Barcelona – Valencia: Messi rescues point against dangerous Valencia (2-2)
Barcelona took a risky approach in possession against Valencia’s counterattacking threat, and found themselves 2-0 down just over thirty minutes in. Valencia’s brave possession structure kept Barcelona’s backline busy, hurting them with well-executed quick breaks. A moment of individual quality from Lionel Messi was required – again – to find a way past Valencia’s compact defense.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.
February is shaping up to be a big month for Barcelona, as they prepare to face Real Madrid over two legs in the Copa del Rey semi-finals, as well as visiting Lyon in the Champions League round of sixteen. They also travel away to Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla for potentially tricky LaLiga games, looking to retain their title.
With one eye on the midweek Copa del Rey visit of Real Madrid to the Nou Camp, Ernesto Valverde decided to rest Clement Lenglet and Jordi Alba, meaning Thomas Vermaelen stepped into the back four, and Sergi Roberto filled in at left back with Nélson Semedo on the right. Sergio Busquets was serving a suspension, so Ivan Rakitić was required in defensive midfield. Carles Aleñá completed the midfield three alongside Arturo Vidal in Valverde’s 4-3-3 system.
Valencia look like they might struggle to replicate last season’s top four finish, although they came into this game in decent form having won four of their last six in all competitions. Four changes were made from the last league game against Villarreal, with Gabriel Paulista, Toni Lato, Daniel Wass and Kevin Gameiro all being introduced into Marcelino’s 4-4-2 formation.
Valencia’s compact and deep 4-4-2 formation against Barcelona’s flexible shape in possession.
Barcelona’s risky approach in possession
From the starting point of a 4-3-3 formation, Barcelona found themselves forming quite aggressive structures in possession against the compact 4-4-2 shape of Valencia. This meant plenty of options within Valencia’s shape to try and break them down, but it also meant Valverde’s side exposed themselves to counterattacks
Rakitić started as the holding midfielder and rarely strayed too far from his zone in front of or between the central defenders. Ahead of him, Vidal and Aleñá, in the first half especially, had licence to make plenty of forward runs beyond Valencia’s midfield line to support the attack. With both fullbacks being charged with providing width in attack, it was often the case that Barcelona had as many as seven players ahead of the ball.
Despite the compact 4-4-2 shape of Valencia, Barcelona were actually able to open spaces within this shape to progress the ball. Aleñá interacted well with Messi, balancing his positioning by moving between the center and the right halfspace, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. as well as making smart forward runs to open space for Messi’s preferred dropping into deeper zones.
The gaps either side of Valencia’s two strikers in their 4-4-2 formation were available for Piqué and Vermaelen to drive into, especially when Barcelona’s aggressive midfield positioning pinned back the midfield of Valencia. Barcelona could also use the fullbacks as an outlet, as Valencia’s wide midfielders would be focussed on maintaining the team’s compactness to block access to the center, rather than tracking overlapping runs from Barcelona’s fullbacks.
Note Barcelona’s extremely high stance, combined with very high positions by fullbacks Semedo and Sergi Roberto. The latter projects centrally on average, after switching from left to right at half time, when Jordi Alba came on for Semedo.
Valencia’s threat from counterattacks
For all their pressure, Barcelona were unable to find the decisive pass or dribble to truly open up a compact Valencia defense. Furthermore, it only took until the 24th minute for Valencia to find their first goal through a counterattack.
They had already come close through a counterattack in the opening minutes which led to Denis Cheryshev striking the post from a rebound after Marc-André ter Stegen had saved Parejo’s shot from just inside the box.
The goal-scoring move started with Messi’s attempted dribble on the edge of Valencia’s box. He was crowded out by Valencia’s midfield, and Vidal and Aleñá were both taken out of the game as they tried to counterpress in Valencia’s final third.
As those two were caught in advanced positions, it meant that Rakitić had oceans of space around him to defend in transition as Rodrigo drove past him with the ball. With both Barcelona’s center-backs and fullback Roberto desperately trying to retreat to the edge of their box, there was no pressure on Rodrigo striding forward as Rakitić tried to make up ground. It was then a matter of his strike partner Gameiro timing his run behind the defense correctly. He did, and was found by Rodrigo’s through ball to finish and make it 1-0.
Valencia’s fullbacks were constantly able to find players in the axis of the field. Parejo did a brilliant job linking play from deep, while Rodrigo did likewise from more advanced zones.
Barcelona challenged by Valencia’s 4-2-4 in possession
It was not only on the counter that Valencia were able to trouble Barcelona though. They also had quite a bold approach in possession, effectively playing in a 4-2-4 system with the ball, using their front four to stretch the pitch against the back four of Barcelona.
Many modern teams who use a 4-4-2 or similar system often have the wingers coming inside to occupy more central areas between the lines when they have possession. Valencia in this game though, had their wingers stay fairly wide.
This, along with the presence of the two strikers gave Valencia a strong presence on the last line of Barcelona’s defense, looking to offer a threat in behind. The wingers on the ball-near side would sometimes make double-movements, in which they would fake a drop to receive to feet, before spinning and running in behind the Barcelona fullback. The far side winger was often available for a long diagonal switch pass A pass from one side to the other. from the likes of Daniel Parejo who orchestrated Valencia’s attacks impressively from deep midfield.
Valencia’s threat in the space behind Barcelona’s defense was shown in the incident leading to their penalty. Rakitić, acting as makeshift center-back as Piqué was off the field receiving treatment, was unable to track the run of Denis Cheryshev into the channel behind Semedo. Roberto ended up fouling Wass in the box to prevent him from meeting Cheryshev’s cross. Parejo scored the resulting penalty to make it 2-0.
Valverde adjusts, Messi delivers
Before halftime, Barcelona managed to reduce the deficit to 2-1 via Messi’s penalty, after Semedo was tripped just inside the box. At halftime, Valverde introduced Jordi Alba in place of Semedo, meaning Roberto moved to right back.
Not many teams would turn to a left back as the first option to help them come from behind, but Alba’s attacking contribution and on-pitch understanding with Messi is well documented. Sure enough, Alba’s off-the-ball movements into depth did provide a challenge for the Valencia defense.
An extremely high pass volume just outside Valencia’s box, but each time Barcelona tried to pass into the central area of the box, they could not connect.
Barcelona were dominating the second half but still struggling to find the final move to unlock Valencia’s compact defensive block. Furthermore, they were still having problems dealing with Valencia’s counterattacking.
The fate of the game in terms of the scoreline was ultimately decided within a couple of eventful minutes in the second half. Around the hour mark, Rodrigo had two chances to extend Valencia’s lead to 3-1, both coming from counterattacks again.
His first attempt was smothered by Ter Stegen at close range after Rodrigo had knocked the ball past Vermaelen on the edge of the box. His second chance was the bigger miss, as he stretched to try and convert Cheryshev’s low cross across the goalmouth. He sent the ball high and wide from close range as a relieved Ter Stegen scrambled it across his line.
Just a minute later, Luis Suárez’s mazy run cutting in from the left was halted by Lato. His tackle meant the ball fell to Vidal though, who was able to lay the ball off to Messi just outside the box. Messi, as ever, needed little space to operate. He took a touch onto his left foot, and curled the ball around the Valencia defenders converging on him. Neto was left standing as the ball nestled in the net for 2-2.
Valencia started to come out of their shell a bit more after the equalizer, attempting to press higher up the pitch after having stayed in a low block A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. previously in the half. The addition of Arthur added extra stability to Barcelona’s possession game with Arthur assisting Rakitić in circulating the ball in deep midfield areas. Overall, there was somewhat of stalemate after the 2-2, with neither team creating another big chance in the game.
Barcelona have a busy month coming up and will be hoping that the knock sustained by Messi in the second half is nothing serious with El Clásico approaching in midweek. As for their issues defending counterattacks in this game, it seems likely that in big knockout games they would employ a more cautious approach with the midfield, more akin to the 2-5-3 with the likes of Rakitic and Arthur staying deep either side of Busquets, as seen at Wembley earlier this season.
For Valencia, a draw away at the Nou Camp is not a bad result at all. It does little to immediately improve their league position though, and it means that they have now drawn twelve of their twenty-two league games this season, which is the highest in Europe’s top five leagues.
Use the arrows to scroll through all available match plots.