Barcelona 0-2 Hercules: Valdez beats Valdes twice to give Hercules shock victory
Barcelona were defeated by a two-goal margin in La Liga for the first time under Pep Guardiola, at the hands of newly-promoted Hercules.
Guardiola’s side were without Carles Puyol through injury, whilst Sergio Busquets, Daniel Alves and Xavi Hernandez all started on the bench. Bojan was the central striker, whilst Javier Mascherano made his debut in the deep-lying midfield position.
Esteban Vigo introduced a new striking partnership of David Trezeguet and Nelson Valdez upfront, with the Paraguayan dropping off Trezeguet into a midfield role, where he tirelessly battled to help win the ball back. The midfield was a flattish diamond, with the outside players as shuttlers, and Abel Aguilar generally ahead of Matias Fritzler, who patrolled the zone in front of his defence.
The most immediate thing to notice about the match was the poor state of the pitch – dry as a whole, and cutting up in some parts. Barcelona can’t use this as an excuse for the defeat as a whole (and it is their pitch, in any case) but it did explain why their passing was so slow in the opening period.
Hercules’ midfield acted as a diamond when the ball was with one of the Barcelona full-backs. The carrilero on that side would shift across to close him down, Aguilar would occupy the central midfielder closest to the ball, Valdez would drop in and pick up Mascherano, whilst the carrilero on the opposite side would shut down the third central midfielder. This left Fritzler generally free ready to sweep up anything missed by the other midfielders, whilst retaining a spare man at the back.
It did, however, mean that one of Barcelona’s full-backs was always free, and the home side didn’t switch the ball from flank to flank quickly enough to exploit this weakness. Nevertheless, their most promising opportunities were coming when Maxwell and Adriano got forward into advanced positions – Bojan should have tapped home from a left-wing cross, whilst Adriano put in some decent crosses from the right.
The most surprising thing from Barcelona was how poor the movement was from the attacking players, and the side as a whole didn’t look right physically. Andres Iniesta struggled to stamp any kind of authority on the game from the centre of the pitch, since he was almost always marked by one of the opposing midfielders, in addition to Fritzler making sure to remain in the space ‘in the hole’ that Iniesta looks to work in. Messi dropped deep to get possession of the ball, but at one point was visibly frustrated with the lack of movement from his teammates.
This should have been a gentle introduction for Javier Mascherano, but he was booked after just twenty minutes for a cynical shirt pull to stop a Hercules counter-attack down the centre of the pitch. Seven minutes later he tripped Royston Drenthe in a similar situation, and was fortunate not to pick up a second yellow. Further punishment for the indiscretion did come, however, as the resulting free-kick created Valdez’s first goal.
Barcelona’s biggest goal threat towards the end of the first half came not from Messi, Villa or Bojan, but from Gerard Pique. The centre-back popped up in the area three times in a ten-minute spell and should have scored.
At half-time, Guardiola made two changes, withdrawing Mascherano and Bojan, and introducing Xavi and Pedro. They moved into their usual positions, with Seydou Keita dropping back into the holding role.
The formation didn’t change, however, and therefore Barcelona essentially had the same problems as in the first period. Xavi controlled the game more than Iniesta had in the first half, but he was still unable to find a killer pass through the defence, as Hercules dropped deeper with the midfield becoming something more like a flat four, and through balls generally trickled through to the goalkeeper.
To Hercules’ immense credit, however, they didn’t completely shut up shop. They continued to be a threat on the counter-attack, and the second goal arrived when the right-back David Cortes combined with the right-winger Tiago Gomes, and the eventual cross found Valdez, who swept the ball high into the net.
Valdez grabs a second
Vigo also used his substitutes very well – taking off the two carrileros, who got through an awful lot of running, as did Valdez, who also departed. As soon as Guardiola introduced Alves at right-back, Vigo immediately withdrew Drenthe, knowing he would need some fresh legs to deal with Alves for the final half hour. On the other side he introduced Kiko, whose pace caused Barcelona problems and forced Maxwell (who himself look very tired late on, as he did at the Emirates last season) into a more defensive role than he would have liked.
Barcelona created chances, of course, with Messi, Villa and Pedro all forcing saves out of Juan Calatayud – but the goalkeeper hardly needed to play a blinder, he just made some fairly routine stops from decent efforts.
Vigo later admitted he drew upon Jose Mourinho’s tactics at the Nou Camp in the Champions League semi-final last season, and just as in that game, Pique went upfront to become the focal point for attacks, picking up a nasty head wound in the process. But it was all in vain – Hercules’ defending was certainly last-ditch, but they held on for a deserved victory.
It is a worrying situation for Barcelona: in their first home game of the season, a manager openly admits to those Inter-inspired tactics, and walks away from the Nou Camp with all three points. If this really is a flaw in Barcelona’s system – that their combination of pace, movement and slick passing is futile against a side that defends extremely deep – then this will be a serious issue in their quest for a third successive title.
In reality, things will rarely be as bad as this. On another day, Messi, Villa or Iniesta would have stepped up to produce a moment of genius, and Barcelona might have won at a canter. There won’t be too many days this season when all three of them are below-par.
But regardless of that, it’s impossible to predict anything other than tactics like this becoming commonplace at the Nou Camp this season, and Barcelona might well find themselves wishing they had someone with a more physical presence than their current forwards. Even if we ignore Ibrahimovic’s personality clash with Guardiola, the common criticism that he “didn’t fit into Barcelona’s system” last season entirely missed the point. Of course he didn’t – that was the point, he offered something different, an alternative approach. He’s far from a basic target man, but he did have a knack of scoring slightly scrappy goals from high balls into the box – take this header against Sporting Gijon, this crucial away goal in Stuttgart, or his volley against Real Madrid.
Even the best teams in the world need something approaching a ‘plan B’, and if Ibrahimovic was not the man to do that in Guardiola’s eyes, Barcelona surely should have tried to recruit someone who could act as a focal point for their attacks, a Fernando Llorente figure, for example. Since they did not, they have invited teams to come and play ultra-defensive football, and frankly Barcelona may as well have played Pique as a permanent striker from the start, such was the increased threat when he went upfront.
But this probably exaggerates Hercules’ defensiveness, and certainly doesn’t do justice to how well they played. They weren’t as defensive as Inter were – they kept two nominal strikers on for most of the game, and their tactics involved tracking runners across the final third rather than an overwhelming emphasis upon getting men behind the ball. The biggest shock was not the win, but the fact that Hercules overwhelmingly deserved the win.