Barcelona – Levante Preview: Not to be Lost in the Shadows

As I sat down to write this review I started thinking about El Clasico – who will start? How will we line up? Ahh, there’s Messi jinking Ramos out of his jock strap… and that’s the trouble with this match. The Clasico is casting a Mt. Doom-esque shadow over this match; it looms menacingly in the back of all our minds. But it would be foolish to look past Levante, so let’s start there.

I. On Levante

For a team that was expected to excel at being a mediocre mid-table team they have been punching well above their weight all season. They beat Madrid in the third week of the season and even stood atop the table after beating Real Sociedad in the ninth week. If you aren’t swayed by underdog stories or their win against Madrid then you can’t deny their colors are quite attractive.

Levante was short on cash, so we loaned them our kits from a few years back

Levante’s starting XI is practically written in stone, and If you’re looking to make a little cash on the side your best bet* is on them starting with:

Munua, Venta, Ballasteros, Nano, Juanfran, Valdo, Vicente, Torres, Juanlu, Kone, Barkero

If you scratched your head and thought “one of those names seems familiar,” you know your ex-Barcelona players. Xavi Torres has been an essential part of the Levante puzzle for two seasons – no doubt enjoying playing in blaugrana on his extended loan from Malaga. I always kinda liked Xavi Torres, although I can’t say I ever had high hopes for his future in the first team. In a lot of ways his history reminds me of the situation of Jonathon dos Santos, who recently renewed his contract until 2015. They both strike me as hard working midfielders, players who are always willing to press and win the ball and circulate it to someone with more creativity. Then there’s that Torres moonlighted at right back for at least part of a match (where do Santos spent most of his time this preseason). However, when it comes down to it dos Santos reminds me of Torres because I think like Torres he will ultimately not have the quality to make the jump to the first team. I salute his service to the team over the years, but I just can’t seem to see how he will break through, even in the next 3 years.

And here I’ve spent most of my Levante section on a tangent about Barcelona…

II. On Barcelona

The Fortress Nou, from El Mundo Deportivo


While Barcelona has been less than efficient away, they have been in imperious form at the Camp Nou. With 34 goals for and 0 goals against, we are only a draw with Sevilla away from perfection at home. While all of us sitting at home will be watching the match through the lens of the coming Clasico, I’m sure Guardiola has been dishing out those loving head slaps of his to any of the players thinking beyond this match. There has also been a lot of speculation that Pep will use this as a dress rehearsal for the Clasico. While this makes sense to me, I don’t think it can be taken for granted that Guardiola will play the same team and/or formation in this match and in the Clasico, he has never been shy about springing surprises against Madrid. I would advise everyone not to read too much into next weekend from this match.

With that said this Barcelona team is still searching for the right balance. In Guardiola years past the team has usually been fairly settled at this time of the season and the main concern is oiling the machine to squeeze every possible bit of efficiency out of it. Euler argued in his review of the Rayo match that the changing of formation in multiple phases of the match was the tactical future of the team – that Pep was purposefully molding the team into one that could dynamically change formation to exploit the weaknesses of the opponent; in essence to gain the tactical advantage by being able to shift formation and tactics and respond to whatever the opponent throws at the team.

While I’m sure Pep would love to be able to adapt to any situation, I keep thinking that the different formational phases of the Rayo game were symptomatic of a problem the team has been having all season – we haven’t found an appropriate balance yet. Guardiola has a track record of playing with the formation early in the season and then settling in and perfecting it later on in the season. A lot of early injuries have hampered Pep’s ability to find the right balance this season, and this match will provide him with one of his last opportunities to tweak things before the most important match of the first half of the season. Expect Pep to test a couple options in this game – not necessarily the solution he will try in the Clasico, but he will certainly want to ask some questions of the team so he can make the right decisions for next week.

III. An Aside on Alexis Sanchez

If I were making the team list for tomorrow Sanchez would be the first name on my list – he needs as much match experience as possible. Recently there has been a small resurgence of a thought that was prominent in the beginning of the season before he was injured, specifically that it is understandable if his positioning isn’t perfect or he loses the ball, but he should be able to beat defenders when he is one on one. The problem with this stance is that it doesn’t take into account that in those youtube videos where he is making defenders look stupid he was playing a much different role than he has so far been asked to play at Barcelona. Udinese was a primarily counter attacking team, and often when Alexis received the ball he was able to turn and run at a retreating back line at full speed. When he plays as a winger for us he usually receives the ball when he is standing still and the defense is already set, it is a much different task to beat a defender in those situations than it is on the counter.

More importantly, apart from his goals in the last match he was most impressive when he was asked to use his pace and power to patrol a much larger swathe of the left flank (a role more similar to the role he played at Udinese). With Pep using the three man defense so often this season the team has been crying out for width, and maximizing Sanchez’s skills is going to be vital to our success this season. How he is used in this match can tell us a lot about Pep’s plans for him, I hope to see him covering a lot of ground on the left – I think he can be more valuable than a copy of the original superman comic in that position.

Recently sold for 2.6 million

IV. On Our Formation

There has been a lot of talk lately about using the 3-5-2 for the Clasico after it worked so well midweek against Rayo. I would be more surprised if we don’t see it tomorrow than if Mugabe suddenly decided to step down. While we certainly looked better with the 3-5-2, I’m not quite ready to declare the second coming of the Manita. Let’s not forget that the 3-4-3 looked phenomenal the first time we saw it this season, and its vulnerability on the flanks at the back wasn’t truly exposed until the game in Milan.

I do have concerns with our constant changing of formation. We can talk all we want about having intelligent, versatile players in the team who can adapt to a formation change mid-match, but the truth is it is an incredibly difficult transition to make. One of the reasons we have been so good in the past three years is that everyone on the team knew their role and their responsibilities on the pitch. I’m not talking about being able to tell you what their role is, I’m talking about the muscle memory and innate knowledge that comes from performing the same role time and time and time again.

After the success of the 3-5-2 last week, whether of not it is used in this match may tell us a lot about what we should expect for the rest of the season. Will it turn out to be a balanced formation that we can use the majority of the time, or will it be relegated to an option B or C?

V. On the Match

This is supposed to be a match preview so I guess I should stop rambling and actually talk about the match. Our team news is mostly good, Adriano is injured with a hamstring injury, Afellay is still in the early phase of recovering from his ACL injury, and Pique is banned after not-so-stealthily getting his fifth yellow. Cuenca, Rodri, and Rosell from the B team trained with the first team. This is a must win match against a difficult opponent, so I expect to see close to our strongest starting XI (especially since our midweek match is pointless):

Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Abidal, Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas, Villa, Messi Sanchez

Fabregas gets the start over Iniesta so he can get some game time after his short time out. The rest of the team is versatile enough to take on several different formations, and try different solutions in preparation for next week.

Prediction: 1-0 Good Guys with Villa scoring.

The match begins at 2:00 PM EST.

VI. An Aphorism

It’s not about the players adapting to the system, but rather the system adapting to the players

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    • December 3, 2011

      Barca aren’t implementing the 3-5-2 the way it has in the past though. That’s the frame of reference for that article by Wilson.

      Barca will play a much more high risk formation at the back to maintain more players in midfield. That is – they will be willing to let their back line play 3 vs. 3 against the opposition attackers for significant periods of time.

      The second major difference is that the Barca play the formation with players who have great ball skills playing in central defense. This will allow that player to step into midfield if needed.

  1. barca96
    December 3, 2011

    I haven’t read anything yet and I saw this capture on the photo;

    Levante was short on cash, so we loaned them our kits from a few years back

    I’m all pumped up to read now and find out some more funny jokes!

  2. Chiu
    December 3, 2011

    Am confident we win this match. We have been sparkling at home this season, perhaps the best home stats during Goatskin era.

    • Helge
      December 3, 2011

      haha, another person posting via smartphone detected!

  3. flyzowee
    December 3, 2011

    Anyone watching Chelsea vs Newcastle?
    Romeu started and has looked very solid. But its very evident that he lacks pace

    • Calvin
      December 3, 2011

      I just started watching the second half. So far he hasn’t touched the ball, but hopefully that changes

    • Ryan
      December 3, 2011

      Pique is watching the game on tv, actually. 😆

      • barca96
        December 3, 2011

        Didn’t watch the match but was he the brightest player out there? After reading here that Oriol was the MOtM for Chelsea vs. Liverpool, I actually tuned in to a BPL radio show hoping that they would mention about Oriol but they didn’t mention anything about him. Kinda disappointing.

        They did however say that Mikel Obi is horrendous! So I hope that he will get dropped soon and Oriol get a good run of games.

        • barca96
          December 3, 2011

          After doing some quick checks, he was rated 7.3 on Guardian. The 4th highest rated Chelsea player after Mata, Sturridge and Drogba.
          On GOal he was tied for 3rd with a rating of 7.0.

        • Ryan
          December 3, 2011

          I wasn’t focusing that much on the game, but his passing definitely stood out, aside from Mata of course. Lots of clever balls in closed space to open up his teammates.

  4. Chiu
    December 3, 2011

    Yaya Toure (ex barca): ”At Barca, it was sometimes so easy to play because we were a lot better than other teams.” [Daily mail]

    Today is Villa’s birthday. Felis cumpleanos El Guaje! Hope he scores tonight

  5. barca96
    December 3, 2011

    Why is Busi absent from a lot of the possible line-ups tweeted by Barcastuff? Is there something going on with him (Busi)?

  6. December 3, 2011

    Barca babies aren’t playing real well. Down 3-0. They aren’t controlling midfield well. And aren’t defending well on the press as a team.

    The backline is really having problems with the Elche attackers.

  7. December 3, 2011

    Colin makes a number of excellent points in this preview.

    There has also been a lot of speculation that Pep will use this as a dress rehearsal for the Clasico. While this makes sense to me, I don’t think it can be taken for granted that Guardiola will play the same team and/or formation in this match and in the Clasico, he has never been shy about springing surprises against Madrid.

    Fully agree here. Levante do not play like RM at all. So I’m not sure what we can infer from this match that will map to the next. And it’s true – Pep frequently unveils the unexpected against Madrid.

    Udinese was a primarily counter attacking team, and often when Alexis received the ball he was able to turn and run at a retreating back line at full speed. When he plays as a winger for us he usually receives the ball when he is standing still and the defense is already set, it is a much different task to beat a defender in those situations than it is on the counter.

    Again – completely agree. He’s playing in a completely different role. Barcelona faces closed off spaces over and over. It’s entirely different than the way Udinese played. And Sanchez hasn’t played many matches. One of those was Getafe where they defended extremely deep in their own end – even compared to teams that “park the bus.”

    On the issue of formation – as I said in my last article – it’s something of a challenge to interpret cause and effect. Are the changing formations symptoms of deeper problems? Is this causing problems itself? Is it a solution to other things Pep is worried about?

    Ultimately, it’s probably a mixture of all of these. But I do think Pep is using it to expand how the team can play.

  8. December 3, 2011

    Does anyone else have a sneaking suspicion there’s something going on with Pique? I don’t know why but I get the sense Pep is pissed off at him or something. He’s not playing as much despite being fit, he arrived overweight over the summer which definitely would’ve angered Pep especially given his glamorous/Shakira lifestyle, and in a lot of the predicted line-ups given by Barcastuff for the Levante and Madrid games, his name is often absent.

    It’s just speculation, no news, but I wonder if there’s something going on.

    • December 3, 2011

      There could be multiple things going on, many of which we’ll likely never know.

      One concrete things that I think can be pointed to – not sure how well suited Pique is to playing in a three man backline.

      He would not be great as a lateral centerback. And playing as a sweeper in the middle is just not his strength. It’s not an ideal fit for him.

    • nzm
      December 3, 2011

      I have definitely noticed that Pique appears to be less happy this season. The only time he cracks a smile is when he scores.

    • nzm
      December 3, 2011

      BTW, Ahsan – Pique can’t play tonight as he is carded out of the match.

  9. Dani_el
    December 3, 2011

    From Barcastuff:
    Possible line-up (vs Levante): Valdes – Alves Puyol Mascherano Abidal – Xavi Cesc Iniesta – Pedro Messi Villa #fcblive [elpuntavui]

    I saw again the last clasico for the supercopa in the campnou, and Pique had his moments, giving the assist to Messi with his backheel, the best of them all. It seems he’s most benefitial with his aerial skills against a team as EE. I hope Pep finds the winning line-up for the Bernabeu.

    • nzm
      December 3, 2011

      Valdes isn’t playing – Pinto is between the sticks.

      And Fontas is also starting.

    • December 3, 2011

      We’ll have to see what the line up is – but against a team that is going to park the bus – that’s the right midfield to play: Xavi, Cesc and Iniesta.

      Against that kind of defense – the net benefit of having Cesc in their with Xavi and Iniesta outweigh the negatives of not having Busquets (or keita) on the pitch.

      Barca will maintain possession comfortably. Levante will only try to score on counters and Barca can defend them as a team. Playing Xavi will put in work to defend deep.

      The key today will be to try to break Levante down early.

      Would like to see Sanchez play.

  10. Dani_el
    December 3, 2011

    Official line up for today’s game (3-4-3): Valdés, Mascherano, Puyol, Abidal, Xavi, Cesc, Busquets, Iniesta, Cuenca, Alexis, Messi. Fontàs, descartado

    • Dani_el
      December 3, 2011

      I know Euler and Calvin has told us not to take any conclussions from today’s line up, but I really like this 11!

      • Dani_el
        December 3, 2011

        Bench: Villa, Pedro, Alves, Pinto, Maxwell, Adriano and Thiago.

    • nzm
      December 3, 2011

      Seriously? Maybe the Gol tv flyover in the dressing room was over the subs’ area! That’s unusual.

  11. December 3, 2011

    This is an extremely high risk line up from Pep. I would not play Busquets. He picks up a yellow and he misses the Clasico.

    Playing a 3-4-3 against Levante means all of the width will have to come from Sanchez/Cuenca. But needing that 4th midfielder is probably why Pep is deciding to risk playing Busquets.

    I really don’t know about this.

    • Dani_el
      December 3, 2011

      I forgot about Busquets’s yellow cards. I guess Pep feels confident in him to not get ammonested, and in Keita as his possible replacement in the clasico.

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