Barcelona’s away performance against Slavia Prague was a fixture to forget as they had one of their worst overall performances of the year. Even though they escaped with a pivotal Champions League win, there was nothing much to like about how they orchestrated play in both the attack and defense. They were under constant pressure against Slavia’s press and showed no sense of urgency when in need of a goal to put the game away for good.
Two weeks later, Ernesto Valverde’s team somehow managed to put out an encore performance against the same Slavia Prague side. Once again, Barcelona played uninspiring football that was filled with a series of questionable sequences and head-scratching tactical decisions. With a chance to hold a commanding lead in their Champions League group, Barca squandered the opportunity and piled on even more pressure to Valverde and his current status as manager of the club.
Valverde lined up his side in a unique 4-2-3-1 formation. It was unique because although they have played this formation in a couple of games over the past three months, Barca have not started any fixture this season with this setup. Whenever Valverde has decided to employ a 4-2-3-1, it has always come during the second half in instances where he feels that a formation change can spark some more activity in the attack. Needless to say, Barca needed a spark of any kind after their last fixture.
See below how Barca are beginning to build-up from their 4-2-3-1 formation during the opening minute of the game. With Luis Suarez out, Lionel Messi took over the reigns as the team’s main centre-forward. Arturo Vidal operated play behind Messi as the central attacking midfielder — a role in which he has enjoyed favorable success in previous games this season. Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann remained situated out wide as the wingers while Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong took the helm as the central defensive midfielders.
However, this was not a prototypical 4-2-3-1 that one would generally see out of teams such as Bayern Munich or Tottenham.
Instead, Barca’s 4-2-3-1 setup was more of a makeshift one due to the positioning of both Messi and Vidal. Over the opening 45 minutes, both players did not remain stationed to their positional area on the pitch. Of course, Messi dropped deep to get himself involved in the team’s build-up. He often positioned himself into open space to provide a passing option for the ball carrier. As a result, this left a multitude of open space in between Slavia’s two centre-backs, which Vidal took advantage of by occasionally moving into. These interchanges of position between Vidal and Messi became a regular occurence over the first half.
For example, see here how every Barca player is in their required positional areas under the 4-2-3-1 setup aside from both Vidal and Messi. As Messi dropped out his area, Vidal navigated his way into the open space and in behind the Slavia backline.
Meanwhile, Slavia responded with an array of different defensive systems to limit Barca’s production when in possession. Over the first half, Slavia alternated between their synonymous 4-1-4-1 setup and a flat 4-5-1 that sought to cover up any available space on the pitch. The most important element of their tactical game plan was their relatively high line; they aimed to halt Barca from essentially walking into the final third with ease. When they triggered the use of their high line in the middle third, Slavia often dropped to a backline of a five — switching to a 5-3-2 — in order to mark and cover the inevitable off-ball runs of both Dembele and Griezmann from the flanks.
On paper, it seemed like Barca would have the upper hand in this tactical chess match. With Slavia’s high line, Barca had just what they needed to counter this defensive setup by either launching off-ball runs through gaps from Slavia’s backline or methodically building upfield with a succession of passes through the center. However, none of this occurred as Barca’s lack of both effective positioning on the pitch and impactful movement led to their eventual demise in this game.
With Barca’s positioning, it was essentially all over the place and there seemed to be no strategic game plan set in stone about how to react to different situations on the pitch. First, as mentioned, Vidal and Messi were each not stagnant in their positional areas as they each had the freedom to move out of their designated zone. However, this resulted in a few drawbacks. For one, Vidal often remained up front even when Messi was occupying space between Slavia’s defensive line. This often left both players isolated up the pitch, especially when Barca were occupying possession in the middle third. And to make matters worse, Vidal was not much of a factor in the team’s overall build-up into the final third.
So, when both Messi and Vidal hovered around Slavia’s defensive line while in the middle third, this often left a numerical imbalance on the pitch that made it extremely difficult for the midfield to progress upfield.
As shown here, Vidal’s poor positional awareness created an unconventional 3-1-6 setup for Barca with Busquets as the lone midfielder. With both Griezmann and Dembele not dropping out of their line to assist in the build-up upfield, Barca did not have many clear-cut passing lanes. As a result, Slavia countered with a 3-1-6 of their own with both full-backs, Boril and Coufal, closely monitoring the movements of Barca’s wingers and full-backs on the flanks. Typically, Barca would have two midfielders to assist in the build-up in this type of situation, but it was not the case here with Vidal’s high positioning.
Barca struggled over long periods of time to break through against Slavia’s high line. Even in instances where De Jong or Vidal triggered off-ball runs in an attempt to drag a Slavia defender off their line and open up passing lanes, it did not come to much avail. Slavia were also relentless in their pursuit to limit the on-ball activity from Messi and Vidal in the center.
Nonetheless, Barca looked for other outlets to maneuver their way into the final third. For one, both Dembele and Semedo were vital in Barca’s progression into the final third. They each aimed to find gaps in Slavia’s backline and exploit them when they did not have a marker near them.
Here, Dembele is able to find Semedo making a streaking run down the flanks and subsequently delivers an inside ball to him. Simple and effective.
Barca recorded a fair four shots inside the box over the first half but overall, but they did not take advantage of Slavia’s high line by placing an emphasis on building from within and providing Vidal with more build-up responsibilities.
To begin the second half, Valverde made no tactical changes for his side. On the other hand, Slavia coach Jindrich Trpisovsky decided it was best for his team to defend in their own final third while also featuring a more aggressive team press when Barca maintained possession in their own half.
With Slavia moving away from their high line tactic, Barca had less difficulty patrolling into the final third. Thus, more space began to open for Barca to exploit and freely accelerate into. Griezmann was one player who took advantage of Slavia’s tactical change and took it upon himself own to open up the game for the rest of the attacking unit.
See here how Griezmann notices a significant gap of space open up. He reads Clement Lenglet’s decision-making on the ball and waits until the French defender sees him begin to drift away from the flank. Then, Griezmann sets off a perfectly timed run into space and subsequently receives the ball on his way into the final third
And here, Griezmann links with De Jong to make a good run in between gaps of space within Slavia’s backline. Once again, Griezmann reads the opponent’s positioning and takes advantage of Slavia’s defensive miscue.
Now even with the bombardment of attempted movements in behind Slavia’s backline, Barca were not able to breakthrough for a goal. They finished with 14 shots and did create more high-percentage chances than Slavia, such as Roberto’s 1v1 chance and the opportunity Fati created for Messi, but it was an overall unconvincing performance.
To say that Valverde’s tactical decisions cost Barca the game is not a far-fetched assertion. To his credit, he did employ a 4-2-3-1 formation — a setup that had garnered relative success this season — in Suarez’s absence but of course, it did not result in much for the team and only made things on the pitch even more complex.
This setup of a 4-2-3-1 formation just did not suit the best for Barca’s attackers. Sure, Messi is going to find a way to facilitate offense on his own, but the same can not be said for his counterparts; not many can replicate what Messi does on a game-by-game basis. Griezmann, Dembele, Vidal and Fati combined for ZERO total shots and eight touches in the box — not ideal for any attacking supporting cast. Barca’s heavy reliance on long balls — 67 in total, their second highest in any game this season — also did not work to the best of Barca’s tactical game plan as Slavia’s backline found success in clearing away many aerial balls directed into the final third.
Aside from the evident with positioning and movement, the most notable change Valverde could have made was one that pertained to personnel on the pitch. For one, Griezmann would have fit in well as either the main centre-forward or the central attacking midfielder, which is his main role for the French national team. Thus, either switch would have moved over Fati to the left winger role and Griezmann in a more central position. As a centre-forward, Griezmann would be positioned up front with the freedom to drop deep or drift out wide — both of which fit his strengths. As a central attacking midfielder, he would have been able to be more involved in the build-up than Vidal with complementing De Jong and Busquets in the middle third while also being able to move up front when Messi dropped deep to collect the ball.
Playing as a central attacking midfielder may have been the way to go because as shown here, he has the ability to dribble in open space and find team-mates making runs upfield.
In the big picture, this game gives further evidence that Valverde still has not figured out what works best for his squad from a tactical perspective. The pressure will only mount up from here until he is able to implement just the right game plan for Barca.