Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Valencia on Saturday won’t go down in history as one of the most watchable games ever to be played at the Camp Nou, but getting the three points was the most important thing and Barça remain at the top of the table.
Barça’s starting eleven featured a couple of surprises: first, Adriano came back in for Jordi Alba despite the Spaniard’s return to fitness; second, both Ivan Rakitić and Andrés Iniesta were rested, meaning Javier Mascherano was pushed into the pivote role and Sergio Busquets moved forward into midfield. Otherwise the line-up was as expected, but the midfield looked to be unbalanced and so it proved.
Valencia’s line-up was far more familiar: they played ten of their usual eleven in their usual system. The only exception was Lucas Orban at left-back, who played the first 45 minutes instead of José Luis Gayà, who is still recovering from injury. Valencia manager Nuno’s decision to stick with their regular game-plan was very brave but equally effective. They played very aggressively, countered with quick passing combinations, mostly down the flanks, and produced lots of shots on goal in the first half. They were very unlucky to lose the game.
In previous columns the front three have repeatedly been criticised for not doing their jobs defensively and for standing around high up the pitch, waiting for the defence and midfield to win the ball and clear it to them. In this game, their low defensive work-rate and advanced positioning created the first goal. Valencia committed men forward and lost the ball, and when Busquets lifted his head, the forwards were three-versus-three in Valencia’s half. Busquets played an incisive pass to Messi, who committed the last defender and teed up to Suárez to score.
It was the sort of goal that Luis Enrique has doubtless been dreaming of all season, but getting caught out positionally within a minute of the first whistle was very poor from Nuno’s men.
For the next seven or eight minutes there was only one team that looked like scoring. Barça had a couple of nice spells of possession and one Busquets pass set Messi away to run at the defence, but Valencia were by far the more dangerous side. Almost immediately after the goal, a smart move started by a long diagonal pass out to the left flank created a great chance for Rodrigo, which the winger somehow missed.
In the eighth minute, the same player received a long throw into Barça’s box and tempted Piqué into conceding a penalty. After such a good spell of individual and collective form in this exact situation, it was very disappointing to see Piqué make such a basic error. Fortunately for Barça, Bravo saved Dani Parejo’s timid spot-kick. Unfortunately for Barça, the mistake seemed to throw Piqué off his stride and he had his worst game for months.
The missed penalty didn’t dampen Valencia’s spirits and they remained the side creating the better opportunities for the rest of the half. Their co-ordinated bursts forward destabilised and overloaded Barça in the zones where they’re now supposed to be counterproof, leading to shots on goal and a succession of free-kicks near the box. Paco Alcácer hit the post with a shot from the edge of the area after half an hour, and on another day Barça wouldn’t have been so fortunate as to see it bounce clear.
The defensive discipline of Rakitić and Iniesta was badly missed in the ‘interior’ roles and Mascherano overcommitted a couple of times, leading to dangerous Valencia attacks. Of course, the front three did nothing to stop Valencia’s full-backs bombing forward when these situations developed, which meant that Dani Alves and Adriano in particular faced a constantly regenerating wave of white shirts flooding towards them. Thankfully, Valencia were particularly wasteful with their balls into the box.
By contrast, Barça were struggling to get players into dangerous positions with and without the ball and their attacking moves went absolutely nowhere, often following the ‘dreaded U’ passing pattern in front of the Valencia defence. This was the case throughout the game, and Barça very rarely got near the opposition area until Valencia went for broke late on.
The slow tempo and purposelessness of Barça’s passing eventually won them the game, but for a long time it played right into Valencia’s hands. Nuno’s side were clearly aware of their own defensive solidity and of the fact that Barça were in no hurry to attack, and so set about making Barça play faster than they wanted to, just as Sevilla did when they went behind last weekend. Errors from Barça players became more and more frequent, and Valencia turned what seemed like most of them into shots on goal.
As is so often the case, Barça’s saviour was Messi. When his teammates dithered, he drove forward. When Valencia seemed like they might establish a proper foothold in the game, he pushed them back. And when Barça needed a moment of quality to extend their lead… Messi missed a sitter. The script wasn’t supposed to read like that, and two days on it still seems incredible that he didn’t double Barça’s advantage when the ball fell to him all alone in the box just before half-time. The chance was on his right foot, but that’s no real excuse for a player of his quality. Aside from that aberration, however, Messi was excellent.
At half-time, both managers replaced their left-backs. Nuno sent Gayà on for Orban, who was committing a foul whenever he went anywhere near Messi or Busquets, and Luis Enrique introduced Rakitić for Adriano, who was having a similarly torrid time.
Lucho’s change corrected the obvious imbalance in Barça’s midfield by moving Busquets back to the pivote position and putting Rakitić in the box-to-box role. Mascherano dropped back into the centre of defence and Mathieu moved to left-back, a position he played regularly for Saturday’s opponents. Lucho deserves credit for solving so many obvious problems with one switch.
It wasn’t plain sailing from there, however. Barça still found it tough to break Valencia down and kept suffering at transitions. To their credit, they played pretty sensibly in possession, moving the ball patiently and rarely trying to force passes that just weren’t on, safe in the knowledge that Valencia weren’t going to equalise if they didn’t have possession. The problem came when Valencia did get the ball: within a second or two Barça were almost always in some kind of trouble due to Valencia’s ability to go from 0-60 in the blink of an eye and the refusal of the forwards to track the full-backs.
The first 25 minutes or so of the second half were a continuation of the open and chaotic first, as both teams pushed for the next goal at the expense of establishing control of the game. The levels of aggression and tactical indiscipline on show made it look like a Premier League game – very often there was no real shape to the play and it was impossible to discern formations or player roles.
Barça almost found a second goal first through Neymar, who headed straight at Diego López when it was easier to score, and then through Messi, whose glorious free-kick hit the top of the crossbar and bounced away. Valencia didn’t work Bravo during this period, but their tenacity and intelligent vertical play caused Barça real problems with and without the ball.
To their credit, Barça matched Valencia’s aggression and kept them a long way from their goal. It took until the 73rd minute for Valencia to have a shot. That said, this still wasn’t a particularly fluent Barça performance – it could never be that when their opponents were putting them under so much pressure and fouling so regularly. Due to the stop-start nature of the game, not much of note happened – just midfield scrapping and overlapping full-back play. Messi was still the only one lighting the game up.
Luis Enrique used his second and third substitutions wisely. First, Suárez was replaced by Pedro. Normally this wouldn’t be a like-for-like swap, but Messi was so central to Barça’s play in this game that Suárez was basically playing like Pedro: making decoy runs and occupying space wide to give Messi more in the centre. Given Barça’s congested fixture list, it made sense to take Fake Pedro off and bring Real Pedro on. When Xavi seemed to tire with just over ten minutes to go, Sergi Roberto took his place.
By contrast, Nuno really messed things up. The decision to bring on João Cancelo for Sofiane Feghouli was slightly bizarre and cost Valencia in more than one sense. As well as blunting the right side of their attack, Cancelo went on to make the mistake that allowed Messi to seal the game in stoppage time. Nuno’s final change was used to bring Álvaro Negredo on for Paco Alcácer, who was starting to look exhausted – aside from winning an aerial ball that led to a shot on goal, Negredo was anonymous.
Inevitably, the sustained level of intensity caught up with both sides as the game reached its conclusion. The lack of control in midfield never changed, but the sides’ solutions to being caught out in that zone did – eventually the foul count went through the roof. It had been a bitty, scrappy match anyway, but the three-minute spell in which Rakitić and Shkodran Mustafi both saw yellow for making tactical fouls summed up the development of the second half.
The final ten minutes were probably Barça’s best of the game. In equal part due to Nuno’s substitutions and having nothing left in the tank, Valencia seemed to shrink, and Barça took full advantage, pressing them into mistakes and playing forwards with purpose. Several promising advances fell at the final hurdle, Pedro missed a great chance in the 87th minute, and then in the final minute of stoppage time Messi ran through to score his 400th goal for Barça and seal the three points.
This wasn’t the best Barça performance of the season and the first half in particular was one to forget, but the second half contained many positives: firstly, Luis Enrique acted decisively to fix obvious tactical problems; secondly, strength in depth came to the fore with Lucho’s changes; thirdly, Barça stood up to a strong, high-quality opponent playing with great physical intensity and eventually beat them at their own game.
While it wasn’t always pretty, it was a huge result, a big step towards the title and yet more proof that this Barça is capable of answering any questions asked of it. Now, if Lucho could only convince the forwards to defend…