FC Barcelona: The problem(s) with Ernesto Valverde
This tactical analysis of the problems at FC Barcelona was originally featured on our network site barcelonaanalysis.com – the home to all things tactical, match, coach, player and recruitment analysis for FCB
Although Barcelona have conquered Wembley with a masterclass performance, they haven’t been able to continue along that path as they stumbled (once again) at the Mestalla with a 1-1 draw.
Credit has to be given to Valencia, who really did their best to get that point from a difficult home game against the current La Liga champions, but Ernesto Valverde was once again largely at fault for Barcelona’s lack of a true solution when unable to break opposition’s defence.
This tactical analysis along with statistics will show some of the more prominent shortcomings Valverde is still struggling with while at the helm of the Catalan giants.
As difficult as it may be to criticise the man who brought a domestic double to Barcelona last season with just one registered defeat during that campaign, some of the critics have been well placed and on point. Namely, his gala XI seems to be comprised of certain players that will always start and/ or the finish the game regardless of form, physical or psychological state of that individual.
So far this season those players were, for the most part, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique, Lionel Messi, and Luis Suarez. Messi is the only one who can actually be justified in this instance since there is no real substitute for him but Valverde is yet to make a real case for the others.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen has been one of the best goalkeepers in the world in recent seasons so starting him every game in every competition does seem somewhat reasonable but just how long will Jasper Cillessen, the substitute goalie, stand such treatment. The Dutchman has registered miserable zero minutes so far this season while ter Stegen sits on 720/ 720 in La Liga and 180/ 180 in the Champions League. Cillessen will surely get a nod for the Copa del Rey but his ambitions are much bigger than that.
Still, the man between the sticks is not the problem here but the rest of the defence certainly is. Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique don’t have a proper substitute at all. During the transfer window, Valverde decided against buying a new left back and justified it with putting his trust into Miranda, the young Barcelona B prospect. What happened, in the end, was disappointing, and frustrating, but mostly expected nonetheless.
Miranda never even featured in the senior team this season (zero minutes) while Alba has accumulated a total of 650 minutes with the remaining 70 going to Thomas Vermaelen who was given a nod in the game against Leganes (2:1). The end result of that experiment was visible in Barcelona dropping all three points to their hosts. As bad as that might be, the situations with Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez might be the worst ones yet. Barcelona’s third captain is also the only right-footed centre-back at the club which means that, unless there’s an injury, he will play every single game that he is able to since Valverde won’t risk playing two left-footed defenders.
And play them he did. Pique has mustered a total of 900 minutes in all competitions so far this season. In other words, he has not missed a single minute of action all season long, in all 10 matches, the Catalan side has played (eight in La Liga, two in the Champions League). Valverde’s reluctance to rest him has resulted in Pique playing through discomfort and with painkillers which might just be at the core of his tremendous decline. Suarez, on the other hand, seems to have some knee problems which are yet to be diagnosed as either a real injury or just fatigue due to too many minutes spent on the pitch (659).
Valverde’s stubbornness has basically caused Pique to be the direct culprit in a total of six goals Barcelona has conceded in the last four games while Suarez has not been able to find the back of the net for six matches in a row with the last goal coming on September 15th against Real Sociedad.
Apart from their unmistakable defensive shortcomings that were, for the most part, caused by individual errors, Barcelona also suffers from a condition called “Messidependencia”, which is self-explanatory. While probably every team on the planet would, in some ways, always depend on Messi simply because of the impact he has on the pitch, Valverde seems to come into his games solely relying on Messi to create goals out of nothing and bail him out every single time.
The little Argentinian magician does exactly that more times than not but when he fails to singlehandedly win games, Barcelona struggles immensely. Scoring goals is one thing but Lionel does so much more than “just” that, and this was extremely evident in the game against Bilbao.
Messi started the game on the bench and was introduced in the 55th minute. In those 35 minutes that he spent on the pitch, he produced yet another masterclass and even assisted the late equaliser which got Barcelona that one point at the end of the day. Still, when Messi was on the bench Barca had less possession and spent less time in the opposition’s side – 63 % possession and a low 40 % in Bilbao’s half.
Enter Lionel Messi and possession jumps to 73 %, and the attack becomes that much more deadly and focused with Barcelona now suddenly spending 74 % of their time in the final third which inevitably resulted in a late goal.
Messi’s goal tally this season has been most impressive but still pretty standard for him. In 11 appearances for Barcelona in this ongoing campaign, Leo scored 11 goals and assisted five. That return has granted him an average of 8.66 rating on most platforms. This is even more fascinating when taking into account his positioning throughout the games he has played. On paper, he usually plays as a RW but he is much more of a free roamer, to put it mildly.
Although we could say that this is just his playstyle, which is true to a certain extent, it is also a result of Valverde’s inability to provide Messi with a proper “duty-reliever”. In other words, Leo has to start and finish attacks on his own most of the time. Almost every single game he drops as deep as Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitić to pick the ball up and carry it to the final third with a cutting run or a defence-splitting pass. With all of that being said, it should come as no surprise that the only game Barcelona lost last season was the only one in which Messi did not feature at all (vs. Levante, 5-4).
Since Lionel starts on the right side and then traditionally cuts inside to the left, Barcelona mostly focus their attacks on that side, leaving the right flank completely empty. Sure, the Messi-Alba combination is deadly but it also limits the team immensely in some respects. In yesterday’s draw at the Mestalla, Semedo was the only outlet on the right wing, alongside Ivan Rakitić, but that combination was fruitless, to say the least.
The Portuguese was mostly positioned too deep and the Croat, who is lacking some serious pace, could not compensate for it. Semedo managed a total of three passes to Messi and Suarez respectively, and zero to Coutinho, while a huge amount of 34 to Ivan Rakitić (25 the other way around).
If you remove Messi from that side and decide against putting a real winger to fill that void (Dembele was on the bench while Malcolm was in the stands), you cannot expect a good result. With all that talent focused on the left side of the pitch, the problems were more than evident. Once Valencia was able to successfully park the bus and shut the only door Barcelona was trying to knock on, it was clear that the game would end in a draw.
The late introduction of Ousmane Dembele did nothing good either because, again, the focus was on that same side. Dembele replaced Coutinho and it made things equally bad or even worse for a simple reason. While the Brazilian likes to cut inside to the right, which made Alba’s overlaps possible but also made him position himself in the same area as Messi, the Frenchman kept himself wide, thus preventing Alba from advancing forward as he likes to do. The solution would be to play Philippe in midfield instead of the left wing so Alba can have the whole flank for himself, and Ousmane to the right (which is his preferred position) to fill that huge void since Semedo needs someone to combine with.
(lack of) Problem-solving
Valverde was really good at problem-solving during the early stages of his Barcelona mandate. His introductions of Paulinho in the latter stages of most of the matches were extremely effective but for some reason, he refuses to do the same with Arturo Vidal.
Yesterday, he waited until the 83rd minute to finally introduce the first sub, leaving Dembele (and finally Rafinha Alcantara) to turn the game around in less than 10 minutes on the clock. That was virtually impossible regardless of the quality entering the pitch. This was also not a one-off instance. So far this season the subs really had no real chances to prove themselves. Dembele is the bench player with most minutes so far (523), followed by Semedo (362), Arthur (173), Arturo Vidal (164), Thomas Vermaelen (160) and Clement Lenglet (150).
The rest of the squad hardly even featured at all. Munir has 70 minutes under his belt while Malcom is rarely even in the squad with a low number of 25 minutes on the pitch. Some, like Denis Suarez, Carles Alena, and Miranda, have not even played a single minute yet. This clearly shows that Valverde has no plan B whatsoever and that he solely relies on his gala XI to do the job. He even admitted that he waited so long for the first sub because he “did not know what to change about the game”, and because he “believed the current team would still do the job” although they were clearly fatigued.
Considering that it is his job to those exact things it’s not surprising that most of the fans are screaming for his sacking. A similar thing occurred in the famous “Night in Rome” when Valverde’s inactivity on the sideline (combined with bad mentality from both him and the players) inevitably lost them the game. This level of persistence on certain players and not subbing anyone out was not evident in a long time. Between 2006 and 2017 only four players have not had a break in the first seven official matches: Suárez (season 2015-2016), Messi (2014-2015), Mascherano (2013-2014) and Keita (2009-2010). When he finally does substitute his players, he does it in a weird way, and often – wrong.
Yesterday, he decided to go with Dembele for Coutinho (which was already explained) and Rafinha for Arthur but neither made any real sense. Dembele limited Alba while he would have been perfect for Rakitić instead. If he replaced Ousmane with Ivan, the Frenchman would have revitalised the right side of the pitch while the left would remain equally as active. Subbing off Arthur, who was having a great game, did nothing good since Rafinha did not have enough time (four minutes) to make a change nor a real purpose on the field.
Finally, the choice to put Vermaelen in the starting line-up and excluding Lenglet who was excellent against Tottenham was also a weird move, to say the least. The Belgian, although solid for the most part, was at fault (alongside Gerard Pique) for the early goal Barcelona conceded in the second minute of the match.
The cracks that were showing last season were covered by the domestic double and the almost unbeaten reign but slowly but surely they are reappearing once again. Valverde has a massively dangerous and talented squad on his hands but fails to use them properly. Many times it feels like the team operates on their own without real tactics.
When they win, it’s mostly due to individual superiority and brilliance, but when they lose it’s clear that they’re lacking guidance off the pitch which is supposed to be given by the coach. Valverde’s pragmatic approach has been questioned before and will be again and again until he shows some signs of actual progress.
The mistakes he does are constantly repeated and now more apparent than ever before. The result is four La Liga games without a win. Second place in the table is due to the huge competitiveness in the league, and stumbles of Real Madrid and Atletico respectively. The board seems to trust Valverde blindly but the fans do not. Saying that, everything he does is bad would be foolish to say, but covering your eyes on the mistakes is equally unacceptable.