Barcelona continued their superb run of form on Monday night with an important 1-0 win over a resilient Real Valladolid side to make it 19 games unbeaten in La Liga.
Ronald Koeman’s men went into the match knowing that a win would not only give them three points but control of their destiny, as Atletico Madrid felt defeat this weekend at the hands of fourth-placed Sevilla.
The Catalan side came up against a well organised and threatening Valladolid side in the first half but a change in formation and a persistent performance in the second half encouraged the Blaugrana side to secure all three points in the last minute through Ousmane Dembele and secure a win before heading into next weekend’s clash with arch-rivals Real Madrid.
Here are three takeaways from Barcelona’s last gasp win over Real Valladolid.
1. The La Liga title race is on and it won’t be easy
14 points was once the gap Atletico Madrid enjoyed over Barcelona this season, as it looked like Barcelona would have to settle for a top 4 battle as the two Madrid clubs fought it out for the title.
Fast forward to now, and Barca have control of their own destiny after this weekend’s results, as the Catalan side moves to within a point of Diego Simeone’s side.
For Barcelona, it is performances like this that will make the Catalan side champions. Real Valladolid were well drilled throughout the match and offered a noticeable threat on the counter, whilst Barca looked tired and lacked rhythm. Ronald Koeman’s men persisted till the last minute and were rewarded thanks to a beautiful volley from Ousmane Dembele.
For Barca fans, seeing their team secure three important points in the final minute offers them hope that the mentality of this team has changed. Barcelona, over the last few years, have been victims of mental collapses in the final minutes and to be on the other side of it in recent weeks is very encouraging for the run-in.
This mentality could be what sees Barca over the line this season, as Valladolid will not be the last struggling team to put up a fight against the Catalan side in their bid to survive the drop.
The title race looks like it will go down to the wire this season, and next week’s trip to fellow title contenders Real Madrid offers Barca the perfect opportunity to show their intentions.
2. De Jong is vital in midfield
Frenkie De Jong has proven during his time at Barcelona to be one of the most versatile players in the squad, and this season has been no different with the Dutchman filling in at centre back on occasions due to the lack of options in that position thanks to injuries.
De Jong started in the position again against Real Valladolid, and although the midfielder did not have a bad game in this role, it was what the Dutchman offered when he stepped into midfield in the last five minutes of the first half that made the biggest statement. After a poor first 40 minutes, De Jong joined attacks, and Barca were noticeable more threatening as a result.
Ronald Koeman noticed this and switched to a 4-3-3 for the second half, with De Jong moving back into midfield. From the get-go, the Dutchman helped create overloads, made effective runs forward, and his presence made it difficult for Real Valladolid to transition.
De Jong ultimately went on to help Barcelona secure victory, as it was the Dutchman’s cross that started the move for the Catalan sides only goal.
The reasons for De Jong playing at centre back are obvious, but it does not mean he has to play there. In just two halves of football, the importance of the 23-year-old to this Barca side was evident, and for the run in De Jong should be nowhere else but at the heart of Koeman’s midfield.
3. Koeman continues to show off his tactical side
Throughout the first half, Real Valladolid were the better team, as Sergio’s men remained compact and transitioned in numbers, creating the best chances of the half and restricting Barcelona to very little.
Having started in a 3-4-3 formation, Ronald Koeman decided to switch to a 4-3-3 for the second half and, with that, moved Frenkie De Jong into midfield. This allowed Barca to restrict Valladolid transitions, helped overload the midfield, and the higher positions of the midfielders made the Catalan side a more attacking threat.
Koeman deserves massive praise for this tactical tweak, as it eventually led to his side picking up the three points.
Although it seems like a simple change, a lot of managers might have relied on their pre-match preparation and would not have had the courage to move away from a formation that recently has been delivering results. Koeman did and reaped the rewards of it.
Ronald Koeman’s tactical understanding of the game was highly questioned upon his appointment as Barcelona manager, and tonight, like many others in the season, the Barca manager has proven many people wrong.
If Barca goes on to win the league this season, it will not only be a result of the Dutchman’s man-management skills but his tactical ones as well.
Three talking points from Real Madrid 2-1 Barcelona
In the final edition of El Clásico in the 2020/21 domestic campaign, Barcelona incurred their fifth defeat of the league campaign. It was end-to-end stuff in the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium, as an exceptional first-half performance from the hosts was followed up by a tantalizing second from Barça.
This game had everything someone could ask for in a Clásico. There was controversy, passion, goals and for the first time in a few years, a red card was the cherry on the top. These are Barca Universal’s takeaways from the game in the capital.
Real Madrid’s efficiency on show
With four shots on target, 1.58 Expected Goals, and two goals to their name, Real Madrid put to show their sheer efficacy in front of goal, as well as in defence. For the first half at least, Zinédine Zidane’s men were always at the right place, at the right time making all the right movements and to devastating effect.
Los Blancos‘ philosophy is one of winning, and doing so regardless of how the victory is earned. Contrary to the Catalans, who not only need to win, but also do it a certain way, Los Merengues are more than capable of abandoning their usually proactive approach to games in favour of a more reactive one. The fact that they are not bound to a specific ideology makes winning matches one of the simplest of tasks.
They held the ball for only 32% of the game, which goes completely against what a majority would expect them to. At the end of the day, however, possession matters significantly less than what one does with it. With every lapse in concentration from the Garnet and Blue, Madrid had enough men forward, and well enough positioned, to hit them where it hurt.
Despite the relatively low xG, they had enough big chances to even lead 4-0 come the halftime whistle. When it came to defending, their tight-knit defence, in stark contrast to that of their rivals, barely broke a sweat. They imposed an impenetrable low block, and applied a collective press to force as many errors as they could.
In addition to this, Zidane has the luxury of having a starting eleven of devastatingly versatile footballers in his arsenal. Fede Valverde for instance was as much a right-back as he was a central midfielder and a winger. He executed each role to pristine perfection, and so did his peers to ensure all 3 points, and bragging rights stayed in Madrid.
Excellent mentality shift
Following such a harrowing performance in the first half, few, if any, could have expected Barcelona to mount a comeback. Had this been any other team, that would have been possible, but given Real Madrid’s first-half performance, this was all but envisageable.
Indeed, the Catalans did fail to get any points from the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium, however, the sheer mentality they showed in the second half was a sight for sore eyes. Ronald Koeman made the necessary adjustments to the side, reverting to the 4-3-3 and with it, they wrought trouble in the Madrid backline.
Lionel Messi celebrating the goal. pic.twitter.com/ZX1HzWSqAR— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) April 10, 2021
If in the first half Barça seemed caged in endless cycles of worthless possession, then in the second they made thorough use of it. The Blaugrana created eleven chances for themselves in the second period, and while doing this, they in turn limited Los Blancos to just a single shot on goal for the entirety of the half; a complete turnover from their performance in the opening 45 minutes.
It was nail-biting stuff up until the final second of the game, as Ilaix Moriba’s volleyed effort struck the underside of the crossbar. Given the overall performance from both sides, a draw would have been a considerably fairer result, but even in defeat with this version of Barça, the players and fans know that they can keep their heads held high.
A game of fine margins
Games of the magnitude of El Clásico will forever be decided by the most minute of details and the same was the case here.
The first significant one was the frame of the goal. In the first half, following the umpteenth counter attack from Real Madrid, Fede Valverde, who up until then was having yet another phenomenal showing against Barcelona, struck the frame of the post with a shot that crucially bounced underneath Sergio Busquets.
In the second half, Ronald Araújo nearly scored an own goal, but with Ter Stegen rooted to the spot, the ball rolled delicately onto the post and out for a corner. In the final minute of the match, and with Madrid fighting for their lives, Ilaix Moriba struck the underside of the crossbar to end this sensational tie on an emotional high.
Jordi Alba has often been criticized for being just as much a blessing offensively as he is a curse defensively. In the build-up to the hosts’ opener, he had one task to fulfill: mark his opposing fullback. This is one he absolutely failed, as he drifted too far inside, and by the time he had noticed his error, Lucas Vázquez already had Karim Benzema in his sights. Too little, too late.
The final significant detail was in the goal that won Los Blancos the game. After what many consider a poorly given free-kick from the referee’s standpoint, Toni Kroos surely could not believe his eyes when he saw the sheer state of Barça’s wall. Marc André Ter Stegen’s poor leadership of his defenders left him utterly vulnerable, and his German counterpart spared him no blushes, slotting it home to seal the victory for his side.