Barcelona returned to winning ways in the league as they humbled Osasuna 4-0 at the Camp Nou, leapfrogging from 14th to 7th in the La Liga table.
Barcelona hosted Osasuna after an impressive display against Dynamo Kyiv midweek. Having rested several players, Ronald Koeman selected arguably the strongest XI available to him for the early kick-off in La Liga against Osasuna. The midweek rest showed as Lionel Messi and Frenkie de Jong, who did not even travel to Ukraine, had excellent performances.
The team looked sharp, and there was a vast improvement in the overall performance compared to previous league games. Most notably, the attack was more fluid and combined better. There was plenty of neat one-touch exchanges between the forwards and better off the ball runs, courtesy of having a natural #9 in the team. The hard work paid off as all four starting forwards got their name on the scoresheet.
In midfield, Pedri partnered de Jong in the double pivot, and they controlled the game in the first half. Óscar Mingueza justified his inclusion again with a solid and composed performance alongside Clément Lenglet. However, the Frenchman went off injured after twisting his ankle in the second period. This leaves the Catalan side with a severe shortage of first-team centre-backs.
The Spanish giants managed to escape with a clean sheet as the visitors pushed for a goal. Marc-André ter Stegen was determined not to conceded and produced a couple of fantastic reflex saves. Barcelona will need him at his best in the upcoming fixtures, especially with such a depleted defence.
1. Attacking football returns to the Camp Nou
For years now the flowing attacking football associated with Barcelona has rarely been seen from the Blaugrana. Under Ernesto Valverde, the Catalan side were static, lacked pace and relied on captain Lionel Messi to produce something special. This continued under Quique Setién last season. For all his love of brave attacking football, Setién struggled to get his team to break down defences and Barça became too passive and reserved.
At the start of this campaign, Ronald Koeman seemed to have rectified this situation. Convincing wins in the opening two matches had Culés excited for the upcoming season. However, this level soon dropped off and, like with Valverde and Setién, Koeman struggled to find his best-attacking line-up.
Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann were at the helm of every attack by Barcelona. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Against Osasuna, this changed as the home side outclassed their opponents. A rested Lionel Messi ran the show for Barcelona and opened the Los Rojillos defence. He scored a stunning solo goal too, beating several defenders and smashing a shot from outside the box passed the goalkeeper.
One of the other positives came from other players stepping up and deciding the match. Too often, the team has looked to Messi to produce something in every game. Antione Griezmann scored a sensational volley and also allowed Philippe an easy tap in. More performances like these from the Frenchman are needed as Griezmann looks like he is regaining some confidence.
“I’m happy with the team’s display and the goal that I scored today. We want to win the title, and we know very well that it is not easy.”Antoine Griezmann | Post-Game Presser
The chemistry between the front four was also a lot better on Sunday afternoon. They were all happy to interchange and combined well, making it difficult for defenders to close down the spaces. The importance of Martin Braithwaite as a striker should not be understated. He helped to create space, pin back the Osasuna centre-backs and made some brilliant off the ball runs. The Dane also took his goal well after the ball bounce around in the box – exactly what a striker should be there for.
2. Intelligent use of the squad depth from Koeman
For the second successive game, the manager rotated his team and gave some of the fringe players valuable minutes. Some of the rotations have come from injures, especially in defence. But, these changes, such as Óscar Mingueza and Sergiño Dest, who have replaced Gerard Piqué and Sergi Roberto, have proven their level. Even Junior Firpo, who made his season debut midweek and received his first minutes in La Liga on Sunday did not look out of place.
In midfield, Pedri, Sergio Busquets, Carles Aleñá, and Frenkie de Jong all featured in the double pivot at some point in the game. It is promising to see Aleñá featuring in back to back games for the first time in a while. He may have done enough to win Koeman’s trust, and the Dutchman should now have realised his quality and importance to the team.
Busquets returned to action for the first time in a month. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
The front four have also been rotated and in the last two games, Barcelona have scored eight goals. Lionel Messi returned from rest and was at his brilliant best again. Martin Braithwaite won a place in the starting eleven after impressing in Ukraine and has scored in both games. Ousmane Dembélé and Francisco Trincão were sharp coming from the bench after being given more game time in recent weeks.
Rotating players is vital for any team that wants to win trophies. In these extremely long and intense seasons, filled with international breaks, midweek cup ties, league games every weekend and the UEFA Champions League, players cannot be expected to play every game and maintain their best levels. Having that squad depth and competition for places is essential as it stops players from getting fatigued and motivates them to earn their starting position every week.
3. Lionel Messi remembers Diego Maradona
Lionel Messi with a heart-felt tribute to the late Diego Maradona. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
The world of football lost one of its most iconic characters this week – Diego Armando Maradona. The Argentine is routinely considered as one of the greatest ever to play the beautiful game. Maradona was an incredible footballer and is known for his achievements with Napoli and the Argentine national team, in particular.
An often misunderstood and troubled character, the former Barcelona player was at his happiest on the pitch. Off the field, it seems the number 10 struggled with fame. He was hounded by the press and the fanatical supporters constantly, which all got too much for the genius. As Maradona tried to leave this overwhelming environment in Naples, he was held hostage at the club. This clearly affected him as his issues off the field began to escalate.
In the Diego Maradona documentary, his former trainer states that he saw two sides to the player. He explains there was Diego and there was Maradona. Diego was the kind, caring one that wanted to buy a house for his parents to live in. Maradona was the invincible act he took on that never showed any weakness.
When his trainer said this to the Argentine, he replied stating that he knew this, but without Maradona, he would still be living in the shantytown in Villa Fiorito where he grew up.
Maradona had a lot of respect for Lionel Messi, and the two were relatively close. They were often compared due to their style of play and their smaller stature. In tribute to his compatriot passing away, Lionel Messi celebrated his goal by revealing a Newell’s old boys top underneath his Barça shirt. It was a heartfelt gesture to his former mentor and friend.
3 lessons learned from the Barcelona 2-3 Athletic game
The Spanish Super Cup final was another bitter reminder that Barcelona are a team in transition; a team wanting to reach for the skies but still failing to grasp the very basics of the beautiful game. Still, while getting beaten in the final is not a pleasant feeling, it’s the lessons that ultimately count. If you can learn from them, that is.
Barcelona have shown time and time again they seem to prefer learning the hard way and this time, that mistake has most likely cost them the only piece of silverware they were able to snatch this year. Of course, a lot can happen in football and there’s still time to turn their fortune around but the early signs suggest it’s going to be another long and dry season for the Catalan giants.
But even with that being said, there are certainly things Ronald Koeman should take away from this big defeat.
So here are three lessons Barcelona should learn from yesterday’s clash.
1. Squad depth (and rotation) is key
This may not come as a big surprise to many but it’s nigh impossible to battle on all front with a team that’s lacking any real squad depth. But the main problem here is not exactly the lack of personnel but the coach’s ability (or willingness?) to use them.
When you’re a team like Barcelona who will have to fight for the league, the Champions League and Copa del Rey, it’s inevitable your players get tired somewhere along the way. Soon, games will be pouring in mid-week every week and every couple of days even. What happens when Koeman’s favourite pieces are barely standing on their feet? Is he going to rotate then?
The Dutchman has been rather stubborn when it comes to his selection. Most of the surprises in the lineup have risen from the urgency and lack of options rather than purely giving some players a well-deserved chance or resting the others.
A great example is someone like Pedri – an 18-year-old prodigy who’s been playing so well he’s been impossible to drop. From that perspective, it’s understandable you’d want him on the pitch from the get-go for a Cup final but if he’s visibly exhausted and barely moving, you substitute him off and bring on fresh legs.
Barcelona have a thin squad in some compartments and maybe lack quality in others but playing 240 minutes in the span of a couple of days with the same squad is too much even for the fittest team out there. And the Azulgranas are far from that in the first place.
For that reason, it feels like proper – or maybe better – man management is needed from Koeman for the remainder of the season.
2. Shades of Anfield
What hurts the most about this final is that not only did Barcelona play extremely poorly throughout the 120 minutes, they were in the lead two times and still managed to lose the game. Unfortunately, once Athletic Club equalised for the second time, in the 90th minute no less, we already knew it was all over.
Even though we are still talking about a team full of superstars and even veterans of the game, the Catalans’ mental fortitude is non-existent. Lapses in concentration could be felt for the vast majority of the clash and that in a final of all events!
A team that wants to be the best in the world, or rather a team that has been the best in the world, cannot be of such fragile mentality. The same thing has happened before, first against Juventus in Turin, then in Rome and finally at Anfield against Liverpool.
Barcelona crumble under pressure and as soon as the other team shows heart and signs of life, they will retreat into their happy place, never to be seen again. And yes this may sound harsh – and may even be harsh – but until this issue is resolved, there’ll be no moving forward.
You can’t score a goal and then let one slip through the cracks the very next attack because your head is still in the clouds. And you can’t have such a poor marking structure in the final minutes of the game, allowing the opposition to secure extra-time and then overturn the deficit altogether.
There’s not much any of them could’ve done about Iñaki Williams’ sensational strike – one worthy of securing the crown – but the battle was lost long before that moment. As soon as Athletic Club equalised, it was game over for Barcelona.
We knew it, they knew it and Koeman knew it.
That needs to change. Fast.
3. A big Messi-sized problem
Let’s get one thing straight right away – Messi is a club legend and arguably the best player in the history of the game but there is no way he should’ve been allowed to play last night. He’s so competitive that Koeman’s hands were tied and, frankly, he doesn’t have the power to say no to the Argentine.
That in itself is a big problem as well but also a topic for another time. Back to the issue at hand, however, if Messi is not at 100%, he should not be starting that game in the first place. Of course, the club will argue that the only reason he was on that pitch is because he was healthy enough to be there. But was he fit enough to play in such a physically demanding game and a final at that?
Messi may be superhuman but he is also 33, has just returned from injury and was about to face a compact, organised and physically imposing team. Whoever thought that was a good idea didn’t really do their homework properly.
And then we come to the other big problem and that’s Barcelona’s in-game management of Messi himself. Playing for 90 minutes fresh from injury is one thing but playing the full 120 is a completely different story, a far worse one at that.
We can all understand Messi hates being substituted off and he is the difference-maker when Barcelona are in trouble but it was clear the goal wasn’t coming, not even from him at those latter points in the game.
Koeman may or may not have the authority to manage this squad entirely the way he wants to. That statement may or may not be true as well but the fact is, his in-game man-management was sub-par last night once again.
Koeman: "Messi knows when to play and when not to. He said he was ready, and he gave everything tonight."— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) January 17, 2021
It may be the time to dose Messi throughout the season and give this team a chance to see how it’s like without him on the pitch. Step by step, they have to be adapted to a situation that is inevitably approaching, regardless whether Leo is leaving in the summer or not.
It is, however, a Cup final and having Messi on the pitch can only be a plus. But not if he’s unfit to play or simply not at his 100%, and that was visible yesterday.
One way or the other, we are bound to learn at least something from this game and hopefully, Koeman does too.
It’s the only way to move forward.