With the first perfect league season in Spanish football history in their grasp, Barcelona slipped up in the penultimate game against Levante. The Catalans travelled to Valencia and lost in a spectacular 5-4 shootout at the Estadi Ciutat de Valencia. It was their first loss since losing 2-0 to Malaga in April 2017, a run of 43 La Liga games.
Barcelona’s Wild Game
This game was an absolute shock. Levante currently sit 15th in La Liga after leapfrogging Athletic Bilbao with this victory. Going into this game they had scored 37 goals in 36 games and Emmanuel Boateng had scored three goals in all competitions this season. Yet against Barcelona, they scored five and Boateng scored three to beat Barca for the first time since 1964!
Now, the first question anyone should have is, ‘what the hell happened’? Barcelona had been playing well, they were coming off a 2-2 draw in the Clasico and a 5-1 drubbing of Villareal. Though Levante had been playing well, four wins on the trot, Barcelona are still expected to win, especially against Levante.
They were without Lionel Messi, however, who was reportedly left home in order to stay fresh for a friendly in South Africa on Wednesday. But as silly as that last sentence sounds the absence of Messi was not the reason for this loss. This loss falls on manager Ernesto Valverde and his decision to change the system, while simultaneously rotating at the back.
The Risk He Took
All season Valverde’s Barca have been both questioned and praised for the control and almost pragmatic approach they took to games. Valverde stuck with a 4-4-2 all season, playing Busquets & Rakitic in a double pivot to give more protection to the back four. It counteracted the chaos that so dominated the end of the Luis Enrique era and allowed Barcelona to take the league back from Real Madrid.
However, in this game, Valverde decided to play a 4-3-3 with Busquets as a single pivot. Over the last 18 months when Busquets plays as a single pivot the game results in chaos, end-to-end football that leaves the back four exposed. It is not a huge problem when the back four is Sergi Roberto-Pique-Umtiti-Alba.
It becomes a problem when the back four is Semedo-Yerry Mina-Thomas Vermaelen-Alba. Mina & Vermaelen have barely played together, as was evident throughout the first half. Even after Pique came on for Vermaelen, things did not improve. The start to the second half is one of the worst 15 minutes Barca have played in years.
The Busquets Problem
And the reason for that is midfield control, or lack thereof. Without the double pivot, Barcelona lost their control and their defenders were forced to defend in space, something they do not do well. It exposed Busquets’ lack of pace, reminded everyone that he turns 30 in July. And should scare Spain coach Julian Lopetegui out of playing a traditional 4-3-3 at the World Cup.
Busquets has been, and still is, one of the most important players for both club and country. But to be at his best, Barca will need to help him age well. Like Andrea Pirlo at Juve, Xabi Alonso at Bayern, or Frank Lampard at Chelsea. They all played as deep-lying pass masters next to young box-to-box midfielders.
For Spain, Busquets and Thiago would make for an outstanding partnership. Even better than Rakitic and Busquets did for Barca this season. But Barca will need to find a younger replacement for Rakitic, who is already 30. But there will be plenty of time to discuss transfers.
For now, Levante deserve their due. Many of the players on that pitch played the match of their lives. And certainly, the match of their supporters lives. It’s not every day you break a 53 winless drought against anyone, let alone one of the best teams in Europe.
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