Ernesto Valverde has masterminded a return to form for Barcelona; they are unbeaten all season in La Liga and the Champions League, a feat which even Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have not accomplished. The fraud. Furthermore, they’ve already scored 15 more goals than any other team, and conceded ten less than everyone not named Atletico Madrid (who’ve amazingly only conceded nine all season!). In Valverde, Barcelona have a manager more well known for the quality of football the team play than yelling at the media. In nearly all aspects of play, they have clearly improved in their tactical ideas and execution of those concepts.
Although Valencia had lost five in a row in all competitions before this game, they’re still currently above Real Madrid at 3rd in the table. It was remarkable how well Barcelona managed to control the match, despite a few moments of panic.
This is how the teams set out at kick-off. When pressing Barcelona’s centre backs, Valencia had a back four protected by two flat holding midfielders in Coquelin and Kondogbia, with right-back Montoya stepping up due to Iniesta drifting inside from Barcelona’s left. On that right side, both Zaza and Parejo seemed dedicated to stopping Umtiti’s out-ball to Jordi Alba; they could either have been chasing the ball, or wanted to exploit a gap down Barcelona’s left. With essentially an advanced four pressing and the rest of the team dropping off, they seemed comfortable with the prospect of Barcelona shifting the ball left to right, provided that their opponents were not able to make inroads down the left, or release an advanced player in space.
As for Barcelona, it looks like an exceptionally wide variant of 4-4-2, with Messi in a withdrawn role occupying Valencia’s holding midfielders, while Suarez stayed further forward to make Valencia centre-halves Garay and Gabriel Paulista sit deeper. While this might not have contradicted their opponents’ game-plan per se, Barcelona already had a plethora of players available to receive the ball in space; in deep and relatively advanced positions.
How would Barcelona react to Valencia aggressively closing off their left side, as high up as their back line, without being forced backwards or, even worse, into mistakes? Shifting the ball onto the vacant right side is easier said than done, especially when their left centre-back, Umtiti, is also left-footed; this makes it harder for him to turn into space on his right side before passing.
Here, holding midfielder Busquets has made himself available as a third centre-back, giving the team more space to play out from the back and evade Valencia’s front four. That seems to have forced their opponents to sit deeper in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and despite there not being as many free players as before, Barcelona now have a comfortable base where they’re unlikely to lose possession or be forced into any mistakes.
Busquets dropping back also caused Barcelona’s back-line to spread out. Jordi Alba is not in the picture, but right-back Sergi Roberto is effectively on the touchline in a midfield position. Obviously, this gives Barcelona even more space to play down the right, which is dangerous considering the runners ahead of Roberto, along with his own passing and dribbling abilities. Furthermore, the full-backs’ positions have allowed wide midfielders Gomes and Iniesta to come and occupy Valencia’s midfield; Iniesta is preventing Parejo from occupying Umtiti or Alba, while Gomes is occupying Valencia’s holding midfielders while Messi joins Suarez up front. By adopting unpressured wide positions while having more players in the centre, along with keeping Valencia’s back-line busier, Barcelona seem to be making more space for themselves vertically and horizontally. This is all while maintaining their control of ball possession.
This is a snapshot of Valencia attacking. As we have previously seen, Valencia’s front four are slightly interchangeable, and will all try to provide options when the ball is played forward. Also, when they sense a tangible opportunity, they will aggressively press their opponents. As Busquets moves into Barcelona’s midfield out of possession, Valencia’s tactic of keeping two strikers up front ensures that both Umtiti and Pique are occupied. With his aggression, stamina and physicality, they are relying on Zaza in particular to be the focal point of their attack. Another effect of occupying Barcelona’s centre-halves is forcing right-back Sergi Roberto to come inside, making it slightly harder for them to play out from the back if the ball is given away.
This shows another dimension to Valencia’s attack, albeit a limited and risky one. At times, they tried to break Barcelona’s offside trap with Zaza. However, this was opportunistic with no one to support him, and it left Barcelona with lots of time and space to play out from the back. Here, you can see Valencia’s midfielders quickly retreating in a panic with Umtiti advancing, worried about Barcelona’s counter-attack. As a side note, it’s strange that quick long balls for players to run on to are generally seen as a risk-averse way to counter-attack, when so many things need to fall into place for it to work. Also, it leaves at least one player out of the picture, when defending the resultant counter-attack, if it doesn’t work. Attackers ruined football.
This shows Valencia trying to play the ball out of the back, and how Barcelona reacted. More than anything, this shows just how structured Valencia’s set up was; in other words, how isolated their front players were from the rest of the team. It’s to their credit that they had three players forward from a goal kick, and while the right-side that they were trying to play out from was almost completely blocked off and they didn’t have much width at all, there was still enough space for the likes of Kondogbia and Parejo to carry the ball forward. Also, if they played it long, they had enough men forward to sustain an attack. However, by leaving so much open space out wide and between their midfield and attack, they were still vulnerable to counter-attacks if they lost the ball. Somehow it was difficult to see this game staying goalless.
This screenshot highlights Messi’s role, which he kept in and out of possession. He played most of the game at walking pace, waiting in the hole between Valencia’s holding midfielders and centre-backs, for Barcelona’s other players to be occupied, and him to take the ball in the resulting vacant space. Yet he had more ball possession than anyone not named Sergio Busquets, a 96% pass accuracy, a third of Barcelona’s dribbles and almost three times the amount of shots as his strike partner, Suarez. Astoundingly, for people who might think the effectiveness of his role was limited to these attacking bursts, he completed two tackles; only Busquets and Roberto completed more. He possessed a god-like calmness and held the team together, while other players were moving around. As a result, he knew exactly what to do as soon as the ball was near him.
When Messi was crowded out, which happened here as Valencia shifted to a 4-3-3, guess who had all the space? Jordi Alba; the player Valencia tried to close down from the start! Here, he’s not on the screen, but the mere thought of him receiving the ball, against this Valencia set up, is surely enough for any Valencia supporter to break their desk? Of course, the aim was to pressurise the side in which Barcelona had the ball, while never allowing the back four, or the two holding midfielders, to vacate their positions. It had worked so far, thanks to the defence, Kondogbia’s dynamism in exploiting the space Busquets sometimes vacated, and some of Zaza’s attacking play. You sensed they would eventually tire, and Barcelona would exploit some of the gaps they left, though.
This counter-attack was probably Valencia’s best opportunity all half. It came almost immediately after they had blocked a direct free kick, and most of Barcelona’s team were forward. Kondogbia and Zaza had the licence to do whatever they wanted at breakneck speed; this suited them, because they were willing to run at Barcelona’s defence. However, the lack of width was obvious, which is not wrong per se, but hindered their ability make inroads when Barcelona’s full-backs provided their team’s width. Eventually, Zaza peeled off Pique on the right, but bizarrely no one was up against Iniesta and the opportunity petered out. By half time, Valencia had shown a lot of energy with a few flashes of quality, but despite Barcelona testing goalkeeper Domenech a couple of times, only Messi had truly threatened Valencia’s defensive block. When their wide players were trying to advance the ball, they didn’t always look completely sure what they were meant to do. Suarez, in particular, was isolated, while Andre Gomes looked uncomfortable and was often crowded out.
This is how the teams lined up after half-time. Phillipe Coutinho came on for Andre Gomes and provided some early energy here in closing down Gabriel, who stepped into midfield. Especially with Suarez out of the picture in an offside position, Valencia chose to start the second half on the ascendancy, with Gaya and Kondogbia further forward and all three strikers occupying Barcelona’s back-line. As a result, Barcelona’s back-line was so compact that Gabriel had at least one clear passing option in each wide birth. This start set the tone for a more open second half.
As the counter-attacking team with plenty of physicality, you’d expect set-pieces to be of paramount importance to Valencia. However, with their narrow set-up, especially in the first-half, these opportunities were in short supply. This was their set-up, with Zaza attacking the near post while others occupied Barcelona’s zonal line just in front of the six-yard box. Luciano Vietto stood in front of the goal, to challenge Barcelona goalkeeper Cillessen if necessary, and draw their defence deeper. This was necessary to create space as Barcelona had no one on either post. It seemed like a sensible and pragmatic strategy, given Zaza’s presence, but at the same time, one might expect more than five men in the box. It’s no surprise that, according to Whoscored, Valencia have only scored the joint ninth-most set piece goals in La Liga (as of 11th February 2018).
This shows the build-up to Barcelona’s eventual goal. It occurred just two minutes after Valencia boss Marcelino had performed a bold double substitution in taking off holding midfielder Coquelin and one of their attacking quartet, Rodrigo Moreno, for a more attacking midfielder and a flamboyant attacker, in Carlos Soler and Goncalo Guedes respectively. It’s unclear precisely what role they took, considering this goal came right after a Valencia corner, but their back-line was clearly more exposed. With the unclear and mostly disjointed structure of their attack, Valencia’s resilience up to that point had been maintained by their back four and two holding midfielders. As for Barcelona, Coutinho wanted to support Suarez and Messi more, and relieve the burden on Messi to provide the necessary flair. With Gaya providing width on Valencia’s left, he had ample time and space to execute those responsibilities. In addition, this gave Suarez more space; he is the epitome of a clinical footballer, with 16 goals in 19 La Liga games, all while sometimes being a decoy for Messi to make his runs.
Here, Suarez managed to run at Valencia centre-back Garay, but with Messi still almost walking, he picked out Coutinho peeling away from Gaya.
After their substitutions, Valencia kept a flexible 4-1-4-1 formation, sometimes morphing into a 4-4-2. It was still relatively narrow, but the extra width gave them more space to threaten Barcelona when they had the ball, while the more aggressive positioning inhibited their opponents’ ability to play the ball out of the back. On this counter-attack, both Barcelona centre-halves are running back, while right-back Roberto is occupied by Zaza straight away. Compared to their previously discussed break, Valencia had many more passing options, and therefore more scope to maintain their initial high tempo. They ended up playing the ball to Gaya on the left, and despite the move petering out when he held the ball up for Soler to overlap, Barcelona were drawn deep enough for them to force a corner and sustain their pressure.
Ultimately though, as counter-attacking strategies become more aggressive, the risk can be greater than the reward, when they are likely to have run a further distance than the possession-orientated side up to that point. Perhaps Valencia might have been able to find a way back if they committed more men in the box to complement their wide play, had someone closer to Zaza who held the ball up, or committed more men forward on set pieces; all of this would’ve reduced their reliance on everything falling into place at breakneck speed. But they faced a side who preserved more energy than them, could keep possession and counter-attack effectively, and had a demigod-like front trio in Coutinho, Messi and Suarez ready to pounce whenever they lost the ball. Although you can understand why Marcelino gambled with the two substitutions and amplified Valencia’s intensity, it felt like paying a small subscription fee to enter the postcode lottery. It was effectively trying to provide lightening without thunder, as they lacked the tools and ammunition to make their aggressive positions worthwhile.