This post originally featured on our comprehensive world football analysis sister site, totalfootballanalysis.com.
This Sunday, Barcelona returned to ”l’escena del crim” where they suffered the only league defeat in the whole of last season. Levante have definitely become one of the most entertaining teams to watch in La Liga, especially in the most recent years, regardless of their mixed results.
Either there’s something funny in the water of Valencia or it is a direct result of two attacking sides clashing but a Barcelona vs Levante match almost guarantees goals and excitement. Sunday’s game at Estadi Ciutat de València was no exception.
Still, while in their last encounter both teams rattled the net multiple times, now it was all Barca, and, unsurprisingly, all Lionel Messi. But what else is new, huh? This tactical analysis will use statistics to determine just how Barcelona dismantled Levante and made sure they finish the calendar year as the league leaders.
Barcelona (3-4-3/ 3-5-2)
Starting XI: Ter Stegen – Pique, Lenglet, Vermaelen – Rakitic, Busquets, Vidal, Alba – Messi, Suarez, Dembele
Bench: Cillessen, Denis, Coutinho, Arthur, Munir, Aleña, Miranda
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Levante (3-5-2/ 3-4-1-2)
Starting XI: Oier – Cabaco, Postigo, Rober – Jason, Bardhi, Toño – Rochina, Campaña – Boateng, Morales
Bench: Aitor, Mayoral, Chema, Moses, Prcic, Roger, Coke
Coach: Paco Lopez
Ernesto Valverde must have suffered a little stroke when he realized that Nelson Semedo injured himself on the day of the game. The Ant had to think creatively since he was all out of right-backs at his disposal with Sergi Roberto also being sidelined for a while now.
This resulted in a completely new and improvised Barcelona side that functioned in a different 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 systems with three centre-backs forming the back line. Thomas Vermaelen was given a nod, and Jordi Alba and Ousmane Dembele were used as false full-backs or wing-backs.
The midfield and the forwards were not tampered with as Valverde opted for the standard personnel. The team did, however, adapt through the game which resulted in different setups interchanging.
This is where the fun truly began. Paco Lopez is the man who turned Levante around, literally. The former third division coach took over the reins of Juan Ramon Muniz in early March this year, only to completely redesign the squad, for the better.
His non-stop attacking philosophy is something the team practices no matter who they face, and it’s something that was visible in their 5-4 bashing of Barcelona last season but was also a bit subdued in Sunday’s game where they were on the receiving end of a “manita” (term used when someone scores/concedes five goals).
Still, his choice of a 3-5-2 formation with five attacking minded midfielders and two forwards was extremely brave since they were facing the team that scores the most goals in La Liga.
Lopez made two changes from the last La Liga game his team played: Boateng returned to the squad in attack, and Postigo was a part of the back three for the hosts. The rest remained the same.
A shaky start
The moment the official setups were available to the public, all eyes were set on Barcelona and how they will line up when the game actually does get underway. It turned out to be a quite interesting 3-4-3 formation but also one that was highly susceptible to change.
In attack, the Catalans would indeed leave three men in the back with Pique, Lenglet, and Vermaelen while Dembele and Alba pushed a bit forward to make it a five in the middle. This would change the setup only slightly for it to resemble a 3-5-2 at most times.
It seemed that this new formation from Ernesto Valverde really was a surprise, so much so that it surprised the players themselves. The start was shaky, to say the least, and Barcelona were struggling to adapt to it and fend off the ever-attacking Levante side.
Compact in defence, and creative in offence would probably best describe this Paco Lopez’s side. Sure, in the end, they crumbled under the pressure of Messi and co. but for the first 20 minutes or so, Levante might even have been the more dangerous side.
Barcelona would traditionally press the opposition in hopes of regaining the ball as far high up the pitch as possible but Levante used the “triangle principle” to the fullest in order to bypass the press.
Notice how, by forming triangles, Levante always have an option to pass to. Although this is nowadays basic stuff, it still holds true to this day. The hosts would opt for this solution to break Barcelona’s midfield and advance up the pitch.
They created lots of opportunities, including Boateng rattling the post in the 33rd minute of the game. Unfortunately for them, as time passed by, Barcelona were slowly but surely regaining all control until the match was theirs to command.
In defence, Levante would interchange between two most prominent tactics: Press higher when Barcelona are building all the way from the goalkeeper or stay behind the ball when Barca make a high defensive line, like in the image below.
A somewhat changeable 5-3-2 system was deployed to soak up the pressure and congest the field as much as possible, covering the flanks well, and also keeping an eye on Lionel Messi, who was practically man-marked by multiple markers throughout the game.
For all their efforts, Messi could still not be stopped as the Argentine dismantled the opposition almost by himself. In other news, water is wet.
When it rains, it pours
It was not really until they have conceded the first goal, that things started to truly go down for Levante. All it took was a bit of Messi magic to unleash the flood that was eventually too much for the hosts.
Still, although the vast majority of the goal credit has to be given to the Argentine wizard, it was still largely a team effort when it comes down to it.
It’s important to note two players in particular in Barcelona’s setup without the ball. Busquets has been prone to advancing really high up the pitch as of late, which has had some negative effects but this time, with Rakitić following him closely, it was impressively played out.
Busquets presses Bardhi, who loses control of the ball only for Rakitić to snatch it away and get it to Messi. It should also be noted how Bardhi had practically no passing options and by crowding him in, Barcelona prevented him from successfully turning.
It resulted in yet another ball recovery in Levante’s half, which is exactly as planned for the Catalans. They made 51 recoveries throughout the game, nine of which were positioned high up the pitch.
Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets did extremely well in this case and mustered a total of 20 recoveries between themselves. 15 % of all recoveries were, in fact, made in the final third, which resulted in immediate danger for Levante.
On the other hand, 31% of Levante’s loses were also made in their own backyard which also amount to 15 loses in total: three ground duels, two passing errors, and 10 others which were a combination of different mistakes. It’s interesting to note that three of those resulted in a clear shot at goal for Barcelona.
Points for creativity
By the time Valverde really started to get creative, the game was mostly done and dusted. In the 52nd minute, he decided to sub off Vermaelen and put in Arthur Melo, which was a weird sub considering he’s pulling out a defender and putting in a midfielder.
Later it was established that the Belgian suffered an injury which will keep him sidelined for about a month. Melo would certainly take up a spot in the middle of the park but who would then slot into that free position in the back line? Who else than Ivan Rakitić, Valverde’s talisman.
The Croat, although not blessed with pace, has all the attributes to play as a centre-back, similarly to Busquets, who was also known to do the job fairly successfully if needs be. Rakitić is solid defensively: able to tackle, intercept and clear the ball when necessary.
All of that while still distributing the ball and building-up the attack from the back. This is something we have often seen Cruyff do when he was managing Blaugrana. Back then, players would often play out of position, and Koeman, who was a midfielder, was turned into a centre-back when needed.
Similarly to that, Rakitić was also delegated to one on Sunday. The Croat did well, and Barcelona managed to get the best out of his defensive skill set, as well as giving him enough room to have the whole field in front of him to distribute pinpoint long passes.
Still, Ivan was not really the focus of this “creative setup”. It was the young Frenchman, Ousmane Dembele. Dembouz is extremely efficient going forward and on his day, he can beat almost all and any defender, which he so often does.
It’s his defensive game that needs improving so Valverde’s choice to make him a right wing-back, as seen in the image above, was a fairly risky one.
Dembele ended up doing just fine tracking back, and covering the right side but was left without any fuel in his tank come second half so he had to be subbed off. That and the fact that he was on a yellow card due to a mistimed sliding tackle, which is not really a surprise considering that he’s not a defender.
Speaking of defenders, Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet were bossing the back line, especially the former. Geri is back at his masterful best as of late, and the numbers really do show that.
Five clearances, two blocked shots, 7/8 duels won, three interceptions, 11 recoveries, and not to be forgotten: one goal, his third so far this season.
The Messi effect
It feels like we are a broken record with this Messi praise but the man keeps pushing his already ridiculously high standards week in, week out. The Argentine scored a hat-trick on the night and provided two assists to his name to take the match ball back home.
This means that he had a 100% goal participation on top of providing seven key passes, creating four big chances and rattling the net in three out of four shots on target. It doesn’t really get much better than that.
Most forwards dream about such performances but for Messi, it’s just another day in the office as the Argentine is the first player in Europe to reach double digits in goals (14) and assists (10), and is the leader in both categories in Europe’s top five leagues.
But the record-breaking does not end there just yet. Messi has now overtaken the legendary Xavi Hernandez in most wins in La Liga with 323 for Barcelona in the competition.
Oh, and this was his 50th goal in the calendar year, meaning that he now has 50+ in the last nine years and it was his 49th career hat-trick. Not too shabby for the fifth best player in the world.
What started off as a fairly evened match turned out to be a slaughter. The hosts had a decent amount of control in the early stages of the game but fell apart after the first goal arrived. It’s difficult to claim that Levante is still a really entertaining team that can only go up in the future after games like that one but it’s definitely true.
Their new coach is adamant in maintaining their philosophy, which is commendable, and they play some beautiful, attacking football. But not many teams can handle Barcelona when the Catalans are at their best. And on Sunday, they were at least close to it. There’s one more La Liga game before we start the winter break and then slowly open the transfer window. Barcelona are now guaranteed to finish first at the end of the calendar year but the title race has merely begun, and we can’t wait for it to unfold.
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