Barcelona hosted Borussia Dortmund at the Camp Nou in a clash that ended up securing the Catalans’ advancement to the knockout stages of the Champions League. And for the most part, Ernesto Valverde’s tactics seemed to have worked against Lucien Favre’s as the Blaugrana were dominant for the majority of the game.
There were a couple of changes in Barcelona’s setup. Valverde opted for his traditional 4-3-3 formation but with the absence of Gerard Piqué, Nélson Semedo and Jordi Alba, Samuel Umtiti partnered Clement Lenglet at the centre-back position, while Junior Firpo and Sergi Roberto manned the left and the right-back spot respectively.
Further up the pitch, Ivan Rakitić replaced Arthur Melo and Ousmane Dembélé came in for Antoine Griezmann but was soon subbed off due to another injury.
Favre deployed his troops in a 4-4-1-1 setup but also made a couple of changes to the personnel themselves. Bürki was still manning the sticks along with their standard full-backs. Weigl was moved back into midfield, however, and Mats Hummels was therefore partnered with Akanji at the centre of defence.
With Jadon Sancho on the bench and Paco Alcácer out injured, there were some changes up front. Schulz and Hakimi were the wide players and Reus played just behind Julian Brandt in the forward line.
Borussia Dortmund’s passive approach and Barcelona’s exploitation of space
The first half was very much what ended up deciding this clash as a whole. Barcelona were ruthless, quick and aggressive for the majority of the opening half an hour while their counterparts, Borussia Dortmund, sat back and didn’t really do much at all.
Favre decided to deploy his team in a 4-4-2 mid defensive block when out of possession and the intention was not to contest the ball but rather to wait for Barcelona to come to them and block their passing channels towards the middle third.
Unfortunately, this did not always yield the results they wanted. If they couldn’t find an opening through the middle, Barcelona would go wide. Sergio Busquets often dropped deep and acted as a centre-back, which would allow their whole shape to shift: Umtiti would slot into the right-back spot and Roberto could move higher up the pitch.
Once the ball was moved towards that wider area and Borussia Dortmund’s block moved accordingly, Lionel Messi would drop deeper to offer a passing lane to the midfielders. The problem in the Germans’ block was that it left too much space for the Catalans to exploit.
Notice above how Rakitić can immediately find Messi with a slick vertical pass and seeing how the Argentine catches the attention of the opposition almost as soon as he touches the ball, Barcelona quickly use the inevitable collapse to their advantage.
Messi finds his way through and in just a couple of swift touches, Barcelona are off through the wings since Roberto is now completely unguarded. It all started with the home team rotating Borussia Dortmund’s block, fighting their numerical superiority and then using it to isolate their flank.
This was done throughout the first 45 minutes and during Barcelona’s siege of their opposition’s box. Messi dropping deeper seemed key in all instances but it also prompted movement across the board.
The inclusion of Rakitić instead of Arthur might have taken some control away from Barcelona but gave them a slightly bigger attacking presence. As soon as Messi goes deeper, both Rakitić and De Jong burst into the box, dragging the markers and creating space to isolate Dembélé out wide.
The Frenchman can then receive the ball completely unmarked, just as Roberto in the previous example and then send it back towards the centre of the box for an incoming teammate, in this case, Rakitić.
Even though the attack ultimately doesn’t yield anything, the Croat’s movement towards the opposition’s goal was still noted and threatened Bürki.
Finally, the sequence before Barcelona’s first goal shows how they did well to quickly recycle possession and turn defence into attack before Borrusia Dortmund could get back into shape. Everything was done in one or two touches and the positioning of their players between the lines paired with Dortmund’s tendency to leave too much space, as we already mentioned, quickly caught up with them.
As we can see above, Barcelona quickly build from their backline towards the wider areas and progress the ball before Borussia Dortmund get back into their positions. Both Suárez and Firpo start the attack in-between the lines and since they were afforded space both to receive the pass and run in behind, they quickly take advantage of it.
Borussia Dortmund with a lack of plan
The guests almost capitalised on an early Rakitić mistake which could’ve put them one-nil up in the opening couple sequences of the game. Little did they know that it would practically be their last chance for quite a while.
Borussia Dortmund’s xG peaked at that point and then harshly flatlined until very late in the game. The reason for that was the lack of any clear plan and ambition to their tactics. We already explained how they were passive in their defending, often just waiting for Barcelona to make their move, but a similar thing was happening in their attack as well.
In possession, their shape would resemble something of a 2-4-4 with the centre-backs trying to play out the back and beyond Barcelona’s block. But with no movement and intensity in their legs, it was really easy for Barcelona to first man-mark them and then snatch the ball away.
This lack of any real options left the guests with just a couple of tactics to utilise: long balls towards their forwards and isolation of the wings. They managed to deploy 43 long passes on the night with their average pass length into the final third sitting at 25.8m. It also doesn’t come as a surprise that their long pass share in the first half was double from their second-half figure, falling from 8% to 4%respectively.
With most of their options covered, they were forced to loft passes into their forward line as their main source of advancing the play. But this tendency to try squeezing the balls through congested channels ended up backfiring as Barcelona’s pressing and recoveries were on point.
Above, we can see Hummels’ mistake that led to Barcelona’s second goal. But upon further inspection in this tactical analysis, we can conclude that despite the centre-back making a blunder, it was a forced mistake if anything.
The hosts have all of his passing options closely marked and when he tried to force a long ball towards one of his forwards, Reus, it quickly gets intercepted and turned into a goal. And this was no isolated case, either. Barcelona were great at forcing mistakes throughout the first half, closing down Bürki with pace and then collecting loose balls once they arrived into their side of the pitch.
For once, the Catalans were utilising the counter-pressing perfectly, forcing transitions and quick switches of play. They tallied 68 recoveries with 29 in the opposition’s half and six counter-attacks while their opposition had 89 losses.
An example of Barcelona counter-pressing effectively can be seen above. When the chance presents itself, they quickly collapse on Borussia Dortmund’s ball-carrier, initiating the transition and striking on the counter.
In a more usual setup, they defended in a 4-4-2 mid-block that remained compact and covered all exits well but was dynamic enough to allow those kinds of interchanges to happen during which they would suddenly engage in a high-press, snatching the ball away.
The other part of Dortmund’s tactics included isolating their wingers with Barcelona’s full-backs. Often we would see the wide men tucking inside to drag the marker away, which would enable the full-back to overlap and get into a 1v1 situation with one of the centre-backs or simply in a foot race with the backline.
For the most part, however, they couldn’t keep up with Barcelona in that first half and were deservingly down.
Second-half change of momentum
Come the second-half, two things changed Borussia Dortmund’s fortune: Barcelona slowing down the tempo and the introduction of Jadon Sancho. The Catalans were fearless in the first part of the clash but after going 3-0 up, let the foot off the gas pedal for a bit.
Their PPDA numbers rose from 8.7 to 17.3 as Dortmund were finally allowed to breath, resulting in 63% ball possession in the second half as well. Of course, with Barcelona allowing their opposition more room to operate in, they naturally started utilising the space much better than in the opening stages of the game.
Despite the Catalans dropping deep into a 4-4-2 block, Borussia Dortmund had an easier time creating overloads and forcing isolated duels out wide. Sancho’s pace and energy certainly helped to get past relatively slower Arturo Vidal and Sergi Roberto on the left.
But this movement also creates space in the box since it forces Barcelona’s defenders to break their shape and confront the attacker, leaving a void for Reus to charge into.
Favre’s men toyed with this reshuffle for quite a bit with mixed results. One of the forwards would generally drop deeper to attract the attention and break Barcelona’s backline’s shape and that would give them a chance to exploit the newfound space.
Notice how that happened in the example below as Reus is once again the beneficiary of the action, bursting into space after one of Barcelona’s defenders gets dragged away from his usual position.
Even though the guests looked a lot more proactive on the ball, they only managed to pull one goal back, which was ultimately not enough to seal the deal and salvage the points.
Even though this was very much a clash between two flawed teams and wounded giants, Barcelona were the clear victor. Of course, one team also had Messi while the other didn’t, and that will be enough on most nights.
Still, the first 60 minutes or so were maybe the best Barcelona have played in a long while and Borussia Dortmund’s passive tactics played against them. In the end, when the hosts finally slowed down, the guests couldn’t take full advantage of it.