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In their biggest domestic challenge of the season so far, Barcelona and Ernesto Valverde illustrated their tactical versatility in a 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid and the newly constructed Estadio Wanda Metropolitano.
Following the international break, the clash was an intriguing one on paper with the Catalan club the league leaders whilst Diego Simeone’s charges had struggled to find any sort of attacking rhythm of late.
It was a match with few goals, yet it was enthralling. The former Athletic Club coach made the surprise call to start Andre Gomes in midfield, very much the forgotten man at the Camp Nou.
This decision didn’t initially pay off, Atleti were buoyed by the partisan home crowd and started the stronger of the two. Antoine Griezmann had two glorious chances inside the opening twenty minutes, yet was thwarted by Marc-Andre ter Stegen on both occasions, the first save being an incredible parry around the left hand post.
Eventually, Saul Niguez’s brilliant strike from distance gave the hosts the lead, putting Los Cules on the back foot for one of the first times this campaign. Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were isolated and unable to truly test an Atleti defence that hasn’t been as strong this year as they have been throughout Simeone’s spell in charge.
Valverde eventually made changes that influenced the game, Paulinho’s introduction into midfield gave the team a more dynamic threat, it also forced Los Rojiblancos to sit further and further back, inviting pressure as the game reach its climax.
Suarez’s goal-scoring woes have been evident this term, yet he equalised with just over 12 minutes left to play with a fine header at the back post.
What is interesting about this goal was just how the coach’s changes influenced it. The aforementioned Paulinho’s runs from a deep position ensured the hosts had an extra man to mark when defending their own penalty area.
Stefan Savic had previously been assigned to the former Liverpool forward and had kept him quiet for much of the evening, aside from one speculative handball appeal against the Montenegrin centre-half.
Paulinho’s physical presence a benefit
For the goal, Paulinho’s presence inside the box gave Savic something else to deal with. None of the Atletico midfield dropped in to track his run, forcing the defender to abandon Suarez and take a step to his left.
Upon Luis Enrique’s arrival at the Camp Nou in 2014, he introduced an adapted style of Pep Guardiola’s infamous style of play with the signing of Ivan Rakitic.
The Croatian midfielder made the Blaugrana more industrious and more direct, an adaptation which took them to Champions League glory in the 2014/15 season.
This season, Valverde has achieved something similar with the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder, his energy and ability to push forward can make Barcelona more of a threat on the counter-attack, as well as being able to overload teams.
More tactically adept
With the team having gone a little stale under Enrique, as is the case with most coaches after a period of time at a club in the modern game, Valverde has improved the team with his tactical input.
Saturday’s performance was not a classic from the Catalan club, they were versatile and effective and it got them a positive result away from home. The lead they hold over Real Madrid at the top of LaLiga means that it wasn’t a disaster not to win.
The two matches with Los Blancos will likely have a significant say on where the title will eventually end up, these affairs may well require such tactical measures from the 53-year-old.
Every so often it is necessary for a team to slightly adapt their style of play, the key word being adapt. Barcelona have enjoyed mixed success with this since Guardiola’s departure.
Appointing Valverde was a risky move; it certainly wasn’t the move most supporters wanted after seeing the success Jorge Sampaoli enjoyed in his sole season with Sevilla.
Yet, he has acclimatised to the club far quicker than anyone expected, he has negotiated the circus that was the club’s off-field dealings in the summer and has emerged on the other side with a competent team.
They have undoubtedly been helped by Real Madrid’s domestic slump, there hasn’t been any pressure on the Blaugrana in terms of league position, however they have played well and have shown an increased level of flexibility in their approach.
This will stand the club well as the season progresses and in Ernesto Valverde; they have a coach capable of reacting to a match.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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