FC Barcelona welcomed Girona to the Camp Nou in what was the third ever meeting of the two Catalan clubs. Girona had had a change of manager in the summer with Eusebio Sacristan taking charge after Pablo Machin had departed to become the coach of Sevilla FC. This would be the third time Valverde would face Eusebio as Barcelona manager after he broke the curse of Anoeta against him last season, the game made for an interesting tactical spectacle.
Barcelona (4 – 3 – 3): Ter Stergen // Nelson Semedo – Gerard Pique – Umtiti – Jordi Alba // Sergio Busquets – Arturo Vidal – Arthur Melo // Messi – Dembele – Suarez
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Girona (5 – 3 – 2): Bounou // Espinosa – Alcalá – Juanpe – Muniesa – Aday// Álex Granell – Pere Pons – Aleix García // Portu – Stuani
Coach: Eusebio Sacristán
Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde stuck to the 4 – 3 – 3 shape that he had adopted so far this season, but opted to make some changes to the side that won at home against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League in midweek, to this end, new signings Arthur Melo and Arturo Vidal were handed their first league starts of the season either side of Sergio Busquets, while Nelson Semedo and Clement Lenglet came in for Sergi Roberto and Samuel Umtiti and right back and centre back respectively. The attack meanwhile remained unchanged with Ousmane Dembele and Lionel Messi flanking Suarez to is left and right.
For his part, Girona coach Eusebio Sacristán set up his team in a 5 – 3 – 2 formation which became a 3 – 5 – 2 in attack, Espinosa, Alcala and Juanpe were the three centre-backs while former Barcelona player Marc Muniesa and Aday were deployed as the wing backs in the system. Granell, Pere Pons and Aleix Garcia made up the midfield three while Portu and Uruguay striker Christian Stuani partnered in attack.
Early in the game, Barcelona set up in their classic 4 – 3 – 3 formation with and Dembele as the wide forwards though Messi characteristically played in a more inverted manner to allow Semedo to overlap on the right flank. Girona sought to negate the attacking threat of La Blaugrana by deploying a defensive 5 – 3 – 2 in a mid-block, Sacristan’s men sought to deny Barcelona space to build up and attack through the middle of the pitch and would instead show them out wide and try to constrict the space using the touchline to either try and recover the ball or when that wasn’t possible, they were content to force Barcelona back away from their goal. In playing against such a compact block, Barcelona also funnelled their attacking efforts towards the wide areas, but instead of using the touchline, they instead sought to overload the half-spaces and mostly played this way on the right and side with Messi, Vidal, and Semedo attacking that side, in such moments, even Suarez came over to pin the centre back on that side and prevent him stepping out to Messi between the lines. This was very evident in the build-up to Messi’s opening goal.
Despite conceding early in the game, Girona were very disciplined and managed to deny Barca valuable time and space, they didn’t attempt to challenge Barca’s early build up instead allowing the centre-backs to have time and space and instead seeking to shut down their short passing options, using the triangle of Busquets and the centre backs in a 2-1 shape, Barca were able to manipulate this and release one of the centre-backs to dribble forward and provoke a midfielder tom press thereby leaving one of the central midfielders free to receive. La Blaugrana had few problems with their build-up due to the quality of their players and their press resistant abilities and Girona were only able to recover the ball in their own defensive third due to the sheer number of players they had in these zones.
Girona rarely built up from the back as they didn’t have a lot of the ball, instead they sought to attack in fast transitions utilizing the pace of Portu to get at the Barca back line. Throughout the first half, Barca’s counter-pressure and rest defense including Busquets, the two centre Back’s and one fullback was generally able to snuff this out except for the one chance when Portu was played through on goal and Pique had to clear off the line. So Barca were comfortable – until the red card.
POST-RED CARD AND SECOND HALF:
After Clement Lenglet was red carded for what seemed at first glance to be a foul on him, Girona were encouraged about their prospects in the match, Valverde decided not to make any changes and instead dropped Sergio Busquets into the back line. Being one man down and losing the calming presence of Busquets in the midfield, Barca temporarily lost the ability to control Girona effectively allowing the visitors to build controlled attacks. In this phase, Girona sought to use the natural width afforded by their wing backs and Barcelona’s emphasis on being horizontally compact to attack the hosts with crosses for the strike duo up front. They would first slowly circulate the ball on one side to invite the Barcelona block in that direction before switching the ball via a long pass to the wing back who is holding the width on the other side, the wing back would then cross into the box for Stuani and Portu to attack. This is how their first-half equaliser came about.
In the second half, Valverde bought on Samuel Umtiti for Dembele and moved Busquets back into the #6 position, Girona did take the lead through the pace of Portu against Pique but Barca rallied. Coutinho came on for Artur and Barca’s shape in attack became a cross between a 4 -3 – 2 and 4 – 2 – 3 depending on how high Coutinho was playing. Despite being a man down, Barca were very aggressive in their play and sent their full backs forward at every oppurtunity, Messi almost never went to the touch line anymore allowing Semedo to own that flank, Coutinho brought an extra dimension as his positioning beside the Girona midfield block allowed Busqests and Pique to find him with diagonal passes on several occasions. From here, the Brazilian would either dribble inside if Jordi Alba had overlapped him and attempt a shot or look to combine with Messi in tight spaces.
This was Barcelona’s best performance of the season so far despite the result. Tactically, they were able to find solutions against a difficult and disciplined opponent despite playing with one man less for close to an hour. The team spirit and fight were also commendable and this is a result that we can build on for the future. If we keep playing like this and improve on it, we’ll go far this season.