Alex Clapham writes a detailed tactical analysis of the La Liga match between Valencia and Barcelona that ended in a 1-1 draw.
Following a circus of a week at Los Che where Portuguese manager Nuno walked after his side failed to register a shot at goal in their 1-0 loss at Sevilla; which resulted in the surprising arrival of new boss Gary Neville, both playing and coaching staff at the club will have been desperate to get back to league action. Thousands of the home fans welcomed Neville & co. to the stadium before the game by lining the streets surrounding the historic Mestalla stadium whilst singing his name and making plenty of noise in support of his ambitious words in his first press conference.
Neville opted to take a seat in the stands after delivering his brief messages to the players before the encounter; leaving younger brother and assistant Phil on the touchline alongside first team delegate Salvador ‘Voro’ Gonzalez to face the Spanish and European champions Barcelona; who were in town after bagging 23 goals in their previous five games, leaving them perched at the top of the La Liga table.
Valencia starting XI: 4-3-2-1
Domenech; Ruben Vezo, Santos, Abdennour, Gaya; Danilo, Parejo, Perez; Mina, De Paul; Paco Alcacer
Barcelona starting XI: 4-3-3
Bravo; Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
New Beginnings at the Mestalla
Within the first few minutes of kick off Valencia looked like a completely different team to 6 days previous on that fateful evening in Andalucia. A high defensive line was ordered from management as to press and get in the faces of the Barca players and not allow time on the ball to their quality stars. Roared on by their faithful in the sold out stadium; Los Che pushed and won the ball back almost immediately, pulling the trigger for both full-backs to overlap central midfielders and link up with wide men Rodrigo De Paul and Santi Mina. This was a reoccurring passage of play as Ruben Vezo tracked Neymar all the way into his own half when the Brazilian looked to collect the ball in deep areas to start attacks on the left.
Nineteen-year old Danilo is a man that will be trusted to hold everything together in the defensive midfield role for Gary Neville. The boy from north-eastern Brazil is on loan from Portuguese club Braga and has both brains and brawn as he can fight to pull the team along with his tenacity and pure strength as well as boasting an assuring touch and technical brilliance, typically seen in the repertoire of a Brazilian. Assisted by his central midfield companions Dani Parejo and Enzo Perez, Danilo was key to breaking up Blaugrana play, fully aware of his tasks as the great Lionel Messi looked to coast centrally to take control of the game.
Daring Valencia afford chances to Barca
Barcelona sussed out Valencia’s game plan relatively sharpish and as Messi and Neymar were forced into deep areas by Gaya and Vezo, the game began to be played out in a very compact area. Valencia’s backline was remarkably high and with the pace of Jordi Alba around, this is a dangerous tactic to execute. Neymar began to drift centrally to take the attentions of Vezo away from his overlapping opponents; adding great pressure to club captain Dani Parejo. The host’s midfield general has many qualities, however speed over the ground is not one of them and as the minutes passed by, Alba followed suit, jumping on opportunities to maraud down the left flank for Barca; who found him numerous times with the passing pioneers of Iniesta, Busquets and Rakitic in midfield areas.
There isn’t a hotter forward line than FC Barcelona’s in football today and to many people, this is the greatest strikeforce of all time; having scored a stupendous 125 goals between them in 2015 alone before this one. Openings arrived from wide areas as the highline of the home team got caught out frequently and Messi, Suarez and Neymar all missed gilt-edged chances that you would have bet your mortgage on them scoring, the fifth of which resulted in Phil Neville flinging himself out of his dug-out to instruct his defense to drop deeper so as to foil Barca’s plans. Valencia adapted into a 4-5-1 formation and spent the remaining 20 minutes of the half defending the area, providing a much smaller space between Domenech in goal and his back four to the champions. Santi Mina and De Paul retreated into deeper areas to create a four-man midfield wall of Mina-Parejo-Perez-De Paul with Danilo sat in behind them for added security.
Valencia’s first half lesson
Valencia came out flying once again in the second half, committing players forward, using a 4-3-3 system at times as to work off of direct passes to Spanish International striker Paco Alcacer who challenged high balls aerially with Gerard Pique. This gave both Dani Alves and Jordi Alba more defensive tasks to think about as they refrained from joining their South American attack like they did so freely in the first 45 minutes. Leaving a 3-against-3 situation in the centre of the field so regularly was proving to be costly for the hosts; Iniesta’s trickery found him spaces in which he could conduct breakaways for the ‘Cules’. By the 51-minute mark, Valencia were back into their 4-5-1 shape in which they finished the opening half; often resulting in counter attacks being thwarted as Paco was often chasing lost causes into blind alleyways without a teammate’s support in sight.
The attractions of Messi
Even though his name has been seen at the top of both goalscoring and assist charts throughout his career, there is no bigger scandal than to put what Lionel Messi does into stats and numbers. ‘La Pulga’ can take the beautiful game and paint a picture with it. The shoulder-drops, dummies and nutmegs are all instinctive genius and he plays with the same freedom as he did as a boy in the streets of Rosario, Argentina.
As the Mestalla clock struck the 52-minute mark, Messi took it upon himself once more to come inside and with a quick look towards Barca’s number 9 and exchange of colloquial Spanish from their neighborhoods of South America, Suarez moved outside to the right. As games pass through the Argentine, he attracts defenders, this is vital for the runs of Neymar and Suarez and there haven’t been many with the levels of movement and intelligence around the penalty area that the Uruguayan possesses. Opposition managers often give certain players a role to man-mark Lionel Messi and as he drifts from left to right, backwards and forwards, defenders are pulled out of position.
Little over 6 minutes after Messi vacated the right hand side, the ball was in the back of Valencia’s net. After a neat flick inside by ‘Luisito’ towards Messi, he took off like a rocket in hope of a return pass from the favourite for this season’s Ballon d’Or trophy and Leo didn’t disappoint; a perfectly weighted ball was lobbed over the defence and into the path of Suarez who raced away, bearing down on goal. After showing bull-like upper body strength to shrug off the close attentions of Tunisian central defender Aymen Abdennour, the talisman drilled home from a tight angle for his 12th goal in his last 8 games.
The game needed this goal and predictably it was the visitors that broke the deadlock. The stadium was now completely rocking and most of the noise was coming from the Catalan fans tucked away in the corner of the upper tier of the Gol Xicotet. Teams can be at their most vulnerable after scoring so, when going behind (especially at home) teams will come out to chase an equaliser as quick as possible and the Barcelona players in their Senyera away kit moved the ball without great pressure from the home team, teasing and taunting them to come out to play. There was still 30 minutes remaining and although the home fans were becoming more and more restless with each pass of the Catalan club, pushing out to chase the ball and leaving gaps in behind would have been suicidal against the quality of FC Barcelona. Barca remained patient and the ball moved from left to right when half chances appeared for the Blaugrana but they were wasted; this was becoming the theme of the night.
Valencia commit to last chance
Minute 75 and Valencia must take a chance. The visitors had been nonchalantly spraying the ball around since opening the scoring in the 59th minute and although many people say that you do less running when you have the ball, this is far from the case for Barca’s methods. If Brazilian Dani Alves has the ball in the Right Back area, Iniesta, Alba and Neymar are arranging their movements required to support or be the outlet for the player currently in possession, with every possible outcome in mind. The same goes for Messi and Rakitic if the ball is on the opposite side of the field, anticipating the next 3 or 4 passes and where they will need to be as a primary option or a player that maybe involved in 2 or 3 passes time. There is never a moment to have a break or rest as an FC Barcelona player, especially in this current side under ‘Lucho’ Enrique who demands high-speed circulation of the ball and magnificently high pressing levels when out of possession.
As a central midfielder besides Sergio Busquets, you have an extremely demanding job, both physically and mentally. With 20 minutes remaining, playmaker Ivan Rakitic was beginning to show signs of tiredness. The 27-year old plays as a box-to-box midfielder, however every engine has a limit. Three consistent passes were played by the Croatian and as his teammates attempted to retrieve the ball to involve him once again, he couldn’t manage to keep up with play. Enrique stood there; arms folded and watched his number 4’s running technique alter as he became leggy. 23-year old Sergi Roberto has been a revelation this term and his energy has been crucial to Barca’s blistering start to the campaign, however, the young La Masia project sprained his ankle in Barcelona’s 6-1 thrashing of Roma 2 weeks prior to the showdown at the Mestalla. With injuries and the transfer ban still in place, Barca’s substitutes list read:
ter Stegen, Bartra, Munir, Sandro, Adriano, Vermaelen, Samper.
Although both Munir and Adriano have had experience in midfield roles, this was an extremely intense game to be thrown into when playing out of position.
The physical and mental tiredness of the champions having not wrapped the game up yet was now Valencia’s chance. Not only the hostile crowd jumped on this, but the Valencia bench did too; the Belgian winger of Moroccan descent Zakaria Bakkali was introduced alongside Pablo Piatti and the hosts committed players forward in search of the equaliser.
Valencia were now playing in a 4-3-3 formation with both substitutes joining Paco and Santi Mina in attack. Even more chances fell for Barca still but with the crowd amped up due to their team’s bravery, Valencia were on the hunt. As a move broke down on the left for the visitors through Danilo’s dog-like tracking of Blaugrana attacks, Bakkali broke and hit a spectacular raking ball into Paco who found himself in a space edge of the penalty area between Pique and Mascherano had also lost concentration. The Spanish striker did superbly well to bring the ball down out of the sky and hold off Barca’s central defensive partnership for long enough before rolling the ball into the path of the onrushing Santi Mina who placed the ball into the top corner of Claudio Bravo’s goal with a gorgeously caressed finish that sent the home fans into pandemonium.
As the original pass of the move was played by Bakkali, Santi Mina was in a similar area to both Busquets and Rakitic; The 20-year old showed endless energy to out run the tired bodies in yellow to join his strike partner inside the area before finishing tidily.
In the end Valencia deserved the point in a very gritty performance against the world’s greatest team. With a little bit of luck in catching Barcelona on an extremely off-day infront of goal, this was an excellent starting block for Gary Neville to build from. The Englishman has dedicated himself to the role and promises to embrace the culture and language. He has a group of players that swear to run through brick walls for him and hang onto every single one of his instructions.
As for FC Barcelona, although this was a night that they will want to forget quickly, things are looking very promising for them at this moment in time. They have the three amigos up front that put the club and their teammates before personal glory. Giving up penalties for one another whilst on hat-tricks and working like dogs to provide opportunities for their teammates.
With Sergio Busquets, Andres iniesta and Gerard Pique playing as well as they ever have done and the introduction of even added quality in January through Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal, you wouldn’t bet against them winning everything once again to make it back to back trebles, especially as Messi picks up more minutes leading into the new year.
Written by Alex Clapham
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