Barcelona welcomed Inter Milan at the Camp Nou for the game that settled the group leaders (for now), but also for a game that, in many ways, paved the road for the future. It was also a big night for Ernesto Valverde who is starting to feel the fire under his feet, only this time, there was no Lionel Messi to save him or his team. In the end, Barcelona did not need saving. Funnily enough, the Catalan giant played their second best game of the season, only falling short to the masterpiece at Wembley stadium, and they have done it all without the greatest player on planet Earth. This tactical analysis will reveal how Blaugrana toppled the Nerazzurri, along with some statistics that will emphasize their dominance.
Barça (4-3-3): Ter Stegen – Sergi, Pique, Lenglet, Alba – Rakitić, Busquets, Arthur – Rafinha, Suarez, Coutinho
Bench: Cillessen, Semedo, Dembele, Malcom, Munir, Vidal, Chumi
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Inter (4-2-3-1): Handanović – D’Ambrosio, Skriniar, Miranda, Asamoah – Vecino, Brozović – Candreva, Valero, Perišić – Icardi
Bench: Padelli, Vrsaljko, De Vrij, Martínez, Keita Balde, Ranocchia, Politano
Coach: Luciano Spalletti
The whole world was trying to analyze Ernesto Valverde’s next move after that horrible Messi injury, and not many people got it right. The Ant has managed to, once again, fool everyone, and pull out an ace out of his sleeve. Replacing Leo is borderline impossible but the man who was tasked to fill his shoes was not Ousmane Dembele, nor Malcom, but Rafinha Alcantara. Ironically enough, Rafinha has spent half of the last season at Inter but the Italians refused to buy him, thus breaching the gentlemen’s agreement they had with Barcelona. Safe to say it blew up in their face. Apart from Rafinha starting on that right side of the pitch, another change was Roberto for Semedo, which was a genuine surprise given the form that the Portuguese RB is currently in. Nonetheless, it was all a part of a collaborate plan of Valverde’s. The Catalans opted for their traditional 4-3-3 formation. On the other hand, Spalletti had also decided to shuffle the pack a bit but not too much. He remained loyal to his 4-2-3-1 system but also made two changes to his gala XI: João Miranda for Stefan de Vrij at center-back, and Danilo D’Ambrosio for the newcomer Šime Vrsaljko on the right-back position. The rest was standard Inter but it proved insufficient.
At the moment, it seems that this season, there really is a bigger emphasis on the Champions League. Going three years without the biggest club trophy to their name, Barcelona are starting to get a bit desperate. Nonetheless, the club that we are watching week in, week out in La Liga is nowhere near the one we get during big Champions League nights. The former one is far more impressive, both in terms of the results and the sheer quality of play. With the absence of Lionel Messi, the rest of the team needed to step up in order to fill that giant hole in the squad. And step up they did. Valverde decided to deploy Rafinha as the right wing in his standard 4-3-3 formation but just like Messi, the Brazilian had the freedom to move around the pitch almost freely. As a result, Rafinha would cut inside to the left, position himself behind the striker in that number 10 role, leaving the right flank completely empty. That space was then occupied by Sergi Roberto. A similar thing happened on the other side of the pitch where Philippe Coutinho played as a left winger. This was also only on paper, since Coutinho mostly operated in the left half-space, also leaving his side open for Jordi Alba to overlap.
The obvious positive of this is stretching the pitch and providing the team with additional width. But this also meant that Barcelona would outnumber the opposition in midfield since Coutinho and Rafinha would essentially join Rakitić, Arthur and Busquets around the centre of the pitch and this three on paper would suddenly become five in reality. It also enabled them to stay relatively close to Luis Suarez in order to constantly supply him with good through passes. Although there are not really many positives when it comes to Messi sitting in the stands instead of dancing around the pitch, Barcelona did manage to get something out of it. Valverde’s choice of Rafinha may have surprised most (if not all of us) but it was not really as random of a pick as it might have seemed at the time. While picking Dembele or Malcom makes more sense in an attacking way, seeing how they are both natural (and expensive) wingers, Valverde opted for Rafinha because he knew that the Brazilian would backtrack a lot more than the beforementioned duo. Dembele is incredibly talented but his lazy approach has been noted as of late. The Frenchman gives a lot going forward but also loses a lot of balls, and when he does, he rarely tries to get it back, often resulting in a dangerous counter-attack. We can’t really say much for Malcom since he only played for 25 minutes throughout two games this season but that stat alone suggested that the chances of him starting over anyone else were slim (or even nonexistent?), to begin with.
Rafinha ended up being the perfect choice, indeed. With him on the pitch, Barcelona defended with 10 men again, as opposed to mostly nine when having Messi since the Argentine would usually be tasked to stay in the opposition’s half, what to wait for a break and what to conserve energy. We all know Messi likes to drop deep but that is mostly to orchestrate play and not so much for defensive duties. With Rakitić finally having an extra man on the right to defend with, that side of the pitch did not seem like a liability anymore. Roberto would go forward, and in case of a counter, Rafinha would sprint back, covering the free space left by his teammate and thus making the defence more solid and compact. His goal, assisted by Luis Suarez, was just a stamp on his, already established, importance in the game.
Inter (mostly) did their homework and analysed Barcelona’s approach, taking a leaf from Sevilla’s book. The Andalusians would press Marc-Andre ter Stegen immensely, making the German shoot the ball high up the pitch instead of building from the back, which disrupted Barcelona’s flow overall. This was effective for Sevilla but yielded little result for the Italians. When Barcelona were already building an attack, Inter would deploy a structured defensive block and whenever the ball was with Barca’s goalie, the team would suddenly burst forward in an attempt to force a goal kick. The only players to somewhat remain in the opposition’s half were Valero and Icardi because Spalletti was counting on quick counters since he didn’t expect to have much possession. In that aspect, he was completely right. Inter barely touched the ball for 90 minutes, resulting in the final 67% – 33% in favour of the home team, which would go as high as 74% at the end of the first half. What Luciano did not count on was the fluidity of Barcelona’s passing. The Catalans managed to get through Inter’s defensive block and would mostly lose the ball in the final third, making any effective counter-attacks that much less impactful. 33% of all the loses happened in Inter’s backyard, 41% around the centre and 26% on Barcelona’s side of the pitch.
This high press was also noticeable on the other side of the pitch. Inter’s trademark attacks revolve around crosses into the box (33 crosses per game, 40% of their presence in the box comes after a cross) and mostly building up from the back. Barcelona managed to neutralize both of those tactics, leaving the visitors with little other options to choose from. The overcrowdedness in the middle resulted in Inter searching for the solutions on the wings. Their main threat, Mauro Icardi, was completely cut off the rest of the team, and the pace of Perišić and Candreva were negated by Barcelona’s tendency to keep the away team pinned down in their box, far from their man between the sticks. This also shows that Valverde was also well prepared. The choice of Rafinha paid off massively in this instance. With Inter’s left side being their more proactive overall, and in this specific game, an extra man to defend and show serious work rate made all the difference. Still, for the short periods when Inter did maintain possession and managed to get the combination going, a ball in the box would find Icardi every once in a while. The deadly Argentine didn’t convert any but was still able to get a shot off, at the very least.
This total domination was only made possible by the outstanding midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Arthur Melo, and Ivan Rakitić. All three played to an extremely high standard and were able to resist the opposition’s press and to orchestrate play. All of them sat comfortably on over 90% passing accuracy with over 70% completed actions and 16 loses divided among them. When out of possession, two of them, mostly Busquets and Arthur would try to prevent the ball from even crossing the centre line by pressing Inter’s CDM pair. The third one, Rakitić in this instance, would remain positioned deeper, helping his CBs to shut down the channel towards the forwards. Rafinha would also often support him in that.
At the end of the first 45 minutes, Barcelona was only one up but already at that point in time, there was little threat to fear from the visitors. In the freedom of movement and sheer distribution, Inter was nowhere near the Catalans. Barcelona ended the half with 74% possession and 416 passes, which was already more than in the whole Sevilla game. Spalletti knew that he could no longer sit back so they started the second half as fiercely as they could. The introduction of some fresh legs and higher pressing intensity provided for some effective time on the ball with an average of 52% possession in the time span of the first 15 minutes of the second half. The downside was that their low defensive block was shattered, which allowed more passes to circulate between the lines. Seeing how that made them even more at risk, Inter decided to turtle up once again around the 55-minute mark. Between the half-space zones and the zone in the middle, Barcelona made 96 completed passes (out of 109), 12 completed inside the box (out of 23) with one assist taking place in each of those two zones. The second goal to seal the deal happened in the 83rd minute when Rakitić found Alba beautifully, only for the Spaniard to put a cherry on top of it by fantastic movement and, finally, a lovely finish. Unsurprisingly, Barcelona ended the game on 1.92 expected goals while Inter was stuck at 0.84.
Barcelona’s first Messi-less game was passed with flying colours. The Catalan side produced a marvel to watch in their fortress and are now sitting top of the group with nine points (Inter on six, PSV and Spurs on 1 each). Although the thought of Messi missing three weeks of football is a dark one, Barcelona actually rarely loses when Leo is away. Before this game, they had a record of 49 wins (80%), six draws, and six defeats. Now they jumped to “solid” 50 total games won without the Argentine wizard.
A lot of that has to do with the sheer quality of the rest of the team that was, for the most part, not effective enough considering their potential. The other side of the coin is the tactical approach, which proved to be key in overcoming the opposition. A bold choice of the troops along with the great individual prowess they all possess resulted in their second best game of the season. There is also the mental state of the players when the promised Champions League title is on the line. They all seem more motivated, more ready and willing to give their best when the team plays in Europe. The domestic league is a story for another time.
Still, this was only the first game Blaugrana had to overcome without their medicine man, and there are five more to go.
Football without Messi is the inevitable future, for the club and the fans. Having a well-functioning and well-structured team ready for that dreadful time would definitely ease the pain, although it will never fully erase it.