All seemed lost when Barcelona lost 2-0 to Sevilla on 10th March 2021. That was the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final. With Atletico Madrid looking unstoppable in La Liga, the domestic cup was one trophy the Catalan club would have realistically targeted.
But despite the club no longer being in their golden era of the early 2010s, they are still Barcelona; a team that is capable of the unexpected, and a team with arguably the best player in the world – Lionel Messi. The stakes for the 2nd-leg earlier this month got even higher after Barcelona suffered a 4-1 thrashing at Camp Nou at the hands of PSG.
That all but confirmed their exit from the UEFA Champions League and made the second leg clash against Sevilla way more important.
Barcelona won 3-0 after an injury-time equalizer (on aggregate) and a winner in extra-time. So what changed from the first-leg that made Barcelona spring this amazing comeback against a top side like Sevilla?
The formation and the set-up
Barcelona started with their tried and tested 4-3-3 against Sevilla in the first leg. And it was expected because there was no need for them to attack or defend excessively. Their 4 defenders and 3 midfielders in that formation are visible when defending this attack against Sevilla in the 2-0 defeat.
This changed in the second leg, however. And obviously, they were more attacking. The Barcelona side fielded an attacking 3-1-4-2 in the second leg. This was a statement from Ronald Koeman that Barca have come to outscore Sevilla. The attacking set-up saw the players play in a more advanced position than their opponents. This ensured that Sevilla were on the backfoot from the first minute.
Their overload was evident. In the image below you can see the Barcelona players flooding the box with runners from midfield also supporting them (green circle). The defensive three (behind the red line) is in Sevilla’s half, while Jordi Alba (in the yellow circle) is bombing forward to take a shot.
Player roles: full-backs
The telling difference was the attacking full-backs. Sergino Dest and Jordi Alba started as left-midfielders who would often defend when not in possession. But it was absolutely clear where their focus lied – attacking and overloading the Sevilla wings in the final third.
The image below shows where this helped them. The full-backs were charging up the pitch incessantly. Jordi Alba (in the red circle) found space on the left-hand side and whipped in a great ball for Martin Braithwaite (in the yellow circle) to head home the third and decisive goal of the game in extra time.
In the first leg, Barcelona did not make significant changes off the bench. Pedri came on 5 minutes from time while Samuel Umtiti was thrown on just a few minutes before the full-time whistle. This uninspiring use of the bench arguably cost Barcelona the game.
But in the second game, Ronald Koeman was very brave to bring about early changes. Dest was replaced by the attacking forward, Antoine Griezmann. Koeman saw the hold Barcelona had on the game and decided to take advantage of Sevilla’s passiveness.
The French winger was the one who provided the assist for Barcelona’s 2nd goal on the night; a tasty cross from his left foot, right on the head of Gerard Pique. Very few players would have been capable of pulling off such a beautifully accurate cross.
And needless to say, bringing on Brathwaite in the dying moments of the game also proved to be a masterclass. The striker was on hand to brilliantly head in Alba’s cross in extra time.
He was brought on instead of Pedri, who is a midfielder. Brathwaite’s striker’s instincts were on point for the 3rd goal, something a central midfielder might have found to replicate in a similar position.
A formation change and player roles are useless if the team cannot produce the numbers. But that is what Barcelona did in the second leg. It is clearly evident in the image below. While the stats could be influenced by the extra 30 minutes played in the second leg, it is still impressive to see what transpired.
Barcelona kept a lot of the ball in the 2nd leg. This meant more passes (close to a thousand!) with a scary accuracy of 89%. That is a big improvement on their stats in the first leg and all this control of the ball was efficiently converted into chances by the team. They took 22 shots on goal as compared to 9 in the first leg.
Also, the team was crossing more (20 crosses in 2nd leg vs 5 crosses in 1st leg). This resulted in two out of their three goals and proved to be a very successful tactic on the night.
(All statistics in this sub-heading are backed in Image A)
Most importantly, individual players stepped up to the plate when it mattered the most. Instead of individual brilliance, the first leg saw two individual mistakes from Samuel Umtiti for Sevilla’s goals. He was easily dribbled past by Jules Kounde for their opener and failed the offside trap horribly to let Ivan Rakitic make a run behind him and score the second goal.
But that changed in the second leg. To begin with, Umtiti was benched. Probably a good move by Koeman given it was possible for the player to lose confidence after the first leg. And after all, a clean sheet is enough evidence of the move being a success.
Secondly, Ousmane Dembele pulled a rabbit out of his hat for Barcelona’s opener. The sweetly struck long shot got the comeback up and running.
Then, it was Marc-Andre Ter Stegen’s turn to be the hero. The German stopper was on hand to stop a penalty from Lucas Ocampos. A goal so late in the game for Sevilla would have changed the dynamic of the tie completely.
And it was Brathwaite’s athletic winner that got the win. It was surely a dream goal for any striker as he caught air to meet a gorgeous ball from left-back Alba. All in all, it was a complete performance from the team and everyone played their part.
It was expected that Barcelona would attack and it was expected that Sevilla would defend. But football is a more complicated sport than that. Barca had to be careful not to concede when attacking so much. They got their formation right and repelled most of what Sevilla threw at them.
Despite Messi not getting his name on the scoresheet, the Catalan side still managed 3 goals. And last but not the least, it was a brilliant managerial display from Koeman, who got a lot in the game as compared to his counterpart, Julen Lopetegui.