Barcelona – Rayo Vallecano 6:1
Rayo Vallecano displayed their aggressive pressing and brave football at the Nou Camp vs. the now top team in Spain. Barcelona’s players look in top form and managed to jump over Real Madrid for the 1st spot in La Liga. They did this with the general change in strategy which Lucho has implemented after a stretch of play which didn’t meet Barcelona’s high standards. Let’s see why the entire stadium was applauding the two teams even before halftime.
Barcelona’s build-up vs. Rayo’s pressing
This was the main topic for the match. The strategy of Rayo on defense was to press high and aggressively during Barcelona’s build-up play. So what does Barcelona do? You guessed it! They proceeded to build out of the back no matter how high the pressure was. But Rayo gave them an easy escape route for a large part of the scenes.
Rayo pressed in a man-oriented fashion when they pressed high up the field. During a large part of their 4-2-1-3/4-2-4 pressing scenes, the central defender of Rayo Vallecano would step into midfield as well. This was to provide an extra man in midfield in contrast to Barcelona’s 3 central midfielders (with Mascherano dropping in-between Pique and Mathieu). So it would look like a 3-3-1-3 at times – though it was frequently manipulated by their man-marking.
It sounds good in theory, but where the problem arose during Rayo’s pressing was around Barcelona’s fullbacks – Jordi Alba in particular. A lot of the time Vallecano’s central attacking midfielder would man mark Mascherano. The striker would then press 1 out of the two central defenders. This left one extra central defender open during the build-up – which is where Kakuta came in. He would leave Jordi Alba to press Mathieu. Barcelona used Bravo in build-up play very frequently, and he wasn’t pressed very often – this meant there was usually a clear path from Bravo to Alba (or whoever happened to be open due to the un-coordinated pressing). From there, a Rayo player (usually a central midfielder) will leave his mark (like Iniesta) to press the ball and just get the ball played in behind him to Iniesta. That led to many ‘breaks’ from Barcelona where they had an ascending advantage moving into the attack.
Another aspect of the man-marking that made it difficult for Rayo was that they were man-marking players like Iniesta, Xavi, Suarez, Messi, etc. This is very difficult on an individual level and most of the time it results in a loss in stability for the defense of the team. When you look at it at the group-strategical level – Rayo were at a big disadvantage when attempting to man-mark a group of players within Barcelona’s combinational structure as well. One such structure included the famous ‘alvessi.’
Barcelona’s Positional Structure
A partnership between Messi and Alves has become more prominent since Lucho’s strategical change to use Messi in combinations on the flanks and move inside. The combinations between these two players provided some interesting reactions from the defenders.
A lot of the time Messi would be near the touchline so he can move inside with more momentum, while Alves is in the right halfspace supporting him. So when Alves receives the ball and plays the ball out wide to Messi immediately – they begin a sort of ‘rotating’ motion. Alves begins moving up and Messi begins circling backwards and bounces the ball off of Alves midway through the movement, and then Alves ends up completely in front of Messi before Messi plays the ball back into him vertically (which attracts more pressure as teams naturally defend ‘vertically,’ meaning they defend their goal from the team who is approaching from their own goal – while horizontal passes are usually quite easy and without pressure). Once the ball is played into Alves and some pressure quickly gathers around him (this is all one-touch passing), he plays a final lay-off pass inside towards Messi who is now finishing off the rotating movement and running diagonally towards the center of the field with some relative freedom. It’s a very cool way to interchange positions and ‘alvessi’ have many other variations within their 2-man combinations that are quite interesting.
In general Barcelona had a positional structure where Alves would take over the right winger role, Messi moves inside as a central midfielder, Alba pushes up as another left winger, while Suarez and Pedro remained largely in the forward line. Mascherano spent a large amount of the time in between his two central defenders even when there wasn’t huge pressure on the back line and Barcelona was in Rayo’s defensive third. This was a nice tweak in positioning which allowed Lucho to have 3 central defenders (if you count Mascherano as a true central defender nowadays) and allows Alves/Alba to push up. In central midfield they had Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta. In contrast to Rayo’s very ball-oriented movements in possession where they looked mostly to break through the flanks with combinations and attacking the penalty box afterwards – Barcelona was very well-spread out across the field while remaining connections within their positional structure.
Iniesta had a more ‘Iniesta’ type of role we were used to seeing in the previous years of his career in this match. This is in large part due to Xavi’s involvement in the game. Usually Iniesta acts as a less present and less vertical Xavi when playing with the more adventurous Rakitic on his opposite side. In this game though, Iniesta had a higher focus on his penetrating dribbling ability and creating dangerous situation from it. It was interesting to see Iniesta and Messi shoulder the load in regards to creation rather than Neymar and Messi on opposite flanks like usual.
Barcelona had a lot of the ball due to their pressing out of their 4-1-4-1 shape where they frequently had 4-1-3-1-1 halfspace pressing trap graduations, while also having flat out ‘forcing a long ball’ scenes. Mascherano did well when Iniesta or Xavi pressed higher next to Suarez to aggressively press balls put into the vacant halfspaces next to him – you could find him pressing the ball out on the flank very often. A lot of the time Vallecano were pushed wide even when they were attempting to play more towards the center because of these specific movements.
After the red card Rayo played in what looked like a 4-4-1 momentarily but their shape was frequently manipulated due to their man-marking. It sometimes looked like a 5-2-2/3-4-2 as well. From there, Barcelona dominated the game more than they already had and scored a large amount of goals to put an exclamation point on their jump to the 1st place spot.
This was quite an impressive performance for Barcelona and for Lucho. Things are looking brighter for Barcelona with each passing week and they still look on track for a possibly historical season – as I mentioned in my previous analysis on them. This is definitely a team to watch out for because it’s possible they might make history under everybody’s noses!