This article originally featured on our dedicated Barcelona analysis site, barcelonaanalysis.com.
If there is something bothering Barcelona nowadays it’s the away games, for sure. Whenever Blaugrana find themselves far away from their fortress, and the green grass of the Camp Nou, they struggle to find their footing. Luckily, that doesn’t always necessarily result in lost points but even the supposedly easy games turn to sufferings in those instances.
After bashing Real Madrid with yet another ‘manita’, it seemed like a 19th placed Rayo Vallecano would be a field trip, to say the least. It’s safe to say it wasn’t. Barcelona needed two late goals to first level things and then come from behind to snatch all three points in the fiery atmosphere of the Spanish capital. This, however, ensured that the Catalans now stay top of the table, stretching the gap between them and Atletico Madrid to four points.
This tactical analysis will use some statistics and insight to try and find the reason behind the hardship Barcelona found at Campo de Futbol de Vallecas in Madrid.
Barça: Ter Stegen – Sergi, Pique, Lenglet, Alba – Rakitić, Busquets, Arthur – Rafinha, Suarez, Coutinho
Bench: Semedo, Dembele, Cillessen, Alenya, Munir, Vidal, Chumi
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Rayo Vallecano: A.Garcia – L.Advincula, A.Galves, J.Amat, A.Moreno – A.Embarba, G.Imbula, S.Comesana, O.Trejo, A.Garcia – R. de Tomas
Bench: Kakuta, Dimitrievski, Bebe, Alegria, Velazquez, Ba, Pozo
Coach: Miguel Ángel Sánchez Muñoz (Michel)
Although it should no longer come as a surprise, Ernesto Valverde managed to once again raise some eyebrows when it came to team selection. He opted for his standard 4-3-3 formation, which was not the problem, but he also decided to field the same 11 players that played (and won) the Clasico last week.
Last season when we witnessed the lack of rotation, the coach defended himself with the excuse that his bench was not really good enough. Granted, that was, for the most part, true. This season, however, squad depth has been resolved and the players who are constantly sitting on the bench are not only worth millions of euros but are also some of the most promising young talents in Europe.
That makes his decision to not rotate against a 19th placed Rayo Vallecano, who are fighting relegation, a bit odd and questionable. Whether it was fatigue, lack of motivation or just a bad day, the team did not perform to their usual standard.
On the other side of the pitch was Rayo in their (mostly) new setup. The 4-1-4-1 is actually the third most used system under Michel this season, chosen in 9 % of matches. This is only behind the standard 4-4-2 (26 %) and 4-4-1-1 (16 %). The choice of personnel mostly remained the same with the coach fielding his gala squad to face the reigning champions.
Even though the team started adopting the system with three strikers up front, similar to Barca’s style, de Tomas was the only real attacker in the game, with Embarba dropping to the RM position and Comesana actually occupying the defensive midfielder role, just in front of the back line, as opposed to his usual central midifeld one.
One other player that stood out was Pozo. He was a significant inclusion into the first team since he missed the last league game. The choice to bring him back paid off immensely for Michel but ultimately failed to yield anything other than false hope.
The game started off exactly as predicted as Barcelona took the driving seat for the majority of that first half. The domination was clearly visible in possession, which is not really a surprise, but the pressure resulted in an early goal for the visitors. The setup for it was something we have already seen before.
When Rayo were out of possession they tended to swap to a more compact 5-4-1 system that saw only one player sitting in the opposition’s half while the rest would stay behind the ball, soaking up pressure. This was actually their biggest mistake. Barcelona’s midfield was given enough time to breathe with no man-marking so Rakitić had all the freedom to send a pinpoint ball to a sprinting Jordi Alba. The Spaniard followed his excellent run with a great ball to find Suarez who made it 1-0 with ease.
This tendency to enable Barcelona’s midfield is usually what brings teams down this season. It’s the same thing that happened to Real Madrid, Inter and Sevilla, and with only 10 minutes gone on the clock, it seemed like the same fate would befall Rayo. Luckily for the hosts, Michel was swift to react.
Instead of turtling up and soaking all the pressure like in the opening minutes, Rayo started to get more courageous, both on and off the ball. They saw how much easier it was for Barcelona to start the build-up from the back the way they usually do, and to access those free spaces behind Rayo’s defense. In theory, it sounds only logical to prevent those things from happening but it is usually more difficult to put into practice against a press-resistant Barcelona side.
But a high press really does seem to work when implemented correctly. This was the first change that was seen in Rayo Vallecano’s play. No longer did they wait for Barcelona to come to them. Instead, they took the fight to the Catalans. Although the 5-4-1 or 4-1-4-1 were still visible, this time they opted to go as high up as Marc-Andre ter Stegen, which, once again, forced a goal kick or simply a blind clearance.
This newfound courage, combined with the roars from the stands, resulted in a rejuvenated home side. As they pressed higher, and with more numbers, Barcelona were dispossessed multiple times, which also often resulted in a deadly counter. Pozo missed a sitter around the half-hour mark but he was also the one who drove home a beauty in the 35th-minute for the well-deserved equalizer.
The first 45 minutes ended level but the hosts were clearly on an upswing. Barcelona were pinned down in every attack by Rayo and they were also ineffective when going forward themselves. The problem was a glaring one. Barcelona had no width whatsoever.
With Rafinha and Coutinho once again occupying their respective wings, and with Rayo Vallecano standing firm with five men at the back, there was no way through. The problem was that both Brazilian wingers drifted to half-spaces, which would usually mean freedom for Alba and Roberto, but it proved to be of no use since the sides could not be breached without a natural, fast-paced winger.
As Blaugrana was more and more exposed, especially on their right side, the full-backs were not always as keen to go all the way forward. This resulted in the meaningless recycling of possession through the middle of the park. The wings were, for the most part, completely cut off, even with the introduction of Ousmane Dembele in the second half.
The fact that Sergio Busquets (82) and Ivan Rakitić (100) both almost made more passes than Coutinho, Rafinha, Suarez, and Dembele combined (83) is worrying. Still, the sheer number did not equal quality as most of those were, in fact, sideways or backward.
Philippe Coutinho had a particularly bad game. The Brazilian was Barcelona’s biggest creative outlet but he failed to perform. Once again, the downsides of him being played as a winger reappeared. Although he is extremely technically gifted, he is also far too slow to beat the defenders on the flanks. The lack of any real strength also meant that he would be shrugged off the ball more often than not.
This resulted in zero shots, zero crosses, and zero take-ons completed. He was dispossessed a total of 12 times, which is a new La Liga record, previously held also by him with eight. Although he made only 29 passes, his accuracy ended up a meager 62%. A bad day in the office meant that he was subbed off in the 67th minute.
This time around, Ernesto Valverde was not too stubborn to keep the same players on the field. He made all three substitutions in the second half, and all three fairly early in the game, considering his usual tendencies.
With the introduction of Dembele not much changed in the setup as Barcelona still played in their 4-3-3 formation. The difference was some raw pace in the final third that had been missing. However, this also meant that with Rafinha gone, Barca had two wingers who were not so eager to back-track a lot.
Both Coutinho and Dembele seem to have stamina issues which resulted in more free space for the attackers when the duo was not present in defense. The second goal arrived in the 57th minute and was a combination of luck, skill, and defensive shortcomings.
Dembele was still all the way back in the opposition’s half and while he was really far away and probably wouldn’t have made it back anyway, the lack of trying was still noticed. As for Coutinho, he gave up when his marker escaped, which, in turn, resulted in a good through ball higher up the pitch.
Somewhere around the 67th minute mark, when Coutinho and Arthur were subbed off and Arturo Vidal and Munir entered the pitch, Barcelona were a bit more direct in their approach. This swap in personnel also prompted a change in the system.
Now, the visitors lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation where Busquets and Rakitić would stay deeper as defensive midfielders and Suarez was the lone striker up front. Behind him was the trio of Munir, Vidal, and Dembele.
Rayo were still more or less relentless but as we entered the final moments of the game, everyone knew Barcelona would make one last huzzah to save the points. In the span of three minutes, Rayo went from winning it all to losing everything as the Catalans came from behind and snatched victory through late goals of Ousmane Dembele and Luis Suarez.
As is usually the case when Barcelona fall behind, Gerard Pique decided to become a striker instead of just being a central defender. You can often see the defender in the final third, accompanying the forwards and making darting runs high up the pitch. This was also the case against Rayo.
As it turned out, that was the difference in those dying moments as Pique actually had a hand in both of those late goals that salvaged the points for Barcelona.
In the first instance, Pique won the header in the box and put Ousmane Dembele in a favorable position. The Frenchman got the ball right at his feet and fired a half-volley into the net to bring them level. There was no real time to celebrate as Barcelona quickly picked the ball up from inside the net and the teams restarted.
Fast forward three minutes and the same thing happened again. Gerard Pique was in the opposition’s box waiting for the ball. Roberto found Suarez with a long ball (again) but it was Pique who dragged and occupied the defender, leaving El Pistolero unmarked and able to score the winner for Barca.
It might look like a coincidence, and honestly, we know that Pique is not the only centre back to do this in tense situations. We don’t have to look further than his nemesis, Sergio Ramos, who scores clutch goals in injury time for fun.
But it goes back further than Ramos. None other than Johan Cruyff used to do this with his center-back Alexanko. The Dutchman would often send his defender in the final third when things were not going his way. Funnily enough, this tactic seemed to work more often than not.
It was tough, it was tight, and it certainly was not in Barcelona’s style but the three points are still there. Rayo Vallecano definitely deserved at least a draw for their efforts, and it would have been completely justified. But it was not to be.
And unsurprisingly so, it has to be mentioned. Overall, Barcelona have scored 29 goals in the second half, 16 in the last quarter of the game and a total of nine in the last five minutes. Not only that, Blaugrana have acquired 12 points from losing positions, more than any other La Liga team this season.
Rayo were relentless – they pressed and were mostly press-resistant. The cheer of the fans just fueled them, and they almost overthrew the giant. Their xG of 1.71 compared to Barcelona’s 1.98 shows that the game truly was close. It could’ve gone either way.
Barcelona managed to win, somehow. It was not pretty, but we’ll take it.
We move on.