Barcelona’s comfortable 2-0 win over Rayo Vallecano was just what was needed after a worryingly predictable collapse in their previous game, the 3-2 defeat away to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League. All the questions that the PSG game raised – will Barça ever learn to defend set pieces? Can they really handle being pressed? Are they too wedded to tiki-taka principles to succeed? – were answered by a commanding and gutsy performance that showed real strength and character.
As usual Barça played in their 4-3-3/4-3-1-2 system but Rayo’s famously aggressive pressing game forced a few tweaks to the usual strategy. There was a more fixed back four than we have seen in a while, with the full-backs only sparingly joining attacks until the home side’s Jorge Morcillo was sent off and the man advantage gave Barça some security. There were also a lot more long balls over the top than usual and while many were unsuccessful, it was encouraging to see that Luis Enrique is willing to adapt his approach to beat the opponent.
Barça’s starting line-up was sensibly selected and suited to the task at hand. The Marc Bartra and Gerard Piqué partnership returned to action, with Bartra the more conservative and disciplined of the two. Piqué acted as the no-nonsense stopper and attacked every ball that came into the box, while playing killer ball after killer ball over the top when he had possession.
Piqué finished the match with 18 long passes attempted, a very high figure (it’s rare that any outfield player attempts more than ten). It made sense to attempt such early killer balls: firstly because to play the ball into midfield was to play straight into Rayo’s pressing trap, and secondly because said pressing trap necessitates a high line and there was always lots of space behind it. It was one of these long balls over the top which set Lionel Messi free to open the scoring and win the game and if the referee’s assistant hadn’t had such a shocker on the day, it would have created even more goals.
Jérémy Mathieu played instead of Jordi Alba at left-back and provided more solidity in open play and extra height when defending set plays. Dani Alves played well on the other side, answering those who have criticised his defensive contribution and refraining from firing in pointless crosses to no-one, as he has in a few games at the start of the season.
Xavi may not have the stamina or acceleration of his youth but his intelligent positioning and cool passing were key to both maintaining possession and breaking through the Rayo press. He repeatedly took up clever positions in advanced areas, drew defenders and then gave the ball to Messi, something which Ivan Rakitić and Andrés Iniesta haven’t done enough in the games in which they have played so far.
While the forwards didn’t have many chances to press, given that Rayo tended to play very directly and quickly get the ball from one end of the pitch to the other, there were still good contributions from Messi, Munir and, in particular, Neymar. The best was in the first half, when Neymar picked Abdoulaye Ba’s pocket and passed to Messi, who would surely have scored had the Rayo centre-back not flattened him.
To give Rayo and their manager Paco Jémez credit, they did run Barça close for the first half-hour or so. Their 4-2-3-1 formation gave them good coverage of the pitch and the organisation and raw aggression of their pressing forced Barça back into unthreatening positions and provoked mistakes which they exploited well.
Rayo’s best moment of the match came in the ninth minute, when Tito tackled Neymar thirty yards from Barça’s goal and played a smart pass to Alberto Bueno, whose precise shot forced Claudio Bravo into a great save. As with any pressing side, however, the huge effort it takes to constantly put pressure on the ball took its toll and when that happened, Barça found the time to play the aforementioned simple passes over the top and exploit the space in behind.
While the first half was largely messy and exhausting as both sides pressed each other and the two high lines strangled the space in midfield, the second was much more open. Given that Barça had established a two goal advantage, Rayo had to commit men forward and this left even more space for Barça’s attackers.
Frustratingly, they failed to convert this advantage into more goals, despite having countless chances to do so. Messi missed a few chances he would normally expect to score and others made bad choices when supplying the final pass. Most irritatingly, a few attacks broke down simply because so many players were making the same runs and thus making the attacks predictable and easy to defend.
Morcillo’s second yellow card ended the game as a contest on the hour mark and after that it was all Barça. Mathieu and Alves joined in the attack, the former overlapping particularly well and playing two tantalising low crosses into the six yard box, at least one of which should have resulted in a goal.
Rayo never gave up, switching to a 4-3-2 and committing even more men forward, but ultimately all they succeeded in doing was running themselves further into the ground. Although their commitment to the high press never faltered, by the end it was almost exhibition fare as Barça played over them, around them and through them, time and again.
From Luis Enrique's point of view there was a lot to be happy about. For the most part Barça looked defensively resilient and capable of matching a notably aggressive opponent in midfield. It was also a clever passing display and Xavi's performance linking midfield and attack was especially good, but the finishing was wayward at best.