Barcelona came from 2 goals down to win at Sociedad, keeping their unbeaten record intact. Following Manchester City’s defeat at Liverpool, Barcelona are now the only unbeaten team in Europe’s top 5 leagues.
It looked like the Anoeta curse would continue for an 11th consecutive year after Real Sociedad went 2 goals up but some excellent in-game management by Ernesto Valverde ensured that Barcelona finally broke the curse.
Real Sociedad lined up in a 4-3-3 that looked like a 4-4-1-1 at certain points. There was the Zurutuza – Illarra double pivot behind Xabi Prieto with Canales and Juanmi wide supporting Willian Jose who played as the centre forward. Barcelona, on their part, lined up with a 4-4-2. Valverde opted for Andre Gomes on the left and Paulinho on the right, supporting Rakitic and Busquets in the centre. Andre, especially, was in the game to help out Jordi Alba in defence while stretching play when needed. This must have been done to peg back the often rampant Odriozola at right back for Real Sociedad and prevent him from getting into positions to send in his usual wicked crosses. No one could have seen La Real manager Eusebio’s strategy coming.
Despite Prieto starting in the centre, Eusebio instructed him to head right into Jordi Alba’s side in order to overload it. This meant that Real Sociedad had three players on Alba’s side, a strategy that made the Valverde plan to restrict Odriozola useless. Despite Alba’s and Andre’s best efforts to limit Real Sociedad attacks down that side, the crosses kept pouring in within the first 10 minutes of the game. Eventually, it led to the first goal in the 11th minute.Odriozola burst forward and sent a pass to Prieto who had once again come down to Alba’s wing to overload it. This led to Vermaelen getting dragged out of position in order to track Canales who had come inside and headed back out wide. This left only Pique and Sergi Roberto in the box to deal with whatever danger was imminent. Prieto crossed the ball and Willian Jose got on the end of it. 1-0.
It kept on happening and ten minutes later, Canales crossed for Willian Jose to attempt another header. He got on the end of it but it did not cause Ter Stegen any trouble. Again, Roberto and Pique were left alone in the box to deal with the Real Sociedad attackers, with Paulinho arriving too late. At this point, Barcelona started trying to exploit the space left by Odriozola who was always upfront overloading Alba. With Andre Gomes pegged back helping Alba in defence, Luis Suarez was the man drifting wide to occupy that space, with Messi directing things from the centre.
In the 33rd minute, La Real attacked once again down the right. Barcelona were alert to the danger at a great cost. They had Vermaelen, Busquets, Rakitic, Andre Gomes and Alba out on their left side trying to stop any attacks down the overloaded area. It was 3 against 5. This left the centre wide open and Paulinho came in to cover that space. Seeing no space to get a cross in on Alba’s side, Canales headed back to the centre and sent a through ball over the top to Juanmi who punished Barcelona. 2-0. Pique was pulled out of position by a retreating Willian Jose and only Roberto was available to track Juanmi, but he was already at a disadvantage. Vermaelen tried to get into position but he got back too late. Barcelona were getting destroyed via the overloading tactic and they had to respond fast.
Barcelona responded within 5 minutes. Jordi Alba overlapped and was met by Odriozola who left a huge space behind. Diego Llorente had stepped forward to stay close to Suarez who had gone wide in order to prevent him from exploiting the space behind Odriozola. Unfortunately for him, Suarez was too smart. Anticipating an Alba pass into that space, Suarez moved in an instant and left Llorente for dead. Paulinho, who had stuck to Kevin Rodrigues like glue, also reacted instantly. Within seconds, he was all alone and cooly toe-poked Suarez’s pass. 2-1 before halftime, perfect for Barcelona.
By the start of the second half, Valverde instructed Andre Gomes to get forward and drift towards the centre whenever Barcelona attacked, in between the Llorente and Odriozola, with Suarez roaming and quietly drifting wide when not with the ball – again into Odriozola’s space. This created a problem for La Real because it caused a lot of confusion for them. The positioning of their CMs and defenders suffered as they didn’t know who to track. Within 5 minutes of the restart, Barcelona had created 2 quickfire chances.
First, Rakitic found Suarez – who had dropped deep and taken Raul Navas with him – and he sent a through ball into the space Navas vacated. Messi received the ball, got past Rulli but the goalkeeper recovered impressively and forced a corner kick. While Rakitic was giving the pass to Suarez, Andre Gomes was running into the space between Odriozola and Llorente, keeping them busy. With Navas in no man’s land trying to track Suarez, Messi had the freedom to get into position. Andre’s run also prevented Odriozola and Llorente from stepping forward to trap Messi in an offside position. A minute later, Barcelona attacked again. It was the same strategy. Messi was with the ball in the centre, Luis Suarez had quietly drifted wide with Andre Gomes again running into the space between Odriozola and Llorente. With Odriozola lost trying to stay with Andre Gomes, Suarez got into the space he had vacated, received the pass from Messi and scored an incredible curling effort to the far post. 2-2. Game on.
With the score at 2-2, Valverde brought on Dembele for Paulinho. It was time to stretch La Real on the other side and completely disorganise their defence. Within 5 minutes, Dembele and Messi had managed to drag four Real Sociedad players to the other side, with Andre Gomes again dragging Odriozola with him to the centre while also keeping Llorente busy. Again, Suarez had drifted wide and he, along with Alba, was unmarked at the far post. Messi sent a long ball in which Alba received in a great position, but his cut back found no one in a Barcelona shirt. Real Sociedad were now solidly on the back foot, unable to contain the movements of all the Barcelona attacking players at the same time.
A poor goal kick from Rulli saw Vermaelen head the ball right back. Suarez reacted quickest and got to the ball from Odriozola’s (who was somewhere close to the halfway line keeping Andre Gomes company) side yet again. Within seconds, he was all alone and in behind. He finished the chance emphatically. Barcelona were now ahead. 3-2. 70th minute. At this point, it was all Barcelona.
In the 78th minute, Eusebio brought on Januzaj for Prieto. If he hoped to try overloading Jordi Alba’s side once again, he was certain to fail as Valverde reacted within 2 minutes by replacing Andre Gomes with Lucas Digne. He had decided to fully lock down that side. Four minutes later, Messi scored a delightful free kick to end any hopes of a Real Sociedad fightback. Game. Set Match. The Valverde in-game masterclass was complete.
Two goals down in the first half, in a stadium where Barcelona have not won since 2007, Ernesto Valverde’s excellence came to the fore. A memorable 4-2 victory in the pouring rain was no more than he and Barcelona deserved.