Barcelona’s performance at home to Slavia was sluggish and slow, and there was hardly a sign of promise or optimism. The game stood for one of the things that are wrong at the Nou Camp, as Ernesto Valverde struggled on the touchline.
After the draw, Valverde told reporters (via Marca):
“It’s okay for people to demand [more]. You always like to win. Today, the truth is that we have not been right [when it has come to converting the] clear chances that we have had.“
Indeed, at the back of a 3-1 defeat to Levante away from home, Barca came into the game with no option but to win. But it was more Valverde’s fault than the players’ inability to finish off chances.
The Levante clash saw Valverde play Arthur in midfield, with Luis Suarez starting up front. They could not impose any authority in midfield and the tactical imbalance was very clear. Arturo Vidal and Arthur could not control the game, as Frenkie de Jong played deeper.
Suarez sustained an injury that had kept him out of the Slavia game. Fans were evidently happy that this would allow Antoine Griezmann to start up front against the Czech visitors.
But the surprise decision by the manager wasn’t pleasant at all, as Valverde played Griezmann on the left wing, to man fans’ frustration. Lionel Messi played centrally as the false nine, with Ousmane Dembele on the right.
A ball-winning midfielder in Arturo Vidal played as the attacking midfielder and often found himself to be the most advanced player forward. In the 4-2-3-1 shape, De Jong and Sergio Busquets played in the double pivot.
Slavia looked to keep a very high line when Barca were in possession. They played two up front as they kept trying to win the ball back and get it up to the front men as quickly as possible. And by keeping a high line, the distance between the strikers and the defence reduced.
They kept their midfield fluid but the wingers dropped very deep when the Barca midfielders had the ball. As soon as the Catalans lost the ball, Slavia pressed in a fluid manner to move the ball forward quickly.
As evident from the image above, Barca had their full-backs high as the Slavia wingers dropped deeper. But Valverde took the decision of playing a ball-winner in Vidal as the furthest man forward, allowing Slavia to win the ball back and circulate it to Peter Olayinka very easily.
As it is clear, the Slavia frontmen came deeper when Barca had possession in advanced areas. They looked to keep Busquets and De Jong in check, and they refused to allow the two to combine and build up from the midfield areas, forcing Barca wide.
As a result, Barca relied on overlaps from Nelson Semedo from the right. The Portuguese came up with the most promising moment of the game, having his shot saved by Ondrej Kolar.
The decision to play Griezmann on the left once again left the Frenchman isolated. He could play only 26 passes in the whole game and he completed only one dribble, which came when he was shifted to the right side in the second half.
Dembele’s pace did threaten, but the former Borussia Dortmund man played only 15 passes in the game. He also failed with five of his dribbles.
When Semedo constantly made overlaps forward, Dembele was more keen on dribbling. This saw Barca get exposed down their right side which was evident from the opposition winger, Olayinka, completing two dribbles and playing one key pass.
In the second half, Jordi Alba came off. Valverde seemed keen on having an overlap option on the left too. Semedo switched to the left, but Sergi Roberto came in at right-back. On paper, this decision made sense, but Roberto isn’t a dribbler and having Semedo play on his unnatural side was strange.
Dembele was substituted for Ansu Fatu, who nearly created a goal for Messi after coming on. Busquets, who was dribbled past twice, was taken off for Ivan Rakitic.
While having Fati down the left and Griezmann on the right made the attack look a little more fluid, it didn’t do anything to address the lack of balance in midfield which was shocking.
Barca often had as many as four players sticking to the Slavia backline, but they never had enough control in midfield. They constantly found themselves getting overrun when Slavia came forward. As evident from the example above, the gaping spaces in front of the back four let the opposition get an easy ride.
It was again a reflection of how Valverde is failing to get the most out of a side that has the world’s best young creative midfielder in De Jong. They have the world’s best technical forward in Messi as well as one of the best ball-winning midfielders in Vidal.
But Valverde doesn’t know where he should play them. He got the shape wrong and it seems as though he barely has an idea about where Griezmann should play.