Valencia 0-1 Barcelona: both sides try different systems, but both switch back to the usual
Lionel Messi had an off-day…and yet still scored the winner as Barcelona temporarily move ten points clear at the top.
Unai Emery had been trying Juan Mata as a number nine all week in training, and used him that position here, as Valencia went into the the game with no real striker. There was a reshuffle at the back, and two full-backs were used in tandem down the left flank.
Pep Guardiola left out Pedro from his starting XI. The shape wasn’t clear until the game actually started, but it turned out that Sergio Busquets was playing as an extra centre-back in a back three.
The first half was a bit like Barcelona’s recent defeat at the Emirates. Their opponents seemed to be coping very well, and yet Barcelona still managed to manufacture chances – here, Lionel Messi missed two one-on-ones. As such, it’s difficult to say which manager had the upper hand, but for the third consecutive game between these two sides, it was an intriguing tactical battle.
The headline here is perhaps slightly misleading, for Valencia’s basic shape was the same as usual, a 4-2-3-1. However, one cannot overlook the fact that Mata is a completely different type of player to Roberto Soldado, the man who usually plays upfront. Soldado is a classic central striker: strong, good in the air and a lethal finisher. Mata is very much a number ten, someone who plays between the lines and creates chances for others, and therefore whilst the formation was the same, the system was different.
Mata came short and linked play, but with Barcelona playing three at the back, they were relatively untroubled by Mata’s movement towards the ball – one defender could come out from the backline (Busquets, Gerard Pique and Eric Abidal are all happy to step up), and no notable space would be created.
Barcelona’s formation was a clear departure from their usual 4-3-3. Sergio Busquets played at centre-back, something he’s done before to good effect before. This was slightly different, though – previously he’s played as part of a back four, where nothing changes tactically, or as part of a 3-4-3 (for example, against Atletico). Since Barca often move to that system in games when they play a 4-3-3 anyway, with Busquets dropping in and the wing-backs moving on, that’s also a relatively comfortable shift.
In this game, Guardiola decided to use Javier Mascherano ahead of the back four, and omitted Pedro. This meant that Barcelona played with just a front two, which not only limited their attacking options, it also changed how the wing-backs operated compared to the 3-4-3. Against Atletico, Dani Alves and Maxwell caused such damage because Barcelona’s front three narrowed, in turn forcing the opposition back four to narrow, and opened up space on the flanks. From there, Alves and Maxwell could get forward unchecked – or they’d force the opposition wide players to move into a back six.
That happened here a couple of times early on – before Valencia realised that, up against a front two, they didn’t need to be so easily manipulated. Their centre-backs dealt with Messi and David Villa, whilst the full-backs were relatively free. They defended in lopsided way, however – with two left-backs down the left (the same tactic Emery used with some success at the Nou Camp), Jeremy Mathieu dropped in and picked up Alves, with Jordi Alba moving narrow. This meant that when Barca’s wing-backs got forward, Valencia were defending 5 v 4 – far better than 4 v 4 or 6 v 4, as they had a spare man at the back, whilst being able to compete in midfield.
The opposite side was their biggest worry. With Pablo Hernandez not tracking back nearly as much as Mathieu, and coming inside to join the attack (possibly trying to exploit any space created by Mata’s runs), Adriano had a lot of freedom down the left. Time and time again, Barca got the ball out to him 1 v 1 against Marius Stankevicius in the first half, but he couldn’t take advantage of the time and space. It might have been worth Barca playing someone else to the left of the pitch – Villa, Andres Iniesta or Abidal – to help out, and even if that dragged another Valencia player over to that side, it could have created space in the centre, where Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez were both quiet.
Aside from formations and positioning, the game was played at a quick tempo, with both sides pressing and subsequently using high lines. The game was essentially one huge midfield battle, and it seemed a goal would come as soon as one side exploited the other’s high line. The best chances came this way – Messi’s early miss, and Alba’s ‘goal’ that was disallowed for a narrow offside decision. From Barcelona’s point of view, the use of a (narrow) front two effectively restricted them to creating chances that way, especially with Alves tracked on the right and Adriano’s lack of a final ball from the left.
Emery decided to change things at half time. He removed Joaquin (who had been playing, unusually, in the centre behind a main forward (another ‘central winger’)) and brought on Soldado, with Mata dropping into his number ten role. That was an admission that Valencia’s strategy hadn’t really worked upfront – Mata wasn’t creating space or causing the Barcelona centre-backs many problems.
The game continued in vaguely the same pattern, though with Soldado on, Valencia were more of a goal threat. A couple of decent chances came and went, with the Valencia full-backs supporting the attack well.
Barca change shape
That threat from full-back (as well as the obvious desire for more attacking threat at 0-0) prompted Guardiola to turn to the bench, and Pedro. He replaced Mascherano, and Barca moved back to their usual 4-3-3, with Messi in the centre deeper than Villa and Pedro on the flanks.
Barcelona looked much more comfortable with this shape – they had 2 v 1 rather than 3 v 1 at the back, they weren’t subject to being outnumbered 2 v 1 down the flanks, and they played with more natural width upfront, which is such a crucial part of their game. It also meant the sides were more naturally ‘matched’ in individual battles across the pitch, which made Barcelona’s pressing easier and more effective.
Crucially, the two players who had moved backwards, Alves and Adriano, remained an attacking threat. Alves continued to be tracked by Mathieu, but Adriano still had that freedom down the left, and finally produced a good ball for Messi, who squeezed a shot in on 77 minutes.
Emery threw on all the attacking players he could find for the final ten minutes, but Guardiola introduced Maxwell and Seydou Keita to keep things tight, and Barcelona were comfortable at 0-1.
A fascinating tactical contest, though it’s fair to say that neither side’s initial shape worked particularly well for them. Valencia’s false nine didn’t do much against a back three (which in itself is an interesting development) whilst Barca lacked width.
By the very nature of the result, it must be said that Guardiola’s tactical shift worked better. The real debate is whether it was a great move to start off with the 3-5-2 and move to the 4-3-3, or whether he simply should have gone with the 4-3-3 from the outset.
A final point – Barcelona had “only” 61% of possession in this game, their joint lowest figure of the season – the other game was also against Valencia. That suggests Emery’s tactics coped well in midfield (certainly, Xavi and Iniesta weren’t very prominent), but is also an indication that Valencia have good ball-playing midfielders, and a reflection on the fact that their full-backs were often ‘free’ until Barcelona made the tactical change.