Last night, Barcelona took a huge step in their ongoing campaign. Of course, the sheer victory in the Copa del Rey that secured them a place in the quarter-finals is huge by itself, but there were more positives to come on the night.
Ronald Koeman’s troops didn’t look impressive enough in the first half of the game but quick thinking and a dynamic change truly inspired the squad. Of course, we have to be wary of big conclusions since it was, after all, a Cup clash against a Segunda División team in Rayo Vallecano.
No disrespect meant to yesterday’s hosts, but Barcelona were very much expected to win that game and do it in style. With that being said, Rayo did hold their own and even threatened the away side on a couple of occasions, so props have to be given to them as well.
Still, a win is a win, and this one means a lot. So here are three lessons we learned from last night’s game.
1. Underwhelming display from Firpo
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. For the majority of the first half and even going into the beginning of the second, Barcelona were mostly asleep. Yes, the Catalans managed to rattle the frame of the goal a couple of times before eventually scoring but their attacks were blunt for the most part.
One big reason for that was the lacking left side of the pitch. In place of Jordi Alba, Koeman opted for Junior Firpo, which, in hindsight at least, was a poor decision. It’s quite understandable that rotation is necessary and the gaffer should be commended for that but Firpo, so far, hasn’t exactly warranted his selection.
It would be harsh to expect from him, to displace someone like Alba immediately but the downgrade was painfully obvious last night. The bigger problem, however, is the fact that this is sadly not an isolated case.
Junior Firpo will not continue at the Camp Nou next season. Barça are considering options to reinforce the left-back position and everything indicates that Junior will not be at Barcelona next year. AC Milan will try to sign him next summer.— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) January 27, 2021
— MD pic.twitter.com/XRWlByPQbD
Game after game, Firpo is putting on poor performances, and it affects Barcelona’s tactics immensely. Why? It’s simple, the connection Lionel Messi and Alba have is one of the Catalans’ biggest weapons in their arsenal.
With Leo being naturally left-footed, and heavily so, often Barcelona’s attacks lean towards that side of the pitch. However, if there is no one to combine with and the whole flank is mostly static and uninvolved, it renders that weapon largely useless.
Alba changed the game’s dynamic, and while he wasn’t the only one who injected some life into the team, the difference was clear for everyone to see.
If this continues, Firpo may find it extremely difficult to survive another transfer window at the Camp Nou. And sadly, it would probably be for the best.
2. A great reaction from the bench
It’s not often that we get to praise Koeman after a game. Sadly, despite the Dutchman still being fresh on Barcelona’s bench, his tenure so far has been a mixed bag, to say the least. However, it would be unfair to the gaffer if we didn’t give credit when credit is due.
Yesterday, as mentioned earlier in the piece, the Catalans lacked that edge. Even though Messi was back on the pitch and some attacks looked promising at the very least, there was no breakthrough to be had.
In the 68th minute, however, Koeman decided to pull the trigger, taking all three of Firpo, Riqui Puig and Francisco Trincão off and introducing Pedri, Alba and Ousmane Dembélé. This, needless to say, changed the whole game for the better.
Sport: 'The comeback and straight to the quarterfinals!'— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) January 28, 2021
Koeman, with three substitutions, woke up a Barça that won with goals from Messi and De Jong. pic.twitter.com/lhHPD6v32D
Of course, both Puig and Trincão were put on more-than-decent displays on the night, and despite the latter missing a clear-cut chance, his performance was positive. The young midfielder was also influential. Puig forces things to happen and won’t opt for the safe options if there is a better possibility on the table.
That’s why he often loses the ball, which is something many will have noticed already. But once again he managed to put some vigour in Barcelona’s steps and the play generally flowed nicely through him. However, it was after his substitution that the game changed for the visitors.
Koeman recognised that despite a good showing by most of the starting personnel, something had to give and fresh legs did the trick. It was the introduction of Alba specifically that woke up the whole left side of the pitch, and it immediately resulted in a nicely-worked goal.
Again, this may sound unfair to the young players who performed admirably, but there is no denying in-game management was good from Koeman this time around.
Here’s to many more good decisions in the near future.
3. Frenkie de Jong on a dream run
It’s taken him a while but it does seem like Frenkie de Jong has well and truly arrived to the scene. Of course, having played under three different coaches in such a short span of time, and as a result, being played in multiple different roles and systems, it was never going to be easy for the Dutchman to fully settle into the team.
However, with the arrival of Koeman, and following some experimentation on the gaffer’s part, De Jong seems to be thriving as of late. This advanced role with positional freedom and the licence to make late runs into the box is surprisingly suiting him perfectly.
So much so that he scored four goals and registered two assists in the last seven games played for the club in 20201. But despite his obvious importance in the final touches of Barcelona’s attacks, his role goes far deeper than that.
De Jong was instrumental in the build-up, creation and the overall structure of the team last night and his influence was palpable. According to SofaScore, the Dutchman registered 72 touches on the night, deployed two key passes, and maintained a passing accuracy of 91%.
Offensively, two out of two completed dribbles, one-shot smashed into the woodwork, and one into the net are big enough testaments of his immense performance.
Upon Koeman’s arrival at the club, Frenkie’s rejuvenation was highly expected, and finally, we may be seeing the results of that ever-blossoming relationship. Despite the early hiccups and doubts lingering over his name, the young midfielder is proving all the critics wrong.
Now, he’s well on course to become the midfield maestro he was always dubbed to become.
And that’s just beautiful to see.