and give up on their quest to overturn a lead at the Camp Nou. But not Spurs. They were just heating up their engines and were ready to go.
Their mindset was mostly visible in the way they pressed Barcelona when out of possession. This was not just a press for the sake of moving many of your players in the final third but it was a calculated press.
Notice how every Barcelona player has a marker, and the key was to deplete the number of available passes and to prevent the build-up that the hosts prefer. We rarely saw Barca actually build all the way from the back because Spurs were right in their faces all the time.
More often than not, the only real solution to this problem was to give the ball back to the keeper, who was, in this case, Jasper Cillessen. This also played a huge role since the Dutchman, although good with his feet as well, is not on Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s level when it comes to that.
Cillessen was also the one pressed heavily so without any time to react properly, he just cleared the ball towards his strikers but instead of finding Luis Suarez there, Munir was occupying his position instead. The young striker made decent runs throughout the game but he was not really a proper target man for Barca to exploit with those long ball from the goalie.
As a direct result of the press, Barcelona had to make a total of 15 clearances throughout the game which is a lot, especially when compared to Tottenham’s eight.
Another difference was that Tottenham had Harry Kane, who was excellent at shielding the ball, dropping a bit deeper to attract the centre-backs, and thus providing necessary free space for his wingers to exploit.
Munir could not do as much, and it was noticeable.
Putting all those „B team“ excuses aside, Barcelona really could not find their footing throughout the whole game. Their troubles were evident in both attack and defence, with the latter being at the very core of their problems.
Spurs were excellent at exploiting that with their pace, and physicality in midfield and the wings but most importantly, with their positioning.
When off the ball, Barcelona traditionally tried to press high, same as Spurs did, but as opposed to their English counterparts, the Catalans would leave far too much free space to exploit behind their backs.
In both cases below Tottenham use smart movement to bypass Barcelona’s press. The way their press worked was easily broken through. Each midfielder would usually get one man to mark, which they would do without question, even to the detriment of the team.
Notice how Busquets had to make up his mind quickly and choose only one Spurs’ player to cover since he cannot mark both. This happened on numerous occasions and not by accident either. In the image above, we can see Dele Alli in his free-roam role between midfield and attack.
When necessary, the young Englishman would drop to midfield to create a numerical superiority, making one member of the Barcelona trident choose who to follow, and every choice had the same outcome.
The same thing happens in the second situation in the image above but this time Arthur has two players to cover, and the second he chooses his victim, he himself becomes one when the ball rushes past him to reach the final third with ease.
When we compare the same thing but just switch sides, we can see that Spurs had a similar idea but Pochettino’s men had much better execution.
With no Sergio Busquets in the starting line-up, it was Rakitić’s job to drop deeper, between the two centre-backs, and orchestrate play. The Croat excelled at this, as he usually does, and when Barcelona was on the front foot, mostly it started with him.
Spurs opted for a 4-3-2-1 press system if Barcelona’s defensive line was as high as pictured above. Notice how they stay in a narrow, diamond-esque shape to keep every possible passing option covered. Rakitić has only a couple of possible solutions: Recycle possession in the back line, and/ or slowly build towards the wings.
But this is exactly what Tottenham wanted, and exactly the offensive problem Barcelona faced. Juan Miranda made his debut in the Champions League that night, and while the youngster was solid when all things are considered, one thing was still notable: Miranda is no Alba.
Not that he is expected to be but what we want to say with this is that Alba’s absence was highly noted. The pacey Spaniard has been Barcelona’s biggest offensive outlet last season, and especially during the 2018/19 campaign.
Without him, the left side of the pitch was suddenly a lot quieter than usual. Miranda would not overlap as much, and with Coutinho regularly cutting inside to that left half-space, the left wing would remain – empty.
On the night, Miranda made only two progressive runs into the opposition’s half. The 18-year old was solid in defence, with a couple of mistakes, but could not be the offensive outlet that would tip the scales in Barcelona’s favour.
Considering that the left side was used the most when attacking (39%), it comes as no surprise that Barcelona was mostly using a blunt dagger to penetrate Tottenham’s solid structure that knew when to press, and when to invite pressure.
Tottenham play to their strengths… Or do they?
Spurs have been extremely potent this season when it came to set pieces or simply crosses into the box. As far as the English Premier League is concerned, they lead the pack in that category with 10 goals scored already. At the same time, it’s remarkable since they don’t seem to win as many aerial duels as one might think.
Just against this Barcelona side, for instance. Both teams had an equal number of aerial duels won (10) with Spurs having 12 offensive ones to their name.
Still, Tottenham were really poor when it came to crosses into the box. They launched a total of 33 but none were lethal, and only three real threats were created through those (and set pieces) while they created a massive 17 through open play.
It is safe to say that the guests outgunned the hosts in every possible segment of the game but the final blow or the cutting edge was still missing.
The Dutch wall
17 shots were directed at Jasper Cillessen on Tuesday night at the Camp Nou, and seven were on target. With such statistics, one might think that the man between the sticks had a horrible night but it was the complete opposite.
Cillessen ended the night with six saves to his name, four of which were clear-cut chances that still need explaining.
Maybe he was not as successful in ball distribution as ter Stegen would probably have been, but no one can doubt his quality when it comes to stopping the shots, and quick reactions.
Still, Spurs exploited his lack of ter Stegen level footwork by pressing him constantly, which resulted in numerous blind long balls, and hence his (for Barca standards) low 74% passing accuracy.
It was truly an entertaining night in Catalunya but with two teams that could not be in more different mindsets than they were. Barcelona were on a stroll, and while they did genuinely try to win the game, this was hardly their 100%.
On the other hand, we saw a determined Tottenham Hotspur that pinned the Catalans down. It was truly a wonderful showing by the London boys, and no excuse from Barca’s side will diminish it.
Had Cillessen not been in such a red-hot form or if Spurs were just a bit more lethal in their finishing, the scoreline might have been a lot different. But let’s not delve deep into the “what ifs” since it won’t help us at all.
Both teams got what they came for: Barcelona remained undefeated at their home ground and rested some key figures while Spurs will play elite European football come February once more.
Now the focus shifts back to their respective leagues, and there, the tension continues but so does the excitement.
We move on.
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