Levante UD – FC Barcelona: bold Levante is demolished when attempting to trade punches with Messi (0-5)
Levante succeeded at enforcing a direct, high-tempo game, while Barcelona struggled due to the use of an improvised 3-5-2 shape that mirrored Levante’s own 3-5-2 formation. However, before the end of the first half, Messi turned the tides with the help of Vidal and Suárez, deciding the game with a grand total of three goals and two assists.
Tactical analysis by José Pérez.
Levante, coached by Paco López, might be the boldest team in LaLiga. While most LaLiga teams of a similar budget—Getafe, Girona, Leganés, Valladolid, Alavés—have opted for more conservative tactical schemes, Levante are going all-out in attack. They enforce high-tempo games and trade punches with opponents. Levante are thus very good at creating chances and goals, with the fourth most effective offense with 27 goals, only behind Barcelona, Sevilla and Celta de Vigo. However, this outstanding offense comes at the cost of having, per Expected Goal data – one of the worst defenses in the league.
Against Barcelona, Levante fielded their usual 3-5-2 shape and their strongest lineup, other than the absence of key goal scorer Roger Martí (eight goals in twelve starts). At the back, Oier Olazábal started at goal along with the central defender trio of Erick Cabaco, Sergio Postigo, and Rober Pier. Central midfield featured a trio of Enis Bardhi, José Campaña, and Rubén Rochina, flanked by Jason and Toño García as the wing-backs. Up front played captain José Luis Morales alongside Emmanuel Boateng.
After a rocky start to the season, Barcelona seem to have mostly stabilized the ship, with the last month of games featuring no losses. Over the last few weeks, injuries and player form have led Valverde to fielding Arturo Vidal and Ousmane Dembélé instead of Brazilians Philippe Coutinho and Arthur Melo. This has turned Barcelona into a team that struggles more to control games but is better at high-energy games that go end-to-end, as showcased by their prior games against PSV Eindhoven and RCD Espanyol. This higher tempo game plan still is not beneficial for Barcelona’s defensive transition, but Valverde’s gamble has mostly paid off in the offense, fostering a very productive Dembelé – Suárez – Messi trio.
Against Levante, the last-minute injury of Nélson Semedo left Barcelona without a right back (Sergi Roberto was also injured). This forced Valverde to completely rethink his lineup and game plan. Instead of fielding the usual 4-3-3, Valverde opted to mirror Levante’s 3-5-2 shape with his own, uncharacteristic 3-5-2 formation. This line-up featured a central defender trio of Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet and Thomas Vermaelen. The midfield consisted of Sergio Busquets, Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitić, flanked by Jordi Alba and (surprise!) Dembélé as wing-backs. Up front the deadly veteran duo of Leo Messi and Luis Suárez was fielded.
Both teams’ 3-5-2 formation, which meant the center was extremely crowded.
Barcelona struggles with the improvised 3-5-2
Not only did Barcelona and Levante use similar formations. They also followed similar game plans off the ball, attempting to aggressively press each other’s buildups. With both teams using three defenders to play out from the back, both striker duo’s were often accompanied by a central midfielder (Rochina for Levante, Vidal for Barcelona) to achieve a three-versus-three when pressing. Both Rochina and Vidal ended up alternating between pressing the opponent’s third center-back and pressing the holding midfielder (Rochina on Busquets, Vidal on José Campaña).
In this context of high tempo and constant pressing, Barcelona struggled to adapt to play well in their improvised new formation. Most problems came because eight of their ten outfield players were playing in the central lanes. Barcelona saw their center effectively clogged up, with the isolated Alba and Dembelé providing the only alternatives to progress on the wings. Without supporting wide players to create overloads When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. on the wings, both Alba and Dembélé depended heavily on individual skill to create chances.
Levante’s own 3-5-2 shape and accumulation of players in the center further contributed to Barcelona’s issues progressing through these zones. These clogged up central lanes also blocked the key Alba – Messi connection. This terrible tactical context for Alba and Dembelé was duly reflected in their numbers. Collectively, the pair normally produce 4-5 chances per game, yet in this game they only produced one (Alba’s assist to Messi on the third goal).
Barcelona’s switch to 3-5-2 also affected defense, especially a hapless, out-of-form Vermaelen. Levante striker Boateng smelled the blood and constantly drifted wide looking for a one-versus-one with the Belgian defender. In these situations, Vermaelen was strugglin in decision-making, being indecisive whether to push up to cover Alba’s back (often attacked by right wing-back Jason) or to stay with Boateng. On the other side of defense, Piqué’s outstanding reading of the game often succeeded at handling a similar issue with left wing-back Toño and a hyperactive José Luis Morales attacking the back of Dembelé.
Levante fails to capitalize on Barcelona’s issues and Messi turns the tables
Despite Barcelona’s issues in defense and midfield progression, Levante struggled to create good chances. Levante often stole the ball before Barcelona even got to the attacking half, but in the ensuing counterattacks they often found themselves in numerical inferiority against Barcelona defenders.
However, Levante’s own lack of well-defined attacking mechanisms also contributed to their offensive issues. Coach Paco López instructed midfielder Rochina and forward Morales a lot of freedom to roam throughout the attack. He expects both players to move smartly to exploit their opponents’ weakness, creating numerical superiorities on the wings or loading the box as needed. Against Barcelona, both players were hyperactive and mobile but not in a productive way. For instance, neither exploited the space left by Vidal when pressing nor did they help Boateng bully Vermaelen, for example.
Messi and Suárez, on the other hand, usually make no mistakes in exploiting weaknesses. At the 35th minute, Vidal and Busquets counterpressed well and stole the ball from midfielder Enis Bardhi, giving it to Messi. Despite dribbling past two defenders, it seemed like Levante had succeeded in taking Messi away from goal and towards the fringes of the box, blocking his passing lane to Suárez. However, with a genius flick of his left foot Messi produced a perfect lobbed pass from this tight, seemingly impossible angle, ready for Suárez to volley into the net. A truly demoralizing goal.
Barcelona demolishes a depressed Levante
Barcelona’s first goal emboldened them and turned the tables. Levante’s inability to create chances continued, but now Barcelona was finally exploiting the spaces Levante left behind their midfield when pressing and attacking. At the 43rd minute, Busquets stole the ball in the midfield area and let loose a devastating pass that broke through Levante’s midfield and defensive lines. This left Messi with a “simple” one-versus-one against last man Postigo to score the second goal.
The initial fifteen minutes of the second half saw the same scenario witnessed at the end of the first half. Levante attempted to turn the game around by pressing and attacking. Meanwhile, Barcelona ruthlessly exploited the spaces behind and in between their desperate opponent’s lines.
Vidal effectively operated as a third forward, pinning down Levante’s third central defender and allowing Messi and Suárez to not be in numerical inferiority against Levante’s back three. Suárez drifted wide to the left and Vidal drifted to the right, stretching Levante’s defense and opening spaces in the middle for Messi to attack and score. That’s how Barcelona’s third and fourth goals came about. By the 60th minute, this match was effectively over.
Most of the Levante’s attempts in the final half hour were stopped by a focused Barcelona back three. When an injured Vermaelen was substituted around the 52nd minute, Piqué moved to the center of the defense, flanked by Rakitić and Lenglet. Rakitić was now in charge of watching Dembelé’s back and defending Morales, while Lenglet was more successful than Vermaelen in taking care of Boateng.
Whenever Lenglet and Rakitić failed in their duties, an imperious Piqué awaited behind them to sweep up any remaining danger. With Piqué and Messi dominating the first and final third of the pitch, there was little else for Levante to do. At the 88th minute, both Barcelona leaders capped their stellar performances as Messi assisted Piqué for the fifth and final goal.
Levante are a bold team who can make every match fun, even against opponents who are superior on paper. This fresh, unique approach employed by coach Paco López is keeping Levante, at least, comfortably in mid-table positions. However, Levante’s direct, high pressing and high tempo approach comes with a lot of open spaces that top opponents can often exploit. That’s how Sevilla scored six goals against them and Barcelona scored five. It’s the price a team of Levante’s resources must pay if they want to be one of the best offenses in the league.
On the other hand, Barcelona feels the joy of back-to-back overwhelming victories against good mid-table sides like Espanyol and Levante. Their current starting lineup with Dembélé and Vidal struggles to control the tempo of games, but as long as Piqué, Messi and Suárez maintain their current form, trading punches against Barcelona will usually be a losing battle for league opponents. However, will this be enough against the top European opponents Barcelona will face in the Champions League knockouts?
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