Outside of the Barcelona – Madrid axis it was a relatively quiet summer transfer window in Spain, many of the country’s clubs beset by crippling debts and unable to make significant additions to their squads. Newly-promoted Hércules, however, were one of the few La Liga clubs to truly catch the eye with the calibre of the players they brought in.
The biggest name to arrive at the Estadio José Rico Pérez was undoubtedly former France international David Trezeguet, the striker signing on the back of a bounteous decade at Juventus having been released from his contract by the Turin giants.
Trezeguet was joined in Alicante by Real Madrid’s Royston Drenthe, the industrious Dutch utility player agreeing to a season-long loan to give the Hércules squad added international quality. The further signings of Paraguayan forward Nelson Valdez and Udinese’s Abel Aguilar saw some revise their opinion of Esteban Vigo’s side, many believing them to have collected enough quality to survive the drop.
Tonight’s game against Barcelona at the Camp Nou was the first opportunity the new-look Hércules had to play together, the toughest of tests for a group of players that have barely even had time to get to know one another. However, Vigo’s team rose to the occasion in Catalunya and battled their way to a remarkable 2-0 victory.
Set out in a fairly flexible 4-4-2/4-5-1 formation, Hércules refused to be cowed by their illustrious opponents, Trezeguet and Valdez forming an experienced and streetwise partnership in attack.
The pairing kept Gerard Pique and Eric Abidal busy at the heart of the Blaugrana defence, that despite the swaggering dominance of possession enjoyed by the home side.
In midfield the visitors proved themselves adroit in their handling of Barcelona’s incessant passing, Aguillar and Matías Fritzler (on loan from Lanús) doing their best to disrupt the rhythmic football of Andres Iniesta and Seydou Keita.
Amidst the hard-working band of four – which became a five in the defensive phase as Valdez tracked back – it was arguably Drenthe who impressed the most. The Dutchman, playing on the left side of midfield, displayed the best of his natural pace and endeavour to fulfil his defensive duties as well as intelligently exploit the space afforded by Adriano on the counter-attack.
Much like Otto Rehhagel’s Greece at Euro 2004, Hércules knew that they simply wouldn’t be able to get hold of the ball for any protracted period of time and so made every effort to capitalise on the few offensive set pieces they won. Their goal came courtesy of Valdez as he bundled the ball home following Drenthe’s excellent free-kick delivery.
After the half-time break Barcelona – who had started the game with a marginally weakened side – introduced Xavi and Pedro from the bench in an attempt to increase the tempo of the game. The removal of Javier Mascherano from the midfield served to give Guardiola’s team more drive going forward but, for all the chances and possession the Catalans enjoyed, they failed to find a way through.
With a composure without the ball which had echoes of José Mourinho’s Inter, Hércules persisted with their plan of sitting deep and countering and, incredibly, were rewarded with a second goal on the hour as Valdez powerfully converted Tiago Gomes’ excellent cross.
Guardiola introduced Daniel Alves to give his team’s 4-3-3 even more width from deep, but the hosts simply could not break down an exemplary Hércules rearguard. The remaining time slowly ebbed away and, with Barça constantly repelled on the edge of the opposition box, the visitors sent shockwaves throughout the division with a famous triumph in the shadow of the Camp Nou.
Hércules, the longest of long-shots before kick-off, tonight provided a tactical blueprint as to how to play the reigning Spanish champions. Physicality and height at the back to dominate Barcelona’s short front line was combined with an incredible level of organisation without the ball and efficiency on the counter-attack. This was a brilliant strategic display from Hércules’ fresh crop of players.
Barça are undoubtedly the most attractive side in Europe, but recent months have seen a number of teams begin to find ways to overcome their trademark dominance of possession.
Tonight was likely just a blip against a Hércules team that was far better than expected, but Guardiola may soon find himself forced to evolve his tactical approach further if his team are to maintain their phenomenal domestic dominance of recent seasons.