Valverde’s unbeaten streak in the league has allowed him to equal Pep Guardiola’s record for the most number of games unbeaten from the start of a league campaign with 21 games. Despite that, the game against Alaves was a wake-up call to us and there’s no doubt that its time we pull our socks up and do not get complacent in the remaining fixtures.
What went wrong vs Alaves:
What I felt was wrong in the previous game was the balance in midfield with the inclusion of both Iniesta & Coutinho together in midfield with Paulinho playing through the centre. With Messi, Iniesta & Coutinho together around the same area, it seemed like there were too many players of similar nature on the pitch who nullified each other’s impact.
Coutinho in his first start, saw the ball more often than expected but still he couldn’t make the expected impact because of his position on the right half-space. His biggest strength is when he starts from the left half-space with the ball and drives in-field with quick change of directions. This is more suitable for him as he is a right-footed player, when he dribbles in-field with his right foot, the ball is away from the defenders who try to stop him. This is very similar to Messi driving in-field from the right flank with his left foot.
Since Coutinho was deployed on the right, his in-field dribbles were not helping him as the ball was exposed to the defenders while he dribbles with his right foot. So he ended up losing the ball while trying to do so and he was forced to have a silent game playing simple and short passes. In case you didn’t understand the difference, here are a couple of images that may be of help :
As you can see here, when Coutinho cuts in from the left and dribbles towards in the centre, the ball is away from the defender (circled red) and he is able to protect while dribbling.
In the image above, Coutinho tries to dribble towards the centre from the right but since he is right footed, if he does that then the ball will be exposed to the defender (circled red) who is ready to stop his dribbling.
This not only reduced Coutinho’s impact but also led to Messi having lesser number of touches as even the Argentine is the one usually overloading the right hand side of the pitch despite starting next to Suarez. Since he had two dribblers/ playmakers on either sides with Iniesta & Coutinho, he couldn’t move across the pitch to find space. Usually, Messi drifts towards the right half-space from where he starts his dribble towards the centre and then wreaks havoc. Now since Coutinho was in need of space on the right, Messi’s touches also had to be restricted as compared to his usual best.
Here are a few examples of Messi’s right half-space being used:
These are a very few hand-picked ones from the many examples that are there this season. Hence, the mid-field four needs to ensure there is a balance amongst them with only one of Coutinho or Iniesta starting on the left half-space.
Messi in our usual 4-4-2 with Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta & Paulinho/ Gomes has more than 11-12% of touches as the team. For example, in the entire game if Barca had 800 touches on the ball, then Messi would have about 90-100 touches. While in the game against Alaves, Barca had 916 touches on the ball with Messi having 83 which is about 9% of the team. In terms of dribbling, our little magician contributes about 50% of the total team’s dribbles in a game. In the game against Alaves, we had 23 dribbles the entire game while Messi had only 7 which is about 30%. These chunks that Messi has missed out was consumed by Coutinho as he had 77 touches and 6 dribbles himself. It is not a problem if they are effective but they are really of no use if we are going to slot him on the right and reduce Messi’s impact as well.
The squad that will travel to Valencia doesn’t include Andre Gomes as he isn’t completely fit and this means that Sergio Busquets will have Rakitic, Paulinho in front of him given how Iniesta & Coutinho didn’t work wonders for us. If given a choice, I would go for Busquets- Rakitic- Paulinho- Iniesta with Coutinho coming on after 70 minutes to replace Iniesta. Semedo has been left out of the squad despite having no injuries which leaves us with Roberto to take the right-back position. This is a no-brainer decision as Roberto has been one of the most important players for us in such big games away from home. The remaining positions are all quite easy to fill in with our first-team regulars.
My playing XI for tomorrow: