Barcelona’s smash-and-grab victory in the Mestalla was the sort of win that defines a title-winning side. The match was an excellent example of a tactical stalemate and Valencia certainly had the chances to win it themselves, but despite everything Barça got the win at the death and stayed within touching distance of La Liga leaders Real Madrid.
Luis Enrique selected a familiar back five: Claudio Bravo was in goal, with Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué, Jérémy Mathieu and Jordi Alba making up the back four. The full-backs played very high up the pitch, looking to provide width while the forwards packed the centre, and this nearly cost Barça – almost all of Valencia’s scoring opportunities came as a result of counters into the space left by Alves and Alba.
The real surprise was that Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets played together in midfield. The two had a brief spell together after Rafinha’s red card in the APOEL game. On that occasion Busquets played as the pivote and Mascherano was stationed higher up the pitch, and I wrote that it would have made more sense to have them the other way around.
So it was in this game, at least in the attacking phase. Mascherano played as more of an Argentine cinco than a Barça style pivote, while Busquets played on the right of the triangle, where we usually see Rakitić or Xavi. Without the ball, however, they played more like a double pivot, with Busquets covering the right side and Mascherano the left. That meant Barça were set up in a 4-2-1-3, a formation which works fairly well if the ‘1’ is a physical dynamo with amazing technical skills, capable of linking turning defence into attack without much help, but when it’s a 34 year-old Xavi, the system isn’t nearly as effective.
Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez played up front but none of them will have enjoyed it. The home side were very successful in their aim of disconnecting Barça’s midfield from their attack, meaning that most of the passes aimed at Suárez in particular were low-percentage balls over the top.
One of the reasons Valencia have been so successful this season is that they’re so tactically versatile: they can play 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 equally well. On this occasion they played a very compact 4-3-3 and packed the centre of the pitch, playing with a variant of the pressing midfield system that Málaga and Villarreal used to stifle Barça’s attack earlier in the season. Like those sides, they frustrated Barça and had opportunities to win the match, but ultimately ran out of steam.
If there was a surprise in Nuno’s team selection, it was that Rodrigo played ahead of Pablo Piatti on the left flank. Piatti sustained a small injury ahead of the game and was on the bench throughout, but it seems odd not to have started him regardless – only Paco Alcácer, just back from injury himself, has a greater combined total of goals and assists for Valencia than Piatti this season.
The opening minutes of the game followed a simple and repetitive pattern: Piqué or Mathieu gave the ball to Mascherano, who took it closer to the centre-backs than the midfield; Mascherano turned, surveyed his options and found that Valencia had closed off just about every passing option available. He usually found an unthreatening short pass but within a few seconds the moves broke down, Valencia cleared and the process started over.
The home side’s 4-3-3 was very aggressive positionally and though they almost never put Mascherano under any pressure, they left him very few angles for incisive forward passes. Busquets and Xavi dropped deep help speed up the movement of the ball, while the full-backs offered lateral passing options and Messi and Neymar came into midfield, but there was no way to get anywhere near the Valencia goal without losing the ball.
The few advances that Barça made were hurried and usually resulted in turnovers. Messi and Neymar quickly became impatient as a result of being cut off from Mascherano by Valencia’s midfield, and whenever they managed to get the ball they rushed forward into unpromising situations. Both tried to combine with Suárez, but the Uruguayan’s flicks and first-time return passes didn’t find their intended targets.
As we have seen in other games against opponents playing high lines and aggressive pressing games, one of Barça’s ploys to vary their attacks is for Piqué, generally unpressured by opponents, to play a long pass over the top for a forward running in behind. This tactic was tried a few times in the opening quarter of an hour and it eventually created the first chance of the match for Suárez.
It was a simple move: Piqué went long to Neymar, who was sprinting beyond the defence and into the box. Neymar’s control fell for the onrushing Suárez, who somehow shot straight at Diego Alves from ten yards. It wasn’t a classic piece of Barça football, but it showed that this way of denying Barça space to build moves in their preferred manner doesn’t stop them creating clear cut chances.
One small but important area of play that Barça have struggled with all season is opposition goal kicks. The goal they conceded in the home defeat against Celta came from one and after that game I wrote that their starting positions were begging for trouble, and there was another example here. In the 17th minute, Diego Alves launched one forward and we saw the below setup.
We can see that Mascherano is going to jump with Álvaro Negredo and there’s plenty of cover behind him should Negredo flick the ball on, so that’s not a big problem. The issue is the positioning of the wide forwards. They’re far too high up the pitch – twenty or thirty metres away from the full-back they should be supporting. Without wanting to sound too much like an English lower league manager, it’s far too easy here for Valencia to win the second ball. Regardless of who knocks it down, if the ball goes back towards Valencia’s goal by only ten yards, the home side has four players who could pick it up against Barça’s one.
And this is exactly what happened. Negredo knocked the ball down for Dani Parejo, who had time and space on the touchline to look for a pass. He played it back into the centre, Negredo laid it off and André Gomes and Sofiane Feghouli played through Barça’s midfield to win a free-kick on the edge of the box. Parejo wasted it, but the fact that Barça found themselves so easily destabilised and having to face a shot on goal from such an innocuous situation speaks volumes about their positional problems.
The middle part of the first half was scrappy and frenetic. Neymar’s headbutt on Nicolás Otamendi raised the temperature of the encounter and there were suddenly a lot more fouls and bookings. Both teams upped the tempo too, playing more vertically than they had before. Barça had a brief spell of dominance in which Valencia were penned into their box but there was no way through: every pass into the box resulted in a clearance or a tackle. Shortly afterwards, Valencia had their own spell in the final third, putting Barça under pressure from a throw-in, a free-kick and then a corner, all in quick succession.
The issue was that Barça had the ball but were spreading themselves thin positionally, covering a big area of the pitch, whereas Valencia were happy to play without it because by remaining compact and aggressive they could ensure that whichever Barça player had the ball in the centre never had time to assess his options and find a good pass. If Xavi, Neymar or Messi wanted to be involved and have control of the ball, they had to come deep and try to play through two lines of four while the third midfield player tried to tackle them.
By contrast, Valencia usually had a fair bit of space to work with when they countered. The below screenshot comes at the end of a quick attack started by goalkeeper Diego Alves after he caught a Dani Alves cross. Valencia quickly worked the ball through midfield through Parejo and Rodrigo exploited the space vacated by Barça’s full-back. When Rodrigo finally crossed the ball to the back post, it was two against two: Negredo vs Mathieu and Feghouli vs Alba. Luckily for Barça, the cross was slightly long and the best Feghouli could do was head it back into the area, where Piqué was waiting to clear.
While it wasn’t exactly an easy advance, it was much a simpler attack than Barça’s forays forward could create. An even clearer chance was to come for André Gomes, who ended another swift counter by rounding Claudio Bravo and shooting into the side-netting with the last kick of the first half. Of course, it’s not new for Barça to find it hard to make chances while their opponents have a relatively easy job, but the extraordinary level of comfort with which Valencia were playing at this point would have been extremely concerning to Luis Enrique.
The second half started in much the same way as the first ended, with Barça having the majority of the ball but struggling to mount effective attacks. The forwards were remote and unreachable, while Valencia’s quicker attacks at transitions resulted in clearer chances that they somehow failed to finish.
The best opportunity Barça created was a snapshot at an open goal for Suárez, which came after Diego Alves rashly left his line to chase a ball over the top from Mascherano. It wasn’t an easy chance and Suárez blindly fired wide of the near post. Valencia almost scored on two or three occasions, most notably when Piqué cleared off the line after a corner that sparked a melee in Barça’s box.
Barça’s play was increasingly one-dimensional. Given the danger on the counters, Dani Alves and Alba started to play slightly more defensively. While this gave Barça a bit more security, it also meant that there was no-one providing width ahead of the ball. Whenever Messi or Neymar had the ball and went forward, they had to play through a congested centre. As in the first half, the number of bodies that Valencia had in that zone made reaching the area damn near impossible.
Halfway through the second half, two things turned the game in favour of Barça. The first was the introduction of Ivan Rakitić in place of Jérémy Mathieu, which saw Mascherano return to centre-back, Busquets go back to pivote and Rakitić play in his usual role on the right of the midfield triangle. Unsurprisingly, this gave Barça much greater fluency in their positional and passing play. Having Busquets as the free midfielder instead of Mascherano meant that the first pass of each move was played a split second sooner than before and with an added increase in accuracy.
The second factor in Barça’s favour was that Valencia simply got tired. As more time passed, the harder Nuno’s team found it to close off the angles and cover the space that they did in the first half. Valencia’s central trio, accepting that the positional precision and aggression that had characterised their match until that point simply wasn’t possible any more, sat deep rather than rushing in to close down the man with the ball. Increasingly, this was Busquets, and he set about turning the screw.
Rakitić’s entrance opened the game up. Almost immediately, Suárez had a goal incorrectly disallowed and then Feghouli missed a glorious chance to score in a one-on-one with Bravo. Seemingly concerned about the suddenly uncontrolled end-to-end nature of the game, Nuno introduced Rodrigo De Paul on for Rodrigo and switched to a more passive strategy, using De Paul as an out-ball on the left.
Negredo nearly won it for Valencia with a powerful shot that Bravo tipped round the post and then the managers made two like-for-like swaps each. Luis Enrique sent on Rafinha and Pedro for Xavi and Suárez, while Nuno brought on Paco Alcácer and Filipe Augusto in place of Negredo and Parejo. With the balance tipping in Barça’s favour, these were changes to increase the energy levels in key areas for one last push: Barça’s to get the win, Valencia’s to secure a point.
The final movement of the game was basically an attack versus defence exercise. The exhausted Valencia side sat deep and packed the centre one last time and Barça sent everyone forward and moved the ball with greater speed, desperately trying to find a way through before time ran out.
The ball that finally played Barça in was a total fluke: Feghouli beat Rafinha to a fifty-fifty tackle in midfield, but in doing so only sent the ball long and over his own defence. Messi ran in behind but his shot was blocked for a corner. Two other corners followed that one and, from the third, Messi found a pocket of space to cross. Diego Alves saved Neymar’s header from point blank range and Busquets slammed home the winner.
It was a heartbreaking way for Valencia to lose and it would be a stretch to say that they deserved their defeat. At least from a tactical perspective, they outplayed Barça almost from start to finish. Were it not for Luis Enrique’s tactical switch and their efforts catching up with them halfway through the second half, they would surely have got at least a point. For Barça, however, this was a hugely important victory. While they didn’t play well, they showed belief, commitment and perseverance – and in games such as these those qualities can make all the difference.