Valencia 2-2 Barcelona: Emery gets the better of Guardiola early on, but Barca fight back
Cesc Fabregas’ goal secured a point for Barcelona, but they were the weaker side in the first half.
Unai Emery tried his trick from last season against Barcelona, fielding two left-backs in Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba down the left, in order to deal with the forward runs of Dani Alves. Jonas dropped out accordingly, and Bruno Saltor was replaced by Miguel.
Pep Guardiola went for a 4-3-3ish shape, albeit with Alves pushed very high up the pitch. David Villa was only on the bench.
Valencia dominated the first half by doing two things well – first, pressing Barcelona, squeezing the play and forcing the away side into errors in possession. Second, by attacking Barca in behind Alves and creating three good chances through this route.
The battle down Alves’ side
This was the key factor in the game. Emery’s double left-back strategy had worked well at the Camp Nou last year – Valencia scored with a break through Mathieu, and were 1-0 up at half time until Barca staged a second half comeback. The idea, of course, is that because Alves’ runs are so dangerous, by fielding a defensively-aware player on the left of midfield, you have a player who is comfortable tracking back to his own defensive line.
Of course, if you’re Alves, you’re going to test this as much as possible to try and force Valencia’s players towards their own goal. Therefore, Alves played high up the pitch, on the right-hand touchline, to push Mathieu deeper and deeper. The problem was, Mathieu was Valencia’s biggest threat going forward. He constantly broke forward and exploited the space in behind Alves, setting up two goals and producing a third great chance, where Roberto Soldado missed an open goal. But how could he do this, if he was meant to be tracking Alves?
Well, as it turned out, he wasn’t. Pedro seemed to start on the right wing but quickly switched the left, and the rest of Barcelona’s fluid front three consisted of Lionel Messi playing a false nine role, and Cesc Fabregas buzzing about between the lines. Barcelona were essentially playing with no right-winger, and therefore Alves didn’t need to be watched by Mathieu – Jordi Alba could deal with him perfectly well. After all, it’s not like you particularly need to double up on Alves, you simply need someone who can track his run. Barcelona had no winger to bring Alba inside, and therefore he could track Alves.
Mathieu, then, was free to bomb forward. This dragged almost Barcelona’s entire team out of shape. Javier Mascherano had to come across to right-back, then Carles Puyol had to shuffle over, then Eric Abidal had to move to centre-back, from where he scored an own goal, then made an error for the second, scored by Pablo Hernandez coming in at the back post. With Abidal coming inside, Hernandez had to be dealt with by Seydou Keita, whilst Sergio Busquets tried to drop in and help out in the centre of defence too. Barcelona were essentially having a chain of four players (plus Busquets) all trying to cover the position vacated by another.
This had an impact higher up – Xavi Hernandez was left on his own (and what is Xavi without short passing options?) and there was no connection from defence to midfield. Barcelona’s only hope of a goal was a Messi ball through to Fabregas or Pedro, and that’s where their first goal arrived from, through the latter.
Elsewhere, Valencia were coping well in midfield. Hernandez tucked in and played narrow, picking up Keita to make up the numbers in midfield, safe in the knowledge Abidal wouldn’t be attacking much. Adil Rami was fortunate not to get a second booking for bringing down Messi, but was otherwise impressive in coming up the pitch to him and Fabregas, largely keeping them quiet.
Guardiola had to change things for the second period, and he did. Pedro came to the right, with Fabregas initially floating in from the left. Alves was told to stay at right-back and not attack at all, and Barcelona kept it tight for the first ten minutes of the second half. Emery brought on Tino Costa to replace David Albelda, who had been excellent but had picked up an injury.
The story of the second half is best told through substitutions and the resulting formation changes.
1. Guardiola made two substitutions. Adriano came on for Pedro, playing on the right-hand side. This was a slightly surprising move, and meant that there were four full-backs (Adriano, Alves, Mathieu, Alba) all down the same flank. Villa also came on for Keita, with Fabregas dropping deeper.
2. With Barca enjoying more possession than in the first half, Guardiola felt able to make a more attacking move. Thiago Alcantara came on for Puyol. This could have meant Busquets going to centre-back, but in fact he shuttled between a centre-back position and a holding role. When Barca had the ball, he was in midfield, with a lopsided back three of Alves, Mascherano and Abidal behind.
3. Seeing that Busquets was attempting to play ahead of the defence, Emery took off Canales and brought on a support striker, Jonas, who could get forward and link up with Soldado, therefore pushing Busquets back. Jonas wasn’t particularly good at this role, however, and Barca dominated possession to allow Busquets into midfield.
4. Now Barcelona were using Alves very deep – almost as a right-sided centre-back – plus had Adriano ahead, not the greatest attacking threat (although he was key in this fixture last year) Emery could put on a true winger down that side. Pablo Piatti arrived, in place of Mathieu who had tired. Valencia were trying to win the game.
The formations then looked like the diagram above. Barcelona in a 3-4-3 diamondish shape like they used against Villarreal, with Valencia a 4-2-3-1 with an offensive tilt.
How did Barcelona get back into the game? Their dominance of possession was key, with a slight overload in the centre of midfield. Messi came into that zone unmarked and played some superb passes, including the assist for Fabregas, and later slid a great ball out to Villa on the left. Valencia tired, as they have done a couple of times this season, and failed to put pressure on the man on ball late on, allowing Barcelona to pass their way through the defence. In the final moments, it was the home side hanging on.
Emery won the pre-match tactical battle, but Guardiola used his substitutions more wisely to get back into the game.
It was surprising to see Barca so vulnerable early on, and maybe Guardiola got a little carried away with Alves’ abilities. He has the energy to cover the flank by himself, but that doesn’t mean he can be used 2 v 1 – because one of the players will get goalside of him and break quickly. He needs a wide player ahead of him who will come inside and open up space.
Emery should be praised for his starting tactics, as well as some brave substitutions late on to try and force Barca back. Ultimately Messi’s quality was the biggest factor in getting the away side back into the game – and there’s no shame in that. Ultimately, this was a tactical victory for Emery.