After the disappointing defeat at Anfield, Barcelona had their last cup competition to play in this season. They were the favourites in the Copa Del Rey after they knocked out their biggest rival Real Madrid.
Valencia’s performance in the Europa League against Arsenal was also disappointing. However, they managed to retain the 4th place in La Liga.
This tactical analysis will show why Barcelona was hugely criticized after this final.
Barcelona started in a 4-3-3 formation. Nélson Semedo started at right back. Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet were the centre backs. Ernesto Valverde played many midfielders in this game. Arthur, Ivan Rakitić and Sergio Busquets all started. Sergi Roberto played as a right winger in the first half. Luis Suárez was injured so Lionel Messi played upfront.
Marcelino started a strong team. Valencia played in a 4-4-2 formation with Ezequiel Garay and Gabriel Paulista starting. The pair of striker Kévin Gameiro and Rodrigo both bagged a goal in the final.
Low block of Valencia
Marcelino instructed his team to defend with a low block in this game. They tried to use two defensive lines (four midfielders and four defenders) to protect the central areas. Barcelona liked to overload the centre with many players (this would be explained below). This was an approach to prevent Barcelona from utilising their numerical superiority. Therefore, Barcelona found it difficult to pass the ball which threatens the defensive line. When Valencia was defending near their box, their two lines tried to keep compact to prevent Barcelona players exploiting space between the lines. Barcelona could only move the ball to the sides or pass the ball back.
The below image illustrated the 4-4-2 defending system of Valencia. The two lines remained compact so Semedo cannot pass the ball into that area. Barcelona would have to pass the ball back since they did not risk the loss of possession. Semedo passed the ball back to Roberto and the Spaniard tried a blocked long shot, danger cleared. Barcelona cannot go through that block in the whole match.
The below situation explains why Valencia did not mind if the ball was moved to the sides, especially in the first half. It was because both Coutinho and Roberto were not natural wingers, they tended to go inside. Although Jordi Alba occupied the left flank and provide width, Coutinho did not intend to pass him the ball. Coutinho liked to drift inside to look for a shot with his right foot. This situation was expected by the Valencia players. Wass would step out early to mark Alba, this was a signal to force Coutinho to drift to the centre. However, the midfield line of Valencia had already moved to defend. When Coutinho adjusted the ball to his right foot, Soler was already there to prevent a forward pass. Coutinho then was forced to pass the ball back to the central area where it was crammed with players. Danger cleared.
Why Barcelona’s plan failed
Barcelona used a very conservative build-up in this match. Busquets dropped between Piqué and Lenglet. Rakitić and Arthur positioned between the lines. Messi dropped to the midfield as a ‘false-9’. Roberto and Coutinho also positioned himself nearer to this group of players. To sum up, there were six to seven players always staying in the central areas. This would be an ideal situation if the players positioned themselves well. With the technique of the Barcelona players, they could play like a Rondo game, moving the ball smoothly. Furthermore, if the double pivots stayed between the lines this could attract Parejo and Coquelin. Ideally, this could break the defensive structure of Valencia.
However, the players did not execute the above plan well. They did not risk to pass the ball to the double-pivot. Instead, the Barcelona players intended to move the ball to the sides early. Therefore, the Valencia players could maintain their shape easily without too much pressure. And even Barcelona could play the ball to sides, Valencia will defend as illustrated above.
The below image illustrated how the double-pivot was wasted. Arthur and Rakitić positioned themselves between the lines. Both players had enough space to receive the ball. They occupied Parejo and Coquelin. There was also a big gap between Rodrigo and Gameiro. Busquets could easily pass between that channel and find either Rakitić or Arthur. Once the pass was made, either Parejo or Coquelin would come out to stop the ball receiver. As a result, the defensive structure was broken. This was the major function of the double-pivot staying between the lines. However, Busquets tried a difficult pass to the right side. This ideally could eliminate the six Valencia players in front of him. Unfortunately, he misplaced the pass and Barcelona lost the ball.
Another bigger problem was the cramped midfield areas. With Messi also dropping to the midfield, the central area was full of players. These players were not positioned well and messed everything up. Valencia’s players could deal with the situation.
As shown below, Alba also moved to the midfield when he received the ball. At that moment, five Barcelona players were in those tight spaces. However, they were not passing options. Busquets, Arthur and Rakitić were placing themselves too near each other. But that was too close and unnecessary. They made the pitch so small and the opponents only had to focus on that region. Furthermore, the Valencia centre backs were comfortable since Messi dropped. No players intended to make forward runs to push the defensive line deeper. As a result, the three lines of Valencia could remain compact and defend the Barcelona players. The positioning of the Barcelona players made the midfield like a cage for them.
Barcelona failed to exploit the space
Barcelona players did not exploit the space well despite sometimes there being a gap between Valencia players. They reacted slowly to the changes on the pitch. This prevented Barcelona from creating big chances easily.
The below image was an example. Arthur took the ball and attracted Parejo who stepped out to mark him. In an instant, there was space behind Parejo. At the same time, Coutinho should be able to read and exploit that space. Arthur could not turn himself and the ball was played to Rakitić. However, Coutinho did not move to that space and ask for a pass. The Croatian could only take on Coquelin and was fouled. This was a good moment for Barcelona to break into Valencia’s defence. If Coutinho received the ball in that space, he could draw the attention of Garay, Coquelin and Soler. When the players moved near to Coutinho or Garay stepped out, the defensive structure was broken. However, the Barcelona players did not exploit it.
Another issue was Messi’s positioning. Messi is the best ‘false-9’ in the world but a coin has two sides. Messi dropped to the midfield too early and this had some drawbacks. First, the best dropping runs should attract a defender and create space behind the marker. Second, the defensive structure should be disturbed due to the unpredictable movement of a ‘false-9’. If the above objectives were not obtained, the movement was wasted.
The below example illustrated why Messi’s positioning didn’t help the build-up. He dropped too soon to the central areas, between Guedes and Coquelin. No players stayed on the shoulders of Valencia defenders to make a run behind the defensive lines. No players intended to exploit the space between the lines and the gap was too big. Again, the Valencia players maintained their shape easily. In this situation, there should be a player exploiting the space between the lines and looking for a pass. This would force the Valencia players to adjust their position, and break the Valencia shape. However, no player was able to do that after Messi dropped. That’s why Valencia could defend easily.
Semedo’s disastrous performance
Valencia defended well in the final. However, their attack relied on counters and Barcelona could not deal with it in the first half. The situation became disastrous after the catastrophic performance of Semedo. The Portuguese international’s unsatisfactory defensive awareness cost two goals in this match.
For the first goal, a dummy movement of Valencia easily generated huge space behind Semedo. Semedo only focused on the player in front of him and he forgot the opponents on the left. There was space in midfield and Guedes made a run toward that space. At the same moment, José Gayà dashed into the space behind Semedo. Gayà then crossed and assisted Gameiro’s goal. In this situation, the defender should leave Guedes to receive the ball instead of chasing him. Because Guedes was far from the goal there was no immediate danger even after he received the ball. Letting opponents run behind the space in a high line defend was lethal as the Valencia players could face the goal directly.
The second goal of Valencia can be attributed to a quick counter. As circled below, originally Rodrigo was close to Semedo. Just five seconds later, Rodrigo was free in the box and headed the ball into the net. The Portuguese full-back should have stuck with his man as he moved into the box. Rodrigo was at the blindside of Piqué, so Semedo should not expect his teammate to track the movement of Rodrigo. Semedo did not follow Rodrigo tightly and Barcelona was in big trouble. Of course, part of this goal could be attributed to Alba’s positioning but Semedo’s decision was wrong.
Valverde’s tactical moves
Valencia enjoyed a two-nil lead at the half time. Valverde had to make some changes to put Barcelona back in the tie. Malcom and Arturo Vidal came in to replace Arthur and Semedo in the second half. Roberto moved to right back. This eased the problems in the first half.
Malcom’s appearance injected some pace and width for Barcelona. In the first half, Roberto tended to stay deep and Barcelona could not create chances from his side. There were no crosses from the right in the first 45 minutes. Malcom could balance the right flank and allow Barcelona to attack the right side. The below image was the numerical balance created after Malcom came in. Finally, Barcelona could form triangles connecting each other. Messi played a one-two with Malcom and tried a shot. Furthermore, Malcom attempted eight crosses in the second half. This allowed Barcelona to create chances through the right flank.
In order to solve the jammed midfield area, Vidal came in. The Chilean would make forward runs to the box. After Messi dropped, there was a player to receive the cross. This created some tasks for the Valencia centre backs to deal with. In the below image, Messi left his position again. However, this time Vidal made a forward run into the box. He tried to exploit the half spaces between Gayà and Gabriel. This was the run that the first half lacked and so the crosses could find a target. This double changes of Valverde worked in the second half as Barcelona pulled one back.
In the past decade, Barcelona are renowned for their attacking style. They possessed talented players who could read space and move intelligently to play beautifully. Although this team still has Messi, Busquets and Piqué. The style, the ability to read the space of this team has a huge distance with Barcelona in the past decade. No matter if Valverde leaves or not, there’s a long way to go. Congratulations to Valencia, they were concentrated enough to win this game. Although Valverde made changes, Barcelona still missed inspiration in the final third. Valencia reacted well and deserved the win.