Chalk Talk: Valencia’s defensive discipline stymies Barcelona at Camp Nou
By Liviu Bird
A steadfast and defensively committed Valencia yanked FC Barcelona off the top of the table on Saturday with a 3-2 away win. Lionel Messi’s first league goal of the calendar year wasn’t enough to earn a point, and he missed a chance in stoppage time to pull Barça back even.
Most of the credit had to go to Valencia’s defensive block, which was difficult to break and provided ample opportunity on counter-attacks to score three times. An uncharacteristically shaky day from Victor Valdés in the Barcelona goal aided the cause, as did Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves’ heroics.
Barcelona lined up in their trademark 4-3-3, with Messi as a false nine. Sergio Busquets held in front of the center backs, allowing Jordi Alba and Dani Alves to bomb down the flanks with wingers Pedro and Alexis ahead of them.
Xavi completed 96 percent of his passes, and Cesc Fàbregas found his intended target 92 percent of the time in midfield. However, both players were less centrally focused than usual, due to Valencia’s defensive tactics, which made it difficult to penetrate through the middle.
Valencia 4-1-4-1 leaves little space for Leo
From the opening whistle, Valencia’s intentions were clear. They held a line of confrontation around the bottom half of the center circle. Only center forward Paco Alcácer was exempt from heavy defensive lifting in a 4-1-4-1 block.
The idea was to keep Barça out of the middle and prevent Messi from receiving the ball between Valencia’s defensive and midfield lines.
In attack, Javi Fuego and Oriol Romeu played as a double pivot, but defensively, Fuego roamed the space between lines and cut off Messi’s passing lanes.
As long as the ball was out of the middle, Valencia was content, even though the wide spaces were left vulnerable. However, Barcelona didn’t get much service, finding its target on crosses just seven times in 25 attempts. (Pedro found the most success, creating two shots on his service.)
With Valencia holding 10 men behind the ball, Barça center backs Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano were often left alone in the back. It didn’t burn them until nearly halftime, when a quick counter — aided by a Jordi Alba injury during the run of play — led to Valencia equalizing.
Goal scorer Dani Parejo charged forward and laid the ball wide for overlapping right back Antonio Barragán. Instead of continuing his run into the penalty area and the only waiting opponents, Parejo held back and finished a cutback in front of the defensive line.
That goal gave Valencia confidence on the ball. Their pass completion jumped from 78 to 82 percent in the second half, and they looked much more comfortable and less panicked in possession, despite still giving the ball away cheaply at times.
A way through: wide isolation for Pedro, Alexis
As mentioned, Barcelona had space in wide areas to get behind the Valencia back line. Despite crowds in the middle, changing the point of attack quickly gave Barça several opportunities for isolation (even two-on-one for brief moments), particularly in the first half.
In this image, eight of Valencia’s nine field players back defending are inside the middle channel, creating an eight-on-five superiority. Barcelona could play in two places: on top of the midfield line, which would leave a solid block of two lines of players to penetrate, or wide.
By the time the ball got toward the Valencia penalty area, within 25 yards or so of goal, it was usually too late to get the ball wide. Passing lanes became smaller, and all but the most precise passes became easier to pick off.
Barcelona combatted that by spraying balls wide earlier, while they held possession in the middle third. They completed 44 of 50 long passes from their feet.
The key to their effectiveness with long balls was that it was a deliberate tactic to exploit the only open area in Valencia’s defense. That conscious decision is far from the desperation of long balls most teams hit when they are faced with a sturdy defensive block.
Even tighter: second-half defensive adjustments
In the second half, Valencia tweaked its defense slightly. Despite having limited time on the ball between lines, Messi still found ways to be dangerous in that space in the first half. He completed 16 of 19 passes near Zone 14 (the area just on top of the opposition penalty area) in the first half.
Valencia moved to a 4-4-1-1 rotating press. It reduced the space between lines even further, holding Messi to six of nine passes in Zone 14 in the second half.
The premise was simple: the midfield five settled into a flat zonal defensive system, and the player nearest the ball applied first pressure. As the ball moved out of his zone, he would retreat into the five-block, allowing his teammate next to him to step up.
This normally ensured that four players were within tackling distance of Messi at all times, and the defensive line could hold its ground.
The defensive blocked collapsed further, to a 5-4, the closer Barcelona got to goal. This also nearly eliminated the isolation problems Valencia had in the first half because it provided built-in cover in wide areas of two or even three players.
Valencia’s players interchanged defensively, always ensuring that the most dangerous spot (the middle) was covered before attempting to pressure the ball wide. If necessary, the wingers could collapse into the back line, and six players occupied the last line at times.
On the other end, they snuck a winner. On that final goal, miscommunications and breakdowns in the back allowed Alcácer a straightforward finish, with Sofiane Feghouli wiggling through four defenders to send in the decisive cross.
After the initial throw-in, four Barcelona defenders surrounded Feghouli, but none of them could tackle emphatically enough to regain possession. In the middle Alcácer ghosted off Piqué’s shoulder, and Dani Alves did not warn him of the danger, perhaps preoccupied with Pablo Piatti sitting on his own shoulder.
In the end, Piqué never turned his head to see the attacker, and Valdés flapped at another cross into his area. After getting away with one late in the first half on a corner kick, he was punished this time.
Another way to stifle Barça tiki-taka
If a possession-based team is shaky on the ball at times, a high-pressure system can destabilize them and cause trouble. West Bromwich Albion showed that against Liverpool on Sunday, taking a surprise point away from the Reds.
However, Barcelona’s players are trained from an early age to be comfortable on the ball under any circumstances. High pressing for 90 minutes is tiring, especially when it isn’t too effective. Instead of wearing themselves out, Valencia held a lower block and waited for their opportunities on the break.
Valencia manager Juan Antonio Pizzi’s ability to get his team playing a highly structured, disciplined defense against the freewheeling tiki-taka masters of the Camp Nou earned his team three points. A little luck was a welcome assistance, with Diego Alves denying Messi with the slightest flick of his foot in stoppage time, but don’t be fooled: Valencia earned the victory.