Tactical Analysis: Barca Claim the Title with a Solid 3-0 Win over Gritty Granada

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For Barcelona, the final day equation was simple. Win away at Granada and the league title would be theirs, slip up and it would be Real Madrid’s. In the end, Barca did it pretty easily.

They took a 2-0 lead in the first half against a defensively minded Granada before having to endure a tougher second period to claim an eventual 3-0 victory. Luis Suarez was at the heart of the triumph, scoring a hat-trick to take his league tally to 40 goals for the season, while on a wider level, too, the win enabled Barca to claim their sixth La Liga crown in eight years.

Here’s a look at how the match unfolded:

Barcelona look to the left early

Granada started the game with a plan to blunt Barca’s attack. They sat back, operating in two deep yet compact banks, with four across the defence and five across the midfield. This kind of defensive set-up is one to which Barca have become accustomed over time, and as a means through which to break through, the Blaugrana honed in on the flanks.

They were particularly keen to attack along the left-hand side, where prolific winger Neymar was stationed in front of attacking fullback Jordi Alba. They had to wait a little while to orchestrate the go-ahead goal, but it always seemed to be coming down this wing. 10 minutes in, for instance, Barca sparked a quickfire counter-attack by finding Neymar. The Brazilian brought the ball forward and picked out Lionel Messi in a position to shoot. Messi did just that, producing a decent long-range strike to force Granada goalkeeper Andrés Fernandez into a save, but that was only a sign of things to come.

No more than a minute later, Barca generated another lightning attack along the left. Neymar misplaced his cross on this occasion, but not to be disheartened, he soon made up for it. On 22 minutes, Andrés Iniesta found Alba and Alba found Neymar. The former Santos prodigy took a touch and drew Granada fullback and former Barcelona B player David Lomban towards him. That was enough to create the slightest of gaps in behind the opposition defence, and Alba was awake to the opportunity.

The Spain international sprinted into the vacant space behind Granada’s right-back, latched onto Neymar’s precise through ball and hit a right-footed pass into the path of Suarez. That left the Uruguayan star with little to do but stroke the ball into an open net, something that he achieved with ease. Barca were now in front and powering their way to the title, and though it took a little while to break down the diligent Granada defence, they persistently attacked the left until they secured the lead.

Barcelona’s centre-backs

When a team like Barcelona encounters a packed defence, it’s not uncommon to see the centre-backs take some liberties. Occasionally, they’ll take up positions one would typically associate with a central midfielder, and they’ll attempt to use those positions as a foundation from which to pierce the opposition defence. It doesn’t always work out and it can leave the team exposed in the case of a turnover, but here, as Barca were confronted with a deep-sitting Granada defence, Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano did their best to advance.

This is shown in the graphic below, which illustrates the locations in which the pair received possession. What stands out is just how many times Pique and Mascherano latched onto passes within Barca’s forward half, and while that may seem a little extreme, they were always careful to choose the appropriate moments. They waited until Barca had circulated possession patiently and forced the Granada defence into deeper positions. Only then would they start to get more aggressive, and due to the fact that the opposition attackers were now pinned so far back, there was less chance of an errant pass leading to a dangerous counter-attack.

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That’s not to say that they managed to avert all risk, however. As Pique sauntered forward in the 10th minute, for example, he played a disappointing pass to give the ball away. Granada responded by feeding possession into the path of an onrushing Youssef El-Arabi, their Moroccan centre-forward who has netted an impressive 16 goals this season. The breakaway loomed as a potential problem for Barca, but a recovering Pique did just enough to distract El-Arabi, and the strike that could have put the title-chasers 1-0 down ended up as nothing more than a scuffed attempt.

Barcelona’s centre-backs, undeterred by that lapse in execution, kept on trying to impose themselves upon the game, and as the clock ticked over into the 38th minute, it eventually paid off. In familiar style, Luis Enrique’s men distributed the ball carefully until they reached halfway and then, almost without hesitation, Mascherano punched a long diagonal towards the right-hand side. Dani Alves, the intended target, tracked it down at full stretch, right on the byline. He deflected the ball back into the goalmouth, where the ever-dangerous Suarez nodded it in at the near post.

This gave Barca the cushion for which they were searching, and against packed Granada defence, it took a piercing long ball from one of their forward-thinking centre backs to supply it.

Granada’s resurgence

Granada coach José Gonzalez, having already led his team to La Liga survival last weekend, courtesy of a 4-1 win over Sevilla, opted for a more proactive strategy after the interval. He asked his players to press higher up the pitch, to get in the faces of their more illustrious counterparts in a bid to win the ball back quickly. Against the ball-playing maestros of Barcelona, this could have backfired pretty dramatically, and though the home team would end up conceding a late goal to the talents of Suarez, this actually worked out pretty well for the most part.

In order to implement the pressing game, however, Gonzalez needed to change things a little bit. He pushed Adalberto Penaranda, who started on the wing, up alongside El-Arabi, while former Barcelona man Isaac Cuenca replaced Ruben Rochina at the break. Fran Rico then slotted into midfield, making forward runs whenever he could, and Abdoulaye Doucoure covered the left wing in defence.

These changes allowed Granada to get a foothold in the game. They could now counter-attack more effectively, given that their players were not only higher up the field but also more capable of linking up with one another, and their pressing enabled them to see much more of the ball. They were no longer passive in their approach, and were instead largely proactive.

In many ways, Rico embodied this alteration. He nearly pulled one back after a well worked transition on 58 minutes, while his desire to snap into tackles saw him booked on 65 minutes for a hard foul on Iniesta. Then, about a minute later, Granada made it tough for Barca to play out, as they did for much of the second period. El-Arabi applied pressure to Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who responded with a rushed clearance. The ball fell to Penaranda, and after he combined with Rico, Granada won a corner. That allowed them to create a headed opportunity for Jean-Sylvain Babin, but despite a decent leap from the Martinique international, his effort floated over the crossbar.

Granada continued to push on whenever possible, trying to block Barcelona’s progress in the process, but they just couldn’t fashion that much in the way of chances. They also got caught out from time to time by Barca’s ball-playing ability, and especially by Iniesta, who showed a tremendous knack of weaving his way clear of danger.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Barca would eventually kill off the game in the 86th minute. Messi, Neymar and Suarez would combine to make it 3-0 with a slicing move through the middle, and once the latter had applied the finishing touches, Barcelona were champions. They had overcome the stutter that gave Real Madrid hope heading into the final day, and after scoring 24 goals without reply over the last five games, there is no doubt that the Catalan club produced some brilliant form to clinch yet another La Liga title.