FC Barcelona had started this year by scoring more goals than xG statistics would have predicted, but that’s no longer the case. This suggests the team is picking up form, particularly when it comes to chance creation. Still, Ernesto Valverde may not have it figured it out just yet. He came out against Athletic Bilbao with a 4-4-2 lineup, and one wonders whether this was a temporary solution or one he is considering for the long term.
Barça beat Athletic in a tense, end-to-end match. Marc-Andre Ter Stegen had to save the Catalans several times, true, but Barcelona probably should have had a couple more goals themselves. Lionel Messi missed what should have been an easy chance, and Paulinho rattled the post as well, before both did in fact score in their 2-0 win.
Barcelona’s xG has been looking good over the past few weeks, and they even drew a match (1-1 against Atletico Madrid) that xG suggested they should have won. Previously, Barcelona was underperforming xG, which suggested that perhaps their run of victories was unsustainable.
Against Athletic, Valverde used a four-man midfield with three box-to-box players: Andre Gomes, Ivan Rakitic, and Paulinho. Gomes and Rakitic were given wide roles, with the Brazilian in a central position. This liberated Luis Suarez to play in an almost free role, rather than his awkward wide-left role he had been playing in lately.
Suarez didn’t score, but he did play better, helping create a couple of chances. His conversion rate is an issue right now, but maybe he just needs to get out of his slump by regressing to his mean.
The three midfielders served their roles, all three are asked to create, defend, and score. None will be in the team of the year, but they functioned well alongside the brilliant Sergio Busquets. It’d be interesting whether a more lithe player like Gerard Deulofeu or Denis Suarez could play one of these roles. They certainly can dribble more, but can they defend enough?
It’s no accident that Valverde kept both Deulofeu and Suarez out of this game. He correctly figured his old team’s best method of scoring would be through the air, and three of their four best chances came from headers. Twice Ter Stegen denied Aritz Aduriz, and Raul Garcia’s headed effort clipped the top of the crossbar.
Paulinho, Gomes, and Rakitic are all above 5’11” and are better in the air than Deulofeu or Denis Suarez. Valverde said he didn’t make further substitutions after his first because he thought his current team was the best at set piece situations.
The question this brings up is whether other players would have been better at preventing these situations, or maybe offered enough offensively to offset a defending deficiency.
We will see whether Valverde persists with a 4-4-2 formation or goes back to the standard 4-3-3. Ousmane Dembele will come back from injury in the near future, plus Deulofeu and Denis Suarez will be hard to continue to keep out of the team. But then again, not every opponent will be like Athletic Club. Against teams that defend deeper and don’t pose as much of an aerial threat, tricky players will be even more valuable.
It all could come down to whether Luis Suarez is justifying the switch enough for Valverde to continue to accommodate him into the XI.