Why I think Valverde got his tactics up front right

This is a guest post by Marlon, who you can find on Twitter as @majatt.

Let’s set the context first. Barcelona have played 6 games this season and they’ve played out like this:


Losing the first two games by a two-goal margin, winning the next four by two goals or more while keeping clean sheets in all four. Before the game against Juventus, using the ranking on whoscored.com, Barça’s best 11/formation was:


The Best 11, by whoscored rankings, regardless of formation for 433, which is large the preferred formation was:

Roberto – Umtiti – Pique – Alba
Rakitic     –      Iniesta
Suarez   –   Deulofeu


Barcelona went into Juve with 2.5 changes:

  • Dembele in for Deulofeu.
  • Suarez went Left, Messi Central and Dembele on the right where Deulofeu plays on the left.
  • Swapping Roberto for Semedo.

All the choices made sense as Barça’s injury list going into the game was:

  • Rafinha
  • Alcácer
  • Turan
  • Vidal
  • Digne
  • Sergi Roberto doubtlful, started on the bench.

The Semedo for Roberto choice also making sense simply because Semedo is new to Barça and has more potential at Right Back than Roberto who can’t match his speed, strength or experience at the position.

For Juventus injury and other factors saw them missing:

  • Marchisio
  • Khedira
  • Mandzukic
  • Chiellini
  • Cuadrado (Red card ban)
  • Lichtsteiner (left out, probably transferring)

While Barça was missing one starter, Juve was missing six, so this obviously impacted the game but maybe not as much as one would think.

Last year a Barça side missing two of last seasons’ Key Players (Busquets and Vidal) lost 3-0 in Turin to a full-strength Juventus. Juventus had one less shot and one less shot on target than last seasons’ fixture. Where Barça needed nine shots this year, with five on target, last season they attempted 16 with four on target! A few of these and other items related two the 3-0 win and loss to Juventus:

Stat This Season Last Season
Barça Shots vs Juve 9 16
Barça Shots on Target vs Juve 5 (55%) 4 (25%)
UCL average shots on Target % N/A 50%
Barça Possession vs Juve 64% 88%
Barça Passing vs Juve 90% 88%

So it should be clear the difference between losing 3-0 and winning 3-0 was largely down to quality of chances and accuracy of finishing, for both teams.

Here’s the key difference, last year Juve sat deeper, Luis Suarez played up front and Juve spent a lot of time deep in their own box. While Messi and Neymar spent most of their time around the edge of the box:, feel free to go to whoscored and play around if you’re interested.


While this year:


As you can see Messi, Suarez and Dembele spent their time further away from the box. Hang on, Messi et al are MORE dangerous near the box. You hear this ALL the time, so it must be true, and mostly it is. Unless you’re playing against an organized defense that is comfortable sitting deep, using their physical advantages well and ready to pounce on the counter.

You might think so what? They sat deeper, how did that matter? Well I’ll give you my opinion, this made Juve’s back line spend a lot more time fishing outside their box creating space between them and Buffon. In the game we lost, Juve spending the time largely so far back meant through balls made little sense and that’s visible in the passing map. Look at this below, this was last year, Barça played a ton of passes into the box, a bunch of them created chances, some deserving better finishes but with 25% of shots on target you get the idea. Clearly something was off, especially for a team that averaged 50% of their shots on target in the UCL (55% in La Liga last season).


Now here is this seasons’ game:


Do you see it? Maybe this will make it easier, here are the key passes and assists for Barça last year:


And the most recent game:


The assists occur outside the box towards the center, last year the chances created outside were wider. The one key pass into the box went nowhere this year, well it went into the stands courtesy of Suarez. The second goal for Barça came from a failed pass inside the box, which is the point, Juve will suffocate plays into the box making the resulting shot difficult. The deflection was a bit of luck and Barça took it.

I’ve been somewhat coy but I’ll come out and say it, putting Messi as a false 9 and having no one to justify Juve sitting deep created space in behind their backline that Barcelona exploited to score the first goal and generally threaten. For both of Messi’s goals he received the ball on the move outside the box and, crucially, didn’t hit the post but the back of the net. I want to emphasize the latter point a bit, look at this:


When Messi fires the first shot he had a small pocket of space, was quickly being closed down by two Juve players but shot between them and into the far corner. For Messi’s second Buffon guessed the wrong side but really, Messi could see Buffon and had tons of space to shoot in.


The sheer quality of Messi’s first finish changed the game as the last goal was a counter attack facilitated by Juve looking to get back into the game vs shutting it down and winning comfortably in Turin. You’ll notice I’m largely ignoring the 0-0 result, it was an extension of the first game’s tactics and issues for Barça.

Now back to the point about Messi as a false 9 and how Suarez’s positioning may ultimately have been the spoiler in last season’s fixture. Look at where Barça tried to dribble vs Juve last year:


Mostly wide and deep centrally meaning Juve could respond more easily. The most recent game:


Dribbles out wide were further back this time around, if a second Juventus player tried to disrupt the run they’d be creating space in their backline while a Barça player was on the ball in the midfield area. The dribbles centrally are mostly outside the area, four of them, one resulting in the third goal of the game but you can discount that a bit as it was a counter attack. One of the other four was a Juve CB so it goes to the point of getting Juventus to sit the back four further away from Buffon.

Lastly let’s look at Barça and expected goals. You can read about expected goals here if it sounds like gibberish, also you should definitely read this if you’ve ever struggled to quantity why Messi is such a great goal scorer. Anyway, have a look at last seasons’ 3-0 loss in terms of expected goals:

Now have a look at this seasons’ win:

Now if you’ve understood the xG stat this makes sense because Barça took a lot of shots in the loss and this figure is a sum not an average.  If you read that article about Messi you’ll see he had, by 2014, a 21% success rate from just inside the penalty area (vs 13% by players on average) and that’s exaggerated when he’s centered as he more or less was for his shots vs Juve. Still Barcelona generated the same probability of scoring goals from fewer shots, that is, the shots taken this game were of higher quality.

Take away points:

  • Playing Messi centrally should be and should have always be Barcelona’s strategy against teams that are defensively strong.
  • This all only works because the defense performed well in this game and last season it wasn’t as effective.
  • Even if Juve scored first or outperformed their xG I think Barça would have won assuming the tactics held.
  • Dembele and Suarez were largely spectators with 78 touches (42 and 36 respectively) between them (vs Messi’s 83).  Ter Stegen had more touches than either player. Expect them to be more involved in the future and Barça being better off for it.


WhoScored Juve 3 – 0 Barça 11-Apr-2017

WhoScored Barcelona 3 – 0 Juve 12-Sep-2017

WhoScored Barça Stats

Squawka Juve 3 – 0 Barça 11-Apr-2017

Squawka Barcelona 3 – 0 Juve 12-Sep-2017

Squawka Barcelona Team Stats

Caley Grpahics xG Maps

FiveThrityEight Messi is Impossible

Barcelona 3-0 Juventus Highlights


By Isaiah

Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.


  1. Yeah, welcome Marlon. Always good to hear others’ opinions. A well researched and interesting piece !

    I made a valiant attempt to understand the g spot bit but as folks around here will tell you I’m an ex English teacher so I get a pass on anything Maths related 🙂

    Interesting take aways, though. I hadn’t noticed any difference in Suarez’s position, just in where Juve held their line. I put their slightly higher position down to the fact they know it’s not a one game win or lose situation and that they’ll qualify anyway. However, you can see they moved up to challenge our possession from the stats but really didn’t do it well enough and maybe left a weakness.

    Last year’s loss was largely down to lack of marking at key points for me. For Dybala’s first we had eight of our players inside our box and nobody thought to mark him.

    1. Yup I would have gotten into the defensive differences but maybe another post, another time, ultimately we weren’t as good last season imo.

      Juve’s finishing was better and using xG their quality of chances were also better. So again, props to our defenders and midfield for keeping it tidy this toss, that’s where their missing players mattered more, creating quality goal scoring opportunities.

    2. I had the same impression as you, Jim, I thought they started with a game plan of holding their line a bit higher and pressing us in our half (in fact I was taken aback a bit that they decided to do so at Camp Nou, but came to the same conclusion as you, it was not a knockout game). In all honesty they pulled it off quite well for the most part in the first half (Pjanic I thought was very good). What didn’t happen was that they didn’t score that early goal they were hoping for I guess. And their organization did fall apart to a large extent after our first goal.

      Having said that, I though Suarez’s position did make it difficult for their man markers in their defensive transition agaist our counter attacks. On top of that the new kids in the absence of Chiellini weren’t quite up to the task.

      Really great post, Marlon, lots of food for thought. Looking forward to hearing more from you 🙂

  2. Ok, can someone enlighten me why the f is Semedo not playing??????
    Just for the sake of giving SR minutes????

    1. I thought the same thing. No idea. Valverde got that wrong. It’s not like he needs a rest? Maybe he has slight knock we aren’t aware of. SR lack of speed was exposed on 16th min when Getafe had first chance. Then the goal came bc SR & Rak aren’t able to cover & win headers. As soon as I saw ball in the air I knew it was going in. Have a feeling Semedo would’ve had that covered.

  3. And this is one of many reasons why you do your business in the summer transfer window on time.

    Dembele out with a muscle injury, How likely is it that this is because he didn’t train properly for more about a month?

  4. Why Suarez leaves a perfect ball to lash at for dummie that’s not there I have no idea. Dude, you’re in the box & a striker. C’mon

  5. Haha. Ray just said he turned the corner like a Ferrari. Let’s not get carried away Ray! Dang. Messi nearly kills game off

  6. This sounds like a reconstruction, but I was thinking in the first half, when nobody but Suarez was ever present in the box (no mids making runs), that I could see where Paulinho could be of use. Breaking buses, plan B. There you go.

    Big downside with Dembele injured; let’s hope it is not serious. Team look completely off, fatigued, and the win was the most important yet, because of that. Suddenly we have become Semedopendant! SR has not business as RB, I’m sorry. For me, he should have played CM, resting Iniesta, and Paco for Luis, who is so out of form, I am wondering if he has lost it. I know, he does many of useful things, but he needs some man-management to realise he is not the same player he used to be. I hate to say it, but studying CR would not be a bad idea for him… Several ball losses that led to counters.

    But we are always going to have these games, when the team is slow in feet and mind (except Leo, my god the little things he does, even when not in cheat mode), and the suffering was almost worth it just have that Paulinho strike. Good for him. And for us.

  7. Two subs, two goals, game won. We didn’t play well, but we got the 3 points and that is crucial. Last season we couldn’t win games when we didnt play well so it’s nice to see.

    What a goal for Paulinho, I never understood all the shit he got from fans. His price isn’t his fault. He clearly adds something to the team that we didn’t have and I think he showed that today. Not sure we have any other mids who would have made that run, let alone had the strength to hold off the defender and finish that well! Kudos to him. Takes a lot of mental strength to ignore all the nonsense and just play. Hope he continues like this.

    Suarez is starting to worry me though, he has been pretty awful so far this season. Everything seems to be off with him. That said he made a great run to create the space for Paulinho to run into.

    Oh and the difference between Semedo and SR is crazy. SR should not play right back unless completely necessary. He doesn’t have the pace and raki has to spend half the game covering for him… Or trying to!

    1. Well, thanks to Sky putting it on interactive because of the kick off time I had no pause or replay on the game which is a bummer as I like to rewatch an incident immediately and quite often my first reaction is wrong.

      However, a great result given that we were obviously a bit leggy. That’s the first thought actually. This was, what, Iniesta’s fifth game in about a fortnight? What happened to him being precious and needing to be used sparingly ? The answer is, of course, it would be lovely to do that but we can’t afford to . I was surprised he started, maybe Pique given hints at injuries and … ( I was about to say Messi but I don’t think there’s a bone in my body believes Valverde would leave him out if fit or that he would be happy with it. I think the real test of Messi rotation comes if we are three or four up and he’s chasing a hat trick . It’s nice to think we could have gradually introduced Dembele and I maybe wouldn’t have given him two games in a week after missing so much training but I can see the temptation and the injury is unfortunate.

      I also don’t think Suarez is completely fit and could do with building himself up a bit more sharpness in training but that’s not gonna happen either, especially not now. However, the writing off of him is, imo, ludicrous. Even yesterday he was vital in both goals. As Hilal says he created space for Paulinho but go back and have a look at the first. He creates Denis’ space all on his own with a quick dart towards goal dragging with him the only man who would’ve been close enough to prevent Denis’ shot, while also getting into perfect position for a quick square ball in front of goal. That gave Denis time to take a touch first. He’s been involved in one way or another in most of our goals this year. Without him up front Messi doesn’t get half the space.

      For me, although a close run thing, this is the sort of game that we need to get through. It wasn’t gonna be silky given the games over the period and lack of rotation but even more so because of the pitch. When I played at a much lower level our pitches ranged from fair to a mess. Now this was better than these but you can’t play a quick passing game on a dry pitch with longer grass. That was obvious watching it and I see mentioned by one and all in the team afterwards. The ball just sticks under your feet all the time, you can’t carry it at speed and it suits a long ball game. ( just as in our defeat against Bayern it’s often forgotten they deliberately turned the pitch into a quagmire where it was impossible to move or run with it).

      Secondly, it confirmed for me that our defence is pretty sound. If we keep the opposition to shots from outside the box and only lose a goal to a “goal of the season shot” that’s not bad. I think it’s a bit unfair to award any blame to Rakitic there for turning his back. I would’ve , every time. Only bad moment, came from a needless loss of ball from Dembele and ball across goal which Pique did magnificently to deflect. It was a strange decision to play SR rather than Semedo. If SR is as good as some folk suggest, at some point he needs to step up in midfield and show he can handle it. Not getting at him, just wondering why Valverde didn’t go that way.

      Lastly, you have to say Paulinho is looking like a genuinely late arriving in the box kid. He’s done it twice now to good effect in the time he’s been given. What’s his stamina like for a full stint and should he get the start ahead of Rakitic is my thinking. Can’t help it, I keep thinking that we were offered €40m for Gomes and didn’t offer to gift wrap him. At some point I hope he gets one last chance to show us something then if not, off in the winter transfer window.

      Anyway, these gritty games are good for us as they allow us to appreciate the glowing stuff more. Midweek I expect to see Pique and Iniesta rested with Busi playing no more than a half although I’m not convinced by any of the cover we have for him. I slap hope Valverde is poring over the calendar to look for a suitable home game against poor opposition where he approaches Messi with ” I’ve been thinking, Leo …. ” .

  8. I ll take the win, after all a win is a win. But I have issues with the starting line up. Where was rotation? Dembele’s showing in the UCL was that of a player who didn’t have a full preseason nor train for months, so why start him? What happened to slowly integrating hlm? Iniesta also needed a rest. It doesn’t take rocket science to know that the game against Juve would take its toll on the players. Everyone knows high press attack and group defending causes more mental and physical exertion. Its no surprise that the two key subs scored the goals. The first shot on target was also registered by another sub– Deulofeu, who was unjustly overlooked to the detriment of meritocracy. Also, why is Roberto still wasting away as a RB? If you will overwork Raki at least give him Semedo to save him the stress of babysitting a make-shift RB.
    Am not nitpicking or overeacting, but from experience, the loses and wins that decide titles are products of repeated wrong decisions. Here is to hoping EV avoids such a pattern.

  9. And there is also that matter of L. Suarez. Could it be he is performing well in training? Because I dont get it; why start a struggling player in the hope that he will play his way back to fitness while the team suffers for it. We tried that with Ney last season and look what the stats says (even though Ney made up for his form with his assists then). I still reiterate that the training ground is the best clinic for poor form recovery.

    On a brighter note I am happy for Paulinho. What an incredible way to silent his critics. More of that please. Is it just me, or is the midfield starters battle about to take off? Consistency from Paulinho could spark that.

    Other Positives: I love the intensity in the second half, the urgency and fight displayed by the team.

  10. You could notce what a single change in the starting line up can damage the play and slow down the fluidity in midfield.
    Thats why we suffered mostly. We missed the more free role Rakitic in midfield.
    Otherwise, great return in the second half and very important 3 points.

  11. Nightmare news: Dembele reportedly out for 2 months! Let him speak with Leo’s people, who turned an injury prone teenager into an almost unbreakable beast.

    Such rutten luck! Let’s hope he will recover well and be important during the rough stretch of the 2nd part of the season.

    Good thing Denis showed some promise yesterday. And now Deulofeu will have a big role to play. Let’s also hope player like Gomes, Rafinha and Paco might find the way.

  12. It fascinates me that RM have it easy at Anoeta every year, while we struggle immensely. Missing 5 starters and dominating the game, no problem. It strikes me that they apply a similar tactic to subdue La Real, as La Real have done to us – very high pressing and plenty of movement. Modric, Isco and Ansensio – and Borja Maral! – are enjoying themselves. Strong spine, no doubt.

    What a burden on Messi’s shoulders (and Busi’s), to counter that squad, without the new kid on the block to shake it up. But impossible is nothing!

  13. Denis Suarez showed wonderful presence of mind for that goal. Even if he doesnt impress always, that goal will be remembered for very long time.
    And a million thanks to Paulinho for being at that place at that time to receive that ball. Since I have seen him score goals for Brazil, I was nearly sure it was going to be a goal, once he made his first tough. I didnt had that confidence with Denis though.
    A 3 points worth millions.
    Was very disappointed to see SR in rb. Even Masche would have been better, even if the attack would have suffered.
    JIm, I do agree Suarez is doing something, but with the ball, almost every moment, he was horrible. His job in the team is to not just creat space, I hope.

  14. No, I wasn’t trying to say that, Fotobirajesh. I meant as well as goals and it’s easy to overlook that side of things. We had this all the way through last year yet he ended up second in la Liga only to Messi in goals and assists. You don’t judge a striker by any one or two games. They’ll all miss loads. I’m old enough to remember Gerd Muller , one of the best goal scorers ever yet he missed loads, was never involved in build up and never left the six yard box !

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