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Barcelona rounded up the calendar year with a vintage Ernesto Valverde game to secure all three points at the Camp Nou: conservative, safe, and relying on familiar themes throughout the whole game. Celta proved to be a smaller obstacle than what was maybe expected but the signs of improvement are still there.
The Catalans, however, leave 2018 behind them as league leaders, which was the plan all along. On top of that, they also continue their excellent run of form with four wins and adding the same number of clean sheets and 13 goals in the process.
This tactical analysis will use statistics and insight to determine how a rather safe approach worked wonders for Valverde once again as he gave the fans a sweet and sour kind of gift right before Christmas.
Starting XI: Ter Stegen – Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba – Rakitic, Busquets, Vidal – Messi, Suarez, Dembélé
Bench: Cillessen, Denis, Coutinho, Arthur, Miranda, Aleña, Chumi
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Celta Vigo (4-4-2)
Starting XI: Ruben Blanco, David Costas, Araujo, Hugo Mallo, Mazan, Okay, Mendez, Jozabed, Boufal, M. Gomez, Iago Aspas
Bench: Sergio A., Beltran, Sisto, Lobotka, Hjulsager, Vazquez, G. Cabral
Coach: Miguel Cantoso
Ernesto Valverde decided to once again take no risks as he deployed what is presumably his strongest 11 in a traditional 4-3-3 formation. Nelson Semedo returned from injury and made that possible in the first place.
The rest of the personnel was as expected with the usual suspects lining up in all three thirds of the pitch. The question of the third forward is also seemingly completely answered now with Ousmane Dembele benching Barcelona’s biggest transfer in the history of the club, Philippe Coutinho.
On paper, the Catalans’ system sometimes looked like a 4-4-2 with the young Frenchman slotting back to the position of a left midfielder. When attacking, however, the players in Blaugrana very much formed their standard formation.
Celta Vigo’s setup
Miguel Cardoso is still getting used to life in Vigo, and the players are still trying to completely adopt his way of managing the squad. The XI he deployed in the Catalan capital were pretty much what was expected bar a couple of ‘new’ names.
Their left-back, Robert Mazan, the Slovakian 24-year old, made his season debut with the team, and Cardoso opted for Ruben Blanco between the sticks. Now while the young Spaniard had started a game before as well, he is still not the number one goalie for the Vigo boys.
In the four games the new coach has been in charge, he’s opted for Blanco three times and deployed Sergio Alvarez once, in the defeat against Real Sociedad at the Anoeta stadium. Still, it seems that the starting position for the men between the sticks is not yet set in stone but more of a work in progress.
The away team operated in an offensive 4-4-2 system that went through a couple of changes as the personnel did the same thing.
The missing spark
At the moment, there’s no telling which Barcelona side the fans are going to get. Is it going to be a riskier type of goal-fest and vintage Barcelona thrashing their opponent, or the more conservative Catalan side which gets the job done but doesn’t really speed up the pulse of the crowd? For the fans, there’s only one real answer but on Saturday, we got the latter, again.
The fact that they were up against a pretty much unfinished product in a Celta that are heading in a new direction with a new coach made things far easier for the hosts. The guests are slowly but surely adopting the new tactics under Cardoso and the team now focus on a high press with an emphasis on maintaining a fairly decent amount of possession.
Although the team did not really accomplish what they set out to do, there were some good points to talk about after the match.
They were happy to sit back and soak up the pressure. The plan was clearly to stay safe and not rush head first into the fire. While Barcelona set up their traditional high defensive line and made camp in the opposition’s half, Celta deployed a defensive 4-4-2 block with two forwards putting pressure on Barca’s center-backs.
There are a couple of things that have to be noted here. Firstly, the defensive setup of the away team, as we have already stated: a rather narrow 4-4-2 block with everyone behind the ball almost all the time bar the two forwards who venture higher up the pitch. Secondly, Cardoso deploying a double pivot comprising of Okay Yokuslu and Jozabed Sánchez, opting to leave Stanislav Lobotka and Fran Beltrán on the bench. Finally, Barcelona’s approach held a similar thing in mind.
The Catalans also had a double pivot but a more fluid one, if you will. Sergio Busquets falls all the way in between the center-backs when both Jordi Alba and the returning Nelson Semedo move as high as the middle of the park, alongside Arturo Vidal and Ousmane Dembele. Ivan Rakitić would then slot behind the Frenchman and just in front of the back line for stability and some defensive backup for the forwards.
Barcelona were also happy to play things slow, even to count on fast transitions and deadly counters with the mighty trio up front. Something similar to what Luis Enrique did in the era of the trident. Valverde had the reins of the game but was not eager to pull the trigger. Instead, he relied on some old tricks up his sleeve.
If it ain’t broke…
We wouldn’t necessarily say that the Barcelona under the Ant is a one-trick pony but many would agree that the statement is not a far-fetched one. The offensive spectre of the Catalans’ play revolves around their two main engines: Lionel Messi and Jordi Alba. The former is a constant in this story for the last decade or so but the importance of Alba is a relatively new thing.
However, as a tandem, the opposition knows them oh so well already. Or at least, they got to know them starting with last season and moving forward. As a result, not only has Alba assisted each of Messi’s last three goals against Celta but that was also his seventh of the season already in all competitions.
In theory, this should have been prevented by the guests on paper already, and more focus should have been put on it. Notice how with both goals that Barcelona scored, the setup was mostly the same and the fault lies in the same players.
With Alba advancing really high up the pitch, the task of marking him falls on the shoulders of the midfielders, namely the one positioned on the right: Brais Mendez. The young Spaniard was too often distracted and left his compatriot free to enter the final third. If and inevitably when, that happened, Alba would suddenly become the right-back’s burden.
One on one and with a sprinting head start, Mallo had no chance against Jordi, who won that duel time and time again.
In both instances, the midfield completely disregards Alba and an accurate lobbed pass, first from Messi then from Busquets, puts the left-back in a dangerous zone with a lot of free space in front of him.
We have to note the importance of Dembele and Suarez in the second example as well. Celta’s defensive line has a couple of things to worry about, not just Alba. Both Blaugrana forwards are ready to make the runs in behind the defense, which means that Hugo doesn’t get any support and has to either win the duel with Alba alone or mark the aforementioned duo in the box, hoping that Jordi’s pass would not reach them.
This was, however, not the only fault in their defending. Barcelona’s midfield was not really pressed well enough, which in turn, gave them enough time to execute those deadly passes. Also, a fairly unsynchronised back line would often leave enough space for potential runners to exploit.
Their failure to hold the line and stay with Messi is really a beginner’s mistake and one that they paid for dearly with the second goal.
Here, the lonely right-back finds himself in a disadvantageous situation once again with both Alba and Dembele free to run towards him with pace. The midfield doesn’t react on time and the center-backs are preoccupied with Messi, and mostly, Suarez, who drags the opposition with himself wherever he goes.
Also, note how narrow this Celta defensive block turned out to be. Overcrowding the midfield works well against Barcelona when you can put adequate numbers to cover the wings as well. Namely, marking Alba and shutting him down should be priority number one.
Celta managed to stop the flow through the middle lane but were left exposed through the flanks. Usually, you do this to force Barcelona into crosses, where they don’t really excel, but Alba was free to send low and accurate passes into the box/final third, and that was a crucial mistake.
Celta come to life but it’s too little, too late
The guests finally started to fight back in the second half. Barcelona had a decent enough lead for Valverde to slow the tempo down even more and slowly start packing up for Christmas. Cardoso had something entirely different in mind.
Finally, Lobotka and Beltran were introduced and Celta came back to life. Their setup changed a bit and now resembled a 4-4-1-1 with Beltran just behind Gomez, and Lobotka taking up Yokuslu’s role and improving on it greatly.
As a result, either by not being able to immediately contest this, or by design, Valverde yielded possession to the guests, and Cardoso could finally play his own game. Lobotka’s presence was immediately recognized and Celta’s possession was that much more stable and press resistant.
The Slovak made six passes into the final third, all accurate and all dangerous.
Barcelona responded with Arthur and Coutinho but not to a big enough degree. The attacking threat was somewhat downgraded with the latter Brazilian not replicating Dembele’s offensive presence, on and off the ball, but still made things slightly better in controlling the game.
Barcelona regained some possession back but did not look nearly as dangerous as before which meant that they were ready to see the game out with the result that was in the bag.
The final Hail Mary for Cardoso and his squad was Pione Sisto instead of Boufal, who, on his day, almost always changes the tide. Celta’s dribbling machine failed to put on a usual show but his sub made a good impact in those final stretches of the game.
The Danish playmaker would often combine well on the edge of the box, making use of his teammates’ runs extremely well. He made two shot assists and was involved in mostly all attacking actions in the 15 odd minutes he stayed on the pitch.
His ability to make a quick progressive run and link up with a number of close range, one-touch passes made Celta much more dangerous but still without a proper finishing product. The end result was the lack of a change in the scoreboard as the guests retreated back to Vigo without any points to their name.
The Camp Nou was not exactly a thunderous arena in the last game of the calendar year as Barcelona played it safe and close to the chest to secure the full spoils in a, on paper, pretty difficult game.
In reality, Celta did not wake up on time nor did they show enough initiative to put the Catalans in any real danger throughout the whole game. As a result, a pragmatic and mostly conservative approach made for easy pickings for Barcelona and nowadays, they happily take it.
As far as the away team goes, some improvement can already be noticed but the lack of cohesion is still glaring. They did, however, manage to set up their own style of play in the latter stages of the game when some key pieces were introduced.
Cardoso has a lot of homework to do but this is still a step in the right direction. As for Valverde, it’s proceedings us usual if things go his way, and a more balanced team is what he strives for.
Whether that’s what everyone else wants is yet to be concluded.
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