analysis | 2016-02-09
Match Report: Levante UD 0:2 FC Barcelona - When winning is routine
Barcelona keep their unbeaten straight against a feisty Levante squad despite lacking brilliance
The match gathered all the conditions to witness a Barça squad playing in energy-saving mode: they were visiting La Liga’s bottom side in an unusual schedule for the players as it was played at noon, with weary legs after a marathon of nine games played in January and about to take on the second of eight more clashes to be played in February; and after providing a football masterclass last Wednesday against Valencia which virtually guaranteed their presence in the Spanish Cup final.
Aware of this, Luis Enrique presented his best starting lineup with the only modification of Sergi Roberto in Busquets’ place, as if he was trying to avoid that too many rotations would become a dangerous message for his players to relax. The players seemed to take the hint perfectly because they stormed out of the blocks: two scoring chances in the first minute of play and a wrongly disallowed goal for an unexisting offside position in the second minute after an outstanding combination.
But after this initial drive, Rubi’s approach began to pay dividends. Similar to what Deportivo did in the Camp Nou, Levante displayed a halfway defense with a four-man line in the back and three midfielders very close to each other with the clear purpose of closing any kind of internal space. To defend against Barcelona with only seven men can be a risky move, but it showed an interesting counterpart: Morales, Rossi, and Deyverson were alone up front with a lot fewer meters to run in case of a counterattack, thus becoming an authentic threat when the culés lost the ball. Besides, the two strikers and the playmaker pressured Piqué, Mascherano and Sergi Roberto when they were trying to play from the back, by which they achieved to funnel Barcelona’s game to the bands.
Messi was the one who seemed to read the challenge proposed by Rubi, regaining his most open position and trying those orientation-changing passes toward Neymar’s and Alba’s attacks on the left flank which produced good results last season. Yet Messi wouldn’t speed up the first goal play from the right wing but from the number 10 position: he opened the ball to Iniesta, the Manchego delivered a deep pass to meet Jordi Alba’s run and the cross from the Catalan hit an unfortunate David Navarro who sent the ball into his own net.
After taking the lead in the scoreboard and as it happened last week against Atlético de Madrid, Barcelona lowered their intensity considerably. The ball moved slowly, making it easier for the Levante defense to react, and when the ball was lost Levante took advantage of their three attackers, with several footballers executing fast transitions which meant a serious threat to the Blaugrana’s defense, especially behind the back of an erratic Alves. In one of those chances Morales beat the Brazilian in the race to face Bravo unmarked, but his shot to the second post was rejected off it. Barça were struggling to maintain the lead before halftime.
The second half kept the same script. Barcelona, knowing that Levante’s assaults were a consequence of their own lost balls, attempted to minimize them by securing every pass even though that meant the attacks were much slower. Busquets entered the pitch aiming to provide more reliability in the back and to improve the pressure after a lost ball at the same time, and Sergi Roberto was moved to the right midfield in the place of Rakitic. Meanwhile, Aleix Vidal was subbed in for Dani Alves to give a different profile to the right back position: by playing less through the inside, where the Brazilian lost some dangerous balls, in order to generate more depth from the wing without leaving the space behind his back unattended as Alves did when he moved in that zone.
Without improving their game significantly, the match was balanced again, also because Levante’s physical attrition made them reach the goal area with less hazard than in the first half. But despite the fact that Barcelona’s chances were more dangerous, the one-goal difference encouraged Rubi’s ranks to step up in the final minutes, and as it happened against Atlético, the La Liga leader begged for the final whistle among rejections and clearances from their own area. Luckily for the most suffering culés, a counterattack in stoppage time was finished by Luis Suárez to erase any doubt about where the three points would remain.
At the end, the match, as the ones played against Atlético, Málaga or Athletic in the Spanish Cup, can derive different conclusions. Some believe that Barça are not playing well and they’re winning with a lot of distress, that the setback is around the corner. On the other hand, and without denying the risk that entails reaching the final minutes of a match with little margin, other people think Barcelona have so much confidence in their abilities that they’re saving their energy for the decisive stage of the season. Because if it is true that the culés were outplayed by their rival in some phases of the aforementioned clashes, it is also true that when they stepped into the gas pedal, they always knew how to overcome the circumstances and that beyond the appearances, the scoring chances summaries showed they were better in those matches. And when they’re not, the individual quality of the squad can always solve the equation.
Thus, quietly and without paying attention to the soothsayers, Barcelona sum up 28 games without a defeat (23 wins and five draws), matching the club’s record achieved by Guardiola in the 2010/2011 season with almost identical figures: same balance, same conceded goals (14) but one more scored goal with Luis Enrique than with Pep (86-85). The Asturian coach reaches 100 games at the Blaugrana helm, counting 80 wins, 11 draws and just nine losses, the best numbers in history among the centennial coaches of Can Barça. Statistics which have allowed him to win so far five out of the six possible titles and that, although there are no guarantees in early February, placed him at the doors of another Spanish Cup final and with an enviable position in La Liga. Luis Enrique and his extraordinary squad are accomplishing the hardest thing: to make winning a routine.
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Article translated from Spanish to English, originally published at the Perarnau Magazine by Xavier Codina.
WRITTEN BY: Xavier Codina
Die hard Barça fan and football lover specially interested in tactical analysis, Xavier also writes for Perarnau Magazine and Banquilleros.
TRANSLATED BY: Jaime Ibarra
Jaime is a chemical engineer from Venezuela who is passionate about football and Barça. He loves the club’s history and he has been an unconditional fan since Ronaldo “The Phenomenon” amazed the world with the Blaugrana colors.