It was yet another tough match for Barcelona in La Liga, as they all seem to be this season, but the Catalans managed to snatch away all three points on the night against Elche. As ever, the Azulgranas had to struggle to get the victory, but there were definitely some positives to come out of the clash.
Still, it’s once more the lessons Ronald Koeman should value the most and Elche, as difficult as their stint in the Spanish top-flight has been so far, have provided plenty for the good coach to analyse.
Some of the players remain top-class while others are still struggling even when given a proper chance. With all of that being said, here are the three lessons we believe Barcelona have learned from their latest challenge in the domestic league.
1. Sergio Busquets was a silent conductor
Rarely does Sergio Busquets get all or any of the plaudits after a game. After all, he’s the one whose job is often invisible to the untrained eye. However, tonight, Busi was as effective as ever, dominating the opposition, setting the tempo of the clash and controlling the proceedings.
Barcelona’s midfield had a tough task of breaking down a solid and compact mid-block of Elche which aimed to suffocate the middle of the pitch. Needless to say, this made it extremely difficult for the Catalans to progress play down those channels, and they had to find other solutions out wide.
Still, Busquets was often used as a valve to unsettle the block and gain access to the half-spaces and, in turn, dangerous zones higher up the field. Even though his role is often overlooked because it’s not flashy and won’t exactly keep you at the edge of your seat, the pivot pulled off a couple of impressive turns that had both aesthetical and tactical value.
His press-resistance and vision to find passes seemingly unavailable to the naked eye improved Barcelona’s in-possession play and ensured they were (pro)active on the ball. It’s also very difficult to quantify what Busquets has done for the team tonight.
The stats will only tell you he’s registered 50% of his ground duels won, intercepted one ball and made two tackles in the defensive phase according to SofaScore but he was the anchor the team’s whole rest defence often relied on. With his 104 touches on the night, none of the other midfielder players registered more in those 90 minutes on the pitch.
Of course, the only downside was the yellow card he received later on in the game, which also means he’ll miss the following game against Athletic Club. It’s far from ideal but it should also give Miralem Pjanić a well-deserved chance to shine and Busi some time to rest.
Still, tonight was proof once more that he is still Barcelona’s only real pivot, for better or worse.
2. The backline conundrum
Koeman decided to give Samuel Umtiti a shot in the team tonight alongside Ronald Araújo. Luckily for Barcelona, they managed to win and get another clean sheet on the books but despite a solid display in that backline, both the Frenchman and the Uruguayan left a lot to be desired following the clash.
We’ve already touched upon Araújo potentially being a leader of the team in the future but the choice of his partner in crime matters a lot. This game was further warning of what can happen if Koeman – or anyone else in the future – makes a bad decision on that matter.
Umtiti used to be a great ball-playing centre-back and was often hailed as a line-breaker and a progressive force for the first phase of attack. However, this ability – or simply tendency to play riskier football – has progressively deteriorated and unfortunately, that was also quite visible tonight.
The Catalans struggled to play through Elche’s tight defensive block and while props have to be given to the hosts for having a very disciplined structure off the ball, partly it was due to the lack of presence in Barcelona’s backline.
Neither Umtiti nor Araújo were ready to consistently break the lines, progress the play and unsettle that mid-block which kept the guests at bay at all times. This also resulted in midfielders like Busquets or Frenkie de Jong dropping deeper to aid that progression despite Elche putting minimal pressure on the centre-back duo.
Usually, having an extra player in the backline is not inherently a bad thing but it means you have fewer options up front as a direct result. When facing a high and aggressive press, this becomes a necessity but against a mid or a low block, dropping extra players deeper limits your options moving forward.
For a heavy positional team like Barcelona, the first line is key in progression as every attack starts with them. Tonight, a big issue stemmed from that progression or rather, lack thereof.
A player like Clément Lenglet, for example, with all the weaknesses he undeniably has, would surely have provided the Catalans with more penetration and verticality.
So there’s a lesson in there for sure and hopefully Koeman realises what kind of a profile he absolutely needs to have in the team’s defensive line.
3. No Messi, no problem?
Lionel Messi was once again absent tonight due to his suspension and it was actually Elche’s coach, Jorge Almirón, who had talked about Barcelona with and without the Argentine in the squad prior to the clash. According to the 49-year-old gaffer, the Catalans are a much more structured team when Leo is not around, which was a very interesting remark.
Still, tonight’s performance didn’t really indicate as much. Yes, Barcelona were controlling the entirety of the clash and in the end registered a comfortable victory but was it a complete and dominant display? Probably not.
Possession-wise, yes, the Azulgranas suffocated the opposition but it still felt like they were lacking both the creativity and the lethality to truly take over the game. They did, however, grow into it and the second half saw them perform much better but still, some aspects left a lot to be desired yet.
Would it be any different had Leo been in the lineup? Perhaps but as we’ve seen multiple times this season, even he is sometimes not enough to solve all the problems this team is currently facing.
At the end of the day, however, it is quite encouraging to see Barcelona win even without him in the squad. It may not have been the most thrilling or dominant game they’ve ever played but the three points are exactly what counts at the final whistle.
The likes of De Jong and especially Pedri or even Riqui Puig in the few minutes he got tonight showed there are talents within the squad who can take over games when needed but at the same time, some other individuals couldn’t shine yet again.
That, however, may be an issue and a topic for another time.