Barcelona 2-3 Valencia: Valencia rewarded for bravery on the counter-attack

February 3, 2014

The starting line-ups

Barcelona suffered their first home defeat of the season, to a Valencia side who had the third-worst away record in La Liga.

Tata Martino rested Andres Iniesta, and is still without Neymar.

Valencia had a busy few days in the transfer window – mainly with players departing. Helder Postiga, Ever Banega and Andres Guardado have all left the club. Juan Antonio Pizzi selected a cautious XI with five players across midfield, including two holding midfielders, while Jonas was only on the bench.

This was a peculiar game. Barcelona were utterly dominant for the first 40 minutes, with little sign Valencia were set to record an upset. This wasn’t exactly a masterclass from Pizzi, but elements of Valencia’s play – and particularly their bravery in getting men forward on the break – should be applauded.

Messi dominates

There was little unusual about Barcelona’s strategy – it was a standard 4-3-3 with familiar players in familiar roles. Sergio Busquets appeared to play a little higher than usual, and Cesc Fabregas was very much tucked into a midfield three, rather than his roaming attacking role where he plays closer to Messi. Pedro Rodriguez stretched the play on the left, Alexis Sanchez tried to break in behind the defence more frequently from the right.

The key player was Messi, though – he was at his most dominant, although not necessarily at his best. The statistics underline his influence – he had eight shots (no-one else had more than three) and created six chances – which means he was involved in 14 of Barca’s 20 attempts. He also dribbled past opponents nine times (no-one else did so more than once). This was Messidependencia at its most blatant – although that’s inevitably only cast as a negative depending upon the scoreline.

Messi was actually disappointing in front of goal, and had a glorious late chance to equalise saved, following a brilliant passing move with Iniesta and Daniel Alves. Although he’s registered in the Copa del Rey and managed a penalty here, he hasn’t scored from open play in his last nine league appearances (during some of these, he’s been hampered by injury).

Clearly, he’s still Barcelona’s best and most important player, but Messi at his peak could have scored a hattrick, which would have rendered Valencia’s efforts futile.

Valencia defensive shape

Valencia started with a reasonably high defensive line, nearly being caught out by runs in behind from both Sanchez and Alves in the opening 25 minutes. Despite this bravery, they didn’t press particularly high up and concentrated on minimising the space between the lines. Both Fabregas and Xavi stayed deeper and enjoyed their freedom in midfield positions, with Messi often the only one attempting to find pockets of space between Valencia’s midfield and defence.

Their actual formation was a cross between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3. Javi Fuego stayed deepest, in the centre, with Oriel Romeu rarely moving forward to his right. Dani Parejo got back into a left-sided central midfield role but also broke forward into attack, and positionally he was the key player in Valencia’s system.

Parejo role

Parejo’s main contribution was his energy and work rate – he had strict defensive responsibilities without the ball, but then had to scamper forward on the break to lead the attacks. A particularly noticeable feature of his game was how he always looked for space when Valencia won possession, and positioned himself to receive the ball and keep moves flowing. His one-touch passing was slick and purposeful, he could attack in behind Busquets or drop deep to receive the ball unattended, and played that advanced midfield role perfectly.

He regained possession and used it effectively:

Despite the pace of two wide men, Valencia usually broke through the middle, and one of the key features of their play was how they took advantage of Busquets being forced to cover a lot of ground. A 4-3-3 can often be exposed when one of the opposition wide players moves inside to become the ’second No. 10′, whereas a side with two holding midfielders doesn’t become overloaded.

That’s what frequently happened here. Sofiane Feghouli naturally drifts centrally as he charges towards goal, while Pablo Piatti made sure he charged inside, too. Busquets was covering too much space, and Valencia found it surprisingly easy to cause him problems.

Although not really a counter-attack, Valencia’s opener was a decent example. Busquets loses a tackle against Parejo, and therefore both he and Feghouli are running at the Barcelona defence – they have around 20 yards of space to themselves.

This is also a good example of Valencia getting numbers into the box – as Parejo runs forward in possession. Valencia are breaking 5 v 3, with Javier Mascherano forced to cope with three runners in the centre-left channel.

Barragan attacks down the right

Mascherano’s difficulty in that situation was partly because Antonio Barragan took up such an advanced position, and this was another key feature of Valencia’s play – they often switched the play out to the right-back, who was surprisingly brave in his positioning throughout. He provided the cross for Valencia’s second goal, a superb Piatti header, following an excellent penetrative Feghouli pass down the line.

He was much more attacking than left-back Juan Bernat:

In fact, all three goals came from the right – Feghouli crossed for striker Paco Alcacer for the winner. This fact, combined with Jordi Alba’s sending-off for two bookable offences, asks serious questions about the left-back’s defensive awareness, and whether Barcelona can field he and Alves together and allow both to play such attacking roles.

More interesting for the third goal, however, was the build-up play that led to the throw-in. It was that same situation – Feghouli and Parejo combining between the lines, Busquets missing the crucial tackle, and Parejo leading a 4 v 3 break.

It’s also worth asking what Xavi and Fabregas were contributing defensively – they weren’t pressing a great deal, nor getting back to help Busquets. Martino’s approach without possession has rarely looked so weak.

Barcelona struggle to get back into the game

Barcelona were trailing for, in total, 37 minutes of the second half – and their attempts to get back into the game were rather poor, even before Alba’s 78th minute dismissal. There was no real plan, with Messi left to run around trying to win the game solo.

Maybe the closing stages were a harsh reflection on Martino’s efforts. The decision to introduce Iniesta for Xavi upped the passing tempo, and he moved to more of a 4-2-1-3 (with Messi just behind Christian Tello, Sanchez at centre-forward and Pedro on the right) which would have been interesting – but then Alba was sent off a minute later.

This meant Barca shifting to a 3/4-man defence compromise, with Mascherano moving to left-back and Busquets dropping in at the back. Iniesta was the only real midfielder, with Messi supporting three forwards. By this point Barca’s system really lacked any familiarity or purpose, and Valencia were only opened up with the brilliant Messi-Iniesta-Alves move in stoppage time, that Diego Alves turned around the post – it would have been one of the goals of the season.


Other away sides will probably play better at the Nou Camp this season and lose – Barcelona’s finishing wasn’t up to scratch, and they made some particularly poor defensive errors, too.

But there was much to admire about this Valencia performance. The number of midfield runners they got forward on the break was impressive, with Barragan crucial from right-back, Feghouli cutting inside to overload Busquets, and Parejo shuttling forward between defence and attack expertly, finding space very intelligently.

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