Barcelona 3-1 Villarreal: open, exciting game
Barcelona eventually passed their way past an excellent Villarreal side in a superb match at the Nou Camp.
Barcelona played their usual 4-3-3 shape. The major absentee was Gerard Pique, with Eric Abidal coming into the side alongside Carles Puyol.
Villarreal broadly stuck to their 4-2-2-2 system, last featured on ZM against Atletico Madrid. From that game there was a single change – Gonzalo Rodriguez was out, and young Argentine centre-back Mateo Musacchio was in.
The main feature here was simply the technical quality on show across the pitch, and the positive intent from both teams. Unlike a lot of sides visiting the Nou Camp, Villarreal did not sit back and only play on the counter-attack. They defended with two banks of four but frequently attacked with five players, Borja Valero joining the front four.
The game was played at a high tempo, both moved the ball quickly from back to front and switched play from flank to flank to change the point of attack. It was amongst the most fluid matches you will see in European football this year – no attacking player had a specific position, all had license to drift across the pitch and find space wherever they could.
Messi false nine
Of course, there were some set patterns, and Barcelona’s general shape was to play Pedro Rodriguez on the right, David Villa on the left and Lionel Messi in the centre of the pitch, as they have done for much of the season. Messi can play two separate roles in this position – either as a goalpoacher (not merely a goalpoacher, it should be said) who stays high up the pitch and looks to dart into space when the ball is played wide, or as a false nine, dropping into deeper positions and dragging the centre-backs with him.
It was the latter role he filled in the opening part of this match, and it was notable that Andres Iniesta and Xavi both played very high up the pitch, looking to exploit the space created by Messi’s reverse runs. With the full-backs pushing on and Busquets the player with most position discipline, it looked very much like the 2-3-2-3 as described by Jonathan Wilson when in possession – which was 70% of the time. Iniesta miscontrolled an early through ball and would have been one-on-one with Diego Lopez.
High pressing; high lines
Both sides were pressing high up the pitch – Barcelona were typically frantic when they lost the ball, seeking to regain it in the opposition half, but Villarreal also worked extremely hard in this sense. They closed down the Barcelona defenders at goal-kicks and Valero was alert to Busquets dropping deep to get out of the natural press of a 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2 in this case), but there was a slight problem in that Villarreal were often outnumbered in the centre of midfield, and one player, often Busquets, was afforded a lot of time on the ball.
Still, with both sides pressing, both were playing high lines, and there was ample space in behind both defences throughout the game. The best opportunities came from fairly simple balls over the top for onrushing attacking players – from Barcelona’s point of view, there was the Iniesta chance early on, then Villa opened the scoring in this fashion, then Pedro had a goal wrongly disallowed because of offside, all when the away side’s defensive line was caught out.
At the other end, twice in the game Barcelona conceded free-kicks inches from the penalty area when looking ragged at the back – Abidal and Maxwell the guilty parties. Villarreal’s goal, however, came from a solo run and finish from Nilmar.
The Brazilian forward has a good partnership with Giuseppe Rossi, although such is the nature of their positioning, they rarely combine directly. Often, when Villarreal won the ball, the two would place themselves in wide positions, stretching the Barcelona backline which was often deprived of Alves and/or Maxwell (who had gone forward to join the attack).
In turn, the interiores would drift inside to become central playmakers, and there was some confusion from Barcelona about how to deal with this. Busquets was effectively the spare man in all this and swept up in front of the defence, but Barcelona’s full-backs were not sure who to track – the forwards, or the interiores? Unlike against Atletico, the full-backs remained in relatively defensive roles, aware that leaving 3 v 3 at the back was unwise.
Indeed, even 6 v 2 wasn’t enough for Villarreal to prevent Barcelona’s astonishing third goal. A quickly-taken free-kick (similar to the first goal in El Clasico last season) from Xavi to Messi started the move, then two one-twos from Messi with Pedro playing ‘the wall’ resulted in Messi scampering past the entire defence, and chipping over Lopez.
That goal simply came down to pure wonderful football rather than tactics, but Villarreal were starting to tire – Cani, in particular, was having problems motoring up and down the line all game to stop Alves. The third goal again saw Pedro and Messi combine for a simpler goal, and Barcelona shut the game down well late on.
Some marvellous play from two excellent footballing sides. As well as Villarreal played, Barcelona were the better team and their triangles in midfield – particularly involving Iniesta and Xavi – were almost stereotypically good.
Villarreal were brave to come with their usual system and it’s unlikely that Juan Carlos Garrido will have any regrets in fielding it after an excellent performance, but the numerical disadvantage in midfield did mean they found it more difficult to win the ball back than Barcelona.Barcelona 3-1 Villarreal: open, exciting game