Barça 3 - 2 Valencia: The Tactics

Manuel Queimadelos Alonso

A tactical analysis of Barcelona's thrilling win against Valencia

What a match, that. After Messi polished off his first half treble, Valencia looked in danger of being swallowed whole at the Mestalla, only for Hélder Postiga to score an improbable and stunning three minute brace on the stroke of halftime. And while the second half (strangely) yielded no additional goals, we were treated to two superb goaltending performances throughout – especially by Victor Valdés, who continues to play the best football of his career.

An interesting game to analyze as each individual goal highlighted Barcelona’s strengths and weaknesses: Messi’s pace, Cesc’s creative influence, Neymar’s arrival, and of course the now expected, poor defending. More on these in a bit.

Formations and Average Position:

Barcavalencia_medium

With Cesc Fábregas sliding into the midfield position typically occupied by Xavi, there was a bit more directness in Barcelona’s play, evident in the number of forward passes Barça’s #4 attemped and completed (43/49). Pedro replaced Alexis on the right wing and was rather disappointing considering he had only Guardado to beat at left-back.

Meanwhile, Valencia played in a 4-2-3-1 that saw Míchel and Fuego in the double pivot, sitting behind an attacking trio of Canales, Banega and Pabón, while Hélder Postiga led the line. When Valencia moved forward they did so predominantly on Barcelona’s left wing, repeatedly highlighting Jordi Alba’s defensive shortcomings – this achieved through Canales’s wide right positioning and Éver Banega’s consistent movement towards that flank.

Fabregas’s Influence and Directness:

On the occasions that Cesc replaces Xavi or Iniesta in the midfield, the Barcelona attack is altered in noticeable ways: quicker to move forward, less squared balls, and more attempted through balls. Obviously a result of spending so much time in England, Cesc can’t (and shouldn’t have to) remove all elements of the English style: he often plays more vertical and longer passes than any other player in the side, unafraid of breaking the rhythm of tiki-taka if an opportunity presents itself – a strategy and style that comes with a few negatives, the most obvious being the frequency with which he turns the ball over (which is only really noticeable in this team, as the central midfielders all routinely pass at over 90%).

Against Valencia however, he was superb: completing 73 of his attempted 81 passes (90% for you math people) while simultaneously playing his more direct style. As mentioned above, he completed 43 forward passes with six completed key passes, two of which were perfectly weighted through balls that cut Valencia’s central defense wide open.

Cescpassingchart_medium

This is the player that Barcelona paid for when they brought him back from Arsenal – a midfielder that brings something unique and special to a side that can sometimes drift into the predictable monotonous (his incredible rapport with Messi is also an added bonus).

Neymar:

While heat maps and action area charts can sometimes hide the truth, against Valencia they accurately portray Neymar’s performance. He hugged the left touchline, staying wide and only moving past the center of Valencia’s box once. And while his assist for Messi’s third goal was a thing of beauty, his performance as a whole was subdued and safe, rarely attempting to beat his defender and almost always opting for the easy pass.

Neymarheatmap_mediumNeymarpassing_medium

His positioning certainly helped the team (the more he stays wide, the more the opposing right back and right centre-half are stretched from the center, leaving more space for Messi) but he was brought in to do more than square passes from the left flank. In a game like this, where the opposition was more willing to move forward and risk leaving holes behind, Barcelona will need Neymar to attack that space, to take on defenders and make a consistent difference – something that will certainly come with time.

Barcelona’s Defence:

Barcelona defends differently than any other top side in the world (no, not poorly – although that would have fit): ball possession, retention and pressing are the primary elements of the Barça defence. Because keeping the ball at such high rates requires every outfield player (and even the goalkeeper) to be technically proficient, the amount of physicality and athleticism that can be permitted in the squad is quite low: this is why Song has struggled to adapt for so long and why there are so few available central defenders who could have actually improved this team. With just ten minutes remaining against Valencia, and in desperate need to see out the one goal lead, did Tata opt for the physically imposing central midfielder, Song? No, quite the opposite in fact, as he removed Cesc for Jonathan dos Santos, a small yet  technical midfielder who would ensure better possession for the remainder of the game.

When the ball is lost the pressing immediately begins, starting at the point where the ball was lost (typically in the opponents’ half): the players move forward to win the ball back – not to the point of forsaking positions, but often high enough up the pitch where they leave space behind. A high-risk, high-reward philosophy, this tactic will ensure two things: (1) Barcelona will score more often than other teams because they’ll win possession deep in an opponents’ half (sometimes even in the final third) and (2) they’ll concede more often than other teams when they aren’t successful at winning the ball back.

Messi’s second goal against Valencia is an example of successful pressing: Busquets wins the ball from Banega who tried to dribble too deep in his own half and the ball finds its way to Cesc who is only ten yards from Valencia’s box. His pass to Messi is simple, fast, and forward, playing in the striker who calmly finishes (right-footed no less) past Diego Alves. A goal to justify the high-pressing.

Villa’s goal against Barcelona in the first leg is an example of the negatives that accompany the high-press. A detailed breakdown of that goal can be found . In Barcelona’s case, the positives certainly tend to outweigh the negatives and so the odd counterattack goal is tolerated.

What cannot and should not be tolerated however, is the consistently poor defending on set-pieces. Against Valencia, Barcelona conceded five corners and on each occasion, Pique was placed in the middle of the area – and not once did he make a successful clearance: every corner was played either in front of him or over him. Iniesta was placed near-post and was (not surprisingly) easily beaten to the ball by Postiga for his brilliantly taken goal. As Barcelona are a short team, there will always be a height disparity that makes set-pieces difficult, making Pique's and Busquet's positioning and performance critical during such times – while for the opposition, they remain the two men to avoid. In previous times, Barcelona could rely on multiple players to appropriately defend aerial threats (Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, et al) but as things stand now they have just two. Tata will surely be busy finding ways to make their height more useful.

Valencia’s attack:

As I suspect will be the case in many matches this season, Valencia chose Barcelona’s left side as their primary offensive area. A look at Valencia’s action chart shows this commitment to the right flank:

Valenciaactionarea_medium

Due to Neymar’s arrival, Pedro and Alexis have been forced either to the right or to the bench, as Neymar’s best position is on the left. Unless addressed, this change will continually leave Jordi Alba exposed defensively as Neymar is not the most diligent in respect to defensive assignments. Indeed, Alba presents a problem for which Barcelona may not possess the appropriate solution. When he was bought from Valencia in 2012, he was widely considered to be a great addition – and offensively he is. When Barcelona encounter the proverbial bus, tricky and attacking fullbacks are often the key to breaking it down. But in defense, he is an obvious weakness, often hidden behind defensive wingers who chase down the ball and close space. But with Neymar now in front of him, Barcelona must worry that Alba’s shortcomings in the defensive third might finally be exposed.

Conclusion:

While the last five hundred words might have been a bit foreboding, there was a lot to like in Barcelona’s performance against Valencia. Messi was wonderful, Cesc was magical, and the spacing problems that can occasionally hurt this team were nowhere to be found. Neymar showed a brief glimpse – however short it was – of what he will eventually bring to this team and of course, Victor Valdés continues to be superb in the Barça goal. And while the score might not reflect it, Barcelona were in control for most of this game. Diego Alves, too, did his part to keep the scoreline from ballooning and only a three minute lapse before the half truly kept the game competitive.

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