Before Valencia-Barcelona kicked off Unai Emery and Pep Guardiola shared a warm embrace which in many ways disguised the ensuing tactical battle that was just as intriguing as one of the best games seen in Spain so far in 2011/2012.
Arguably, the key tactical tweak employed by Valencia boss Emery was playing two left backs in Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba to predominantly deal with the forward runs of Dani Alves.
This tactic was employed by Emery at the Nou Camp in October last year in a tight 2-1 defeat and it had extraordinary success on Wednesday night. Both early Valencia goals came down the left and it should have been 3-1 but for a crazy Roberto Soldado miss.
In particular Mathieu caused havoc in behind Alves and it meant the whole Barcelona side had to shift over throughout the opening 45. Pep Guardiola responded in the second half with a number of substitutions which eventually turned the game in the Catalans favour.
First off, he brought on Adriano for Pedro, leading to the absurd situation of four full backs on one flank (Mathieu and Alba for Valencia v Adriano and Alves for Barcelona) and then later in the half the more attacking move of Thiago Alcantara replacing Carles Puyol.
Eventually, Barcelona gained more possession and made it pay when Messi played in Fabregas for the equaliser. Guardiola salvaged a draw but he was pushed to the limit by Emery who used his resources to impressive effect.
As ever, despite the tactical array of systems used by both coaches, it was Lionel Messi that was the difference, setting up both Barcelona goals.
As Michael Cox of Zonal Marking concludes in his tactical report “Emery won the pre-match tactical battle, but Guardiola used his substitutions more wisely to get back into the game. It was surprising to see Barca so vulnerable early on, and maybe Guardiola got a little carried away with Alvesâ€™ abilities… Emery should be praised for his starting tactics, as well as some brave substitutions late on to try and force Barca back. Ultimately Messiâ€™s quality was the biggest factor in getting the away side back into the game â€“ and thereâ€™s no shame in that. Ultimately, this was a tactical victory for Emery.”
It raises the question of why more opposition coaches do not emphasise the importance of Alves to Barcelona and attack in behind to put the La Liga champions and Champions League holders on the back foot.
Thankfully, @allas4 has put together a video showcasing the tactical breakdown of Valencia 2 – Barcelona 2 so we can all understand the theory in practice and it is a great watch.