RCD Espanyol – FC Barcelona: Stellar Messi leads Barcelona to crush Espanyol in tactical battle of pressing systems and counterattacks (0-4)
An initially conservative Espanyol changed their approach after Messi’s first brilliant free kick goal. However, Barcelona’s fire power of Suárez, Dembélé and a stellar Messi still came out on the top in the ensuing battle of pressing systems and defense-to-attack transitions. The second half saw Espanyol unable to change this dynamic from the bench.
Tactical analysis and match report by José Perez.
Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde has worked incessantly this season to find the ideal game plan and lineup for his team. Perhaps one of the central questions for Valverde is whether Ousmane Dembélé and Philippe Coutinho can really play together in the same lineup. Valverde’s initial attempts to play both talented attackers together led to severe defensive issues. Barcelona has found greater stability in benching one of them and using an additional central midfielder to accompany Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitić, usually Arthur Melo or Arturo Vidal.
Against Espanyol, Valverde continued this trend. Barcelona started their usual 4-3-3 shape, once again conditioned by the injuries of key men Sergi Roberto, Samuel Umtiti and Arthur. Just as last week against Villarreal, Nelson Semedo, Clement Lenglet and Arturo Vidal started instead. Perhaps the most surprising change was in the left winger position, where Coutinho was dropped from the starting lineup in favor of Dembélé, bringing back the Messi – Suárez – Dembélé trio that Barcelona used in the beginning of the season.
Espanyol haven’t enjoyed their last month in LaLiga. After being top five both in the league table and in expected goal The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. difference, Espanyol’s league position and underlying numbers have taken a hit. Espanyol had one of the best open play defenses in the league during the first months of the season but it quickly deteriorated during November, leading to three losses in a row against Sevilla, Girona and Getafe this past November. You can explore these advanced statistics for all teams on our stats page.
To solve this problem, Espanyol coach Joan Ferrer “Rubí” tried some adjustments in his 4-3-3 setup against Barcelona. The usual suspects started in defensive positions except for Costa Rican center back Óscar Duarte, who replaced an injured Mario Hermoso. In midfield, the more defensive Víctor Sánchez replaced Esteban Granero and accompanied the usual Marc Roca and Sergi Darder. In the forward line, the usual Borja Iglesias and Hernan Pérez were joined by young midfield talent Oscar Melendo, who surprisingly occupied the nominal left winger position.
Espanyol shows their more conservative version until Messi strikes
Rubi’s Espanyol have been a tactically flexible side throughout this season, using a high press or a lower defensive 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. depending on the rival and moment of the game. The first fifteen minutes saw Espanyol defend against Barcelona by using a low-mid block, hoping to lure Barcelona in and attack the spaces left behind with quick counterattacks.
While Oscar Melendo was nominally the team’s left winger, he was allowed freedom to move throughout the entire attacking front, and Espanyol’s shape often changed as a result. When Melendo stayed closer to the wings, Espanyol had a 4-1-4-1 shape, with Pérez and Melendo acting as wingers. When Melendo drifted into more central positions, Espanyol’s shape looked more like a 4-4-1-1, with Melendo operating behind striker Borja Iglesias and central midfielder Víctor Sánchez moving towards the left wing.
Barcelona’s 4-3-3 shape in possession against Espanyol’s 4-1-4-1 / 4-4-2 mid block.
With this setup, Espanyol seemed able to exploit the defensive imbalances that occur when Messi plays as a nominal right winger in Barcelona’s 4-3-3. Just like Rakitić has done for many years, Vidal had to move wide and aggressively to compensate Messi’s movements, exposing spaces behind his back that could be exploited. Marc Roca’s excellent long passes and Melendo’s dribbling runs tried to get the ball as quickly as possible to striker Iglesias and winger Pérez. However, none of the Espanyol players were particularly sharp and successful in their one-versus-one duels against Barcelona’s defense, so Espanyol counterattacks almost never resulted in shots.
Messi’s brilliant seventeenth minute free kick goal turned the tables and took the game into its next stage.
Messi, Suárez and Dembélé crush Espanyol in a battle of pressing and counterattacks
After Messi’s goal, Espanyol decided to forego their more conservative approach and start pressing more aggressively in search for a goal. After all, perhaps stealing the ball in more advanced positions would allow Espanyol to create better counterattacks. Their shape would keep switching between the 4-1-4-1 and 4-4-1-1 shapes described before, always determined by Melendo’s movement.
It was a sound approach that Espanyol knows very well how to execute, but Suárez, Dembélé and a stellar Messi quickly demolished that game plan through their individual talent and good chemistry. Every time the ball managed to bypass Espanyol’s pressing line, the Barcelona star trio would take full advantage of the spaces behind Espanyol’s midfield. With Messi in particularly inspired form—six dribbles completed and four key passes during the first half—and Espanyol missing their best defender—center back Mario Hermoso—the goals were just a matter of time.
After Messi’s initial seventeenth minute goal, Barcelona produced four big chances through the rest of the first half. Funnily enough, Barcelona’s second and third goals came from more difficult chances that were brilliantly finished by Dembélé and Suárez.
Perhaps it’s fair to spend a few words on Dembélé. His chaotic nature and ball control deficits lead him to lose the ball often, and this chronic turnover issue turned into a massive headache for Barcelona’s defense earlier in the season. However, against Espanyol, Dembélé seemed to lose the ball less often and in less compromised positions. It is too early to say that Dembélé has learned to “control his powers”, but this game certainly looks like a good starting point.
Just like in the first fifteen minutes, Espanyol generated some good counterattacks and chances, but they lacked the one-versus-one talent and inspiration to beat Barcelona defenders and finish their chances. Throughout the game, they seemed better at creating shots through set pieces.
Espanyol regained some control, but Messi strikes again
Unfortunately, this is one of those match reports in which there is little to talk about for the second half, thanks to Barcelona’s three-goal lead and Espanyol’s inability to fix most of the problems they experienced during the first half.
During the initial fifteen minutes of the second half, Espanyol enjoyed a brief period of dominance, in which they aggressively stifled Barcelona’s buildup and controlled possession of the ball. Right winger Pérez tried to lead the charge on the counter, attacking the spaces behind Jordi Alba, teaming up with right back Javi Lopez and producing crosses and cutbacks into Barcelona’s box. However, Espanyol was once again unable to win the ensuing individual duels in the box and finish their attacks. Rubí tried to improve his team in this regard by substituting wingers Pérez and Melendo for Leo Baptistao and Sergio García, but the changes had little effect.
The tide slowly started turning in Barcelona’s favor, as Messi, Dembélé and Suárez once again wreaked havoc on the counter behind Espanyol’s pressing lines. After a few missed chances, Messi would finally kill the game with yet another brilliant free kick. Messi’s stunning free kick productivity over the last four years has seen him score more free kick goals on his own than entire elite teams, such as Real Madrid, FC Bayern or Juventus.
With such unsalvageable goal difference, the final twenty minutes of the game were a dull affair, with both teams accepting the result and playing with significantly less intensity. Valverde opted to give some rest to Dembélé, Suárez and Rakitić, and Espanyol still managed to create some danger via set pieces, including a goal that ruled out by VAR in a very tight offside call.
During the first few months of LaLiga, coach Rubí managed to squeeze every bit of performance out of Espanyol’s squad and deservedly put them in the top five spots of LaLiga. However, it was going to be hard for Espanyol to maintain that level of performance throughout the entire season.
Their ability to play out from the back depends heavily on the talent of Mario Hermoso and Marc Roca, and the absence of either player can seriously affect Espanyol’s buildup mechanisms. They have a good striker in Borja Iglesias, but he is the team’s only big goal scoring threat, and the forward line is in dire need of better dribblers to help the team disorder defenses more easily. Despite the excellent tactical work of Rubí and his coaching staff, the limits of Espanyol’s squad are finally catching up to them.
Barcelona, on the other hand, has good reasons to be happy about this result. Not only did they crush their city rivals, but they did it with perhaps the best collective performance of Messi – Suárez – Dembelé this season. However, we should emphasize that this setup still poses problems in defending counterattacks. We will have to wait for future games to know if Valverde intends to make this his starting forward trio once again, or if it is an alternative that will be used only for specific games.
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