Lionel Messi had given the visitors the lead after Nelson Semedo was tripped in the box, but three goals in six minutes from José Campaña, Borja Mayoral and then Namonja Radoja led to their collapse with fine finishes which left Marc-Andre ter Stegen with little to do but watch the ball sail past him into the back of the net.
Levante stuck with a rigid 4-4-2 shape with Enis Bardhi keeping his place in the side after impressing in midweek as Paco López looked to force his team into a reaction on home turf following defeat to Espanyol.
Ernesto Valverde’s biggest surprise came in defence where Junior Firpo was left out of the matchday squad despite travelling, with Semedo selected in his place at left-back and Sergi Roberto on the right. In midfield, Frenkie de Jong continued in the holding role in place of Sergio Busquets.
Levante exploited Barcelona’s pressing weakness
From the off it was clear that Levante would look to press Barcelona high in order to drive them into making mistakes. What was most impressive was the way in which they maintained this press, unlike many sides who see themselves fading physically and unable to maintain their early momentum, with Barcelona exploiting their tired legs later on. Instead for Levante, in the past 10 games, only twice have they recovered the ball in the final third more than their 12 recoveries in the danger zone against Barcelona.
Such a press played a key role in both of the first two goals that they scored to turn the tie on its head. As can be seen here in the build-up to the first goal, Levante pressed high even into the corner, with six players dedicated to the press, with the front three all being called upon to press intensely to track and close down passing channels for two players each. It also meant that once a mistake was made and possession was turned over, they had players committed to immediately outnumber the Barcelona defenders who were all at sea attempting to stop the Levante attack.
This approach bore many similarities to the 2018 fixture when Levante brought an end to Barcelona’s unbeaten league season by pressing high and forcing Barcelona players into basic mistakes. López clearly recalled that occasion and looked to use the tactic again, with his team doing impressively well to retain energy whilst out of possession, as they were 64% of the time, and then spring a high press when appropriate. Maintaining that energy was essential for Levante’s three points.
Barcelona congested the final third
However, it is also worth noting where Barcelona went wrong. Despite beating Levante for xG, 1.9 compared to 1.48, the Catalan side failed to take advantage of all of their possession. That was in part due to the way that they blatantly overloaded and congested the middle of the park as Levante shut up shop. By providing a narrow bock of 10 defenders, it left space out wide for Barcelona to exploit yet the only man to do so was Messi. As can be seen in the below example, all five Barcelona players other than Messi in the final third are positioned within the Levante defensive block which was well organised.
Only once this season have Levante faced fewer shots this season, against struggling Alavés. By shutting down the game after taking the lead, pushing five men into defence, Levante invited Barcelona to play the ball sideways, as can be reflected by the way in which they produced 263 lateral passes, compared to their season average of 239, an increase of 10% on their average. This was reflective of how Barcelona were stuck for ideas, particularly late on in the game as they moved the ball around from side to side without any penetration, as also proven by the 10% decrease in progressive passes and 12% decrease in passes to the final third when compared to season averages despite the total number of passes actually making 3% more passes than usual.
The introduction of Ansu Fati clearly looked to disrupt these lines and organisation with his pace and direct style, but it was not enough. Valverde’s all too frequent solution of throwing on attackers only serves to further congest an already heavily populated area and eventually just narrows down the space available for the likes of Messi and Fati to exploit with their pace and technical ability.
Semedo on the left again
Another, perhaps surprising, decision from Valverde was to persist with his decision to deploy Semedo at left-back rather than Junior, who had travelled with the rest of the squad to Valencia. Playing out of his natural position, Semedo faces a basic challenge in that he is a fairly one-footed player, but he manages it well on the left flank and actually looked to be a real threat on the front foot in the first half.
Going forwards, Semedo continues to look dangerous on the left. With five progressive runs and three completed dribbles, he carried the ball well when going forwards down the left flank and even won his side a penalty with his impressive movement, making a darting run past the full-back as Arthur picked him out through the gap in between the defenders. Once in the box, he invited the foul and willingly obliged to go down when contact was made for a clear penalty which Messi converted.
Defensively, on the other hand, was another story. In fact, his defensive duel success rate was down 22.8% compared to his season average, making fewer recoveries, clearances and interceptions than he would usually. Up against players looking to take him on and clearly targeting his weaker foot, Semedo continues to fail to convince. On the ball, Semedo has greater control and his movement and technical ability are crucial, but it is in defence where he must improve on the left in order to read the game better and avoid being caught out on his wrong foot so often.
López employed a perfect gameplan which simply outwitted Valverde in Valencia. The La Liga champions retained top spot thanks to other results, but their performance was a major downgrade compared to recent outings. López easily identified their weakness with a high press whilst Barcelona and Valverde failed to find a reaction, instead simply congesting the final third with Barcelona bodies who contributed little other than to force the ball wide by denying space in the middle of the field. Both teams must improve, but Levante fans will never forget the seven minutes which changed the game with a tireless high press, even at 2-1 up. For Barcelona, there won’t be any excuses.