Ernesto Valverde’s gameplan works perfectly for Barcelona in El Clasico

28th October 2018, Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain; La Liga football, Barcelona versus Real Madrid; Ernesto Valverde coach of FC Barcelona as his team push for the first goal (photo by Pedro Salado/Action Plus via Getty Images)
28th October 2018, Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain; La Liga football, Barcelona versus Real Madrid; Ernesto Valverde coach of FC Barcelona as his team push for the first goal (photo by Pedro Salado/Action Plus via Getty Images) /

The Catalans humiliated Real Madrid 5-1 to earn Ernesto Valverde’s first Clasico win at Camp Nou.

Barcelona entered this match without Lionel Messi due to an arm injury, which he picked up against Sevilla, however, they didn’t need him as the team put in a top quality performance to come away with a 5-1 win over their eternal rivals.

Each player played well, although naturally there were individuals who stood out such as Clasico newcomers Arthur Melo and Clement Lenglet as well as veterans such as Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez. Nonetheless, Ernesto Valverde deserves huge credit for accomplishing this devastating victory without his key man. His players were performing at a high level, but they were following his gameplan.

He opted to stick with the same lineup from the Internazionale match, with Rafinha playing in Messi’s place. His defensive discipline, understanding of positional play and involvement in the team’s pressing meant his inclusion was a good decision even if he contributed little offensively in the final third.

Most of Barcelona’s attacks went down their left flank as they targeted Nacho who was playing in the right-back position. He is naturally a centre-back and his uneasiness playing out wide could be seen as he made a number of errors positionally and in possession, which led to him being substituted at half-time for Lucas Vazquez.

From the outset, the Catalans were willing to test the back line by playing in balls behind in order to force them back and control territory. The first goal came from this as Ivan Rakitic played Jordi Alba in behind, down the left flank, and he patiently picked out Philippe Coutinho who fired home. Barcelona also exploited this area in the build-up to the second goal as Alba had way too much time to fire a cross in and Raphael Varane fouled Suarez in trying to retrieve possession, with the Uruguayan promptly firing the penalty past Thibaut Courtois.

In the second half, they started slowly and struggled to get a rhythm as Real dominated possession and territory. This control paid off as Marcelo scored early on and they were unlucky to not go level as Luka Modric hit the post after some sloppy play from the hosts. However, Barcelona started to grow back into the game with spells of possession which reduced Real’s pressure. It could be argued Valverde was slow to make changes, but an early substitution would have been risky and potentially could have disrupted Barcelona’s defensive shape further.

This was essentially a game where controlling territory was the defining factor for success. Real pressed high, especially for opposition goal kicks, in order to disrupt Barcelona’s build-up as they had issues playing out through this press from the back and often had to resort to long balls to Coutinho or Suarez. Real didn’t need possession to control proceedings because they could force turnovers but only if they were high up the pitch as the Catalans found it easy to retain possession high up the pitch and penetrated their defensive shape on multiple occasions.

Valverde’s substitutions were logical because he brought on Nelson Semedo for Rafinha, which allowed Sergi Roberto to move forward into the Brazilian’s position. The Spaniard’s comfort in possession in any area of the pitch as well as his ball progression ability through dribbling were key assets for the team. Not long after that, he brought on Ousmane Dembele for Philippe Coutinho so they effectively swapped creative duties. Nonetheless, this was still a bold move for the cautious 54-year-old and a potential sign that he has learned from last season’s mistakes.

The French international had an instant impact as he played in Roberto after a quick transition and the 26-year-old crossed for Suarez to fire a bullet header home from the edge of the box.

Having such as fast and tricky winger naturally put the Real defence on edge as they were wary of taking too many risks, but the in-game situation demanded it. Pushing Roberto further up the pitch produced results once again as he dispossessed Ramos near the halfway line and played in Suarez who completed his hat-trick with a delightful chip.

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By this point, Real were leaving huge gaps as they were desperate to get back into the game. Dembele received the ball on the left-wing and easily beat Nacho before crossing in for fellow substitute Arturo Vidal to head home and complete the rout. The Chilean had come on for Arthur in order to give some added solidity in midfield.

Valverde deserves plaudits because he got his tactics spot on and made the right changes during the match to deliver a top performance.