If there was one game that could perfectly exemplify Barcelona’s 2018-2019 campaign, it would be the 2019 Copa del Rey final.
For much of the contest, Barcelona played the game as they were best suited to do so with controlling pace of play and dominating possession. Although they spent a vast amount of the game in Valencia’s defensive third, Barca did not click while in the attack. The holders passed the ball horizontally without much direction and took over 20 shots but were unable to break through Valencia’s sturdy 4-4-2 defensive setup. Without many off-ball movements or threatening runs into the box, the game plan for Barca was predictable and undemanding to contain.
Barca’s play was lackluster while in the attack and as they had done so all season long, they relied on Lionel Messi to open up play and generate goal-scoring chances. But it was not enough in the end. Lack of off-ball movement, questionable coaching decisions, a shortage of speed and an absence of early in-game adjustments all contributed to the team’s defeat.
As the referee blew the final whistle for the last time this season, Barca were once again in shock of what had transpired. The players and coaching staff walked off the field in awe at how their treble and now double hopes quickly dispersed within weeks.
For a season that began with high expectations, the collapse in the final month of the season undoubtedly reflects poorly on everyone from the players, the manager and the board. The storylines and narratives were built on for months at how historic a treble-winning season would be for Barca but in the end, they finished with just a league title. Now while a La Liga title should never be taken for granted, the triumph now feels overshadowed by the eliminations in the Champions League and Copa del Rey.
No one person should take majority blame for what happened at Anfield and in Seville, but no one should also be immune to fault. This should be the case for manager Ernesto Valverde. Unlike Josep Bartomeu’s recent comments about shielding away blame for the late season collapse, Valverde has his own share of blame for Barca’s failure of capturing the treble.
From problematic tactical decisions to the inability to counter the opponent’s gameplan, Valverde’s managerial decisions in Anfield and Seville became a burden on the team. In the big picture, this only sheds more light on his deficiencies as manager while also garnering more support for his exit.
There is no denying that Valverde has had his share of tremendous success in his short couple of years with Barca, but he has his flaws that can not be overlooked.
Lack of implementing in-game adjustments
What separates a good manager from a great one is their ability to identify and address issues or weaknesses during a game. Some of the best managers in the world today from Pep Guardiola to Jurgen Klopp have made a career on detecting issues that their team may face during a game and do their best to adjust their overall gameplan to put them in the best position to succeed.
In Valverde’s case, this has been one issue that has prevented him from taking Barca even further than he has taken them. In his two years with Barca, Valverde has been a polarizing manager due to his conservative approach regarding in-game tactics. Valverde is keen on reserving his game plan throughout the game. Instead of addressing issues as they come, Valverde is a manager who allows his players to figure it out on their own rather than completely alter the tactics to better suit the flow of the game. Until it comes to the point where a change is absolutely necessary, Valverde will then make the changes needed from a personnel or tactical standpoint.
An infamous example of this came in last year’s Champions League elimination to Roma in the quarter-finals. Throughout the game, Barca’s midfield struggled against Roma’s press. Barca were never comfortable in possession. In response, Valverde did not make a change early on to bring in Ousmane Dembele to open up play out wide or even make a tactical change to exploit the space left in behind Roma’s midfield via the counter-press. It was only until Roma scored the famous third goal that Valverde altered the formation by bringing in Dembele and Paco Alcacer to go all in on the attack and attempt to salvage a goal.
A year later, Valverde would be tasked with the same situation at Anfield in the semi-finals of the Champions League. Throughout the first half, Barca were sluggish while in possession against Liverpool. Barca were able to generate a couple of goal-scoring chances but as was the case in the first leg, they were not as comfortable in possession as they are used to.
See here how Liverpool overloaded on the left side of the pitch and are able to win back possession due to their pressing and positioning to close passing lanes inside.
Instead of opting to counter-press more or bring in Arthur for more stability in the midfield, Valverde remained adamant about continuing to maintain the same passive game plan. As a result, Klopp responded by engaging Liverpool to be more aggressive in gegenpressing and trap Barca in their own defensive half. It was only after Liverpool’s third goal that Valverde made the switch to bring in Semedo and Arthur to switch to a 4-4-2 setup in order to help counter Liverpool’s high pressing tactic.
Had Valverde made the necessary adjustments at Roma and Liverpool, the results would have been completely different with Barcelona very likely progressing to the following round of the Champions League. But in the grand scheme of things, Valverde’s lack of adapting to in-game situations goes beyond the two Champions League eliminations. His conservative approach to just let things play out during games has been at times masked by the results of games such as the league draws against Valencia or the Champions League away draw against Lyon where a stark change in attacking tactics could have secured a victory.
Struggles against countering a high press
Stability and organization are two key characteristics for any successful team in Europe. Whether it is playing out of the back or orchestrating a successful counter-attack, how a team responds to a certain situation on the pitch speaks to how well they are organized as a unit. But the foundation for this does not start with the players but rather at the top with the manager.
For Ernesto Valverde, there were many aspects of his tactics that he implemented well into the team and others that still needed improvements. Among them, Barca’s struggles at times against teams with a high pressing system was evident throughout the season.
When pressed -- especially when playing out from the back -- Barca mainly relied on Messi or the two full-backs to push the ball upfield. Messi’s dribbles dragged defenders off of their defensive lines while runs by the full-backs stretched the opponent’s lines and disrupted their pressing structure. But when neither were able to support Barca in combating the press, the team were not accustomed to look for advanced options to counter the press or strive to build up play but rather often resorted to just clearing the ball away from the defensive half.
This is exemplified here as Liverpool high press and as a response, Barca elect to just clear the ball away rather than exploit open pockets of space left behind by Liverpool’s midfield.
Many teams were resistant on orchestrating a high press or an aggressive gegenpressing tactic but those that did were able to enjoy moderate success in disrupting Barca’s possession-based tactics. Teams such as Liverpool, Real Betis, Sevilla, Celta Vigo and Real Madrid pressed Barca with some having great success due to their organizational setup while others struggled to contain them.
As show here, Celta Vigo was one team that showed signs of employing a moderately successful press. See here how they are overloading Pique on the left flank.
An excellent way to counter Celta Vigo’s setup would be with off-ball runs to create space or with Pique distributing a pass upfield with the goal of accelerating pace of play with a quick build-up. But neither happened as Celta’s overload trap worked to success.
Whether it will be Valverde or another manager who will take over next season, countering against an aggressive high pressing system is one aspect of play that Barcelona need to shore up and improve on.
Conservative managerial approach
As alluded to before, Valverde is best defined as a conservative manager. This can be viewed as both a positive and negative depending on the standpoint. On one hand, there is continuity with the tactics and overall gameplan. Both the players and coaching staff know that there will be consistency throughout the season by the way the manager approaches fixtures. Valverde would make minor tweaks to a formation or player selection but in general, the game plan is methodical on a game-by-game basis.
In contrast, employing a conservative approach throughout the entirety of a season can grow into becoming a burden on the team. In Barca’s case, the team personifies what it means to be the best team in the world when they undoubtedly play at their best. But when play begins to be stagnant and lethargic, it becomes predictable for the opponent to defend against.
See here in this sequence from Barca’s away league game fixture against Athletic Bilbao where they are in the attacking third in hopes of scoring a late game-winner. In what has become the norm for the team at times this season, Barca are unable to do much with the ball with the lack of link up play or off-ball movement to exploit space in between Bilbao’s setup.
Barcelona finished with just two shots on target in the 0-0 away draw against Bilbao. Throughout the game, Valverde still kept the same 4-3-3 formation and did not tweak the formation to better suit a more attacking style. A switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Messi playing as the central attacking midfielder with both Coutinho and Dembele as wingers -- which is a tactic that Valverde implemented in the home fixture against Bilbao in September -- would have given Barca more flexibility to push for goal-scoring chances in the box.
As was the case in Bilbao, being a conservative manager and electing for a more defensive approach over an aggressive attacking setup in critical sequences can at times hold the team back. Whether it is experimenting with new formations or making minor tweaks like inserting Coutinho back into the midfield, Valverde should have been more daring to take risks in order to see what works and what does not in the long run.
Absence of a true team identity
Before a highly anticipated heavyweight fight, boxer Mike Tyson once famously said that “everyone has a plan until they get punched.”
This could not be even more epitomized of the current Barca team.
Whether it was at Roma, Liverpool or as recently in Seville, Barcelona were repeatedly punched in the mouth and put under heavy pressure throughout the fixtures. But how Barca responded to each situation in those games showed even more that the team lacked a true identity.
When Liverpool and Roma pressed Barca relentlessly in the Champions League tie, this prevented Barca from playing in their usual possession-based system where they spend much of play in the attacking third. And when each team scored the crucial goal that put them ahead in the tie, it forced Barca to scramble and push upfield to salvage a goal. But rather than orchestrate link-up plays in the attacking third or trigger off-ball runs into the box, Barca seemingly had no fallback game plan other than relying on Messi to create at will -- which fueled the ‘ Messidependencia’ narrative.
How Barca played in the attack at Liverpool or Roma was not an anomaly. Time after time this season, Barca have played slow and passive attacking football that at times did not exploit the opponent’s weaknesses. Thus, a more aggressive and creative attacking approach is desperately needed for Barca. Without the necessary changes, Barca could head into next season with the same approach of relying on Messi in the attack while playing predictable purposeless possession attacking football.
As mentioned before, no one is prone nor immune to what has unfolded over the past month for Barca. Nonetheless, Valverde must own up to his own fault to Barca’s collapse.
What makes managers great and stand out above the rest is their ability to learn from their tactical miscues and unsuccessful schemes. This extends to rewatching games -- including the Liverpool loss which Valverde claims he has not rewatched -- and gathering what worked and what didn’t for future fixtures.
In the case that Valverde stays, there must be a completely different mentality to how he must approach games and how he deals with in-game situations. Even after an underachieving season, he has the backing of some of the players and Bartomeu to remain for another season. But if Valverde does leave the club, the new manager will have to work on getting the best out of each player and work to see what game plan truly benefits the team.