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Barcelona 5-0 Levante: Tactical Review

It wasn't a particularly competitive game but Barça didn't let Levante's lack of interest stop them putting in a five-star display and extending their winning streak to eleven.

David Ramos/Getty Images

Barcelona’s 5-0 win over Levante was as one-sided a game as we will see all season. The club’s 11th consecutive victory in all competitions came as the result of another breathtaking display of skill and of hunger, and also saw Luis Enrique equal Pep Guardiola’s record for consecutive wins as Barça manager. It’s hard to believe that just five weeks ago the club was in freefall and Lionel Messi was closer to leaving than ever before.

Both manager and squad deserve huge credit for the way they’ve turned things around in the meantime. Listless performances away from home have become dynamic displays full of intent, misfiring forwards have started filling their boots and opponents who would have troubled Barça before Christmas have been assertively defeated.

Lucho’s constant rotation was said to be proof of indecisiveness and fickleness, but as we enter the business end of the season his players look to be fresh, motivated and at the peak of their powers. Barça are still behind Real Madrid in the league table, but they are undoubtedly in the ascendency. Such is the quality of their football at the moment that they’re starting to be talked about as favourites for the Champions League once again.

Of course, Levante operate several levels below Barça and this was always likely to be a comfortable home win. The Valencia-based side have only won one match in La Liga since November and find themselves mired in the relegation battle they’ve done incredibly well to avoid for the last few years. Even when taking all of that into account, Barça’s domination was remarkable.

Once again, key players were rested and rotated and Barça’s line-up had an unfamiliar feel to it. Martín Montoya played at right-back, Adriano on the left Marc Bartra and Javier Mascherano in the centre of defence. Xavi started on the left side of the midfield triangle as opposed to his more familiar right, while Pedro started instead of Luis Suárez and spent most of the match playing as a decoy centre-forward, allowing Messi and Neymar to drift out to the flanks.

As for Levante, Lucas Alcaraz’s side arrived without key players Andreas Ivanschitz and Nikos Karabelas, regulars Loukas Vyntra and Víctor were rested, and striker Kalu Uche and centre-back Iván Ramis were each making their second starts of the season. Their toughest game of the campaign was made damn near impossible.

It was no surprise, then, to see Levante stand off right from the beginning. Their 4-4-2 was rigid, narrow and high up the pitch, but they showed nothing like the necessary steel and determination to make their strategy work. Barça moved the ball quickly and sought out forward passes to players in space and, thanks to Levante’s shape, these options were always available. Within 70 seconds Pedro had worked goalkeeper Diego Mariño and it was clear that a thumping was on the cards.


The opening quarter of an hour set the tone for the match, with Barça constantly pouring forward, starting moves with the centre-backs and progressing down the flanks before playing the ball back inside and firing snapshots at the Levante goal from distance. As well as Pedro’s second-minute effort, Messi, Busquets and Rakitić also had potshots which could have opened the scoring. Levante had a few forays forward, but none which seriously threatened – Barça’s superiority was never in doubt.

Due to Levante’s narrowness there was always a lot of space on the flanks and Barça never hesitated to exploit it, constantly moving Levante back and forth across the pitch and profiting from the space either side of their compact unit. Most commonly Mascherano and Bartra played lots of long switches out to Neymar, Pedro and Messi, which created overlap opportunities and one-against-ones for the forwards, but every player was aware of the effectiveness of these passes and got involved.


The first goal, scored by Neymar in the 17th minute, was a result of three such horizontal switches: first, Mascherano played a long pass out to the left for Adriano. The full-back knocked it short to Neymar, who went back to Xavi, who played the second switch across to Montoya. Within seconds the ball was at Messi’s feet, and his cross (the third switch) was somewhat fortuitously sliced in by Neymar. It was a great team move, full of intelligent movement and awareness of the opponents’ weaknesses.

And the opponents’ weaknesses were many. It was never clear at what point Levante had planned to win the ball and how they were supposed to attack once they’d got it. More often than not, the visitors intercepted wayward passes in their own final third, punted the ball down the pitch and waited for the next Barça attack.


By contrast, Mascherano, Bartra and Busquets were never under any pressure when they received the ball and always had time to pick the right forward pass. With Messi and Neymar in acres of space in wide areas, leaving Busquets free to find them over and over again was a recipe for disaster. Consequently, Barça found it extremely easy to establish a rhythm and construct attacking moves and these back three players in particular grew in confidence as the game went on.


Bartra’s self-assurance was never more evident than when he charged out of defence to tackle Uche thirty-five yards from the Levante goal. Having dispossessed the Nigerian forward, Bartra slipped Messi in to double Barça’s lead. It was a brilliant piece of play from the centre-back and one that immediately ranked among his best in a Barça shirt. Against such a lethargic and lacklustre opponent most centre-backs would switch off, but in that moment Bartra was more concentrated than anyone and the result was devastating.

A two-goal lead established, Barça started to play with more swagger and certainty. Everyone believed the result was assured and from then on it was just a case of deciding the margin of victory. Incredibly, this acceptance seemed to come as much from Levante as anyone: Alcaraz decided against making any changes at half-time and so his side continued to play in the same hopeless way in the second half, further fuelling Barça’s growing sense of adventure.

This ambition was possible because of Barça’s extreme level of control, and this in turn came from Sergio Busquets, who gave another commanding display in the pivote position. Almost always left free by Levante’s workshy forwards, he was constantly used by his teammates to keep the ball moving and his vision and guile meant that he consistently made good choices on the ball, creating the third goal with a pass of mouth-watering quality. Still questioned by many, it’s hard to overstate just how important Busquets is to this Barça side.



With an hour played and the match all but over, both managers focused on conserving the fitness of key players. Alcaraz replaced Uche with Víctor and Luis Enrique sent Sergi Roberto on for Rakitić. Surprisingly, Sergi Roberto and Xavi didn’t switch sides – Xavi continued to play on the left. It didn’t matter: within a couple of minutes Xavi led an attack down the left and fed Neymar, who suckered Iván López into conceding a penalty. Messi completed his hat-trick from the spot, sending Mariño the wrong way for his 37th club goal of the season.

Almost immediately Luis Suárez came on for Neymar and played as the number nine, which meant that Pedro moved out to the left – his third different position of the match. With eighteen minutes left on the clock, Suárez provided the moment for which the match will be remembered: a spectacular left-footed overhead kick from Adriano’s left-wing cross, which followed yet another huge diagonal pass from Javier Mascherano. It was the perfect trick-shot for the occasion – an exhibition match dressed up as a competitive fixture.


Not a great deal happened in the last quarter of an hour, but nothing more needed to happen. Barça had run through their repertoire of attacking moves and Levante had turned up and got the match out of the way, which meant that both sides had accomplished their aims.

The players look increasingly comfortable working with Luis Enrique’s ideas and their fluidity and flexibility is astounding. It wasn’t quite a perfect display – a couple of first-half brainfades from Bartra and Claudio Bravo could have proved costly against a side that actually wanted to compete, while a few promising attacks fizzled out due to poor decision-making – but it was another sign of the huge progress the side has made in the last month or so, and with Messi back to his best, anything is possible.

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