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Tactical breakdown of Barcelona’s 1-1 draw against Valencia

A closer look at the Mestalla match-up

Valencia CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

In front of a packed crowd at the Mestalla, Barcelona faced Valencia in what turned out to be a pivotal early season La Liga duel.

With a run of three La Liga games without a win, Barcelona needed to start orchestrating a win streak to gain ground in the league table. Add to the fact that Real Madrid lost to Alaves and this all but felt like a must-win game for Barca. On the other hand, Valencia desperately needed a win of any kind. Under Marcelino, they have struggled to win games this season with five draws in seven matches. For a team that spent over €100 million last summer, they needed to start performing like a top Spanish team.

From the release of the starting lineup, it was evident that Ernesto Valverde really liked what he saw from the team against Tottenham on Wednesday. In that game, Valverde rolled out a midfield consisting of Rakitic, Busquets and Arthur while Coutinho moved up to play as a left winger. The move was justified as the game progressed considering Tottenham were pressing throughout. The addition of Arthur neutralized Tottenham’s press with his quick passes and ability to maneuver out of tight spaces while Coutinho moved freely on the wing. Thus, Barca were able to capitalize with successive counter-attacks.

In the fixture against Valencia, Valverde used the same lineup with the exception of Vermaelen starting over Lenglet. With this team, Valverde hoped to see the same success as against Tottenham with counter-pressing and purposeful movements into space. But as Valverde would soon find out, Valencia and Tottenham run two contrasting defensive systems.

Valencia countered with a 4-4-2 formation with Kevin Gameiro and Michy Batshuayi up front as the two main strikers. Marcelino would have likely planned to play a more aggressive game but due to the early goal that they were able to score - from yet another aerial ball error by Barca - they completely switched to a defensive 4-4-2 shape that dropped deep to defend.

As seen in previous fixtures against Real Sociedad, Leganes and Athletic Bilbao, the theme with managers is to instantly defend deep after taking the lead against Barca. This conservative game plan is perilous since Barca would absolutely dominate possession in the opposing half. From Marcelino’s viewpoint, the game plan was high-risk but Gameiro and Batshuayi would be dangerous on the counter considering both players are two of the best under-the-radar scorers in the league.

Thus, Valencia orchestrated a strict 4-4-2 formation that kept its shape, which meant that players would have to stick to their position. In this game plan, a player like Jose Luis Gaya would not be able to sprint into the half-space to press Messi. What Valencia did instead is overload their formation onto the area of the pitch where Barca maintained possession.

See here how far Valencia overload while still keeping their defensive shape to near perfection and not having to defend from Barca’s left side of the pitch.

Now this does not imply that Valencia were being managed to stay at their position and not move out of their area but rather to keep their defensive shape and trust each other to defend deep. When a Valencia player saw an opportunity to man-mark, win back possession or press a Barca player to close down available space, then they would take advantage of the situation and do as they will.

The reason for this Valencia tactical game plan is simple: limit the available space for Barca and trap passing lanes that lead to goalscoring chances. This game plan relied on a mixture of both individual skill when it came to defending along with team play when they trapped or overloaded. One small mistake and Barca could easily exploit it en route to a goalscoring chance.

But Valencia were stubborn. They were not going to aggressively press like Tottenham did but rather defend deep, which allowed Barca to pass around the pitch, and limit their options in the attacking third.

See here how Messi receives the ball but instantly, he realizes that he has nowhere to go.

And see how Messi settles with a backwards pass to Arthur.

To counter this, Barca needed to move quickly and take advantage of Valencia’s strict overload setup. Whenever Barca were positioned on one side of the pitch, they could have looked to open played up to the opposing flank with a long ball to Coutinho or Messi, depending on which side they are in. More importantly, off-ball movement with successive passes upfield would unlock the attack and unsettle Valencia’s defense.

But Barca were unable to connect on this throughout the first half. Primarily, their struggles came on the left side of the pitch, which featured Coutinho, Arthur and Alba. In this setup, Arthur would move out of his accustomed deep position on the pitch to play upfield and get involved in the attack. But due to his limited range and lack of creativity to spark a goalscoring opportunity, Barca struggled to get much going in the attacking third from the left side of the pitch. This often forced Messi to move out left.

This sequence exemplified just that. Here, Alba and Arthur exchanged passes but Alba decides to get Messi involved. Seconds later, Coutinho, Alba and Messi display excellent off-ball movement but the play breaks down due to Valencia’s strict defending.

In other instances, the midfield trio were just too conservative with their passes and overall decision-making on the pitch. Throughout the first half, they were superb when maintaining possession in the opposing half but in the end, it led to possession without purpose. Due to their lack of breaking speed into space, they were unable to pressure Valencia’s strict 4-4-2 formation or even challenge them.

At times, Valencia did not even have to drop deep to defend because Barca’s lethargic passing slowed down the game in the middle third.

See this entire sequence where seven Barca players touch the ball. They exchange passes but the ball does not move out of the middle third until Messi drops deep, controls possession and sends an outlet pass to Alba out wide.

Nothing seemed to click in the first half until Messi’s goal that came off another brilliant set of play between the captain and Suarez. The result of the goal switched Valencia’s game plan as they began to implement a more of a pressing tactic with players moving more comfortably off their defensive lines. Thus, more space began to open up on the pitch for the taking.

There was one instance in the first half that although the play broke down in the end, it displayed exactly what Barca needed. See how how Messi, Semedo and Rakitic link up on the right side of the pitch. More importantly, Rakitic is pushing upfield with pace, something that has been almost non-existent this season.

Barca simply could not execute in the attacking third even though they absolutely dominated possession. Valencia excelled in trapping Barca by overloading and by congesting the midfield to not allow Barca space to operate as they will. This led to numerous sequences where Barca stringed together over 10 passes but did not record a chance. Even though they occupied possession for 76% of the time in the first half with 429 passes completed, they were only able to get two shots on target.

Heading into the second half, Valverde had to emphasize the importance of an aggressive and fast pace style in the attacking third while from Marcelino’s perspective, just keep defending at a high level.

Still, it was more of the same from both teams as Valencia’s compact 4-4-2 formation frustrated Barca when they were building up play in the attack. Even though Barca were more willing to push into the box, they were met with multiple players shielding the area in hopes of trapping and clearing any threatening attack.

See here how Suarez, Messi, Alba and Coutinho are aggressively pushing upfield but the attack is halted due to a clearance from Valencia just outside of their box.

Throughout the remainder of the second half, Messi continued to drop deep alongside the midfielders to provide a passing link as well as assist in bringing the ball upfield. This caused trouble at times for Valencia since they now had to mark a player coming out of the midfield with accelerating speed.

In effect, Barca began to build-up almost the majority of their attacking sequences from the left side of the pitch. This formed a strong link between Messi, Coutinho and Alba but as a result, it diminished the space on the pitch. Since the slow and passive play from the midfield got them nowhere, Messi and Coutinho began to take over on the attacking duties. Valencia began to now solely overload on the left side of the pitch without having to worry about much on the right flank where Rakitic or Semedo were typically positioned.

Messi and Coutinho began to generate a few promising build-ups including in this sequence where Valencia’s backline completely broke down due to their late decision to attempt to mark the two players. Coutinho was then able to subsequently sneak inside to receive a pass from Suarez but was unable to get a shot off.

While a goalscoring chance was not generated in the sequence above, it seemed as if the best was still to come in the remaining minutes of the second half. But just as Messi and Coutinho began to click, Valverde subbed in Dembele for Coutinho. It was a questionable move to take off Coutinho considering he was among the most active players throughout the game.

In the end, both teams settled for a 1-1 draw but the managers on each side came away with mixed feelings on the result. Marcelino’s squad are very likely satisfied with the performance considering they displayed defensive brilliance for 90+ minutes. For Valverde, he will take the draw but knows that the team did not play anywhere close to their full potential.

The early theme of the season was once again exemplified for Barca as they dominated possession but did not accumulate much throughout the game. Barca controlled possession for 76% of the time and completed over 900 passes but finished with just five shots on target. The midfield trio of Arthur, Busquets and Rakitic combined to complete 370 passes but among them, only created one goalscoring opportunity.

Ultimately, team chemistry and creativity are severely lacking and so far this season, it seems as if there has not been much progress on a game-by-game basis. From the off-ball movement to getting the midfielders more involved in the attack, Valverde still has plenty to address and fix.

Next up for Barcelona is a home La Liga fixture against Sevilla on October 20th in what will be the biggest game of the season to date.

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