FC Barcelona travelled to the Mestalla to face Valencia in matchweek eight of this La Liga season. Both teams were returning from midweek exertions in the Champions League in England, but while Valencia were only able to achieve a goalless draw away to Manchester United at Old Trafford, Barcelona claimed a 4-2 victory against Tottenham at Wembley.
Valencia have had a spotted campaign so far this season and find themselves in the bottom half of the table while Barcelona have also endured a mixed start to the La Liga season. Valencia coach Marcelino has forged his team into a strong counter attacking machine from their base 4 – 4 – 2 shape while Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde is trying to reinvent his team from the 4 – 4 – 2 that he employed last season. The contrast in styles made for an interesting tactical spectacle.
Valencia (4 – 4 – 2): Neto // Piccini – Garay – Gabriel Paulista – Gaya // Geoffrey Kondogbia – Dani Parejo – Carlos Soler – Goncalo Guedes // Kevin Gameiro – Michy Batshuayi
Barcelona (4 – 3 – 3): Ter Stergen // Semedo – Pique – Thomas Vermaelen – Jordi Alba // Busqests – Arthur Melo – Ivan Rakitic // Coutinho – Luis Suarez – Lionel Messi
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
The major team news for Valencia was that Spanish striker Rodrigo would start the game on the bench with Frenchman Kevin Gameiro preferred to him up front. This was probably to make use of the Frenchman’s searing pace, in order to exploit Barcelona’s slow central defenders. It was also used as a foil to Michy Batshuayi since the Belgian has a strong physical presence and can be used for hold up play before releasing the ball for a possible up – back – through combination.
As it happened, Valencia scored after just two minutes with their first corner of the game. A comedy of errors in the Barcelona defence including Vermaelen, Suarez and Pique allowed Ezekiel Garay to tap in from two yards out at the back post.
After the goal, the game settled into a straight forward pattern of attack versus defence, as Barcelona piled on the pressure to try and recover the game.
Valencia set up in their usual 4 – 4 – 2 formation and were very compact centrally, forcing Barcelona to try and attack out wide. However La Blaugrana didn’t enjoy a lot of success in the wide areas as Valencia were able to shift intensely and arrive in a compact manner to defend the wide area using the ball sided central midfielder, the wide midfielder and the full back.
The early goal gave Valencia incentive to drop back and invite Barcelona forward as they now had a lead to protect. They sought to draw the Blaugrana higher before winning the ball and counter attacking through the pace of Kevin Gameiro and the dribbling ability of Goncalo Guedes. Unfortunately for Los Che, the Portuguese picked up an early injury after a challenge by Coutinho and was replaced by Denis Cherysev, who doesn’t quite pose the same kind of threat. From then on, they rarely troubled Barcelona.
In trying to break down such a compact block, Barcelona employed a strong asymmetry that they also demonstrated against Tottenham in the Champions League.
Coutinho frequently played in the half-space, thereby opening up the space for Jordi Alba to attack. Messi, like he did in midweek, spent very little time on the right despite starting the game as a nominal right wing forward – the diminutive Argentine constantly played between the lines looking to exploit the space between the Valencia midfielders and their defence.
However, Valencia were so compact in their 4 – 4 – 2 shape that Messi was rarely able to receive between the lines as Valencia were able to block passes into him using their cover shadow.
Due to Valencia’s reticence to press high and the press resistance of both Busquets and Arthur, Barcelona had very little problems retaining possession so Messi didn’t need to drop to aid in this.
However, Messi did drop for two reasons:
1) To invite the Valencia block towards him before releasing his signature passes into the overlapping full back, usually Jordi Alba.
2) To dribble forward, invite the pressure then combine past it using Suarez for wall passes into the created space. Suarez was again used on defence binding duty like he was used in the game against Tottenham. But unlike the Tottenham game, there was a lot more rotation between Arthur and Busquets as the Spanish midfielder was given license to move higher and combine with Messi in the tight spaces using his excellent ability to play one touch football.
This might have been a risky move considering that Busquets is Barcelona’s anchor and because of Valencia’s counter attacking propensities, but Arthur’s assuredness on the ball and Barcelona’s strong counter press allowed Barcelona to control the game and constantly play in Valencia’s half of the pitch.
Whenever a team prioritises strong central and horizontal compactness, there will always be space in the wide areas no matter how well they arrive to defend that space. Due to the inverted behaviour of Barcelona’s wide forwards, Messi and Coutinho, there were small windows when the full backs could be released to attack the flank, usually after patient circulation to draw the Valencia block towards the ball.
However, the differing qualities of the full backs meant that Barcelona attacked the right and left areas differently. Jordi Alba is well known for his cut backs while Semedo is a better dribbler and was usually able to overcome Gaya in 1 vs 1 situations before crossing into the box. However, Barcelona’s lack of height meant that the majority of the crosses from the full backs were cut backs and Valencia were well prepared for this and defended admirably, meaning that Barcelona were unable to create chances from these situations which are usually so profitable for them.
This was an interesting tactical battle between two good coaches, though Barcelona will feel slightly disappointed that they were unable to break their poor run of results in La Liga despite dominating for the majority of the game. Valencia, on the other hand, will feel that they were good value for their point as they defended admirably despite everything that Barcelona threw at them.
The result means that Barcelona slip off the top of the La Liga table just before the international break, and Valverde has to find a winning formula when club football returns next week if Barcelona are to retain their status as League Champions come the end of May.