After 2 straight wins in their first 2 matches against Betis and Alaves, Barcelona were looking to repeat a similar scoreline at home against Espanyol. Valverde has been able to bring more goals than fluidity to the team, however his implementations, tactics, and strategies are slowly starting to show. With the loss of Neymar, Valverde has the opportunity to construct a well structured team, with balance in all their lines and a defined style of play. Upon Neymar’s departure, the arrival of Ousmane Dembele, Deulofeu, Paulinho and Semedo give a completely different look to the team. These signings suggest FCB were looking to add more pace and muscle to their squad, rather than ball-playing signings. Perhaps the most important addition up to now has been Semedo, for FCB now have an actual right-back that has the qualities and versatility to play as an attacking wing-back. Last year, Barcelona’s right side was null, since Messi drifted inwards and Sergi Roberto simply does not possess the physical attributes to play from end-to-end. Furthermore, the addition of Ousmane and Deulofeu give Barca more options up top, whereas last season they were missing true wingers when Neymar was absent.
As for player roles and performances, Valverde seems to be putting together a system that players can thrive in. More players are seen comfortable with their roles and positioning, including Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Alba and Denis Suarez. Busquets has a more involved role than last year. Last season, the Spaniard suffered his worst individual season as a professional; he simply didn’t have the characteristics to adapt to Luis Enrique’s questionable 2016/2017 system. This year, he plays deeper, granting him quality seconds to think and play the ball out of the back with more ease. His combination plays and defensive intelligence have also improved, making Busquets a more efficient defender and a press-resistant midfielder. Busquets performances, therefore, have improved significantly.
If there’s something Barcelona are showing this season contrary to last year is wing play. Jordi Alba and Semedo play pivotal roles in Valverde’s system, which includes a more advanced positioning for both. They are the players responsible of providing width at all times, although occasionally Ousmane and Deulofeu have been seen granting width on the right while Semedo tucked into the half-space. Unlike Semedo, Alba is isolated in the left flank, hence why he has become more participative and attacking. Since Neymar was the only left-winger on the squad, Alba no longer has a partner on the left side to combine with. Valverde has adapted to this and has created an advantage that will be analyzed furthermore later in the article.
Alongside Busquets and Alba, the most improved player under the new boss is easily the Croatian Ivan Rakitic. Last year, Rakitic was the most exposed player out of the starting 11, as he showed an irregularity that’s unusual in the central midfielder. He was seen lost in transitions, slow to get to the ball, and his lowered confidence had him playing easy passes all the time, taking minimal risks. This year, the exact opposite would accurately describe Rakitic’s form as a footballer. He is more participative and versatile role, performing as a box-to-box type of midfielder, with efficient defending on one end and extremely productive output on the opposite end. His improved vision and shots have added a lethal weapon to Barcelona’s way of breaking down defenses.
Overall, Barcelona seem to play with more of a purpose now. Their tactics make sense, and fit the player’s characteristics, something Lucho forgot to do at times. Valverde’s FCB transitions quicker, and is more calm when playing out of the back. Last season saw Barcelona struggle more than ever to play the ball out from their initial third, but the new coach has immensely improved this area of the game.
Messi also looks sharper than last season, if that’s even possible, since Neymar left and Suarez continues his terrible form.
Now that you have a brief explanation of what Valverde has implemented to this Barca side, let’s use the Catalan derby against Espanyol to analyse his tactics.
Espanyol started with their usual 4-4-2, with their game strategy being to defend with a compact line of 4, press high, and complicate FCB with fast transitions. Quique Sanchez Flores has always been a fan of high-pressing, an aspect that has seen significant improvement throughout the course of Quique’s time as a manager. They divided the team with lines of 2 (CDM-CDM, LM-RM, ST-ST) when both high pressing and attacking. Baptistao and Moreno were the focal points up top.
Their 4-4-2 was solid enough to complicate FCB’s slow transitions during the initial 20 minutes of the match. This video should give a clear explanation of Espanyol’s mid-block, and how it helped them trouble Barca in the first half.
As illustrated in the video, they position themselves with a double line of 4. Like in the clip, both wide midfielders constantly took the step inwards to tempt Barcelona to pass to the wing. This was the trigger ESP used to press intensively in the middle of the pitch. The full-back Victor Sanches then ran at Jordi Alba. Following Sanches, Darder & Piatti closed down on the ball possessor, receiving support from surrounding teammates. They aimed to create a 4v2 situation near the ball, leading them to win the ball back.
Aside from a solid mid-block, what complicated FCB the most in the initial 30 minutes of the match was Espanyol’s high-press. The ‘Pericos’ really tested Barcelona’s ability to play out the back.
ESP High Press
Espanyol’s high press ranged between a 3-1-2, 1-3-2 and a 2-2-2. The whole team formed a 4-3-1-2 when pressing during the first minutes of the match. The point of their press was to force FCB into the wing, which they congest with players, forming numerical superiority.
Here is an illustration of how they perform their 2-2-2 press with a compact 4-2-2-2.
Notice their compact triple line of 2. This helps them pair their presses both zonally and man-marking wise. The triple partnership shifts towards the side the ball is facing, making it a compact 6 players having to be beat before entering ESP’s half. Curiously enough, Quique Flores had Piatti performing as a central midfielder whenever Espanyol high-pressed. This image is an example of Espanyol’s placement in the play below.
Here is a clip explaining their press:
FCB Overcoming ESP High Press
FCB scanned Espanyol’s press and found ways to overcome it. Here is an illustration of Espanyol’s high press explained in the past section, and what the Blaugrana’s did to overcome such situation.
Alba’s speed often helped Barcelona overcome the first line of pressure. By using Suarez as a pivot, FCB were able to beat Espanyol’s midfield line. The play seen in that video is extremely common in Valverde’s Barcelona. Alba attract markers, plays Suarez who pivots against the respective centre-back, plays Busquets, who does a fantastic job at orienting the play. They use it as a simple way to attract and play elsewhere, and is a key element in FCB’s strategy to open up compact low-blocks.
FCB Use Alba to Decongest Right Side
This section explains how FCB use the same play above to stretch defences whenever they are shifted towards one side. Here is a picture of the initial placement of the 22 players on the field at the time Rakitic had the ball.
Barcelona recognised they were heavily outnumbered on the right. When this happens, they slowly attract players to that same side, purposely isolating Alba on the opposite end. This creates positional superiority when the ball reaches Alba, since all the players except him are to the left of the red line showed in the picture. After doing so, any of FCB players, normally Busquets, Pique, or Iniesta, look for Umtiti. The Frenchman serves as a connector of both sides of the team.
Remember the combination play FCB used to beat ESP’s high press? They use the same combination play when de-congesting a compact line of defence. Here is a video explanation of how they use Alba to create a trap for Espanyol to shift towards their right, to then switch the play towards an area they can cause danger in.
As you have probably already noticed, Alba is of extreme importance for Valverde. Last season, Alba was rather irregular, showing nowhere near the confidence he had shown in the past. This year, Jordi looks like a completely new player. He has way more importance in attack, since Neymar’s gap hasn’t really been filled up by anyone. So far, the left flank is similar to the right last year, referring to the low activity from a forward on the wing. Messi would drift centrally, and Sergi Roberto simply does not posses the pace to be that direct fullback. The only difference would be that Alba has the characteristics of an attacking full-back, and has been performing this role extremely well this season. The only player who seems to play comfortably on the left is the uprising Denis Suarez. Alba has been seen assisting goals in the box, performing dribbling runs both outwards and towards the half-space, and has been more efficient when defending. If there is something Valverde has been doing well , it’s integrating those players who the system didn’t fit last year.
Speaking of such, the resurgence of Rakitic as a crucial piece in the team is by far one of the best news FCB fans can get. Last year, like Alba, the Croatian had a vague year. He was seen performing at a lower level than expected, and was questioned when in the starting 11. After such an irregular season, Rakitic has adopted a completely different role this season. His box-to-box role has him participating way more, playing more variation of passes, attack more directly, dribble more effectively, and overall understand Messi better, which is hugely beneficial to FCB’s fluidity.
Although not very analytical, here are 2 clips that show how Rakitic has evolved this season so far under Valverde.
Last season, that assist to Messi would have been highly unlikely. He would have probably attempted a simpler pass. The second clip is just an example of how his dribbling and understanding with Messi have been spot-on this year.
First Half Recap:
The opening goal came through Messi, when he rifled his left shot into the top corner after receiving that brilliant pass from Rakitic (goal shown in the video above). Barcelona’s second goal was also scored by Messi, after a brilliant counter-attack carried by Alba. Although troubled at times, FCB took a comfortable 2-0 lead into the second half.
Logically, the second half contained more spaces for both teams to play in. Espanyol had to look for a goal, and FCB knew this very well. Valverde’s team did a good job at reading the tempo of the game, properly recognising when to perform slow or quick transitions.
In the second half, Barcelona performed a different layout to play out of the back. Valverde has implemented a 3-4-3 formation when playing out of the back that eases Barcelona job of overcoming high-presses. For starters, the CDM dropping deeper to form a line of 3 helps create a 4v2 diamond vs. Espanyol’s strikers. This makes their high-press less effective, giving more time for the back 4 (line of 3 +GK) to pick a pass behind Espanyol’s midfield. When FCB get the ball to that area, they get rid of it quick, to exploit spaces elsewhere. They then decide if they want to transition quickly or knock the ball around until they organise their attack positionally. Here is a video clip portraying both situations:
Notice how both started from the back and ended in the opposite net. These are 2 examples of Barcelona using a 3-4-3 when playing out of the back, however the tempo of each play varies greatly. The strategy is to get the ball to a player behind Espanyol’s mid-field, to then quickly exploit an area of the field with either qualitative or positional superiority. After doing so, they choose to either transition quickly or play slowly. Anyways, both ended in the back of the net.
The reason Rakitic is the third CB in the second clip is because Busquets was subbed off for Paulinho. When both Paulinho and Rakitic are on the field, the Croatian is designed the defensive role.
As previously stated, Valverde has done a phenomenal job at making inconsistent players from last year feel comfortable. The improvement of Rakitic and Alba can only be good news for FCB, however the best news they could ever hear is the fantastic job Busquets has been completing under Valverde. Last season, Busquets looked completely uncomfortable in the system, was often alone, and his pace seemed way off. After a harsh Super Cup against Real Madrid, Sergio has looked stellar. He performs deeper, so he has more time on the ball. He also directs plays way more than with Luis Enrique, and is more precise when playing out of the back. In fact, he is a key element when rival team’s high press FCB. He serves as a press-resistant midfielder whenever Barcelona are to play out of the back in tight spaces. Here is an example of how Alba and Semedo both constantly played combinations with Busquets to play out of pressure:
Semedo, Alba, and overall the whole team benefit greatly from Busquets’ recent form. He serves as a connector from the defence to the attack, and is crucial to the team’s structure.
Lastly, Valverde has started to implement a more active counter-press at the Camp Nou. Although Messi rarely presses highly, against Espanyol he was seen counter-pressing at times whenever he lost the ball. This is a sign of Ernesto’s counter-press system he had at Bilbao. Hopefully, Barcelona recover this high press that hugely benefits them by either winning the ball up the field or forcing rivals to give the ball away. Although not nearly perfect, Barcelona’s counter-press is starting to take form. Here is a clip showing their counter-pressing strategy:
As shown, their counter-press involves 4 players near the ball. As soon as FCB might lose the ball, 3 surrounding players plus the player who loses the ball prepare a multi-directional diamond-press to cover all rival supporting players near the play. As stated, Valverde has a lot of work to do to involve Messi in counter-pressing. At least for now, the Argentine looks more active whenever Barcelona don’t have the ball.
Full Match Recap:
The match ended 5-0 in FCB’s favor, with Messi scoring a hat-trick and Pique and Suarez doing the rest. Aside from the scoreline, Barcelona’s team renovation is already taking place, and its yielding positive results. Valverde has already implemented a 3-4-3 when playing out of the back, a counter-press, and has already fit players such as Alba, Busquets, Rakitic & Denis Suarez into the system, something Luis Enrique failed to do his last season in charge.