Completely contradictory to Barcelona’s first 45 minutes, Ronald Koeman’s side were utterly unplayable after proceedings, producing a performance even the veterans would have failed to replicate. A blistering brace from Martin Braithwaite and a goal, each, from Sergino Dest and Antoine Griezmann secured a thumping 4-0 victory for the visitors.
Effective occupation of spaces, fluid sequences in the final third and marauding full-backs providing width with supreme assertion allowed the club to run riot at the NSC Olimpiyskiy: a spectacle one is not blessed with every day.
With the Catalan giants cementing a spot in the Champions League round of 16, the battle with Juventus for the top spot in Group G has been lit up. If the club continue to salvage convincing victories in their next two fixtures, managing to show similar displays against Ferncvaros and Juventus, then Barca’s status as group leaders will undoubtedly continue to prevail.
1. A dream debut for Oscar Mingueza
Throwing shades of a veteran who had played the game for decades, Mingueza embarked on his debut with nerves of steel. The blonde beaming prodigy from La Masia was handed the burdensome responsibility of replacing Gerard Pique. Still, instead of succumbing under the immense pressure, he was foretold, Mingueza rose to the occasion with conviction in his strengths, belief in his abilities and assurance that he was worthy of representing the pristine Blaugrana emblem.
While the Spaniard’s aggressive nature and robust personality were surprising facets on the field, given this was his very first game with the senior squad, he seemed to walk the talk with his composure in possession and positional maturity. Every time Oscar would progress the ball forward, he would be back just in time to aid Lenglet at the back.
🗣 — Koeman: “Mingueza must continue working hard. He has shown that he can be relied upon.”— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) November 24, 2020
Committing into tackles with extreme tidiness, the 21-year-old also won a majority of his duels and predicted the opposition’s next move with flawless anticipation, a trait that has invariably helped La Masia center-backs stand a cut above the rest.
Despite Mingueza’s passing looking slightly shaky at the beginning, he gradually grew into the game, showcasing his innate distribution from the back. Eventually, the icing on the cake proved to be the moment Oscar bagged himself a terrific assist from a corner kick as his subtle touch from the near post allowed Braithwaite to extend Barca’s lead.
As options at centre-back continue to deplete, Mingueza could prove to be a vital piece in Koeman’s squad. It could certainly be argued that he is yet to refine his abilities in one-versus-one duels, but for a player that has a whole career ahead of him, improvement in various other sectors of his gameplay are bound to enhance his stature.
2. Sergino Dest keeps proving himself
After an esteemed performance against Real Madrid in El Clasico, Dest had been an irregular member of Barca’s line-ups. Despite his awe-inspiring exhibition, Ronald Koeman stubbornly refrained from naming him as the club’s primary right-back. However, with Sergi Roberto out due to injury and Koeman gravely lacking options, the former Ajax prodigy was provided with the opportunity to feature in the XI, as he savoured the occasion till the very last minute.
One can comfortably deem the American sensation to be Dynamo Kyiv’s biggest nightmare. Springing up-field with flair and taking on defenders as if they were mere training dummies, Dest was simply brimming in confidence. While his output in the final third was outright unparalleled, particularly for a full-back, never did he seem to leave his defensive duties rejected as his positioning remained unblemished for a majority of the match.
A finish so good, even the opposition look in awe of it. (Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)
Along with executing some superbly timed runs, Dest also created a multitude of chances for his partners in crime. Frequently barraging in crosses as he raided down the right flank, the 20-year-old managed to locate players in exceedingly fruitful areas. Besides, he maintained fluid passing sequences amongst the front-line, which in due course paid him dividends as he etched his name on the score-line.
After giving the visitors a much-awaited lead through a beautifully placed finish, his influence continued to enlarge. From savvy dummies to cheeky elasticos, Dest was the embodiment of dripping in sauce. The Catalans have been in dire need of a full-back with such a dynamic profile, a player that can not only flaunt his pace; but also utilize it to the fullest, and it appears that they may have finally struck gold with this distinctive talent.
3. Carles Alena is a gem waiting to be unearthed
Sitting comfy at first place in Barcelona’s respective Champions League group, the Catalans were in pole position to rest key starters and award the reserves with an opportunity to highlight their excellence on the grand stage, where a fair assessment could be made on their talents and capacities.
Unsurprisingly, Carles Alena seized this chance firmly, making the most of his inclusion the line-up as well as prompting Ronald Koeman to appreciate the depth in his squad by a considerable margin.
Starting in a double pivot alongside Miralem Pjanic, the Spaniard had to be more involved defensively at the base of midfield, but despite him excelling most as a number 10, Alena ensured he would make his presence count in midfield.
Alongside displaying some terrific ball retention skills, the Spaniard showed that he has the capability to advance the ball even when found in tight areas or under immense pressure from the opposition. Squirming his way out of compact zones with immense delicacy, he managed to effectively resist all sorts of oppression from the Ukrainian side.
Alena’s body orientation before receiving the ball always enabled him to progress the ball forward and find spaces to exploit in Dynamo’s rigid back-line, hastening the club’s movement in possession in a free-flowing manner. It was due to his unmatched affinity towards playing progressive passes that helped the Azulgranas catch Kyiv off guard on numerous occasions. What was so staggering about his performance was the fact that he completed 106 out of 107 passes, with an accuracy of 99.1%.
📊 — Aleñá completed 106 out of 107 passes against Kyiv with a pass success percentage of 99.1%. Outrageous! pic.twitter.com/e3h0O88YsP— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) November 24, 2020
As an interior, as a pivot or as a number 10, Carles Alena is a special talent, seeing the game with eagle-eyed awareness and doing his immaculate technical ability justice unfailingly on occasions like these. After being shunned out of the starting XI ever since the pre-season concluded, the 22-year-old made the ideal declaration to not only fans who were beginning to write him off; but also Ronald Koeman, who habitually abstained from looking in his direction.
Could this finally be a turning point in Alena’s underappreciated career?
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.