After a disastrous transfer window and the huge rift that developed between the club’s owners and the fans, Valencia have understandably struggled this season. Finding themselves 12th in the League, Los Murcielagos have been impressive in neither defence nor attack which is perfectly illustrated by their goal difference of zero.
Javi Gracia’s Valencia side has lined up in a 4-4-2 throughout the season as they have historically. The team’s philosophy or style of play is simple. Play counter-attacking football and give minimal space through the middle when defending. To facilitate this counter-attacking style, the wide-midfielders are always instructed to join the attack to essentially form a 4-2-4, or a 4-2-3-1 with the help of Manu Vallejo who drops just a tad bit deeper. The full-backs will look to join the attack as well, often looking for overlaps.
When attacking, the strikers look to receive the ball on the shoulder of the defenders as the midfielders attempt through balls whenever possible. When the team has essentially everyone except the centre-halves committed to the attack, is when they will attempt a lot of long-range shots. As a result, 47% of their shots are from outside the box. These are rarely successful as the team has only two goals from from 56 attempts.
The strikers are key to Valencia’s attacking system. Maxi Gomez is ever-present joined by either Kang-In Lee or Manu Vallejo. When unleashed properly, these strikers are extremely lethal.
Owing to this, Valencia have the 4th best record for goals per shot in La Liga this season at 0.12 to complement their 0.3 goals per shot on target statistic. The wide-midfielders are instructed to play balls between the opposition’s centre-halves and full-backs. While the strikers stay narrow and make runs, the wide-midfielders and central-midfielders look to circulate play and look for a chance to let the strikers through on goal.
Even though Valencia look to sustain attacking play as suggested by the fact that they have 67% possession in the final and middle third, Gracia’s team doesn’t hesitate to risk losing possession by playing long balls. With a success rate of 57.6%, these long balls aren’t always successful, but when they are, it provides excellent scoring opportunities. As a result, they have the 5th highest rate of goal-creating actions per 90.
Though Valencia are a struggling side with just one win from their last five games in all competitions, the current Barcelona side could very well be vulnerable to Valencia’s attacking style.
“If an opponent plays long balls, it is more difficult to press. Sometimes the game you want works and sometimes not, it depends a lot on the rival. It is important to have another game at home and win it.”Ronald Koeman | Pre-game Presser
Clement Lenglet has looked like a far cry from last season in defence, and the two centre-backs from the match against Real Sociedad — Ronald Araujo and Oscar Mingueza — are a very inexperienced pairing. Because of these factors, Valencia have a chance to make the most of their long-balls and counter-attacking play against Barcelona’s unreliable high backline.
Valencia’s 4-4-2 formation is a very structured one when defending. They look to play a mid-block most often. In this mid-block, some players have specific instructions often as we shall see in this analysis.
When the opposition’s central midfielders have possession, one of the central-midfielders of Valencia looks to advance and press the player. The other, however, will remain at his initial position and provide cover to the defence. Finding Valencia open at the defensive midfield position is a rare sight, with a narrow central block being a priority.
Gracia’s team will look to force the opposition wide. Once the ball is on the wings in the final third, one full-back and one wide midfielder will immediately press the possession holder. The central midfielders will then look to intercept passes by cutting passing lanes or join the press depending on the number of opposition players.
The situation mentioned in the above paragraph is one of the few in which Valencia actually press intensely. The mid-block is very structured, and the strikers allow the opposition to have a position in their half. In fact, Valencia have just 18 tackles in the final third this season, the third-lowest in La Liga.
Goalkeeper Jaume Domenech has enjoyed a cracking start to the league this season. Apart from his superb shot-stopping ability, Domenech is an excellent passer of the ball. Valencia do not necessarily try to build-up from the back as we can see from their average goal kick length. At 55.2m, this is the 6th longest average in the league. Instead, the wide midfielders will look to receive the ball, with the full-backs moving up the field and making sure possession is not lost through second-balls.
When building-up, if the ball is to be played short, the two central-midfielders are crucial. They will look to position themselves between the opposition’s forwards and find space in the channels to receive. When the ball is not played to them, the full-backs will look to play the ball forward to the wide-midfielders who can then play it forward or inwards to the midfielders. As a result, it’s no surprise to see that only 25% of the attacks are through central positions. However, a huge 65% of the shots are through the middle, which is due to the earlier discussed narrow front two.
Valencia are especially weak against fast dribblers and players who can face the opposition in 1v1s. When the opposition wingers have the ball, if they are able to get past the press and get away from the full-back, the structured approach of Valencia means that the opposition wingers would then have a lot of space available. The central-midfielders will always form a line separate from the defensive line when outside the box.
As a result, they have been dribbled past 137 times this season already. This is also due to the reactive approach shown in defence, rather than a proactive one. In the defensive third, 640 pressures have been attempted with 777 in the middle third.
Sergino Dest’s spectacular individual skill will be extremely crucial here as he attempt to break past the backline with tricks. Additionally, as seen from the last game, Martin Braithwaite is not afraid to take on defenders in the final third and uses his pace to his advantage. Similarly, Konrad de la Fuente and Fransisco Trincao can be deployed out wide to make best use of the opposition’s inability to defend individually.
As mentioned earlier, Valencia will essentially play a 4-2-4 when attacking. Due to this, there is a lot of space left down the wings. Though the full-backs often advance as well, the opposition can easily counter as Valencia are weak on the transition. Apart from the space down the wings, the central midfielders will look to fall back immediately.
This means that centrally, it is straightforward to play past Valencia when their structure is yet to regroup. It makes them especially vulnerable on the transition as the front-two don’t press much, making it easy for the opposition to pass the ball around and progress.
Based on this, Miralem Pjanic will be key here as the Bosnian’s ability to find runners almost as soon as he gets the ball is unmatched in the Barcelona squad. It can also be exploited if Lionel Messi stays out wide during counters, and then builds by cutting inside.
Javi Gracia’s Valencia is a team that has had to deal with a lot of problems, both on and off-the-field. The season has been poor from Los Che, but there have been some impressive performances, for example, the battering of Real Madrid. Barcelona face a tough test in Valencia despite their recent form, and all the pressure will be on Ronald Koeman to replicate the success from this week. Although this is a team that struggles often, Barcelona and the defensive frailties showcased this season are something that makes this matchup one that Valencia could enjoy.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?
Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.
He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.
Tactical and Statistical Analysis
Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.
Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.
Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).
In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.
His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.
Where would he fit at Barça?
Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.
Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.
The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.
Should Barcelona pursue him?
There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.
There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.
He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.
While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.
On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.
Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.
Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.