Barcelona 3-0 Valencia – a Messi masterclass, but credit to Guardiola and Henry

March 14, 2010

First half

A fascinating game in terms of tactics here, because Barcelona were awful in the first half. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended and Thierry Henry on the bench, the Messi-Bojan-Pedro trio looked too lightweight and one-dimensional to cause Valencia’s backline significant problems. It took a dramatic half-time change from Guardiola to turn things around.

Barcelona started with their standard 4-3-3, with Busquets sitting in front of the defence, Iniesta with license to go forward and move to the left flank, and Messi upfront in something vaguely approaching a false nine role, although he played high up the pitch. Valencia also started with their usual system, a 4-2-3-1 that became more like a 4-4-1-1 when not in possession, such were the demands of their wide players to track back and cover in wide areas.

But Barcelona struggled hugely in the first half. Bojan simply couldn’t beat Miguel, Messi looked lively but was receiving the ball under too much pressure from the centre-backs, and Iniesta’s runs from deep were covered easily by Valencia’s two holding midfielders.

Pep Guardiola switched things around at half-time, bringing Henry on for Bojan. Considering Henry’s usual position at Barcelona is in the outside-left role filled by Bojan in the first half, it could have been a straight swap. But instead, Guardiola switched to a loose 4-4-2 / 4-2-4 / 4-2-3-1 shape that increasingly appears to be Barcelona’s plan B.

Henry’s presence meant Barcelona had more of a focal point for their attack. Henry is far from a classic hold-up player, but today he was happy to receive the ball with his back to goal, and lay it off for the three other onrushing attacking players.

Henry was, of course, an immediate threat to the Valencia centre-backs, and the main beneficiary of this was Messi. When Messi was on his own upfront, he was their only problem. With Henry on as more of a physical presence and a more traditional striker, he was their most immediate concern. But the most immediate concern is not the same as the main danger – and this was where Messi came in. With a slightly freer role, he was able to come deep and pick up the ball, before running at the defence to devastating effect. He tended to switch with Pedro between playing on the right and playing in a more traditional number 10 role, but was equally as effective in either position.

Second half

Another effect of the switch in formation was that it drew Valencia’s two holding players slightly further up the pitch. In the first half their job was to battle against Iniesta and Xavi, who could go and create in relatively attacking roles with the insurance of Busquets behind them. With Iniesta pushed out wide, it meant the second half saw a Barcelona central midfield of Xavi and Busquets, who necessarily sat deeper (without an insurance player behind, and with four attacking players ahead of them). So Valencia’s midfielders were forced to do battle slightly further from their own defence, opening up a little bit more space for Messi to work in.

The two wide players in the second half – Iniesta and Pedro – could play high up against the Valencia full-backs, with Alves and Maxwell also pushing up to force Valencia’s wingers into defensive roles.

Granted, the game was essentially won by Lionel Messi’s sublime hattrick, and there is an argument for saying that it was he alone who won it – it was nothing to do with tactics, and no other combination of players in that change of system would have yielded the same results. But this misses the point – football management is about finding a system to get the best our of your players, and this was precisely what Guardiola did with his half-time switch.

Valencia went down to ten men in the second half, with the score at 1-0, with Maduro sent-off for a trip on Messi. Unai Emery sent out his side in a way that effectively shut out Barcelona in the first half, but failed to respond to Barcelona’s change, and Valencia were comprehensively outplayed as a result. Withdrawing Chori for the 6′8 Nikola Zigic was a curious move, since Barcelona were playing an extremely high line and were prone to balls over the top, but without David Villa, Valencia were always going to be slightly toothless upfront. This was a game that Guardola won, rather than a game which Emery lost.

The long-term outcome might be the rebirth of Thierry Henry. Make no mistake – he has been terrible this season, and was on the bench for this game (even with Ibrahimovic out) purely because his form has been so poor. But he has often spoke of the idea that, as he loses his pace, his future might be in a deep forward role, setting up quicker, more dynamic players in something approaching the role his teammate Dennis Bergkamp played at Arsenal. Today seemed to suggest this as a viable option – certainly as a plan B.

Roberticus makes a great point in the comments section, comparing the second-half shape of Barcelona to Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning side.

Also mentioned by numerous posters is the fact that Guardiola was serving a touchline ban for this game, and therefore credit should go to Tito Vilanova, his assistant, for putting the system in place. Apologies for the oversight.

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