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Tactical breakdown of Barcelona’s 1-0 win against Valladolid

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Ousmane Dembele was the match-winner

Real Valladolid CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

In the first away fixture of the 2018-2019 La Liga season, Barcelona traveled to Valladolid to face Real Valladolid at the Estadio Jose Zorrilla.

Valladolid had this fixture circled on their calendar for weeks not only because they were hosting the La Liga champions but also because it was going to be their first La Liga home game in over four years. The newly-promoted La Liga side were coming off a 0-0 away draw against Girona on Matchday 1. The last time Valladolid squared off against Barcelona came during the 2013-2014 season where they picked up a massive 1-0 upset win in a game that ultimately hurt Barca’s chances of winning the league. Over four years later, Valladolid were keen on putting up yet another good fight against Barca.

Throughout the game, Valladolid made it clear that this was not going to be just another effortless away win for Barca. But in the end, Barca were able to snatch away a 1-0 win thanks to Ousmane Dembele’s first league goal of the season. Even with the win, there are significant takeaways from the game that both teams will learn and grow from.

From Barca’s perspective, manager Ernesto Valverde elected to go with the 4-3-3 formation once again with Dembele, Suarez and Messi up front. The only change that he made from last week’s starting lineup that beat Alaves came in the midfield as Philippe Coutinho made his first start of the season while Sergi Roberto moved to the right back role. This was the lineup that Valverde used for the second half of the Alaves fixture. In this formation, Coutinho would link up with both Dembele and Alba on the flanks while Messi would patrol with complete freedom on the right.

In contrast, Valladolid began the game with a 4-3-1-2 formation that positioned forwards Enes Unal and Oscar Plano up front, but the structure of the team was altered and adjusted throughout the game. When Valladolid did not maintain possession and were tasked with defending --which they did for 36% of play-- they switched to 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 formations often throughout the game in order to avoid being predictable and stagnant. Rotating players on the pitch with hybrid formations was central to Valladolid’s game plan.

As seen here, Valladolid defend in a tightly compact 4-3-3 formation.

The defensive formation from Valladolid was out of the norm for Barca considering what they faced in the first two games of the season. In the Spanish Super Cup, Sevilla elected to go for a 5-4-1 formation while last week, Alaves was structured in a 4-5-1 formation. Both teams defended in a zonal marking system as they attempted to prevent Barca from exploiting open space on the pitch. But Valladolid had other plans in mind.

Valladolid orchestrated a free-roaming man-marking system that was structured on rotating players across the pitch. Now what Valladolid manager Sergio Gonzalez implemented is not a man-marking system that one would see with a team like Barcelona or Bayern Munich considering he evidently does not have the talent on the pitch to effectively manage it for an entire game. Instead, what Valladolid did throughout the game was set up blocks and trap zones where multiple players would rotate to the area of the pitch where a Barca player maintained possession. Then, Valladolid executed a high press.

For example, see here how Valladolid is structured.

And now see how Valladolid perfectly execute the play by trapping and pressing Barca as they immediately win back possession to jumpstart a counter-attack.

Now Valladolid did not man-mark for the entire game as it would allow Barca to exploit the open space and create passing lanes. So, at times, Valladolid sat back and implemented a zonal marking system to intercept passes and close down passing lanes. The forwards alternated between marking the ball carriers while the backline that consisted of four defenders aggressively marked Dembele, Suarez and Messi. And for the midfield, they had a heavy work rate as they rotated across the pitch.

Valladolid enforced this tactic often throughout the game in an effort to prevent Barca from maintaining possession in the attacking third. As seen here, they execute another trap zone on the flank and end up intercepting the ball, which was followed by a clearance.

When Valladolid were able to successfully recover possession, they immediately raced down the pitch to begin a counter-attack. Now while Barca’s backline were not really tested last week against Alaves, Valladolid were more aggressive and hungrier to score a goal. They exposed the multitude of open space and forced Barca’s midfielders and defenders to track back.

As seen here, Barca’s defense were vulnerable to counter-attacks due to the high positioning of the fullbacks on the wing and of Coutinho inside.

For Barca to succeed against Valladolid’s formation and play style, they would need to counter with quick, compact passes in order to move the ball upfield while other players accelerate to the box with off-ball movements into space. Whether it would be the midfielders linking up with the wingers on combination passes or Messi penetrating into the box to pass to a runner, Barca needed to speed up the tempo of the game to force Valladolid off of their defensive line. But ultimately, they lacked all of this during the first half.

Barca had an extremely difficult time stringing together key passes to penetrate into the box. Even though they maintained possession for 75% of play, they managed just two shots on target. And to make matters worse, the pitch was an absolute mess.

Heading into the second half, Barca needed to up the tempo and start playing with fluidity in the attacking third. Against a stubborn Valladolid team that was mixing up formations, Barca needed to respond with creativity from the midfield and forwards.

Barcelona made no changes to the lineup as they maintained the structure of the 4-3-3 formation with both fullbacks playing a high line. Messi was still positioned on the right wing but periodically drifted over into the middle when in the attacking third.

But still, Barca were unable to breakthrough with a goal in the early portions of the second half due to Valladolid’s aggressive tendency to challenge and pressure the ball carrier. Valladolid still kept the compact marking system but were more aggressive in pressing. Barca were able to push into the box but they were instantly met with seven Valladolid players that seeked to clear or intercept the ball.

As seen in this sequence, seven Barca players touch the ball as they all contribute to an effective build-up but once they get to the attacking third, the entire set-up collapses due to the lack of execution.

Barca were finally able to score from a link play between Suarez and Roberto that resulted in Dembele scoring. They hoped to also open up play a bit more after the goal but in a turn of events, Valladolid became more aggressive when in possession and pushed the ball upfield more. Barca did press but seemed to be conservative in the case that Valladolid are able to exploit space on the wing and create a goal-scoring chance from an aerial pass. Thus, Barca played more defensive with an unwillingness to attack as they did in the first half.

As shown here, Valverde elected to go for a more conservative approach to finish out the game.

Valverde’s questionable decision to be more defensive after the goal only granted Valladolid several more opportunities to create goal-scoring chances. This prompted Valverde to bring in Arturo Vidal while subbing out Dembele to add stability on the right for the 4-4-2 holding formation. Valverde also brought in Malcom and Munir but still, the defensive 4-4-2 formation was enforced. With the help of VAR at the end, Barcelona managed to hold off Valladolid and preserve the 1-0 win.

It was not a convincing win by any standard but as the old saying goes, a win is a win. Still, there is so much for Valverde to take away from this game. First off, Barca must address the issues with maintaining possession. They were dispossessed 17 times during the game and it only helped Valladolid to jumpstart counter-attacks. Suarez and Dembele still have glaring red flags in regards to their decision-making in the attacking third. And the midfield is still lacking the creativity to penetrate with through balls and clinical passes to open up passing lanes.

Valverde will no doubt have plenty to review this week in training and during film sessions.

Next up for Barcelona will be a home fixture against Huesca.