Barcelona are facing a two goal deficit against Sevilla as they host the second leg of the Copa del Rey semifinal. Can they defy the odds and stage a comeback and keep their hopes of a trophy alive? Here are three numbers that tell the tale of the tall task ahead for Lionel Messi and company.
1. Sevilla's expected goals conceded per match: 0.98
Sevilla are a very strong defensive side, but how they accomplish it is interesting. Julen Lopetegui's side only concede 0.98 xG per match, making them the fourth stiffest defense in the league, and a stronger defensive side than a Barcelona team that concedes 1.07 xG per match, the seventh best total. However, when you look at the number of shots they concede, those numbers flip, Barcelona concede the second fewest shots per match at 8.08 while Sevilla concede the eighth fewest at 9.46. What this means is that Sevilla do a much better job of not giving up good chances than Barcelona do. You can get your shots against Sevilla, they're just likely to be from distance and through bodies. The fact that they're up two goals just means they're even more likely to make Barcelona score from truly difficult opportunities rather than risking getting stretched and giving up good chances on goal.
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2. Sevilla passes in their own half per match: 276.25
The way that Sevilla execute their defensive plan of never getting exposed, is by keeping the ball, but being very conservative with it. Nobody plays more passes per match that end in their own half than Sevilla's 276.25. What's particularly remarkable about that stat is that they play ten more passes per match in their own half than Barcelona even though Barcelona complete over 140 more passes per match total per match than Sevilla. These are two of the top three possession teams in La Liga with Barcelona completing 624 passes per match, tops in the league, and Sevilla completing 474, third best. But, while Barcelona both pass the ball around the back and then move forward and constrict teams by moving the ball up the field, Sevilla are much more focused on defensive possession.
This is a mixed blessing for Sevilla. On the one hand their defensive plan is clear, keep the ball. When you have the ball your opponent can't attack with it, and if you don't take risks with the ball, even when you lose it you'll have plenty of men behind the ball to make sure your opponent can't break through on goal. On the other hand, Barcelona are one of the few teams around who are even more comfortable in possession than Sevilla. If Barcelona can keep the ball for long stretches of play it's not clear how will Sevilla's defense will react, since they aren't used to having to defend extended passages of play. One way that Barcelona might be able to break through is an approach of patient buildup putting Sevilla's backline under pressure for extended periods of time until a weakness develops for Messi to exploit.
3. Barcelona ball recoveries in the attacking half per match: 16.24
Alternatively Barcelona is by not only possessing and passing the ball in Sevilla's half but by actively working to take the ball back when they lose it. Ronald Koeman's team is second in La Liga with 16.24 ball recoveries in their opponents half per match. Pressuring Sevilla and not allowing them to get into their passing rhythm is essential given that Barcelona need to find two goals just to draw even. A high intensity approach both doesn't let Sevilla kill off large chunks of the match at a time, it also might lead to opportunities to feed Messi the ball before Sevilla's defense is set, making it easier for the superstar to find spaces to exploit in the Sevilla defense.
Sevilla interestingly enough is fairly susceptible to turning the ball over in their own half. It's probably a result of the sheer volume of time they spend passing the ball around, but Sevilla concede ball recoveries in their own defensive half 11.79 times per match, only the ninth best total in La Liga. That's a stat that can cut both ways. On the one hand they are susceptible to being pressed. Barcelona can win the ball back against them. On the other, despite that they're still incredibly stingy when it comes to giving up good shots, recovering the ball deep in Sevilla's territory will probably not easily lead to excellent chances.
Those three stats taken together paint a pretty clear picture of what this match will look like. The game will largely be played in Sevilla's own half regardless of which side has the ball. Sevilla will be looking to kill off the game with long stretches of boring, conservative possession. Barcelona must look to aggressively take the ball back and trust that Sevilla is not constructed to quickly beat the press and create a big counterattacking chance. But, when Barcelona do recover the ball they need to be patient. The thing that Sevilla doesn't want to do is defend in their own half for long periods of time. Barcelona has to make the defense work for it, shift them from side to side, make them cover runners, give them multiple chances to make mistakes. Sevilla excel at not giving up good shots, but part of the reason for that is that they seldom face teams with the patience to try and work the ball through them. They face the fewest sequences of six or more passes of any team in La Liga. If Barcelona are to win it will be because they patiently work the ball through Sevilla, before handing it to Messi to deliver the killer blow.