Barcelona’s 4-2 win over Valencia was an exciting one. 6 goals, a red card for Valencia centre-back Eliaquim Mangala and yet another lovely display from Lionel Messi, who not only scored twice but also offered five key passes.
The scoreline, however, hints at the fact that Barca weren’t overly assured throughout the course of the match. Using an interesting formation that, at least on paper, could be described as a 3-4-3, they left the back door open time and time again. The back three were particularly exposed to quickfire counter-attacks, and Valencia’s fleet-footed front three, which featured Joao Cancelo, Fabian Orellana and Barcelona loanee Munir El Haddadi, went to work in behind that isolated defensive unit.
Valencia’s first goal came from a corner, headed in by Mangala after a smooth piece of distribution from Dani Parejo, but the lead-up hinted at the problems Barca would later encounter. Munir launched himself forward, piercing the Barca back three in the process, and although he couldn’t do enough to hit the target from open play, he won the corner from which Valencia scored.
At that point, Los Ches were ahead. Then Barcelona went to work, and in a match where they enjoyed 71% of possession and 28 shots on goal, it only took them six minutes to equalise through Luis Suarez. This part of the game, attack, wasn’t where the Blaugrana struggled. Their 3-4-3 base morphed into more of a 3-3-4, with Rafinha and Neymar staying high and wide on the flanks. That meant they joined the frontline, which comprised of Suarez and Messi, with the latter often dropping a little deeper to dictate terms through the middle. Behind those guys, Busquets played at the base of a central midfield trio, alongside Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta. The side was then rounded out by central defenders Samuel Umtiti, Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano, all of whom moved a little further forward in order to assist Barca in circulating possession.
This resulted in some exquisite football in the final third, with Rafinha and Neymar retaining the team’s width while the heavy numbers through the centre worked to play their way through a packed Valencia defence. At times, the combinations seemed almost endless. Luis Enrique would’ve enjoyed the variation from the sidelines, with the two wide men sometimes making runs in behind to latch onto some excellent passes from the midfield unit, while at other stages it worked the other way around. Rafinha and Neymar would receive the ball out wide, draw opposition defenders towards them and then slide a ball in behind for one of five options through the middle. Throw in the fact that Barca had so many numbers high up the pitch, and pressing became a far easier ask against a deep-sitting Valencia.
The problem, though, came when Valencia could puncture the press. That Mangala opener from the corner? It arrived in the wake of one pass. Valencia shot-stopper Diego Alves whipped a kick upfield and, despite it travelling over the halfway line, Munir found himself not just running onto it but also through on goal. He mucked it up from there, cushioning his header too far out in front of him, but this moment still spoke to Barca’s problems in defence. One ball and Valencia could be through on goal, a failure to win it early and Mascherano, Pique and Umtiti could be left scrambling.
That’s not a satisfactory situation for a defender, and so, when Barca had time to get back into a more organised defensive shape, the 3-4-3 morphed into more of a 4-4-2. Rakitic had to shuttle back into the right-back position, meaning Mascherano and Pique became centre-backs and Umtiti, the right-sided central defender, moved over to the left-fullback slot. Further forward, Rafinha and Neymar flanked Iniesta and Busquets in a midfield line of four, while Suarez and Messi sat centrally at the tip of the formation.
Did this added solidity achieve anything in slower phases of defence? Well, maybe occasionally. More generally, though, Rakitic looked deeply off-kilter in the defensive line. In a non-positional sense, he allowed Mangala to rise above him to head in Valencia’s opener, but that was only the start of his troubles. The Croatian was equally ineffective in a positional sense, and in that way, he interpreted the right-back spot as one might expect of a central midfielder.
Barca might have taken the lead just before half-time, through a Messi penalty, and they might’ve seen Mangala sent off for a second yellow in the build-up to that spot kick, but that didn’t stop them from switching off just moments later. Valencia restarted the contest following Messi’s go-ahead goal, and after a brief second where the Blaugrana looked likely to win back possession, the men in white regained their composure to generate a well-worked move. It only took two passes to send left-back Jose Gaya in behind Rakitic, who had a look over to see where his direct opponent, Orellana, was located before getting caught out by the young defender’s run. Gaya controlled the ball nicely before sliding it across the face of goal to tee-up Munir, and after equalising with an easy finish, the 21-year-old looked almost apologetic due to scoring against his parent club.
Valencia’s play, however, was anything but apologetic. They ruthlessly exploited the spaces in behind Barca’s defence, usually in transition but also in moments when Rakitic found himself, somewhat uncomfortably, stationed at right-back. Even after the half-time interval, Valencia still managed to create a couple of magnificent chances in transition, the most obvious coming in the 57th minute, when Munir burst in behind the Barca defence before being stopped by Pique as he attempted to fashion an opportunity to shoot.
Rakitic was unsurprisingly replaced by Sergi Roberto, a player more at home defending the wide positions, 65 minutes in, but Barca nonetheless persisted with the 3-4-3. By then, it wasn’t so troublesome. Valencia had blown through most of their energy in trying to defend with one less player, and, as a consequence of that, they never really looked likely to cause a boil-over from then on.
Still, Voro’s men made it tough, at least at times, for the Spanish super club. They arrived at the Nou Camp with a solid plan and executed it well, even if they were eventually short-circuited by a combination of Barca’s brilliance and Mangala’s red card. They posed plenty of questions, and if Enrique wants to continue with this unusual formation, he might need to find a better way of answering them.
It’s this that makes it hard to know what to make of Barca’s performance. In attack they were supreme, and while that, as well as the open-ended nature of the game, generated a huge amount of excitement, there was never any true sense of control on the defensive end. Enrique will undoubtedly consider how best to address this, but when you’ve got a guy like Neymar who can breeze by defenders at a moment’s notice, as he did to set-up Andre Gomes’ late sealer, it must be tempting to gloss over any defensive inadequacies.
In truth, the neutral observer probably wouldn’t mind if he did. After all, this was a match packed with plenty of quality of the attacking end. If Barca want to continue to compete effectively on all fronts, though, they might have to rein it in a bit.