For the second straight game, Barcelona were matched up against a newly-promoted La Liga side as they squared off against SD Huesca.
Huesca are currently amid a landmark year in their history as this is their first ever season in La Liga. So far, the club has exceeded expectations as they came into the contest with four points, which included an impressive draw result against Athletic Bilbao. The fixture against Barca would provide the team with a major early season test and for club officials and fans, they were hoping to avenge the 12-1 aggregate loss to Barca in the Round of 32 stage in the 2014-2015 Copa Del Rey.
Barcelona, on the other hand, came into the fixture with two league wins but they had to battle it out to for the entirety of the games to secure the victories. Heading into the matchup against Huesca, Ernesto Valverde had several dilemmas regarding the starting lineup. The team had struggled to breakthrough for much of their last two games and players such as Luis Suarez were underperforming. To top it off, the first international break of the season is on the horizon. 11 Barca players were called up for international duty with some slating to compete in the new UEFA Nations League competition while others are anticipating playing time in international friendlies. Several players such as Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets were potential candidates to not be included in the starting lineup in an effort to rest them before the pivotal international break.
In the end, Ernesto Valverde elected to go with the same starting lineup that he featured against Valladolid. Ousmane Dembele, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi would play up front as the forwards. In Barca’s 4-3-3 structure, Dembele links up with Philippe Coutinho and Jordi Alba on the left while Messi links with Ivan Rakitic and Sergi Roberto on the right. As usual, Messi did not position himself on the right wing for the entirety of the game.
Huesca responded with an intriguing setup that they maintained throughout the game.
Huesca manager Leo Franco elected to play with a 4-4-2 holding formation that also defended in a 4-4-2. This formation worked tremendously against SD Eibar and Athletic Bilbao as they were able to win back possession throughout the two games and jumpstart counter-attacks with Longo and Hernandez as the two strikers. But to continue to play this formation against Barca was a risky decision as they would be forced to cover and defend more space on the pitch because Longo and Hernandez were not tasked with pressing or defending deep as the rest of the team did.
Surprisingly, Franco’s decision worked to perfection for the first 15 minutes of the game. In the early portions of the game, Barca struggled to string together passes in the attacking third. This was shocking because Huesca did not implement anything special when they were defending deep. They did not create blocks to trap the ball carrier nor were they aggressive in man-marking. Huesca were simply just defending in a zonal marking system that converged two or three players to press the ball carrier. Huesca were even able to score a goal after they took advantage of a poor aerial ball defending sequence from Barca’s backline.
Early on, Barcelona were once again stagnant in the attacking third, which was a theme for much of their performance against Valladolid. They evidently lacked the aggressiveness to penetrate into the box to challenge the Huesca backline. Barca lost possession multiple times early on and lacked the ability to accelerate play in order to create goal-scoring chances. This resulted in the team not recording a shot for the opening 15 minutes of the game.
But in what felt like an inevitable moment, Messi bailed out Barca with a decisive, game-tying goal.
The goal from Messi seemed to spark a change to the team’s pace and tempo. More importantly, Barca became more assertive in their off-ball movement. At times during the games against Alaves and Valladolid, play became slow with purposeless passes because of their lack of off-ball movement. It also became the theme early on against Huesca as their ineffective off-ball movement allowed for Huesca to keep the shape of their 4-4-2 formation without moving players out of position. But this all changed immediately after Messi’s goal.
This change can be credited to a tactical adjustment. To play with more fluidity in the attack, Valverde made a slight change in the formation. Barca kept their traditional 4-3-3 formation but played narrower up front. Messi, as he usually does, alternated between his right wing position and middle the middle part of the pitch and Dembele moved inside as well while also dropping deep to receive passes. Dembele did not have the same freedom to roam across the pitch as Messi typically does on a game-by-game basis but he shifted more into the half-space portion of the pitch than he usually does.
As shown here, Dembele is positioned away from his left wing position on the flanks.
Dembele’s shift to the inside portion of Barca’s attacking set up allowed for him to link up with both Messi and Suarez more often.
The trio would distribute passes amongst themselves in an effort to open up play and speed up the pace of the game. Since Messi and Dembele played more inside rather than on the flanks, this forced Alba and Roberto to cover the entirety of the flanks while maintaining their attacking and defending responsibilities. While their work rates increased, this move allowed for Dembele to be more effective in playing alongside Coutinho and Alba on the left and in the attacking third. Coutinho would push up front as an attacking midfielder while Alba took advantage of the overlaps.
The end result of this minor formation change was more effective play in the attacking third coupled with potent off-ball movements. Primarily, this came on the left side of the pitch.
As shown on this play, Messi links up with Alba on the left flank. Alba receives the ball and as he anticipates Messi’s off-ball movement into the box, he attempts a pass to Messi but the execution was just off.
Under a minute later, Dembele and Alba attempt a similar play as they link up on the left flank. This time around, Dembele distributes a pass to an unmarked Alba into the box, who is then fortunate to enough to get an own goal out of the play.
As alluded to before, Franco’s decision to elect for a 4-4-2 formation with both strikers up front having minimal defensive activity was a risky decision that ultimately became a disastrous one. Once Barcelona began to get going with their quick, compact passes in the attacking third, Huesca had no clue on how to contain them. Since Huesca lacked a precise marking system, Barcelona exploited the open space with ease on the flanks and inside.
Barcelona continued to force their way into the box to create goal-scoring chances. Thanks to their hybrid 4-3-3 formation, they pressured Huesca out wide with their fullbacks and inside with the presence of both Dembele and Suarez. As shown here, Barca were aggressive in the attacking third to the extent where Huesca had no choice but to defend deep.
Barcelona disorganized Heusca’s backline because of their passes with movement. In the attacking third, they perfected a multitude of one touch passes with threatening off-ball movement. At times, it included three players in an effort to build-up play.
Although this sequence was halted because of an offside call, Barca showed how they can orchestrate passes with off-ball movement. See how Messi attracts a defender while distributing a pass up front to Dembele, who then receives the ball back, and completes the sequence with a threatening pass out wide to Alba.
Valverde’s tactical plan to play a narrow 4-3-3 up front in order to get the fullbacks more involved in the attack was an outstanding decision as it opened up play and unsettled the Huesca backline. Alba and Roberto were shockingly unmarked on the flanks, which gave them the freedom to cut inside at will. This was exemplified at best with Barca’s third goal, which saw Alba make a run out wide and into the box where he delivered a perfectly placed pass to an unmarked Suarez.
While Huesca added a goal late in the first half, it was evident that the best was still yet to come with Barca’s balanced attack heading into the second half.
Valverde made no changes to the starting lineup nor did he adjust tactically because there was no reason to do so. With the fullbacks playing like wingers and the front three able to break through the Huesca backline, it seemed as if it was only a matter of time before the barrage of goals would arrive.
As was the theme in the first half, Barca executed simplistic passes with purposeful off-ball movement. Although Messi did not score on this play, the link up play between him and Coutinho worked to near perfection because of the pass and quick movement into space in the box.
Barca kept this same approach for the duration of the game. The fullbacks accommodated and linked with the front three while Coutinho and Rakitic paced across the pitch to maintain the structure of the 4-3-3 formation. Overall, the team worked cohesively as a unit to stretch the Huesca defensive 4-4-2 formation. This resulted in three goals in 13 minutes from Dembele, Rakitic and Messi.
After Messi’s second goal to put Barca up 6-2, Valverde used the reminder of the game to experiment with different tactics. Dembele moved over to the right as Barca shifted towards a 4-4-2 formation when he dropped deep to play alongside the midfield. Clement Lenglet was given playing time as he was subbed on to replace Umtiti. Arturo Vidal was subbed on for Rakitic to play more as a controller in the midfield. Arthur was given his first minutes as a central defensive midfielder as he was subbed on to replace Busquets.
Barca added a goal from yet another spectacular off-ball run by Alba as he finished his goal-scoring chance and to top it off, Suarez scored the eighth goal of the day with a penalty.
Valverde’s attacking-heavy game plan paid off in a major way. With the lack of a high press system from Huesca, Barca made a large amount of unmarked free runs into the box. Barca’s free-flowing attack allowed for the team to record 31 shots with 22 of them coming inside the box. The compact passing was precise and off-ball movement in space was arguably the reason they were able to pull away with the 8-2 win.
Alba and Roberto performed extremely well with an increased work rate. Dembele and Suarez were more clinical in the attacking third. And last but not least, Messi had yet another world class performance with a pair of goals and assists along with nine goal-scoring chances created.
Next up for Barcelona is an away clash with Real Sociedad on September 15th.