After a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their semi-final tie with Valencia, Barcelona was lucky to be square on aggregate with Los Che: Barça’s only goal came from a corner kick and goalkeeper José Manuel Pinto escaped a rightful red-card for an outside-the-box hand-ball before even a half-hour went by. Valencia was ever dangerous, featuring Jordi Alba and Jérémy Mathieu, a capable and adept left-flank partnership, and Roberto Soldado, Spain’s potential replacement at Euro 2012 for David Villa. Valencia’s result was at worst deserved and at best egregiously unfair, and at third in La Liga, five points clear of Levante and Espanyol, Valencia came to Camp Nou emboldened and brave.
As usual, Unai Emery fielded his 4-2-3-1-ish shape, but the brilliant tactician was unfortunately without his first choice to head the shape in Soldado, as the fifth-highest scorer in La Liga this season was stricken with a bout of the flu. Replacing Soldado was Aritz Aduriz, and Emery also made more changes from the previous leg: where Alba had played in midfield, it was Mathieu’s turn to lead the charge down their left, and Sofiane Feghouli started on the right for Pablo Piatti.
For Barça, Pep Guardiola again employed his 4-3-3 and again played captain Carles Puyol at right-back, keeping Dani Alves on the bench. And since Sergio Busquets was still recovering from a knock inversely damaging to its gruesome appearance, Xavi Hernández came back into the starting eleven. Xavi’s return meant the promising Thiago moved to a hybrid holding/attacking role in midfield: while obligated to be the fifth man in Barça’s outfield defense, Thiago also was afforded the freedom to venture forward with Barça in possession.
The other change saw wingers Alexis Sánchez and the newly-promoted Isaac Cuenca switch sides. It was a move that tied in with Puyol’s deployment to right-back: needing an outright win or a scoreless draw to either advance to play Athletic Bilbao in the final or avoid extra time, Guardiola played his best defender and his winger with the best defensive work-rate down his right flank to counter Alba and Mathieu down Valencia’s left.
While defensively sound, this isn’t without its problems: Puyol’s two spin-moves notwithstanding, Barça’s captain isn’t the most able of offensive players. While this can make things difficult for Barça offensively when needing a marauding full-back to provide width, it can also make things difficult for Barça to patiently build-up their play out of the back. Coupled with Pinto, not the ably-passing Victor Valdes, in goal and the absence of Busquets, Barça’s link between defense and midfield, it would not have taken a first-rate manager to realize wantonly pressing Barça high up the pitch was a good idea.
But Valencia does have a first-rate manager, so pressing Barça high up the pitch was just how they started the game. It didn’t produce a goal at the outset, but it did gain them the tempo, a difficult feat against Barça made all the more difficult in front of tens of thousands of screaming Catalans. So on their back foot was Barça that Pinto was sending his goal-kicks long, an occurrence for this year’s Barça almost as rare as their not keeping a clean sheet at home.
After a mishit by an unmarked Mathieu and a wide-firing from a clear Feghouli, though, things settled down for Barça. While Thiago wasn’t poor in midfield, he’s more of an apprentice playing the Busquets role than a master craftsman, and the first weight to tip the scales in Barça’s favour was Xavi dropping deep with Thiago to strengthen Barça’s ability to get the ball out of their end. Their tandem holding wasn’t as elegantly simple as Busquets’ brilliance nor was it as efficient (obviously), but Xavi filling to the side opposite of Thiago got Barça’s feet back under them.
Instead of not being able to build any meaningful possession, Barça’s problem then changed to what to do with their deeper-than-usual possession. Playing in their 4-3-3 against Valencia’s 4-2-3-1 meant Barça was without the spare man in midfield their 3-4-3 or “3-7-0″ would’ve provided. Their initial attempt at solving the problem was using the two-way ability of Thiago with the likewise-acumen of Xavi and Cesc Fàbregas: while Thiago was certainly the chief defender of Barça’s midfield, Guardiola, as noted before, gave the young first-teamer the freedom to venture forward in attack, rotating freely with Fàbregas and Xavi when in possession, wanting to use the lack of a true pivot to disrupt Valencia’s stringent pressing and defensive shape. It was an approach not unlike the one routinely featured by FC Porto under André Villas-Boas.
While this wasn’t entirely unsuccessful, it didn’t consistently advance Barça into their final third, linking with their forwards. It also didn’t achieve the primary focus of Guardiola’s tactics: getting Lionel Messi in advantageous positions. So what was Messi to do, then, when playing as a false-9 whose midfield was still too recessed to provide meaningful service?
The answer, of course, was drop deeper. And this did almost unspeakable things to Valencia’s defense, and Barça was soon ahead.
Messi, the false centre-forward, didn’t just drop deep to receive the ball before providing Fàbregas a stunning long-ball. He dropped well beyond the hole and into his own half, right-of-centre. He dropped so deep that it wasn’t a midfielder who passed him the ball but Gerard Piqué, a centre-back. Messi didn’t just receive Piqué’s pass more recessed than Xavi: he received the pass more recessed than Carles Puyol.
Valencia was not ready for this. Marking Messi in Barça’s own half wasn’t a Valencia midfielder but centre-back Victor Ruiz, leaving Valencia with only three men at the back and enormous channels for Barça’s advanced players to run through to goal. And given the exceptional connection enjoyed by Messi and Fàbregas, it was no surprise the former Arsenal captain took advantage of a ball-watching Valencia defense to get in on goal.
The outset of the second half saw Emery switch Alba and Mathieu, wanting Alba’s pace ahead on the left to test Puyol’s lack-of. And the move almost provided an immediate dividend: Alba headed a pass around and raced past Puyol, only to be denied by a did-well Pinto. Perhaps Emery wanted to throw a different look at Barça than he did the week before, and there is merit to providing a different wrinkle, but Alba’s pace surely would’ve been better utilized from the first minute upfront, not the forty-sixth, giving Puyol a much smaller margin-of-error and Valencia a more-open window for attack.
What tactical interest then remained was killed off by Feghouli’s sending off in the seventy-sixth minute, a potentially harsh reprimand for an unfathomably foolish “challenge to Puyol’s face” by someone already-on-a-yellow.
Valencia started the second leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final against Barcelona bravely and positively, but their inability to capitalize on their chances gave Barça — and Messi — the slack needed to hang a noose. Valencia’s Plan A gave them more than a fighting chance, but Barça’s Plan B delivered the knockout punch, getting through Diego Alves’ countless parries and heroics.
Editor’s note: This tactical review has been written by twelve point courier. Beyond being a football tactics enthusiast, he is a sports/politics blogger with a slight emphasis on snark and illustrating the asinine and illogical. Follow him on twitter @tpcourier.
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