Barcelona 2-1 Valencia: Barca outmanoeuvred early on, but stage second half fightback
Unai Emery’s tactics worked a treat, but pure quality shone through and Barcelona were rampant in the second half.
Xavi returned to action to boost Barcelona’s central midfield zone, so Andres Iniesta played in the forward three. Maxwell started at left-back, and Seydou Keita on the left of midfield.
Valencia surprisingly omitted Juan Mata and instead used Ever Banega in an advanced midfield role, with Pablo Hernandez on the right. On the left, they pushed nominal left-back Jeremy Mathieu forward onto the left of midfield, with Jordi Alba playing at left-back. Roberto Soldado got the nod ahead of Aritz Aduriz.
So, a few surprises from Emery, and the slightly peculiar team selection indicated that he had a particular gameplan in mind. And indeed he did – whereas Inter and Hercules have had success at the Nou Camp by sitting back in the final third, Valencia had the opposite plan – they pressed high up the pitch, and Barcelona couldn’t get into a passing rhythm.
Valencia dominate left
The situation on Valencia’s left side was particularly interesting, especially as Lionel Messi had such a quiet first half, and indeed a quiet game overall. The use of two left-backs in tandem meant they doubled up easily on Messi when he got the ball, as well as providing a solid duo for dealing with the persistent charging runs from Daniel Alves down that side. The two happily switched round briefly if Alba saw an opportunity to get forward, but in general it was Mathieu who exploited the space in behind Alves with powerful runs, and one excellent cross very nearly resulted in a goal.
Elsewhere, Banega played high up the pitch in support of Aduriz, whilst on the right Pablo Hernandez had slightly more of a ‘free’ role, starting from the right but drifting into the centre of the pitch to provide a goal threat. Sometimes he became the centre-forward and Soldado went out to the right. In all, it wasn’t entirely different from Valencia’s usual 4-2-3-1, but the modifications in wide areas were making life very difficult for Barcelona.
Despite the heavy pressing and quick passing to the front players, Valencia were actually trying to slow the game at every opportunity. The Barcelona fans were whistling in protest at perceived time-wasting within the first twenty minutes, and it was a notable strategy from the away side – seeking to both prevent Barca from keeping the tempo high, but also giving themselves a breather to recover from the tiring pressing.
That pressing also resulted in a different overall strategy. Valencia have long been regarded as a predominantly counter-attacking side, but here they weren’t sitting back at all – they were playing high up the pitch and trying to take the game to Barcelona. After half an hour, they had more than 50% of possession – almost unthinkable for an away side at the Nou Camp.
Another notable feature of Valencia’s play was a high offside line, that kept catching out their ex-talisman David Villa. It was the same situation at the other end with Barcelona’s traditionally high line, and it was strange how open the game was, considering both sides were squeezing it into the central third of the pitch.
Mathieu had threatened earlier by getting in behind Alves and putting a ball into the area, and that’s exactly how Valencia took the lead. Gerard Pique was dragged across to cover for the right-back and left Barcelona exposed in the centre, allowing Pablo to steam in and tap home. He could have had a second a couple of minutes later, when he sidefooted straight at Valdes after Barcelona’s centre-backs were again out on the flanks, this time in their left-back position.
Barcelona changed completely after the break – they were more direct and much quicker with their passing, going towards goal immediately rather than building up play casually. This was summed up by Andres Iniesta’s goal three minutes after the break – he picked the ball up 50 yards from goal and made a bee-line for Cesar Sanchez, swapping passes with Xavi on the way before beating five players to the ball and passing it past the goalkeeper.
After that, they were rampant, and Valencia seemed to tire quickly. Alves became even more of a threat down the right, creating a great chance for Villa, but another key was Maxwell moving higher up the pitch, pushing back Pablo into his own half, and often finding himself in plenty of space once Pablo got drawn into the centre of the pitch.
The winning goal, however, came simply as Valencia didn’t act quickly enough to close down a short corner. It was thirteen seconds between Xavi taking the corner and putting the eventual cross in, but by working a 3 v 2 with Messi and Iniesta against two Valencia defenders, Barcelona easily played it back out to Xavi, who had time to line up a cross and put it perfectly on Carles Puyol’s head, who powered it into the net.
Valencia replaced three of the front four but found it difficult to change the nature of the game – it continued in frantic fashion – Messi almost scored a great goal, Alves had to make a last-ditch tackle to stop Aritz Aduriz, whilst Villa finally broke the offside trap but was foiled by Cesar Sanchez.
“In the first half we were passed out of the game, in the second we were much better. We were able to make adjustments because of the versatility of the squad”, said Guardiola. “I told them at half time that if we see more of the ball, we can enjoy ourselves a little.” Guardiola’s adjustments were relatively minor – moving the full-backs further forward was the most obvious change, whilst Iniesta dropped deeper. It was not as spectacular as last year’s brilliant half-time switch in this fixture, but Barca certainly transformed the game.
Emery’s side showed that sitting deep is not the only way to stifle Barcelona, although as so often with sides who play a heavy pressing game (see Barcelona away at Arsenal) tiredness comes into play at the end.