This match was always going to be played out according to type as perennial fighters Rayo faced technicians Barcelona. To an extent that was the case, but Barcelona’s response to the challenge was an interesting change from what we been used to over recent years. Indeed, it might be seen as confirmation of the death of the Guardiola Principle.
The headline stat is a striking one: for the first time in five years - 317 games to be precise – the opposition had more possession than Barsa. Ten per cent more, in fact. It wasn’t an accident either. Faced with a particular conundrum, Tata Martino’s men responded in a very unexpected way.
That reaction was reflected in another startling figure which has been far less widely reported. The discrepancy in pass completion stats was notable: while Rayo found the mark 81% of the time, Barsa managed it in 77%.of cases. Compare that with the rest of the season, when the Blaugrana have stacked up rather more impressive numbers: 88%, 89%, 89%, 90% and 92%
The Vallecas’ reputation precedes Rayo, of course, and one expects the big boys to be given a rough ride in the Madrid suburbs. Paco Jémez’s side certainly lived up to their billing with a terrifically energetic display, and in the first twenty minutes the plan worked well.
Rayo pressed with terrific energy and regularly penned Barsa in, creating a disconnection between their defence and midfield which is rare. No doubt Guardiola’s reaction would have been to demand even more passing as his side played their way out of trouble. Martino’s Barcelona had a less doctrinaire response to the problem they were being posed: they went long. Often.
Yes, hard as it is to conjure with for those who worship at the high altar of possession football, here were the Blaugrana reacting to the pressure they were put under by getting the ball away from the danger area as quickly as possible. With Messi, Neymar and Pedro forming the front three, let’s just say that they didn’t have much success with their route one attacks!
The relief was palpable between the sticks for Barcelona. At last Victor Valdes, after suffering under the yolk of possession football for years, encouraged by Pep to pass when under pressure despite his fear of disaster. Now he was able to launch the ball long and breathe a sigh of relief. One in nineteen Valdes long balls found their target: his passing map is a sea of long, red failures, and no doubt he loved it. Maybe he’ll stay after all!
Rayo’s efforts were rewarded by a hurried back pass from Montoya which nearly went in and a succession of occasions in the first twenty minutes when they won the ball back in Barcelona half and were able to threaten. Their left side was a particular threat with a number of crosses coming in to try to exploit Barsa’s fabled aerial vulnerability.
Of course, Barcelona pressed energetically too -that part of the Guardiola Doctrine remains non-negotiable-so with both sides working so hard without the ball there was plenty of space on the pitch once they evaded the initial press. Typically it was Barcelona who were able to access those exploitable pockets of room more often. Once they did that, Rayo’s horribly vulnerable underbelly was exposed.
When Barcelona were able to get through Rayo’s ferocious midfield press, the defence they encountered was quite frankly awful. Rayo might have responded encouragingly higher up the pitch to recent poor results , but their defence was as bad as it was in the last round, and that’s saying something!
When possession was squandered to set in motion Barsa’s opener Rayo still had si men behind the ball. However, they were purely ornamental and failed to deal with the counter-attack, neither pressing with any coherence nor picking up orthodox defensive positions. When the shot came in there were four Barcelona players in the box compared to six defenders, but four of them had allowed the strikers to get beyond them and were marking thin air.
Within a minute Pedro could have had another and again it was grim defending. A simple long ball from the Barcelona half wasn’t dealt with and Messi and Pedro ran unhindered through the heart of the defence.
The second goal wasn’t a great deal better from Rayo’s perspective, but was another clear illustration that, once Barcelona got beyond Rayo’s pressing, there was plenty of room to counter attack. The defenders simply didn’t pick up well there was a lot of space down the side of them and the goal was simplicity itself.
Perhaps the most indicative moment for Rayo’s defence came in the second half when Galvez gave the ball away cheaply then backed off, inviting Neymar within 20 yards into the box, from where he had time to place a shot, . Luckily for Rayo the bounce off the inside of the post was kind to them. The fourth came as a result of Barcelona pressing but, more importantly, equally appalling passing at the back by the home team.
Admittedly Rayo had put their eggs in one basket and it ultimately failed. Certain circumstances were against them: Messi didn’t score but he was magnificent, constantly dancing through the defence easily. But then he does that every week, to be fair. But still, Rayo were authors of their own downfall in so many ways. All four goals could have been defended better.
But that wasn’t the headline. Tata has arrived with a reputation for being a pragmatist. In killing off Guardiolism, he has shown he’ll take on the most sacred of cows to get a result.