After being held scoreless at the Nou Camp and beaten 3-0 in Turin against Juventus in the Champions League knockout round last season, Barcelona returned the favor in the opening game of the group stage this campaign. With a new manager, a different No. 11 and some familiar tactics from the club’s golden age, Barcelona looked like a totally different side in their 3-0 victory against the Old Lady.
Barcelona’s buildup has been organized and methodical under Ernesto Valverde. Rather than hastily shuttling the ball to the star forwards as the Blaugrana did more and more as Luis Enrique’s tenure came to an end, Valverde has the midfield working to supply the ball to his creative outlets. This makes for an interesting shape in possession, with three pairs aligning at different vertical levels within the half spaces.
Once Barcelona reaches midfield with their possession, their formation looks like a 2-4-2-2, with the centerbacks deep, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic alongside each other in central midfield with a full back either side of them, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi in the attacking midfield positions and Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembélé as wide forwards.
Within this setup, Barcelona played a patient game with Busquets and Rakitic dictating the tempo of the game from their respective half of the field. They combined frequently with Jordi Alba and Nelson Semedo and waited for Iniesta and Messi to elude their markers and complete the triangles to break down Juve’s defense.
Once Iniesta or Messi was able to pick up the ball and turn into space, the other player also moved centrally to combine with each other while Suarez and Dembélé occupied the backline of the defense and offered themselves for 1-2s on the edge of the box.
Busquets and Rakitic are so crucial for this to work. They can both break the lines with forward passes, Busquets does a lovely job of playing tiki-taka in tight spaces and Rakitic’s pinpoint accuracy on longballs allows Barcelona to switch play efficiently and effectively. It was almost as if Barcelona had two separate games going on at once on either side of the pitch, and once they shifted the defense enough to open up space for their creative forces, then they kick into another gear.
This system allows Barcelona the ability to comfortably push their fullbacks far up the pitch because their two centerbacks and holding midfielders are in good positions to slow the opposition’s transition game long enough for speedsters like Semedo and Alba to get back. Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Pique are also involved in the genesis of Barça’s buildup as they assist Busquets in carrying the ball from the defense to midfield.
The only oddity with this setup is how Suarez and Dembélé are deployed. While Suarez often switched places for a minute or two with Messi or Neymar in the past, he is being asked to play wider than a No. 9 typically plays for a good chunk of games now, though he showed on Messi’s first goal that he is still a valuable reference point up top. On the other side, Dembélé drifts from the wing to an inside forward position on a whim throughout the game, but his time playing as an attacking midfielder for Dortmund has prepared him for a versatile role.
Juventus defended in a 4-4-2 on Tuesday night and without a ton of pressure from Gonzalo Higuain or Paulo Dybala at the top of their defense, Barcelona was able to take their time and pick apart the openings in midfield with clever movement and precise passing. With Juve missing two of their best defenders in Giorgio Chiellini and Benedikt Höwedes, they didn’t have their trademark stability at the back, and with a shift in philosophy, Barcelona was able to dominate the middle of the park after being second best in that part of the field last season.
Although the firm grasp Barcelona had on the game when they had the ball was encouraging, I think Valverde will be even more pleased with the way Barcelona worked to win the ball back. The Blaugrana have been defending in a 4-4-2 shape this season, but we didn’t see it often against Juventus, mostly because Valverde never really decided to take the foot off the gas and have his team sit deep. Instead, Barcelona had more of a 4-3-3 shape in defense, though even that doesn’t accurately describe how they were most frequently aligned.
Barça were too active across the pitch to ever form a particular formation, which is just how Valverde would have wanted it. Barcelona’s chaotic pressing came in waves, and Juventus became disjointed as a result of the Blaugrana’s pressure. When Barcelona wasn’t straight taking the ball off of Juve, they were coaxing them into tight areas along the sideline and forcing them to fling the ball forward just to get out of trouble.
I thought Iniesta put in a magnificent defensive performance in addition to his typical excellence on the ball. He had a game-high three interceptions, chased down Juve’s defenders on multiple occasions and somehow, after playing a 239 minutes during three games in the 10 days leading up to this game, still had the energy to push forward on the break and create Messi’s second goal.
Juventus was able to threaten Barcelona’s defense a few times during the opening half hour, but they never got the chance to establish any kind of offensive rhythm because Barça pressed relentlessly to win the ball back in the final third and midfield areas. In turn, when Barcelona won the ball in high positions or forced an errant clearance, they were able to retain possession and recycle through their buildup play. The positives of this ceaseless pressing are endless, and if Barcelona’s more senior players can keep up these kinds of efforts throughout the season, then their defense will be stout.
Perhaps a nod to the good work Luis Enrique did with Barcelona’s transition play, the Blaugrana were lethal on the break, scoring all three of their goals in the transition phase. Messi was at the heart of all three goals, scoring two and creating the other, showing great pace and decision making with the ball. Like Neymar, Dembélé will also thrive when he space to run into, and we got a glimpse of his ability to threaten on the counter against Juventus.
When you put these three elements of Barcelona’s performance together, there aren’t many flaws with their all-around effort. They were solid enough at the back, the midfield controlled the game and lessened the stress on the defense by pressing quickly and cleverly to win the ball back and Messi provided the spark up front. Juventus will be a more challenging opponent in Turin, especially if more of their key players are healthy, but for an early season test against one of the top clubs in Europe, Valverde’s Barça passed with flying colors.