Ernesto Valverde was appointed as the manager of FC Barcelona after a disappointing third season under Luis Enrique in which La Blaugrana won only the Copa Del Rey and crashed out of the Champions League in the quarter finals, with complaints about Barcelona “losing their identity” occupying front and centre among the reasons why the club let him go. Valverde was appointed without much fanfare and many fans were slightly skeptical of his ability to return the club to glory but with a solid if unspectacular first season behind him in which Barcelona lost only two games all season and claimed both the league and the Copa Del Rey, there is hope that they can go one better this season and perhaps win a treble and reclaim their place as European Champions. This article will seek to explore the tactical evolution that has gone on under the former Athletic Bilbao coach.
TACTICAL THEMES OF LAST SEASON:
His immediate predecessor Luis Enrique, had favoured a transition-heavy style where the midfield were mostly tasked with protecting the defence and leaving the work of creating and scoring to the superstar ‘MSN’ front three of Messi, Neymar and Suarez; this left the team stretched sometimes with players like Iniesta and Sergio Busquets struggling to cover the increased distances asked of them. With the departure of Neymar to Paris Saint Germain, the ‘MSN’ was broken up and Valverde set about re-configuring the team’s style. Barcelona signed French wonder kid Ousmane Dembele to replace the Brazilian but he was blighted by injury and so Valverde had to cope with a lack of true wingers in developing his game model.
In a revolutionary move, Valverde broke with tradition and went away from the Cryuffjist 4 – 3 – 3 shape that Barca have become synonymous with, his go-to system last season was an asymmetrical 4 – 4 – 2 with Messi and Suarez acting as the two forwards and an extra midfielder as a shuttle player, usually Paulinho. The interactions in this system allowed for stable buildups and control of the game in both the offensive and defensive phases. When building against a high press with an opponent pressing with two forwards, Busquets would drop between the centre-backs triggering them to split wide, this would leave the #6 space unoccupied, Rakitic would then drop into the vacated space from his right central midfield position. Barca usually had two free roles with Messi and Paulinho basing their movements off of each other and Suarez occupying the centre-backs, the lack of a left winger meant that Jordi Alba was tasked with attacking the left flank all on his own, while Sergi Roberto was usually the free man especially against more man oriented pressing systems.
The only complaint was the loss of offensive potential and Valverde’s apparent conservatism which though made them solid and stable, eventually cost them their attacking excitement and also in the second leg against Roma.
SO FAR THIS SEASON:
As earlier stated, the feeling among Cules last season was that Valverde is too conservative; however, it could be argued that he was constrained by the players at his disposal; whatever the case, the transfer window gave him the chance to beef up the problem areas. So far, Barcelona have lost club legend and probably the greatest midfielder of this generation, Andres Iniesta, Paulinho has gone back to China and there have been some low profile departures like Aleix Vidal, Yerry Mina and Lucas Digne to Sevilla and Everton respectively. On the arrivals, they’ve brought in two midfielders Arthur Melo and Arturo Vidal, one defender in Clement Lenglet, and one wide forward in the Brazilian Malcolm signed from French club Bordeaux.
As everyone knows, everything revolves around Messi and any system developed by any Barcelona coach must seek to get the best out of Messi (except maybe Tata Martino and we know how that went) Valverde has mostly set up this season in two alternating systems: the 4 -3 – 3 and the 4 – 2 – 3 – 1.
4 – 3 – 3 WITH MESSI AS INVERTED WIDE FORWARD:
Barcelona have played 4 competitive games this season (counting the Spanish Super Cup) and in all 4 of those games, their starting system was a 4 – 3 – 3 with Messi playing as a right wing forward though constantly inverting centrally as usual. Last season, Barca created a strong side – weak side dynamic, with Messi, Dembele or Paulinho, Roberto, and Rakitic developing overloads on the right, with Suarez pinning the centre-backs leaving Jordi Alba to attack the left flank by himself. This overload usually invited the opponent to move his block in that direction before the switch to Alba who was usually free on the far side, the Spaniard would then proceed to play a cut back or a low cross to the arriving players to finish, in this way, Alba made the most assists of any left back in the league last season (8).
Unlike last season, Valverde has been willing to play Dembele as a left winger and his ability to alternate between holding the width to pin the fullback and inverting into the half space to open up space for Alba to overlap into has enabled Barca to have variation in their attacking movements.
Messi of course always inverts centrally from his wide position leaving the touchline for the right back to attack. The wrinkle in the system is that Rakitic who has been preferred so far ahead of Arthur has the job of balancing both Messi’s and Sergi Roberto’s movements. When Messi inverts, and Sergi overlaps him, Rakitic stays back in rest defence to guard against counter-attacks; when Sergi doesn’t attack, then Rakitic attacks the wide area himself. This ensures that all the areas are occupied, Barca aren’t clogged up with too many bodies in a small space and there are enough players to control the counter attacks.
The system ensures that Barcelona have width in attack (something they lacked last season), maintain control in the midfield and are able to break through with Messi and Coutinho’s needle qualities. it also solves the issues that plagued Barca with regards to offensive width last season.
4 – 2 – 3 – 1 WITH MESSI AS #10:
Throughout his reign at Athletic Bilbao, Valverde favoured a 4 – 2 – 3 – 1 formation and there was a lot of speculation after his appointment that he would try to implement the same system at Barcelona. As it turned out, he didn’t, perhaps because he felt he didn’t have the players to implement it due to the aforementioned lack of wingers. This season, however, Barcelona have already signed Malcolm from Bordeaux and Dembele is available from the start of the season so Valverde has been able to bring it up, usually half-way through games.
The 4 – 2 – 3 – 1 can be implemented without a change in personnel, as just a change in player roles is enough. Rakitic drops beside Busquets to form the double pivot and Messi moves central permanently into the #10 space with Dembele taking his place wide right and Coutinho moving into the left wing. Valverde already played with a double pivot of Busi and Rakitic last season and either continuing with that or dropping Rakitic for Arthur would only slightly edit the qualities available on the pitch.
Positional rotation and combination play involving Messi, Coutinho and Alba have been on show so far this season and could prove lethal going forward. Also, with Coutinho’s propensity to occupy the half-space, Barca could do with two needle players that would enable us to overcome the parked buses that we will invariably encounter.
Personally, I think the 4 -2-3-1 is the best system to make use of the players that we have without putting square pegs in round holes and would only need slight tweaks and personnel changes during the season in case of injuries and to counter opponent specific threats.
Last season, Valverde implemented a 4 -4 -2 defensive system with the winger tucking in beside the midfield three to protect the centre and half-spaces. Barcelona rarely pressed their opponents high up the pitch, instead preferring to institute a midfield press. The two forwards: Messi and Suarez didn’t have to do a lot of running and were tasked with directing the opposition’s build-up towards the wide areas where Barca could shift as a unit and congest space. The same shape has persisted into this season even with the presence of true wingers as Dembele is often asked to drop in beside Rakitic and Busquets when Barca are defending thereby creating the two banks of four.
Apart from the standard defensive shape, Valverde has instituted an effective counter-press to help Barca control opposition counter attacks and regain possession as quickly as possible. The team mostly employs a passing lane oriented counter press; the moment the ball is lost, the closest players collapse aggressively towards the ball carrier while covering passing lanes with their cover shadow this allows them to recover the ball via interceptions or bad passes and when that isn’t possible to at least delay the opposition until they can regain their shape.
Also, Valverde ensures that there usually five players and at at least four players in Barca’s rest defence; this is usually defined by the ball far full back and Rakitic. When one fullback is advanced, then the other is slightly more conservative to maintain balance. Rakitic however, bases his movements off of the right fullback and Messi; whenever Leo comes inside and the fullback overlaps him, he stays back to protect the right half-space both as an option to recycle possession and also to act as a safeguard in case the ball is lost
This season will be an interesting one for FC Barcelona, with the new signings coming in and Andres Iniesta leaving, it will be interesting to see how Valverde develops his team further and integrates the new boys into the team. These are exciting times and perhaps he will be able to get the best out of Coutinho and Dembele. His preference for being risk-averse especially when ahead was on show again against Sevilla when he took off Dembele and brought in Vidal before settling into a 4 – 4 – 2 to see of the game and may determine how he approaches games especially in the latter stages of the Champions League.