Barcelona’s first two games La Liga games under Ernesto Valverde, both 2-0 victories, have had similar patterns. Mounds of possession, little breathing room for the opposition’s midfield, Lionel Messi taking loads of shots and very few clear cut chances for either team.
Against Alaves, Barcelona kept the ball for as long as they pleased throughout the game, finishing with a staggering 72 percent of possession, but the team often struggled to build any dangerous moves. The Blaugrana was scoreless at the break and it was Alaves, through a pair of quick-hitting counters, that had the best chances of the half, and they would have led were it not for Marc Andre ter Stegen’s pair of crucial saves.
Messi had his penalty saved in the first half, but it came from a questionable penalty on Gerard Pique. Outside of that opportunity, which came from a set piece, Barcelona lacked ideas in open play. Without a forward to play off of, Messi was receiving the ball in playmaking positions but lacking options to make the killer pass. Gerard Deulofeu wants to stay on the edge of the box and Aleix Vidal doesn’t offer anything as an attacker when the opponent is parking the bus, so Messi was often alone at the top of the box.
In the second half, Barcelona’s buildup was a bit more fluid as the team sensed they needed a few more players forward to get the first goal. The linkup play between Andres Iniesta, who was magnificent, and Jordi Alba down the left in the 55th minute created a passing lane for Alba to put the ball into the box, and Messi did brilliantly to sneak in front of Alaves midfielder Tomas Pina to receive the pass and fire it in.
As the ball went in, Valverde was already briefing Paco Alcacer, who came on for Vidal, on what he wanted him to do, and even though Alcacer was playing on the left again, it was his work on the counter-attack (as well as Sergi Roberto’s excellent switch of play) and his deft header that set up Messi’s second. At first it seemed Alcacer had screwed up the break with his errant first pass, but he did well to stick with the play, and Messi’s instant reaction allowed him to race into position for his brace before the defense could react.
Both of Barcelona’s goals came in a 10-minute span, and somewhat similarly to the opener when both goals came within three minutes, there weren’t many other chances after that. When Denis Suarez came on he gave Barcelona a great spark and gave Messi a partner to work with around the box, but the tempo of Barcelona’s attacks was rather pedestrian.
With Iniesta back healthy, Valverde returned to a three-man midfield in attack with Busquets at the base and Iniesta and Rakitic alongside him. At times it looked a 4-4-2 diamond with Messi at the tip and Deulofeu and Vidal as wide forwards. This setup offered firm control of midfield, but again, it was almost as if the frontline didn’t exist with Messi in a 10 position and two natural wingers being asked to move like strikers, which they didn’t do well.
It will be interesting to see how Iniesta’s presence in the lineup will affect the formation. Against Betis, Rakitic and Busquets were positioned right next to each other as holding midfielders, but with Iniesta back, Rakitic moved a bit further forward to create the alignment Barça has used during the past three seasons. While Valverde could put Iniesta in the free role Roberto played in the season opener, allowing Rakitic and Busquets to sit back, perhaps Iniesta wants to continue playing as the LCM in a 4-3-3, meaning Valverde would only switch to a 4-2-3-1 when Iniesta is on the bench.
Defensively, the lack of chances for Betis and Alaves might have as much to do with their attacking quality as Barcelona’s defensive solidity, but the pressing and structure centered in midfield has been strong. In particular, Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic did a fantastic of closing down Alaves’ midfielders quickly whenever they received the ball, either forcing a turnover or for them to reset play by passing backwards to the goalkeeper.
How Valverde’s 4-4-2 will hold up against top teams remains to be seen (Madrid certainly had it figured out in the Super Copa), but at the least his defensive formula will help the team control the middle of the park in games they should dominate, which wasn’t always the case during the past two seasons under Luis Enrique.
The biggest question mark is how the team’s transition defense will fare. Alaves’ two best chances in this game came on the break, both on the right-hand side of the Blaugrana defense, aka the same area Madrid destroyed Barça in during the Super Copa.
The common denominator in all those games was that Nelson Semedo was on the bench rather than at RB. Vidal is constantly out of position when he is at RB and Sergi Roberto, while solid positionally, will always have an issue chasing down pacey wingers. I have no idea why Valverde dropped Semedo after his fantastic debut, and even less of clue why he thought Vidal should start at RW rather than having Denis and Deulofeu as the wide players. I am pretty certain having Semedo in the lineup on a weekly basis would go along way in strengthening the transition defense.
While they haven’t exactly played flowing football, the Blaugrana enter the first international break of the season with maximum points. And with superstars in Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele set to join the team when the La Liga season gets back under way, Valverde should be thinking that there is nowhere to go but up.