Resolute Rayo: Barca unable to combat Vallecano’s high pressing and tough defending – tactical analysis
It is no secret that Barcelona have had their issues off the pitch in recent years – many of those troubles remain to this day. Financial issues, deferred wages, uncertainty around registering new signings – the list goes on. It is incredibly sad to see this happen to one of the giants in world football, but there is an argument that they only have themselves to blame. These behind-the-scenes concerns translate onto the pitch, so it seems.
Barca haven’t landed a La Liga title since the 2018/19 season – quite the wait for the Catalan club, and they have struggled to find their feet in the UEFA Champions League for some time now. Things don’t seem to get any easier this season either, as portrayed by their recent goalless draw against Rayo Vallecano in the opening game of the 2022/23 campaign.
Vallecano are a club who have experienced their fair share of off-the-pitch trouble in its history too, but now they are a club on the rise, it seems. They enjoyed a comfortable season last time out, finishing 12th in La Liga in their first campaign back in the top flight after their promotion back to the big time. They also reached the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey: a feat only ever achieved by the club once before and for the first time since 1982.
This report will provide a tactical analysis of the goalless draw between the two clubs. Expect an analysis of how Barcelona were unable to break through despite having a healthy amount of possession and plenty of attempts on goal, while we also analyse the defensive tactics of Rayo. Finally, there will be an analysis of Robert Lewandowski’s debut for the Spanish giants as we look to uncover why he failed to make an immediate impact.
Hosts Barca were set up in their classic 4-3-3 shape by club legend-turned-manager Xavi. Marc-Ándre ter Stegen lined up between the sticks with a back four of Jordi Alba, Eric García, Andreas Christensen, and Ronald Araújo. Club stalwart Sergio Busquets operated in his usual defensive midfielder role – up until he was shown a red card in the latter stages of the game. Young sensations Pedri and Gavi lined up in central midfield to provide support to a front three of Ousmane Dembélé, Raphina, and one of the best strikers of his generation – Robert Lewandowski.
Rayo Vallecano deployed a flat 4-4-2 with the aim of stopping the Barca threat in their own defensive third but also occupying them further up the pitch. Stole Dimitrievski was the man to keep a clean sheet in goal, with big thanks to his back four of Fran García, Alejandro Catena, Florian Lejeune, and Iván Balliu. Álvaro García and Isi Palazón operated on the flanks with central presence from Pathé Ciss and Unai López. Sergio Camello and Óscar Trejo made up the attacking unit for the visitors.
Rayo’s pressing: the good and the bad
While Barca’s tiki-taka style of play has been tweaked over the years to accommodate its evolving squad of players, the core principles remain the same. They look to pin the opposition deep into their own half to allow themselves to dictate the tempo and flow of the game. Virtually every team will be aware of these tactics by now, but you will still see a lot of teams play into that and look to simply hit Barca on the break.
Rayo Vallecano opted to go down a different road. From the first minute, they looked to press Barcelona high up the pitch, with their flat four in midfield proving to be effective in shutting out forward passing options. Below is an analysis of the Rayo press – where and how it was effective, and which parts they were not so successful in.
Barcelona are simply not used to playing against teams who play with this shape or this level of courage and aggressiveness. Knowing that the hosts want to play through the thirds before asserting their dominance via possession in the attacking third, Rayo commits a strong number of players to a high position to trigger the press. In the scenario above, five players are well-positioned and extremely alert in the timing of the press, allowing Barca absolutely no time or space to move the attack forward smoothly.
From the initial press you see above, the goal for Rayo was to stop Barca from getting through the midfield third and to push them back towards their own goal and hopefully snatch the ball in the process. Furthermore, when the press did push Barca backwards, they sometimes allowed just one or two players to sustain the pressure while the midfield unit stayed in position. This frustrated the hosts, and it resulted in a good chunk of early play involving Barca looking to play forward but being shut out near the halfway line.
Another noteworthy factor of Rayo’s tactics off-the-ball is their defensive line, which goes hand in hand with their aggressive pressing. The line is fairly high, around 10 yards into their own half – not too deep, not too high. When executing a press of this nature, the line must be high as a form of protection – if Barca beat the midfield unit’s press, the last thing Rayo want is to give them large space to work in before encountering the back four.
Pressing tactics are obviously a test for an individual’s cardiovascular limit – high energy, high intensity, and high frequency can take their toll on a player or a unit, making it difficult to sustain such a tactical approach for an entire half. The image above shows an example of this. A quick Barca throw from Jordi Alba at left-back results in the ball landing with Busquets – one of the most reliable players in possession. While the starting position from the highlighted Rayo players allows Busquets that small head start, it is their reaction, or lack of reaction, that allows him to dictate the scenario.
No pressure is applied to the decorated Spanish veteran, and he spots the run of Lewandowski, who is deceptively quick by the way, especially for his age. A lofted ball in behind the backline is eventually collected by the Rayo keeper but this phase of play served as a warning for the visitors – give Barca time and space in midfield and they will eventually punish you. The lack of a press was obviously not a tactical instruction, and we know this because of the depth of the back line, which is still relatively high. The danger lies in giving a midfielder time to pick his pass and knock a ball in behind for his striker to chase down.
Just minutes into the second half and Rayo Vallecano look to have rectified the previous issue, which seemingly caught Barca off guard. The previous analysis segment featured a warning from Barca to Rayo, but this is the opposite – this sloppy Barcelona approach let them know that Rayo need to be respected just a little more. A risky choice of pass from Christensen into Gavi while the young midfielder is being tightly marked: this is simply asking for trouble. Vallecano midfielder Ciss is the one to steal the ball from the feet of Gavi, presenting a dangerous situation for Barca.
Fast and intelligent play from Ciss saw him slip a through ball into Trejo, who made a clever run into the huge space between the Barcelona centre-backs. While Trejo’s first touch was decent enough to keep the ball from Christensen and Garcia, once the striker got the ball into the box he overcomplicated the situation, looking to take the ball past the keeper rather than unleashing a shot on goal. Big chance missed for the visitors, but effective pressing in the midfield third once more. As with the first example of the press, the main trigger was a Barca player receiving the ball just inside his own half, facing his own goal while being marked – this allows the surrounding players to swarm the area.
Barca’s focus on the flanks
In line with their philosophy and tactical approach, Barcelona’s shape has often involved a lot of width with the full-backs operating alongside the midfielders to bolster its unit’s presence. This game was no exception, but it felt like this tactical approach was used more in response to the Rayo press, to combat their efforts. Below, we take a look at how Barca focused their play down the flanks and how they would beat and unhinge the initially resolute Rayo defensive set-up.
This was a typical Barcelona shape throughout this match when in possession. Central defenders split apart to offer a switch in direction of possession, and full-backs higher up than defensive midfielder Busquets yet with a direct line of sight into their respective teammate wingers. The wingers would often be sat in line with the Rayo back four, but they would hug the touchline to provide the most width possible in an attempt to stretch their opponents.
However, Barca were smart enough to know that simply playing from CB to RB to RW as directly as that would get them nowhere, the opposition would adjust their position and force Barca back – the hosts had to create angles and space to exploit via clever movement. Below is a dissection of the move that followed the image above as it encapsulated what Barcelona were trying to achieve from this position.
As you can see from the match timer, this image was taken just four seconds after the previous where Barca looked to be locked out of the Rayo half. A lack of pressure on Eric García and his initiative to carry the ball forward forced Rayo’s midfield back slightly and created spaces in a couple of areas for the hosts. In particular, Raphina is the man on the right flank with acres of space around and in front of him following that movement.
Due to the forced retreat of Rayo, the back four had to come together and be more compact to offer stronger protection, meaning it was Álvaro García’s duty to track back and mark Raphina – which he failed to do. This allowed the Brazilian all the space he could ever dream of, and the pass from Eric García to match. An interesting and clever feature of this move is the tactical depth shown by Xavi’s men, with the highlighted (yellow) players offering an alternative path to hit the right flank. Below is the continued analysis of this segment.
Raphina’s control of García’s pass stopped him from running through on goal but he recovered well to ensure Barca can sustain pressure in the form of possession in the Rayo half. Looking at things from a Rayo perspective first, credit must be given again for their courage and confidence in the game plan – even when Barca make significant progress into their half and look to control possession in vintage Barca fashion, Rayo’s defensive line is still high and well organised, with the added presence of a midfielder to make a makeshift back five. The new midfield three come together to be compact and offer little in the way of line-breaking passes.
This type of scenario, over the years, is where Barcelona have flourished. When they have been able to push themselves into the opposition half with controlled possession, they are often dangerous, but they just could not find that next gear in this match. While the two wingers still offered good depth and width, the support from elsewhere severely limited their attacking progression.
Moving the ball quicker from side to side would have been one option – Gavi or Pedri grabbing the situation themselves and becoming available for a pass in a higher position up the pitch would be the other option. This was a running theme throughout the match – Barca would show promise in getting into the midfield and even the final third but struggled to sometimes find that last key to unlock a major chance – when they did, they couldn’t find the quality to finish the chance off.
The Spanish giants did show some creative sparks in attack to combat the resolute Rayo defending, but again, the final product was simply not good enough. This example shows a scenario where Barca had comfortable possession in the attacking third with the visitors still refusing to defend deep. The highlighted central Barca players made a run that cut toward the left of the box in a bit to receive a through ball from Dembélé but the Frenchman was clever to use their runs as a decoy as it forced a shift from the Rayo backline, leaving Raphina in promising space. The pass from Dembélé was crisp, but Raphina was unable to turn it into something of any real danger.
Lewandowski’s debut is one to forget
Obviously, this was not the ideal game for new striker Robert Lewandowski to make his La Liga debut for the club. The way the match unfolded – the tactical approach from Rayo – often left the Poland legend isolated and looking for other ways to involve himself in the game. He would always be present in a good position in the box when Barca reached the final third, but he was also sometimes forced to drop back to link up with midfielders or make runs in behind the defence, chasing scraps. This final analysis segment looks at some of the statistics recorded by the striker in this fixture to try and paint a picture of his presence.
Starting with his pure attacking influence, this was obviously not the start he hoped for. While he did register eight touches in the box, showing good hunger to be involved, there was no dangerous end product, rather just half chances here and there – the total of four shots on goal with zero on target really highlights this. The image below is an example of his typical positioning in a Barca attack.
His positioning is positive – he avoids being tightly marked in a central space near the penalty spot, and we have all seen his movement over the years when a decent ball is whipped in towards him. There were a couple of attempts to find him via a cross but not enough when you consider the calibre of player Barca have waiting in the box.
Of his 19 passes made in the match, five of them were backwards passes. While he did record a 100% accuracy rate in backwards passing, it indicates that he was sometimes forced to take up positions where he wasn’t able to be more effective. Lewandowski recorded three defensive duels, winning two, along with 15 offensive duels, of which he won six. Winning that few offensive duels again points towards where his involvement occurred. Barca struggled to involve him in the game where he can be deadly.
Depending on your philosophical bend, you may see some positives from Barca’s perspective. Avoiding defeat and keeping a clean sheet on the opening day of the season is often a decent start for most teams, but we all know that Barcelona’s success over the last 10-20 years has separated them from “most teams” in modern football, and anything short of a win at home is considered a poor result.
Their performance merited a goal as they did carve out some decent bits of play here and there, but it wasn’t a performance that deserved a victory. Credit must go to Rayo Vallecano for their valiant effort. To come to Barcelona and play with such courage and good tactical execution is rare, but this Rayo side did their manager and fans proudly – some may even think they did enough to snatch a win. A strong defensive performance and good pressing essentially let them keep Barca out – a draw away at a club of this size is a great start to the campaign for the visitors.