I have a lot of friends who are Barcelona fans. Usually they get along very well, bar 1 man: Dani Alves. Valencia’s coach Unai Emery must be a big fan of him by continuously attacking the flank (hole) that is left empty by the attacking-minded Dani.
Of course it is not fair to condemn Dani himself. It is this dynamic, high pressure pressing game that makes Barcelona the winning-machine of modern football. Emery gambled, like Jose Mourinho did with Real Madrid, by fully utilising Barca’s pressing game.
Carles Puyol was back in the heart of the defence and his partner was Javier Mascherano. Not a problem, Mascherno, in my opinion, has successfully added ‘center-back’ to his favourite positions. In fact, as we’ll see from the snap-shots of Valencia’s goals, you’ll find he’s not responsible for any at all. Actually, no individual is guilty. It was this philosophy that took Dani Alves out of his position when both goals were being set-up: on each occasion, Barca was defending outnumbered because Dani is always up-front.
Valencia’s first goal
So it started with Puyol (Red circle) intercepting a misplaced pass from Valencia and then misplaced it back to them. Mark Abidal’s position (Yellow circle). Mind that he is the left-back.
Following his miss-placed pass, Puyol tried to make up for that by applying immediate pressure on the Valencia player (Red circle), leaving a huge space between Abidal and Mascherano. Yes, that’s Mascherano, not Dani as he is a little bit higher up. Keita (Light blue circle), recognising the possible danger, started to fill up the space left by Abidal shifting center to fill up what’s left empty by Puyol.
Puyol (Red circle) failed to stop the Valencia player (White circle) from turning and Busquets was certainly in no position to stop him. Up until then, Puyol, Busquets and Dani Alves were all taken out of the game already, leaving a 4 v 3 situation (Beyond the green line) to Valencia’s advantage. Mark Keita’s body stance (Yellow circle), later on we’ll see he’s not quite aware of the player lurking behind his shoulder.
The 4 v 3 situation is more visible here. By then the 3 defenders (actually Keita wasn’t a defender in the set-up) were doing a good job position-wise: Mascherano trying to stop the cross, Abidal covering front post and Keita covering mid-goal area. However, we can already see Soldado is running ahead of Keita (Yellow circle). What’s more, imagine Valencia has a right flank player surging up to that immense space left to Keita’s right shoulder (which is exactly the case of the second goal).
Abidal did his best by getting to the front post ahead of Valencia’s player, but Keita was out-run by Soldado already. Despite the fact that it was Abidal who put to ball into his own goal, we can see how fragile Barca’s defence was in this case: it’s 3v 2 inside the box with one of the 2 being a mid-field.
Valencia’s second goal
The second goal is even a clearer picture of how Valencia managed to take advantage of Barca’s high pressure. So it started with Valencia having possession in its own half and Barca was deploying 5 players (Messi, Fabregas, Pedro, Xavi and..yes Dani Alves) in their half to exert the pressure on them.
The pressing was successful as Valencia was forced to play a high ball towards midfield. ( Actually that was the key: if they hit it directly towards the empty half of Barcelona, as many teams would do, Barca’s defenders would have all the time to collect the loose ball.)
Take a look at Barca’s defence line: only Puyol and Abidal were left. Mascherano, the other defender, was drawn out of position to challenge for the header (Red circle) as 5 other players (the pressing players) were already been taken out of the game. Once again, Abidal (Green circle) needed to tug in as a make-shift center-back, leaving Pablo (Yellow circle) with all the space in front of him.
Valencia successfully retained possession from the header challenge and Barca, as they always do, exert immediate pressure on the ball: Dani and Xavi were double-teaming (Green circle). Another characteristics of Barca’s pressing was the attention paid to possible passing outlets: Mascherano (Red circle) was tightly marking the man who just beat him in the air. Abidal can’t be seen from here but for sure he was covering the depth behind Puyol in view of a long ball played by the dribbler.
Valencia has the dribbler (should be Banega, Red Circle) to thank in order to make this goal happen. You can see from this shot and the last that he hold off the pressure on him and travelled 10-yards with the ball, crossing the mid-line and drawing one more Barcelona’s player (Busquets) and obviously distracted Mascherano (see how Mathieu (Green circle) now got unmarked and was ready to run into the space down the flank in view of a through ball from Banega. Puyol (Light blue circle) was obviously aware of the danger and was in perfect position to cover the space Mathieu is about to run into. Abidal, in the middle, was also trying to set up an off-side trap should Banega played the ball directly to Soldado, who is in off-side position now. What Abidal cannot handle, or did not know, was Pablo (Yellow circle), who has been left unattended for the last few seconds.
So the through ball was hit into the channel as expected for Mathieu to run with. Credit to Mascherano as he made up for the yard and chase Mathieu brilliantly. Puyol was also in good position covering Mascherano. However, both effort would prove to be unsuccessful as Mathieu was able to cross the ball. Obviously Abidal moved back to track Soldado (Green circle) and has all his attention on him. What we should notice is Soldado’s head: he knew Pablo was out there unmarked. I tend to believe he intentionally distract Abidal by making his move wrongly-timed, allowing the ball passing through both of them and end up at Pablo’s feet. What’s more, it was not until Soldado glanced Pablo did Abidal looked to his right shoulder (and recognised the happy face of Pablo) for the first time for the last 10 seconds, but it was too late obviously.
After all that, it was nothing more than a penalty kick for Pablo and the poor, helpless Valdes. Once again, only 2 defenders were in Barca’s own box.
Of course Barcelona hit back on both occasions and the game ended 2-2. In fact, Barca’s goals are as elegant as usual, always a pleasure to watch. The thing is, When I saw Valencia’s second goal, it has Barca’s style hidden in it: Banega was able to travel with the ball and drawing 3 or 4 oppositions around him and release the ball to the space left by those crowding oppositions; isn’t that how Barca always score? Messi would dribble in midfield, drawing everyone’s attention and suddenly release a through ball to one of the wingers who had been waiting for the right second to run into the space behind oppositions’ last defender.
As a matter of fact, I think Valencia has successfully exerted excellent high pressure on Barca, at least in the first half to force more errors from the back. Emery and Mourinho has already demonstrated ways (while Mourinho tends to pressure Barca from start till the end, Emery has used a mixture: as shown in the second goal, they survived Barca’s pressing and successfully put the ball up front without losing it) to deal with Barcelona. Of course, you need to have quality players who understands the game in order to make it a real fight.
Now I am more than ever curious which team is going to give Barcelona’s high pressure game a real hard time now that the ways are no secrets anymore.