This was in many ways the archetypal FC Barcelona away game: an elaborate ‘attack versus defence’ exercise played on a pitch that had been deliberately left in a state of disrepair. It was also the sort of match in which Barça dropped points last season, so it was encouraging to see them keep calm, keep persisting with high-tempo passing and eventually get the breakthrough.
While some fans have complained about Barça’s performance, this does a great disservice to their opponents. Villarreal are a good team and they showed it. Their defensive play was extremely intelligent and they threatened to open the scoring on a few occasions. Not every game can be a 5-0 walkover against an opponent who doesn’t try to create anything.
Some of Barça’s defending was admittedly slack, but these things happen on a football pitch and it’s very early days for this set of players. Ultimately, it was a competitive test against a high-quality opponent: the sort of game that benefits La Liga and football in general.
Luis Enrique again sent his team out in the fluid 4-3-1-2 system used against Elche last weekend. It’s much like the old 4-3-3, but the slight changes to the instructions of the central midfielders and wide forwards have made important positional differences.
The central midfielders still act as playmakers, but they are now pulling wide a lot more and combining with the full-backs more often than with the forwards. In this game, ‘Ivan Rakitić to Dani Alves’ (pictured below) and ‘Dani Alves to Ivan Rakitić’ were Barça’s most common passing combinations, while Rafinha stayed mostly between Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, rarely overloading the final third as Andrés Iniesta does.
The two wide attackers have clearly been instructed to start in more central positions by Luis Enrique, the idea presumably being to create a system in which Luis Suárez can thrive. It was common to see one act as a central pivot whose main job was to pin Villarreal’s defence in place while the other moved wide to take the ball, as is common in most two-striker systems.
While Villarreal’s strategy of surrendering the ball and looking to funnel Barça’s play wide was nothing new to the men wearing the blaugrana, their deep, compact 4-3-3/4-3-1-2 formation presented Barça with a peculiar set of problems that not many sides have created for them in the past.
The home team defended from the front: Denis Cheryshev showed Gerard Piqué’s passes wide, Giovani dos Santos did the same job on Jérémy Mathieu and veteran number ten Cani stayed very close to Busquets, preventing him playing vertical passes. The front three rarely tried to win the ball, but did a very admirable job of making sure that Barça’s passes went wide and prevented Lionel Messi receiving it in a central area with space to turn. The majority of Barça’s attacking play therefore went through Dani Alves and, to a lesser extent, Jordi Alba.
For Villarreal it made perfect sense to make sure the ball stayed with Alves. His first attacking option was always to cross into an area in which the home team dominated both in terms of height and numbers, and his second was to wait for Messi to come out to him, take the ball and try to play his way through the very congested centre. This was how the majority of the game played out and it was no surprise therefore that it remained goalless for so long.
The biggest plus from Barça’s point of view was the sheer persistence shown by the players given the uphill struggle they faced to create scoring chances. While starting forwards Pedro and Munir struggled to find space, the team behind them always kept the ball moving, looking to play it into an area where they could create an opening. Their commitment to this style won the game and will do the same in many more over the course of the season.
The second biggest positive was their pressing, which, bar a few notable slips, prevented Villarreal from getting out of their half and keeping the ball. The starting front three made more tackles during the game than the starting back four, and the best chances created, including Sandro’s goal, came from winning the ball back almost immediately after giving it away and then driving through an unbalanced defence.
It’s also worth drawing attention to the fact that Luis Enrique got his substitutions pretty much spot on: Neymar was more composed and took up better positions than Munir, whose job was made very difficult by both Villarreal’s resolute defending and Barça’s patient attacking; Sandro came on for Pedro and his movement for the winner would have made the man he replaced proud; Xavi stayed more central than Rafinha, who was by no means bad, and used his experience to maintain Barça’s hold on the game when it seemed like it might be slipping.
All of the above said, there are certainly problems to be addressed.
Most obviously, Dani Alves’ crossing, which Villarreal manager Marcelino correctly guessed would more often than not lead to nothing. Alves has been heavily criticised over the last couple of years and this match provided more ammunition to his detractors.
While it’s far from easy to pick out Messi, Pedro or Munir when they’re stood between Mateo Musacchio and Víctor Ruiz, among others, there’s no dressing it up: four completed crosses from 18 attempts is really bad. On the other side, only one of four of Jordi Alba’s crosses found a Barça player.
It’s quite correct to say that Barça become very predictable without the occasional high ball being tossed into the box, but the quality of both delivery from wide and anticipatory movement in the middle have to improve.
Secondly, in an effort to offer some positional variety and change the angle of attack, Messi came too deep and received the ball exactly where Villarreal would want him to take it. Obviously it’s something of a risk-versus-reward dichotomy where this is concerned – he is quite capable of taking the ball exactly where the opponent would want him to and running it into the net – but the centre was simply far too crowded for him to be able to do it in this game.
Most worryingly, Barça’s marking and defensive co-ordination left a lot to be desired. On another day, the indecision and panic at the back would have cost them three goals.
Villarreal’s best chance came from a series of defensive errors following a short corner in 23rd minute. The first pass (pictured below) caught everyone cold and when the ball went back out wide to be delivered by Giovani, everyone stood and watched the ball.
What happened next should have been disastrous: with barely any Villarreal players marked, Piqué reacted too late to the cross, missing his header; Mathieu had dropped off and didn’t react at all; neither Ivan Rakitić nor Dani Alves looked behind them and noticed that Víctor Ruiz was waiting to tap the ball in at the back post. Luckily, Ruiz was surprised that the ball had made its way through and somehow sent it over the bar.
More concerning was Barça’s vulnerability to quick passing moves that made it through the first wave of pressing. This was showcased on two occasions in the second half: first, when Mathieu hit his own post after a quick Villarreal counter; second, when Tomás Pina hit the post in the 72nd minute. On both occasions, not enough pressure was put on the player in possession at any time and Villarreal’s smart passing moves created confusion in the defence that almost cost Barça the game.
Regarding the second of those incidents (pictured below), Ivan Rakitić’s positioning was of particular concern. Why he is in the middle of the penalty area marking when Piqué is right there to do just that is anyone’s guess; he should have been out covering the two-versus-one that caught Busquets out and led to Pina having the chance to shoot.
While a lot of this review has been spent addressing the negative aspects of the performance, it is only right to conclude by reminding ourselves that the Barça won this game and kept a clean sheet in the process. An important test was passed.
They now have six points from six and while many other teams’ key players will be jetting off to play in this round of international fixtures, the likes of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Piqué will be staying in Barcelona for two full weeks of rest and tactical work. Things are looking good.