From the Estadio Municipal de Butarque, Barcelona faced the Madrid-based Leganes in the first midweek La Liga fixture of the season for both teams.
Leganes came into the fixture in hopes of getting a positive result that could be the catalyst in turning their season around. Under new manager Mauricio Pellegrino, Leganes had failed to win their opening five fixtures and before their matchup against Barca, they were firmly in 20th place in La Liga. On the other hand, Barca hoped to keep their early season unbeaten streak intact. With Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid beginning to surge as of late, Barca needed to build up another long winning streak.
From the release of the starting lineup, manager Ernesto Valverde made it clear once again that he had his focus on the upcoming fixtures against Athletic Bilbao and Tottenham. Thomas Vermaelen and Munir started while Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez began the game on the bench. To an extent, it made sense from Valverde’s standpoint to experiment with new rotations and setups considering that Barca were facing a last place team in La Liga. But as was shown in the away fixtures against Valladolid and Real Sociedad, there is no such thing as an “easy” away La Liga game so Valverde had to be careful to not underestimate Leganes.
From the look of the starting lineup, it seemed as if Valverde had the option of playing with a 3-4-3 formation and/or a false nine Messi. A 3-4-3 formation would hold a backline of Vermaelen, Pique and Umtiti while Roberto would move into the midfield. This formation would evidently move to a back four when defending. As for a false nine Messi, he would drop deep as he usually does but both Dembele and Munir would play an integral part in cutting inside and creating more often in order to supply Messi with purposeful passes. In the end, there were glimpses of both of these tactics throughout the game but the team did not fully commit to either of them.
Early on, there were three significant aspects of the game that were quite noteworthy.
First, the decision to play Vermaelen as sort of a hybrid left-back and centre-back diminished the production on the left side of the pitch. When Valverde plays his true starting 11, Alba, Coutinho and Dembele link up very well and their chemistry is among the best in all Europe. But when one of them is not in the starting lineup, the production on the left side of the pitch seems to just all fall apart. This was clearly shown in their previous fixture against Real Sociedad and was evident throughout the early portions of the game against Leganes.
When Barca maintained possession in Leganes’ defensive half, they were very conservative on the left side of the pitch, which has arguably been where many of their goalscoring chances have sprung from. As seen here, this left a significant imbalance on the left side of the pitch.
Vermaelen’s inability to contribute much on the left side of the pitch throughout the early portions of the game while Barca maintained possession turned one of the team’s biggest strengths into a glaring weakness. The absence of Alba and Coutinho’s positioning to play more inside essentially eliminated the attacking dimension from Barca on the left side of the pitch. Thus, this put Dembele in poor situations and decreased his opportunities to utilize his speed to create havoc on the left flanks.
See here how uncharacteristically deep Dembele receives a pass and with no teammate to link up with coupled with the positioning of the Leganes defenders, he distributes a backwards pass to Pique. In this play, Vermaelen immediately moves back to his defensive line rather than pushing upfield for a possible overlap run.
Vermaelen is a quality backup centre-back but his positioning on the pitch and lack of attacking contributions made him non-existent when Barca were in Leganes’ defensive half. If Valverde was keen on giving him playing time, he should have played him in his traditional centre-back role rather than isolate him on the left side of the pitch.
Second, there was little to no chemistry among the front three. Valverde elected to play Dembele in his left wing role but opted to rest Suarez for Munir while moving Messi to a center forward-like role. As usual, Messi free-roamed across the pitch in an attempt to generate any kind of attack. When Messi moved out of position, Munir moved inside to occupy the space that a striker would typically hold. But this left multitudes of open space on the right flanks.
See here where Messi and Munir are positioned.
Munir was put in a poor position from the start of the game. He did not receive many opportunities to have any impact on the game due to his positioning. Add this to the fact that Munir lacks purposeful off-ball movement and his positioning does not unsettle backlines. Thus, this left him with no shots or goal-scoring chances in the first half. Like Vermaelen, Munir is a quality backup but this setup did not allow him to get involved in the attack.
Third, Leganes took advantage of Barca’s imbalance on the flanks by focusing to win the battle in the midfield. Leganes emphasized the importance of preventing Barca from moving the ball into the box so they implemented a man-marking system that backed off when Barca were not threatening to generate a goalscoring chance. Whenever Leganes had to defend out wide, they did not have much of a problem doing so since Barca had no chemistry at all on the flanks.
See here how Vermaelen delivers a pass out wide to Dembele and multiple Leganes defenders immediately converge and win back possession since Dembele had no support or passing link out wide.
While Barca were able to get an early goal from Coutinho, they did not have any sort of fluidity in the attacking third and often had breakdowns that resulted in a loss of possession.
As mentioned before, play on the left side of the pitch was often ineffective and stagnant. Later on in the first half, Vermaelen began to move up front more but still, it had no impact.
See here how play on the left side of the pitch completely breaks down within seconds due to Leganes’ pressure and the positioning of the Vermaelen, Dembele and Coutinho trio on the left flank.
The lack of balance on the flanks forced Barca to play too narrow when in the attack. Since Leganes defended with five players in the back along with the four midfielders inside, they were not forced to stretch out wide to defend.
An example of this is the sequence in the 43rd minute where Messi loses possession after an attempt to dribble the ball into the box. Notice how narrow Barca are positioned with no trailing full-backs on either of the flanks in the attacking third.
To conclude the first half, Barca dominated possession with 74% but could just record three shots on target. The team desperately missed Alba and Suarez but not because Vermaelen and Munir were both poor but rather because the setup that Valverde played with suited Alba and Suarez better.
To start the second half, Barca began to move the ball faster to neutralize the tight defensive line by Leganes. Coutinho began to sway inside and out wide with promising off-ball movement. But like in the first half, Barca did not maintain this pace for long as they began to slow down and in effect, Leganes took advantage with back-to-back counter-attack goals.
On the second goal, Barca once again showed their vulnerability on counter-attacks as Pique is unable to halt the attack before Leganes can turn it into a goalscoring opportunity.
Over time in the second half, Valverde subbed off Munir, Dembele and Vermaelen for Suarez, Malcom and Alba. Suarez stationed himself as the striker while Malcolm played as the left winger. Valverde’s move to bring in Alba was the most important of the three as he finally reverted back to emphasizing the importance of building up attacks from the left flanks with Alba’s overlaps and breaking speed. Coutinho began to play more and more as an attacking midfielder after the substitutions.
With the changes, Barca had trouble breaking through since Leganes went to the extreme to preserve their 2-1 lead by parking the bus with 10 players. Coupled with a few heroic saves by Ivan Cuellar, it was just not Barca’s day.
For Valverde, the lesson of the game should not be to restrict rotating players but rather to learn from what works and what does not. Vermaelen should not be played out of position as a hybrid left-back. Munir is better off being stationed as a winger for now. More importantly, playing three at the back in a possession-based system is not ideal at all.
The biggest takeaway from not just this game but from the previous fixtures from the past three months is that Valverde’s team is lacking a team identity. The theme of the opening month and a half of the season has been dominating possession in a 4-3-3 system while waiting for Messi and Coutinho to deliver with creativity in the attacking third. Since they lack team-oriented chemistry at the moment, they will be vulnerable to even the bottom of the table teams in La Liga.
In terms of the long-term outlook of this game, Barca missed a golden opportunity to build on a lead in La Liga considering Real Madrid lost to Sevilla and they have a fixture with Atletico Madrid upcoming.
Next up for Barcelona is a home fixture against Athletic Bilbao.