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Barcelona 6-1 Rayo Vallecano: Tactical Review

The visitors' were suicidal but Messi and Suárez were on top form as Barça scored a half-dozen against Rayo without breaking a sweat.

David Ramos/Getty Images

Barcelona must wish they could play Rayo Vallecano every week. If ever there was a side set up to get taken apart by Luis Enrique’s Barça, it’s Paco Jémez’s Rayo, and the visitors gave a masterclass in How Not To Play At The Camp Nou. Barça didn’t have to get out of second gear but for a period in the second half they went all the way up to fifth, scoring four goals in nineteen minutes. It was an easy game in which the visitors’ rigid adherence to their way of playing gave Barça carte blanche to attack at will. It could easily have finished 10-0.

Barça’s line-up was predictable and familiar. Claudio Bravo continued in goal with Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué, Jérémy Mathieu and Jordi Alba making up the back four in front of him. Javier Mascherano deputised for the injured Sergio Busquets, with Xavi and Andrés Iniesta just ahead. With Neymar suspended, Pedro came in to play alongside Lionel Messi and the ever-improving Luis Suárez.

Rayo were without two regulars due to suspension – central midfielder Raúl Baena and centre-back Zé Castro – but otherwise they were at full strength. Manager Paco Jémez, surely soon to depart the club, took the unusual step of treating the visit to the Camp Nou as just another game. Instead of abandoning Plan A and packing everyone behind the ball, as most visiting sides do, Paco’s side came to play their usual aggressive, physical and vertical style, pressing Barça high up the pitch and playing as close to the home side’s goal as possible.



The opening five minutes of the game summed up the match. Rayo put Barça under pressure from the kick-off, forcing them back and dictating terms. When Barça had the ball, Rayo went man-to-man and kept the pressure on. This forced Barça to play quickly, but it didn’t really serve Rayo’s interests. After all, a man-to-man strategy only works if your players are better than their counterparts, and obviously Barça’s players are more talented than Rayo’s.

Interestingly, Barça used Bravo a lot more than usual: he averages 20 passes per game in La Liga, but in this match he made 33. Rayo never pressed him, so although Mascherano was marked, Barça always had a free playmaker with a full view of the pitch.


Rayo playing so high up the pitch meant there was always space in behind their defence. Actually, the word ‘space’ doesn’t really do it justice: a ‘space’ can be any size, big or small. In this case, the area Rayo left Barça to play with dwarfed most U.S. states. Needless to say, leaving gaps the size of Texas for the likes of Messi and Suárez to run into is never a good idea.

It’s an especially bad idea when you’re supposed to be defending close to your own area. Following a Rayo throw-in taken from roughly in line with their own penalty box, a single Xavi pass – which in reality was just an attempt to win the ball that rolled all the way through – wrong-footed the entire Rayo defence and left Suárez one against one with goalkeeper Cristian Álvarez. Many players would have been unable to believe their luck, but Suárez kept his head and scored with ease to make it 1-0.


A pattern quickly emerged and repeated itself over and over again. Barça sat deep, Rayo came forward, the ball was turned over and Barça attacked into a pretty much empty half. For all the bravery and ambition of Paco’s tactics, they were obviously and fatally flawed. It was obvious that Barça were going to make lots of chances very easily indeed.

Within a few minutes it should have been 2-0, but Suárez couldn’t square for Pedro having been set free in behind and rounded Álvarez outside the area. A couple of minutes later, Iniesta had lots of space and time to send Pedro racing into the Rayo half, but the Barça winger miscontrolled. Soon after that, Suárez went in behind the defence again and was brought down by Abdoulaye Ba for what should have been a penalty.


It was a miracle that Barça only scored one goal. The frustrating thing was that elements of Paco’s tactics were ideal for facing Barça, but they were compromised by obvious deficiencies elsewhere.

His man-marking system meant that Barça couldn’t use their pivote to play into midfield and keep the ball moving at a high-tempo, something which usually hinders Barça, but Rayo’s openness meant that Barça didn’t need to play into midfield: it was so easy to get the ball to the goal that midfield domination was unnecessary.

Rayo’s aggression and verticality meant that Barça were often pinned back, allowing them to give the ball to their wide players, who put a lot of crosses and long balls went into the penalty area. However, they never got enough bodies ahead of the ball to make this a productive tactic. All Rayo succeeded in doing was turning the ball over and leaving themselves wide open for the quick passes in behind that caused so many problems.



Barça weren’t even playing that well. They also turned the ball over a lot, misplaced simple passes and made bad decisions on the counter which prevented them from extending their lead. It was almost like it was too easy for them and so they started to switch off. They never looked in danger of conceding, and dealt with every Rayo advance professionally, but in terms of attacking intensity and concentration it was a below average half for them.

Thankfully, the second more than made up for it. From the kick-off until the final whistle, Barça were more focused and went in search of goals. They extended their lead in the fourth minute of the half, after a series of set pieces that Rayo failed to deal with. Xavi crossed from the right, Alba hit the post with an excellent looping header and an unmarked Piqué bundled in the rebound.

In the 54th minute, Rayo right-back Tito pulled Suárez down in the box to concede a penalty and earn his second yellow card. The chain of events that led to his dismissal started long before the event itself: Rayo simply weren’t putting enough pressure on the ball at any time. An almost unopposed Barça attack led to a corner, which they were allowed to pass short and back to Alba, who had what seemed like forever to pick his pass into the box. Alba aimed at Suárez, who was peeling off of Tito on the far post, and the full-back panicked and pulled Suárez down. Messi’s twice taken spot-kick made it 3-0.

Down to ten men and three goals down, Rayo never gave up, which was probably a mistake. They kept playing high up the pitch but their players were obviously tiring and demoralised. The amount of space available to Barça’s attackers increased even further and the Camp Nou crowd roared them on, sensing that a rout was inevitable.


Sensing that the game was over, Luis Enrique withdrew Javier Mascherano – a sensible precaution given his importance to the team in Busquets’ absence – and sent on Ivan Rakitić in his place. The sight of Rakitić in the pivote position was slightly strange given his usual all-action role, but the Croatian has the quality and the smarts to play anywhere. The subsequent replacements of Iniesta and Alba with Rafinha and Adriano were logical like-for-like changes.

Just after the hour the fourth goal – Messi’s second – arrived. Yet another unopposed full-pitch counter led by Xavi led to Alba crossing from the left. Rayo again failed to clear, Suárez sent a shapshot goalward on the turn, Álvarez palmed the ball out and the ever-alert Messi tucked it in from no distance at all. The referee could have been forgiven for calling an end to proceedings there but a third of the game remained to be played.

It’s a good thing the final whistle didn’t sound early, otherwise we would have missed out on Messi’s hat-trick goal, which was a thing of true beauty. Another left-wing cross created it, this time a low ball fired in by Pedro, but Messi’s incredible footwork finished it and gave us a reminder of his otherworldly talent.

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The tactical battle didn’t change after Tito’s red card and Barça’s substitutions, but Rayo’s direct play bore fruit when Rakitić was in the pivote role instead of Mascherano. Curiously, Mascherano made zero tackles despite Barça being stationed very deep during his time on the pitch – Xavi and Iniesta made three tackles each, while Alves and Alba made four and two respectively – but without Mascherano’s shielding of the defence, Rayo’s moves went further.

With just over eleven minutes left on the clock, Rayo won a penalty. Dani Alves’ last-man foul conceded the spot-kick and earned the Brazilian an early bath, but the root cause of the concession was Rakitić stepping up a few seconds early, gambling on Kakuta passing square when he actually passed forwards. This gave Rayo access to the space in front of Barça’s defence, and had Rakitić stayed in position the angle Kakuta needed wouldn’t have existed.


One more pass between Piqué’s legs left Alberto Bueno through on goal and Alves with no choice but to commit the foul. Bueno buried the penalty and the deficit was cut to four.

After Alves’ red card, Luis Enrique switched to a back three with Adriano on the right, Piqué in the middle and Mathieu on the left. Rakitić and Xavi protected them while Rafinha linked the midfield to Messi, Suárez and Pedro, who stayed in place up front. It was a smart reshuffle that kept Barça playing fast, fluid football.

They had several more scoring opportunities in the last ten minutes, as ever created by the pass in behind Rayo’s high defensive line as the visitors committed more and more men forward. They should probably have scored more than one, but one was all they managed, Suárez finishing after rounding Álvarez following a smart reverse pass by Messi.

In truth, there wasn’t much to learn from this game. Paco’s refusal to re-jig his team to prevent certain annihilation meant that Barça simply had to turn up to win and win big. The margin of victory is encouraging but, if anything, the scoreline flattered Rayo: it could and should have been more. That it was only 6-1 is no fault of Barça’s, really – it was so easy to score that it’s only natural that the players slowed down a bit – but if there are too many games like this then standards will inevitably drop.

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