In their first La Liga home game in three weeks, Barcelona squared off with Girona.
After four games this season, Girona have been one of the most impressive teams in La Liga with seven points from four games including wins against both Villarreal and Celta Vigo. Even though they lost their top defender in Pablo Maffeo to VfB Stuttgart and manager Pablo Machin to Sevilla, Girona are defying the odds as they are looking for a second straight top 10 finish. With a young squad featuring Manchester City loanees Patrick Roberts, Aleix Garcia, and Douglas Luiz, Girona had their eyes on challenging Barca with their focus on coming away with the best performance in their club’s history.
Barcelona are in the midst of their second of three games in eight days. The team is fresh off of a strong 4-0 win against PSV in the opening game of the Champions League group stage. Considering the tough upcoming schedule, manager Ernesto Valverde had the option of rotating players.
Right from the initial release of the starting lineup, Valverde made his intentions clear that he had his eyes set on the upcoming grueling schedule. He benched Samuel Umtiti, Sergi Roberto, Ivan Rakitic and Philippe Coutinho. In their place, Clement Lenglet, Nelson Semedo, Arthur and Arturo Vidal started. The move made sense to an extent considering that the four players being rested have featured in heavy minutes for Barca over the past three weeks and the team also have a midweek fixture against Leganes.
Even with the substitutions, Valverde made no changes to the formation as he kept the same 4-3-3 shape. With two rotating players in the midfield, it was evident that this was going to be where the game would be decided. No Coutinho in the lineup meant that they would lack speed on the left side of the pitch while the absence of Rakitic would impact how the team would maintain possession on the right.
In the setup, Arthur was going to get his first real test as a central midfielder as he would be involved a bit more in the attack. Arturo Vidal would move into the central midfielder role, which he had done so numerous of times for Bayern. The one slight difference is that when he played as a central midfielder, it would often come in formations such as a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-3-2-1 setup. Both formations gave Vidal more freedom to move higher up the pitch in sort of an attacking midfielder role when Bayern were positioned deep in the attacking third.
Meanwhile, Girona manager Eusebio employed a 3-5-2 formation but they did not keep this setup when defending because it would be too risky against a team like Barca. Instead, they shifted their formation in order to have a strong defensive setup and also to congest the midfield.
Barca have had some recent noteworthy issues with breaking through against stout defensive teams and also against teams that look to win the midfield battle. Thus, Arthur and Vidal were tasked with reinforcing the midfield by not only maintaining possession but also facilitating any kind of attack when progressing into the attacking third.
Typically on the left side of the pitch, Dembele, Coutinho and Alba dominate the pace of play with their speed and movement that force defenses to adjust and move quickly to contain them. With the absence of Coutinho, both Dembele and Alba would have a heavier workload considering Arthur does not - yet - possess the ability to win duels and challenges with his breaking speed. Arthur’s primary purpose on the pitch was to maintain possession, pass and support the ball carrier.
Here is an early sequence of Arthur maneuvering away from pressure from a defender as he passes the ball, moves upfield and then moves back downfield to support Messi.
So in effect, Arthur played more like Rakitic’s role as a conservative controller that prioritized possession and short passes to combat the opponent’s pressing.
On the right side of pitch, Vidal to an extent played Coutinho’s role whereas he played much higher up the pitch and looked to get involved with the attack in any way possible. In other instances, Vidal played notably out wide as he looked to link up and progress an attack.
On this play, Vidal does just that as his off-ball movement into space opens up a passing lane for Busquets but in the end, Vidal’s slanting pass into the box is received by no one.
The one interesting tactic employed by Girona was that they did not employ a team press system but rather looked to defend very deep. With their vast inexperience in defense, Girona’s gameplan of five at the back put them in tough situations to defend because of their positioning. This allowed for Barca to not only exploit space but also to maintain possession deep in Girona’s defensive third. In short, Girona had a similar tactic to the infamous “parking the bus” gameplan.
See here how Messi is effortlessly able to cut inside with no marking or a press from a Girona player. Even when he took the shot, he still had a multitude of space if he wanted to dribble the ball all the way into the goalkeeper’s box.
The decision by Valverde to put Arthur on the left and Vidal on the right seemed to pay off early on because both players balanced out the positioning and complemented well with the winger and full-back on their respective side. Arthur’s reserved style of short passes balanced out the speedy skill set of both Dembele and Alba. Vidal’s presence on the right allowed for him to play higher up the pitch, even more than Rakitic, and aggressively move the ball.
This was perfectly exemplified in Messi’s goal as Vidal’s positioning and strong awareness to find Messi allowed for the goal to come to fruition.
As alluded to before, Vidal’s ability to move out wide and play higher up the pitch left a significant amount of space on the right side of the pitch. This forced Busquets to move out of his central defensive midfielder role and cover for Vidal when Barca were in possession on the right. Typically, Busquets does this when Pique or Umtiti move up the pitch to deliver an aerial ball into the opponent’s defensive third or when either of the two execute a through ball.
See here the positioning of the midfield and how it impacted the build-up of play.
In instances such as this one, Arthur covered for Busquets as a central defensive midfielder. As he has done in previous games, Valverde emphasized the importance of space in order to not allow players to lose possession because no other teammates were in the vicinity of the area.
While play at times was sloppy, Barca generated promising goal-scoring chances. Since they orchestrated build-ups deep in Girona’s defensive third, Barca attacked with precision and purpose. With the absence of Coutinho, much of the attack was produced by Messi considering one of his biggest strengths is dribbling into space.
But the complexion of the game entirely changed with the controversial red card on Lenglet for what looked to be an unintentional elbow to Pere Pons. Whether the call was justified or not, Barca could not argue because the review was a final decision from VAR. The decision forced Busquets to move back as a centre back and Arthur to fill the central defensive midfield role, which is arguably his best position.
Girona closed out the first half by taking advantage of yet another poor clearance off an aerial ball by Pique as Stuani scored the game-tying goal.
Heading into the second half, Valverde was forced to change much of his game plan due to the red card. Dembele came off for Umtiti and in effect, the team switched to a 4-3-2 formation. Messi and Suarez would press far more than they usually do.
Down a man, Barca had to find a way to generate any kind of attack and not let Girona get comfortable with settling for a draw. They had to get creative in any way possible. Early in the second half, Barca were moving quickly and played like they were at full strength.
On this play, Pique is able to stretch Girona’s defense with a through ball to Semedo, which he subsequently passes to Suarez at the top of the box. The sequence almost resulted in a goal.
Minutes later, Girona score off another poor challenge by Pique. This goal forced Valverde to sub in Coutinho and Rakitic for Arthur and Vidal. Rakitic moved back to his traditional controller role while Coutinho was doing anything possible to generate an attack. His speed and quick movement caused problems for Girona.
The remainder of the second half was filled with time wasting and fouls from Girona. Pique was able to score the equaliser but after that, Barca did not have the sense of urgency to penetrate into the box and threaten with multiple, threatening goal-scoring chances. So in the end, Barca came away with a bittersweet 2-2 draw.
Valverde will have plenty to take away from this game. From the defensive standpoint, Pique’s minor mistakes ended up turning into two major opportunities for Girona as they took advantage of it with a pair of goals. As of late, Pique has struggled with defending aerial balls and also against fast-paced forwards in counter-attacks. While it is minor concern now, it could become a major burden if this issue evolves into a recurring theme throughout the season.
Nelson Semedo played an entire game for the first time in La Liga this season and this performance was one that he was not able to contribute much in the attack. He completed 90 passes and created a goal-scoring chance for Suarez but his play was lackluster overall. The positioning of players on the right side of the pitch hurt his ability to be productive in the attack. In the first half, Messi roamed across the pitch and Vidal played higher up the pitch while in the second half, Barca moved to a 4-3-2 formation with Messi and Suarez playing more inside. This often left Semedo isolated on the right flank with no players to link up with.
Arthur and Vidal had fair performances but their impact on the game felt like it could have been much better. Arthur excelled in his short passing game as he was able to distribute passes out wide and inside. His limited range on the pitch restricted the impact that he had in the attacking third. Ultimately, Valverde should look to experiment with him more as a central defensive midfielder as the position currently best suits his skillset. As for Vidal, he was all over the place on the right side of the pitch. He showed why he has been a coveted box-to-box midfielder in Europe over the past couple of seasons.
Next up for Barcelona is an away La Liga fixture against Leganes.