Fresh off from a strong pre-season campaign that included a Spanish Super Cup victory, Barcelona opened up the 2018-2019 La Liga season against Deportivo Alaves.
The defending La Liga champions came into the fixture eager to begin the new campaign with a win but as has been the case in many opening games over the years, it was not going to be easy. Barca was facing an Alaves team that is looking to rebound after facing relegation for much of last season. While Alaves finished 14th in La Liga last season, they were able to record 19 points away from home which included a win against Villarreal. In their visit to the Camp Nou last season, they were a mere minutes away from securing a 1-1 draw until Messi scored the late game-winner.
This time around, Alaves once again battled throughout the game but in the end, Barcelona came away with a 3-0 win. But in this fixture, the final scoreline did not resemble at all what occurred during the 90 minutes of play considering Barca struggled to break through the Alaves backline for much of the game.
From an Alaves perspective, their formation made it clear as to how they were going to approach the game. Abelardo Fernandez elected to go with a 4-5-1 formation while having a free-roaming striker up front. In contrast, Ernesto Valverde elected to go for the traditional 4-3-3 formation with Lionel Messi on the right wing, but he was given complete freedom to move away from the position.
The defensive gameplan from Alaves was nothing new to Barcelona. In last week’s Spanish Super Cup fixture, Sevilla switched to a defensive 5-4-1 formation after scoring an early goal. This allowed for Sevilla to defend deep while looking to clear loose balls in their defensive third and to recover possession. Alaves had a similar approach to that of Sevilla but the move to a 4-5-1 formation made it clear that they would be looking to man-mark Barca’s midfielders while also attempting to shutdown passing lanes. From an attacking standpoint, they would rely solely on counter-attacks and long balls into the box. But early in the game, Alaves would not see much of the possession so they tracked back and marked players with the zonal marking tactic.
As shown here, Barca had a difficult time trying to orchestrate goal-scoring chances due to the compact defensive formation of Alaves.
To counter a 4-5-1 formation, Barca would have to rely on the wingers out wide to open up play on the flanks and have players positioned inside to penetrate through the lines with through balls in an effort to move Alaves away from their tactical structure. This is where Barcelona had success early on in opening up play. Dembele’s speed on the left exploited space to the point where he attracted a second defender.
But the true impact of the game came from Messi.
With complete freedom to roam around the pitch, Messi took advantage by dictating the tempo of the game. Whether it was on the wing, deep in the middle third or behind Suarez in a secondary striker position, Messi’s precise pass distribution contributed in build-ups in an effort to generate goal-scoring chances.
As seen here, Messi was all over the pitch.
In other instances, he created chances within seconds. As seen in the play, Messi is positioned in the middle third and with the ball, he delivers a curling aerial pass to Suarez -- a sequence that should have resulted in a goal.
Messi’s constant movement on the pitch forced Alaves to rotate the man-marking duties. When Messi was out wide, a fullback would move into the space to defend him. But when Messi positioned himself in the half-space or deep alongside the midfielders, no Alaves player marked Messi so he had a luxury of space to dribble and move up the pitch. Messi opened up passing lines and even with multiple Alaves players surrounding him, he was able to move the ball up the pitch or out wide to either Dembele or a fullback.
Goal-scoring chances in the first half came sparingly due to Alaves orchestrating a deep defensive line to keep the ball away from their defensive third. Alaves were comfortable with Barcelona dominating possession but moved quickly to intercept and clear the ball away from the box. The midfield consisting of Ivan Rakitic and Sergi Roberto did well in maintaining possession but neither really made runs to create a chance. Thus, Messi was tasked with this responsibility.
As seen in this play, Rakitic recovers possession and jumpstarts a counter by distributing a pass to Roberto. Suarez immediately receives the ball and links up with Messi, who creates a goal-scoring chance with a through ball to Dembele, but he is unable to finish from a tough angle.
This was the recurring theme for much of the 1st half. Alaves remained calm when pressured and did not shift the structure of the formation but rather overloaded to where Barca controlled possession. Thus, this frustrated Barcelona as they did not create as many clear-cut goal-scoring chances as they had hoped to do when in possession. Barcelona controlled possession for an astounding 78% of the time throughout the first half but managed to record just two shots on target. Even with the few goal-scoring chances that they had, Barca were unable to convert them into goals. And like last season, there were glimpses of a stagnant midfield that lacked the ability to create chances.
Heading into the second half, Valverde made the change that was arguably needed. Philippe Coutinho came on for Nelson Semedo, which moved Sergi Roberto to the right back position and Coutinho into the left midfield role but played more as an attacking midfielder.
Early through the second half, Alaves remained stubborn in defense as they kept the same 4-5-1 formation that kept Barca scoreless in the 1st half. In response, Barca’s fullbacks played higher up the pitch to combat a weakness of a 4-5-1, which is the vast amount of open space on the flanks. Messi would still be positioned on the right wing but would have the freedom to drift deep alongside the midfield.
What continued to frustrate Barca was the deep defensive line by Victor Laguardia and Alaves. As alluded to before, this was done in an effort to prevent either Messi, Suarez or Dembele from receiving the ball in the box since they are all capable of creating space on their own to score a goal.
As shown here, Coutinho made up a run up the pitch but was met with instant pressure from Alaves.
The decision to bring Coutinho into the game brought in more pace and range from the midfield but Barca still could not break through for a goal. Aside from the production from Messi, it seemed as if Barca’s play was simply possession without purpose. A lackluster midfield coupled with the poor passes in the attacking third from Suarez and Dembele held back Barca’s attack. Throughout the game, it felt as if the team was waiting for a magical play from Messi to save them.
And it came in the 64th minute with a free-kick goal by Messi.
The goal was like a breath of fresh air as Barca began to move the ball with purpose across the pitch. Quick, compact passes were distributed by the Barca midfield and the pace of the attack began to speed up. Down a goal, Alaves began to orchestrate a high press, which left a multitude of open space for Barca to exploit. Alaves still kept their 4-5-1 formation but Barca became more and more comfortable making runs into the box.
Later in the game, Valverde decided to go for a conservative approach by taking off Dembele and bringing in Arthur. Barca still kept the 4-3-3 formation as Coutinho moved up to the left wing, which gave him even more freedom on the flanks. Valverde hoped to see Coutinho and Messi link up more as they did last week in the Spanish Super Cup.
On this play, Messi receives the ball in the middle third of the pitch and immediately accelerates the counter-attack. He delivers a through ball to Coutinho -- who cuts inside -- but his shot was saved.
Coutinho did redeem himself with a goal at the 83rd minute and later in the game, Messi ended the fixture with his second goal to conclude Barca’s 3-0 win.
Even with the 3-0 victory, there are plenty of takeaways that Valverde will review from this game. For the starting lineup, it is evident that Coutinho must start. He brings pace that can unsettle defenders and he’s worked well with both Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic in the midfield. And more importantly, Suarez and Dembele must be patient in the attacking third. Often times throughout the game, both players were rushing shots and became a burden in the build-up of play. Finally, Messi had an outstanding performance. Messi really did it all on the pitch with two goals, five goal-scoring chances created and 73 passes completed. With his off-ball movements and ability to distribute passes into tight spaces, Messi was the difference in Barca’s opening day win.
Next up for Barca is an away fixture against newly-promoted Valladolid.