The first half against Valencia on Saturday was – in short – 45 minutes of chaos. Just like at Mestalla, Luis Enrique opted with Busquets and Mascherano together in the midfield. With Xavi as the third midfielder, Barcelona lacked fluidity and made pressing relatively easy for Valencia. Each of the three were playing deep, contrary to what the side has tried to do previously. The idea has been to use the fullbacks as extra midfielders, with the attacking midfielders at outlets. This time, all midfielders were deep, which pushed especially Adriano far forward. There’s a giant space ahead of the Valencia defense, but no blaugrana player there to exploit it.
Especially Busquets and Mascherano often played deep in the same space and in the same horizontal line, allowing Valencia to press them effectively. As there were very few passing options, the ball was lost easily. When this happened, Adriano was often caught off position and Valencia flooded the left-hand side of Barcelona’s defense, forcing several fouls. Adriano alone committed 4 fouls in the first 45 minutes, 3 of which were in dangerous positions.
The most important outlet for Barcelona was Neymar, who would often receive the ball with his back towards the opponent’s goal as he dropped deeper to provide a passing option. The Brazilian did a tremendous job all match long: he was constantly committed to his defensive duties and was quick to go forward when given the chance. However, he lacked the support from his fullback until Mathieu was put to the left at half-time.
The second half indeed provided a much needed change. Rakitic immediately came on for Adriano, and Mathieu moved to left back. The change brought results: Rakitic’s presence on the right helped lift some of the load off Messi, whereas Busquets seemed a lot more aware of his role as a single pivot. Again, Rakitic didn’t shine individually, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Barcelona doesn’t have the same balance in their game when he’s not on the pitch. Without him, the entire structure of the team tends to crumble when Messi roams towards the center.
Rakitic occupied a position further forward, forcing the tiring Valencia to drop deeper and simultaneously offering the center backs an all important passing option forward. His presence near the right flank also meant that Alves didn’t have to commit too far forward. Basically this different approach took the edge off of Valencia’s intentions to press all three midfielders in the build-up phase.
The decision to bring Rakitic on for Adriano was the game-changer. Luis Enrique could have taken Mascherano or Xavi off instead, but the left-hand side would probably have continued to struggle with the sloppy-looking Adriano. The substitution also – once again – showed the value of having a player as versatile as Mascherano: the Argentine easily slotted back in defense, allowing Mathieu to solve the problem on the left. The Frenchman – in fact – played a great second-half supporting Neymar.
Although the first half was nearly a disaster for Barcelona, it wasn’t, however, too surprising. The team had had just two full days of rest after the trip to Paris, and knowing Valencia’s strength, an early kick-off on a Saturday was always going to be problematic. After a bit of luck in the first half, Luis Enrique reacted immediately and Barcelona gained full control of the match in the second half, finishing the game exhausted but three points closer to the title.