When Ernesto Valverde was appointed as the coach of FC Barcelona, there were many who made mockery of the man himself and the Barcelona board for appointing him. With a very decent record to his name before the Barcelona job, many doubted how his appointment would become an inspiration to the side and how he will lift the spirits of the side which had been humbled by their long time rivals in the 2016-17 season.
While the successful previous managers in the likes of Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique had been inspirational figures given their contributions to the club as a player, Ernesto Valverde was a doubtful figure in the Camp Nou though he had spent two seasons with the Spanish Giants. With the likes of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona reaching its zenith with mind blowing tactical prowess and Luis Enrique achieving the unachieved with his 3-diamond-3 set-up while also landing trophies, it was to be seen how Valverde would shape his side.
It was very surprising in the initial stages when Valverde suspended the Barcelona model. Yes, the 4-3-3 set up which was often used in the modern era by Guardiola and even Luis Enrique was not taken into account by Valverde as he introduced 4-4-2 to the Camp Nou. Though his game plan at the Camp Nou is still possession based and involves high pressing, it is not as intense as the teams at Barcelona before. His side is not very beautiful to watch and are not as easy on the eyes as the teams before.
Barcelona at the moment under Valverde is more balanced and compact and concentrates on not providing chances to the opposition teams. The 4-4-2 diamond with a revived Paulinho at the top of the diamond has paid dividends as they look more solid at the back and very creative in midfield. Messi has once again given the freedom which he has been enjoying under Pep Guardiola as he plays behind Luis Suarez as a false 9.
Made using TacticalPad
The image above shows the general set up of Barcelona under Valverde. Rakitic and Iniesta play in the wide areas while the central defense is covered by Sergio Busquets.
In possession, both the centre backs move wide and allows the space for Busquets to sit between them. The full backs are given the freedom to attack and they provide the width upfield. This allows the likes of two wide players to move inside and play as number 8s, which is their natural position. Paulinho is allowed to push further forward when Messi drops deep. This resembles a 3-4-1-2 in possession with Messi given the utmost freedom to roam almost anywhere and hence successful in playing in between the lines and breaking the lines.
We can identify the final position of the players when Barcelona are attacking and in possession of the ball. There are many tactical ideas introduced by Valverde as Barcelona have used these ideas as key in many games so far. The Messi-Paulinho link up, Messi-Alba link up, full backs providing the width, creative midfielders playing in the horizontal line with Messi, Messi’s freedom, Busquets’s movements at the back, high pressing and so on. Valverde’s side have looked very astute in executing their tactics right and play according to “The Game Plan”.
Messi – Alba link up
While the likes of Semedo and Alba have been given the responsibility to play wide and provide width in midfield, they have also used in very advanced roles. This particular tactic is followed when Messi has dropped in the midfield and allowing the players around him to move forward. Instead of finding the ones near him with say, an easy pass, Messi is often seen trying to do the inventive stuffs under Valverde which shows the freedom the man has been given.
The video below shows Messi trying to find Alba who has advanced high up the pitch. This is done right as Messi has dropped deep in the midfield and play the ball forward.
Its no surprise that Messi has been the creator in chief for Barcelona and even more so that the Messi Alba connection has been seen a couple of times. Great run from Gomes to open space for Alba to run into, and Messi plays in Alba with a dink over the top#BetisBarca pic.twitter.com/nDhSyM34Yi
— Football Bloody Hell (@fbhfootball) January 21, 2018
Also the likes of Alba going wide and forward creates combinational plays with Iniesta, Paulinho and a floating Messi. This also results in overloads in the wide areas.
Messi – Paulinho Link up
This particular tactic was seen in the game against Real Madrid. The El Clasico was a fascinating contest in the first half, but in the second half, it became a match up that was dominated by the Catalans. While Kovacic was used to man mark Messi, the latter was seen to be taking less control of the game in the final third. Kovacic did his job well in the half however he couldn’t stop Messi who advanced very deep as he was unable to follow until a particular zone.
As Messi dropped very deep as far as the line of Iniesta and Rakitic, this allowed the Brazilian to move up the field. Paulinho’s runs were often spotted by Messi brilliantly as he provided the service for the former with his long balls as he broke the lines.
Speaking of attracting players onto him, Barca left the center unoccupied at times with Paulinho joining Messi and Suarez up top, due to Coutinho’s proficiency in taking on players. This too, can be incorporated more into the side and leave Messi near the danger zones pic.twitter.com/OmVj4uSlfA
— Football Bloody Hell (@fbhfootball) January 28, 2018
Here we can identify how Paulinho joined up the field while the midfield is supported by players who came infield. Also the space left unoccupied in the centre helped Barcelona’s case as they had Messi in them who would drop deep and play effectively.
Against possession based teams, Barcelona have adopted high pressing just like how they used to do under Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique. However the pressing is not as intense as the times of the two coaches, Valverde has put in a different method of approach. Instead of directly winning the ball back, Valverde sets up his side in such a way that they press whenever a loose pass is played which acts as triggers for the press.
Rather than the press, it’s the very high line that Barcelona play week in week out that stands out from their game. Valverde is a stickler for having his teams compact and that has not changed here as he advocates his Barca side to engage in closing down the space for the opposition to work into. Having the likes of Pique, Umtiti and Busquets in the side, Barca are able to cover the space in behind their lines and not be picked off in counters.
Also the pressing is done so that they players are forced to play the ball into less threatening areas which can be recollected by creating an overload in that zone. The video below shows the same wherein the opposition player is forced to play the ball to the player who is less threatening as the overload will help Barcelona get back the ball.
One standout feature from the half was the way Barcelona pressed to win the ball back in Valencia’s half after they lost it. Some of the backwards pressing and collective positioning from a team that has been on display this season.
Valverde has done so much good work with Barca pic.twitter.com/V7FcAdI7lY
— Football Bloody Hell (@fbhfootball) November 26, 2017
While Ernesto Valverde had to deal with the loss of Neymar to PSG, he also had to deal with the loss of his replacement Ousmane Dembele due to injury. The presence of the ex-Dortmund man would’ve helped the Gaffer to deploy the 4-2-3-1 with Paulinho in double pivot alongside Busquets. However Valverde had found a great solution in his 4-4-2 in Barcelona something that is new to them in the Camp Nou.
After the 4-3-3 with Messi as False 9 and the 4-2-3-1, the 4-4-2 is something that will be remembered as the Valverde way for what it has brought to the club. Yes, they are not the old Barcelona who would play the flair game but they have become the side that is much more balanced, certain of what they are doing and always capable of achieving what they desire. In the month of December, Barcelona won 4 of their 5 games after drawing the month’s opener with Celta Vigo in La Liga. With 18 wins and 3 draws in the La Liga from 21 games. Barcelona are still undefeated in the La Liga and have taken a lead of 11 points over fellow title contenders Atletico Madrid.