How Valverde’s adaptability sprinkled with Messi magic saw Barcelona home against Espanyol
Apart from the usual pre-game public banter both Barcelona and Espanyol dish out to their rivals, there was no special hype surrounding the Catalan derby this time around. Still, there is no love lost when it comes to these two neighbours. Espanyol, in general, don’t enjoy trips to the Camp Nou, and this game proved to be no different.
Even though it did take Barcelona quite a while to breach the well-structured Espanyol defence, there was little threat coming from the other side to cause the hosts any real danger or provide the visitors with any hope of claiming the spoils in the Catalan capital.
This tactical analysis will use statistics to determine how yet another clash of the Catalan clubs went in favour of Barcelona and left Espanyol and Rubi wanting a lot more than they got.
Starting XI: Ter Stegen – Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba – Rakitić, Busquets, Arthur – Messi, Suarez, Coutinho
Bench: Iñaki Peña, Umtiti, Vidal, Aleñá, Sergi, Boateng, Malcom
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Starting XI: Diego López – Rosales, Lluís López, Naldo, Hermoso, Pedrosa – Melendo, Víctor Sánchez, Marc Roca, Granero – Borja
Bench: Jiménez, Dídac, Javi López, Alfa Semedo, Hernán Pérez, Sergio García, Wu Lei
The international break is finally over, and while some players got to rest up and prepare for the final rounds of La Liga, some did not get that luxury. Still, Ernesto Valverde decided to go for the safe option and opted to field an XI that closely resembled his strongest lineup.
Nelson Semedo was the only change in the backline as he and Jordi Alba manned the flanks while the centre-back pairing consisted out of Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet. Of course, Marc-Andre ter Stegen was between the sticks.
Apart from Philippe Coutinho still deputising for the injured Ousmane Dembele, the rest of the team was as expected with the usual suspects in both midfield and attack. Valverde fielded his troops in a 4-3-3 formation which did not change throughout the whole game.
Last time Rubi faced Barcelona in his own backyard it did not end well for the hosts. To be honest, they did not really fare any better at the Camp Nou, even though some changes to the formation itself were made. It should however be noted that some of those were caused by injuries.
Having conceded four goals in their last encounter, Rubi decided to deploy five men at the back this time to minimise the damage that Barcelona are capable of causing. Diego Lopez was still in goal, and in front of him there was a quintet consisting of Roberto Rosales, Lluis Marmol, Naldo, Mario Hermoso and the young Adria Giner Pedrosa. Both Oscar Duarte and David Lopez, who were present in the last bout, were sidelined by injuries this time around.
Roca, Sanches and Granero made the midfield trio while Borja Iglesias and Oscar Melendo manned the frontier in a compact 5-3-2 formation that stayed the same for the whole game at the Camp Nou.
Espanyol manage to contain Barcelona for the majority of the game
Even though Barcelona were the dominant side for the whole one-sided 90 minutes, not much can be said against Espanyol’s defensive prowess. Right from the get-go one thing was clear: the guests came to the other part of the city to survive, and if the chance of an upset arrived, they would gladly take it. Unfortunately for them, no such thing happened in the end.
Still, Espanyol did come prepared and it showed on the pitch. Just the fact that Barcelona only managed two shots on target throughout the whole game (out of 12) tells the majority of the story, but Espanyol’s total of two (one on target) is also one big part of it. So how exactly did the visitors tame La Liga’s most prolific team in front of goal? One word: compactness.
The image above is the clear representation of the mindset Espanyol had throughout the whole game, and it worked for a number of reasons. The main one here was their organisation in defence, which was admirable and should not be overlooked. Barcelona traditionally struggle against teams that deploy a five-man backline in a narrow low block such as this one, as anyone might.
But Espanyol played well, both to their strengths and to Barcelona’s weaknesses. Knowing that the Blaugrana would attack mostly down the left, which was certainly the case with 44% of their attacks flowing down that flank, Espanyol made sure that that side of the pitch was always overcrowded.
Notice above how the players stay close to each other, offering multiple markers for the attackers and easy access to the ball from all sides once Barcelona try to get it through the lines. Even in the build-up itself, Barcelona struggled because they couldn’t get past all the Espanyol players that were guarding the final third.
This made life extremely difficult for the hosts as their right side was traditionally deserted and the left had issues of its own, apart from the high density of Espanyol’s personnel. The main headache Ernesto Valverde still has to resolve is the Philippe Coutinho dilemma. The Brazilian had a solid game but a transfer worth €180 million, give or take, should deliver more than just solid performances.
The trouble with Coutinho is that he doesn’t work that well with Jordi Alba, who’s Barcelona’s biggest offensive outlet on the left. Most of the time, Coutinho would start out wide and then cut inside to the right and into his half-space. At times, this made the necessary space for Alba to overlap but mostly it limited the Spaniard as Coutinho was holding up the play.
Once he finally got into his preferred position he was quickly collapsed upon by multiple markers and he would occupy positions similar to Suarez’s. This made it even easier to defend against, as can be seen in the example below.
Notice how Espanyol manage to control the situation by making sure they outnumber the red and blue shirts entering their final third. Alba can’t overlap in this situation because all the exits are covered and both Coutinho and Suarez are sandwiched between multiple markers.
Barcelona get creative and try to adapt
To fix this problem, Valverde had one of the strikers always drop deeper and swap places with either the other forward or the full-back, in this case Jordi Alba. The Uruguayan would usually step onto the flank while Coutinho rushed forward, and Alba overlapped or underlapped on the wing. This worked well since it made the pieces move across the board and it did stir Espanyol’s compactness a bit, but Barcelona were still struggling to get palpable results.
In this scenario, the compact backline does get stretched and it immediately creates more space for the supporting cast who are joining the attack from behind. Ultimately, Barcelona needed more than just that due to the sheer number of personnel Espanyol had on that left side.
During that first half, the hosts predominantly used through-balls to get in behind the defence and try to catch the compact block off guard. This did get them into some good situation but Diego Lopez was never truly under any threat at that time.
Some more adjustments had to be made because not only did Barcelona fail to carve out clear-cut chances but they also struggled to dominate and contain the middle of the park. Yes, they had the possession of the ball for the majority of the game (68.14% vs 31.86%) but couldn’t do much with it.
Espanyol had different problems but their 5-3-2 formation in a rather defensive mindset meant that overcrowding Barcelona’s three in midfield was not such a tall task at all. The example below shows a situation in which Espanyol use this extremely well to get across to Barcelona’s side of the pitch.
Here, Busquets has to mark two players in order to stop Espanyol from advancing further up the pitch and Barcelona’s trident is easily bypassed by the opposition’s quartet in midfield. As good as Busquets, Rakitić and Arthur are, they couldn’t cover the ground four Espanyol players could.
This meant that Valverde had to get creative once again to solve yet another puzzle in this game. Traditionally, when the trio in the middle of the park struggle, Barcelona send Lionel Messi deeper to add some manpower and a creative spark when needed. This time, Coutinho and Messi took turns in helping progress the ball and even the odds.
In the example above, the Brazilian drops to midfield to create an additional passing channel for Barcelona’s backline to use when playing out of the back. This allows Jordi Alba to go higher immediately while Coutinho is tasked with progressing the ball forward. In this scenario, the centre-back pairing has a much easier time moving the ball out of the danger zone as their midfielders have additional support.
The same thing happens when Messi drops from his position to aid the midfield and the backline. Both the Argentine and the Brazilian have the skill to take the ball and move it efficiently until an appropriate channel opens up to get Barcelona into a good situation.
Both scenarios depict Barcelona getting the upper hand and creating a numerical superiority in midfield in order to successfully enter the opposition half, and eventually the final third. As far as Espanyol’s attempts go, it was not really a night to remember for Rubi’s troops. They did however show signs of life in a couple of promising situations, which will be mentioned as well.
Barcelona’s impactful substitutes and Espanyol’s slim hopes
The visitors had a slight preference for their right side as opposed to their left when attacking but as was expected, they had more success going down the left flank. Although it wasn’t really evident in the fullest in this particular game due to Espanyol’s lack of offensive outlets in general, Barcelona do struggle to stem the bleeding down their right.
This is usually because that side is less covered defensively when Messi stays up front, and the right-back, in this case Nelson Semedo, doesn’t get the adequate help. In quick transitions, and when Barcelona were not really ready with their standard 4-4-2 defensive setup, Espanyol enjoyed the whole flank for themselves, creating promising situations when going forward.
Were it not for Nelson Semedo’s great defensive contributions paired with another gigantic performance by Clement Lenglet, Espanyol might have actually posed a real threat to Barcelona in those quick counters. At the end of the day, the only real chances they had came from quick plays like those or by mistakes in the hosts’ ranks.
But just as it seemed like they would get away with a point, some Lionel Messi magic happened to get Barcelona in front. Of course, as it usually goes when Messi does Messi things, records were broken once again. He equalled Cristiano Ronaldo’s tally of most goals scored in the top five European leagues with 414, and has scored 30+ league goals for the eighth season in a row.
Still, even though he was on the score sheet both times for Barcelona, Messi was not the only hero on the night. Ernesto Valverde managed his substitutes very well once again, and in a way, they did tip the scales in Barcelona’s favour.
First, Arthur Melo and Nelson Semedo were taken off for Malcom and Sergi Roberto, both of whom are the more attacking options in Valverde’s arsenal of players. This also made a tactical change in the team as Philippe Coutinho dropped to midfield, and Barcelona finally had a true winger on the pitch.
This caused a series of other events to transpire. Firstly, it provided the team with some width, which they lacked tremendously before as Espanyol could always stay narrow and not pay the price. The only width providers were the full-backs, and they could be contained with enough manpower.
Now, Malcom stretched the back line, giving more space to the forwards, and his pace was utilised to get in behind the defence. This eventually lead Barcelona to their second goal to seal the deal.
One other thing was Coutinho’s influence. The Brazilian seems to somewhat prefer a deeper role, and while he does drop into the midfield even when he’s supposedly a winger, this was different because it meant there were more players in front of him, and it gave him more options at all times.
Notice how Coutinho can stay deeper behind and be the creator instead of rushing into the box himself. Also, now that both Malcom and Sergi Roberto are in the game, Barcelona suddenly have two active wings, both providing width and stretching Espanyol’s defence, giving space to the forwards.
Alba underlaps instead of overlapping, which works just as well since Malcom is doing his job of occupying an additional defender with his run. This made for a much more dangerous Barcelona, both in open play and during transitions, since they had more pace and width to attack the danger zones. Espanyol just couldn’t retaliate.
The visitors did however have to come out of their shape and try something once they were one goal down. In the latter stages of the game they even tried pressing the hosts higher up the pitch, but in the end that just left more space to be exploited, especially after the inclusion of some of their more mobile players.
It was a rather one-sided affair at the Camp Nou but Barcelona still had to work extremely hard to get the three points in the Catalan derby. Espanyol came prepared but had no intention of exposing themselves unnecessarily. This worked for the majority of the game but once fatigue kicked in and some tactical changes were implemented, Barcelona cruised to a more or less comfortable win.
With less than 10 games remaining in La Liga this season, the Blaugrana remain in the driving seat and in prime position to add yet another trophy to their cabinet. However, the bigger struggle is happening a bit lower down the table, but nothing is over just yet as some tough fixtures still lie ahead.
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