The Barça team that was seen yesterday doesn’t represent its philosophy. This club is far from its best level. Despite the poor performance, there are several lessons that can be learnt from the Catalan Derby. Here are 5 takeaways from the Espanyol 2–2 Barcelona.
The illusions of winning the first game of 2020 were broken by Espanyol. For Barça, it is irrelevant if they play against the bottom-placed side in the table or against the least scoring team in La Liga. This is the Catalan Derby. A historical rivalry where the current situation of the parties involved shouldn’t matter. For this match, the football norms apply differently. The fans in Cornellà, the players and the story make the tension between the two enemies increase, so the intensity does likewise. Things that can only be appreciated in an encounter like this one.
The game was disappointing by the Azulgranas. The first 45 minutes were totally miserable in terms of creativity. In the second half, the approach changed. However, a red card to Frenkie de Jong increased the motivation of the Periquitos. With numerical superiority, they achieved the tie in the final minutes. The match concluded with a fair result for both sides: 2-2. In spite the poor display, you always have to learn from mistakes. These are 5 takeaways from the draw between RCD Espanyol and FC Barcelona:
1. It’s always good to have someone like Arturo Vidal in the team
The Chilean began the match on the bench. After the visitors’ terrible first half, someone to put hardness and a winning mentality on the team was needed. That’s when Arturo Vidal arrived at the start of the second period, replacing Iván Rakitić.
Vidal is the opposite of what the culé philosophy represents. He is not an expert in the first-touch passes like Xavi, nor is he in control of the ball like Iniesta was. El Rey Arturo is the definition of a pure physical player. He doesn’t have a great individual technique but his attitude is what makes the difference to win games. This player breaks the rules generating chaos and disorder, which is always good to incorporate in certain situations. The King yesterday was key against Espanyol and in his last fixtures he has performed at a very high level. His possible departure from the club would be a shame for the Blaugranas. The Chilean is a luxury substitute, he never disappoints and it is always good to have someone with his attitude in the squad. Tactically, his unpredictable arrivals into the box, having found the net 6 times this term – more than any other Barça midfielder –, are a simple yet effective solution to the sometimes too rigid and undefined Barcelona side.
2. De Jong’s suspension
De Jong was one of the few players who showed a good level in the Catalan Derby. He wasn’t making an excellent game but he was decent compared to his teammates. It was in the last 15 minutes that Frenkie received a second yellow card, which led him directly to the locker room. The Dutchman received the first warning in minute 66 and approximately 10 minutes later he received the second one. A somewhat awkward and desperate action that left Barça with 10 men in a game where that could not be worse. The first red card in the career of the young midfielder.
The suspension of De Jong is a problem that Ernesto Valverde could take advantage of. The player will miss the next La Liga match on January 19 against Granada, which is played at Camp Nou. With Arthur’s injury, Aleña’s departure and Frenkie’s absence, Barcelona could be left with a very static midfield. An uncreative line that could be problematic. Most likely, Sergi Roberto will play in his real position. But there is an option that every culé wants to see: Riqui Puig. The young number 28 was not called up for yesterday’s game but has a golden opportunity in the next game of this competition. Riqui Puig would add everything Barça would miss without Arthur and De Jong. Seeing Riqui outside the squad list would be terrible and, without a doubt, a totally wrong decision.
3. Barça’s offensive line played too close
The ‘MSG’ came from an extraordinary month of December, with a visibly better Griezmann, Suárez scoring goals and Messi at a very high level. We thought that those mistakes that this attack had at the beginning of the season were no longer going to be repeated. Surprise. They appeared again last night. An unrecognisable attack that was very poorly positioned, which affected the creation of opportunities.
In the first half, the Azulgranas played practically without wingers. Messi was very close to Suárez’s position. More than usual. There was no initiative by the Uruguayan on moving to the free side that Leo left. Also, Antoine Griezmann, despite not being as close to the centre as the Argentinian, was not completely wide. These details made creating goals very difficult. Espanyol put such a tight defensive line that their rivals couldn’t find a place to score. If the Barcelona players facilitate the task, then it is impossible to go through that block. No spaces opened up, and there were no off-ball runs or combinations. In the first half, this issue was clearly visible. In the second 45 minutes, there was a better positioning between the forwards, but still not the ideal. Why did Ernesto Valverde only make 2 substitutions and none of these involved Ansu Fati or Carles Pérez? What is certain is that at this point in the season, these mistakes cannot happen. Hopefully, footballers and coaches work on it.
4. Suárez’s physicality is a problem, but the quality is still there
Luis Suárez’s first half was tragic. It was one of the worst halves that the Uruguayan has played multiple times this season. After the break, the roles changed. El Pistolero was the star who scored the goal to make it 1–1 with an unreal half-volley shot, and then went on to assist Arturo Vidal in the 1–2 with a sublime pass that only someone of his quality can do.
The years pass. El Charrúa is already 32 years old and next January 24 he will turn 33. His physical resistance, intensity when defending, speed to make an off-ball run, acceleration in the counterattack…These are features that Suárez has been losing over the years. He’s not the same. His contributions in defence are non-existent. His speed when it comes to opening spaces is a thing of the past. Even so, the ‘9’ has managed to be involved in the last 10 goals of Barça. His quality, touch of the ball, the way he protects the ball and his incredible finishing ability make Suárez remain a goalscorer and game-creator unique in this sport. He has lost the physical part of his game, but this doesn’t stop him from surprising us week after week.
5. It takes more to win La Liga
With this result, we continue to be La Liga leaders with 40 points, tied with Real Madrid. After 19 games played, having 40 points is insignificant. It means that the winner of the competition, statistically, will finish between 70 and 80 points. Something has changed. Years ago we used to win La Liga with results that approached or exceeded 90 points. With this, Barcelona is giving Atlético de Madrid and Sevilla the opportunity to surprise at the end of the season. They are not so far away. Now they are only 5 points away from the leaders.
In the last decade, Barcelona dominated the Spanish league: 8 titles in 11 years. The reigning champions can’t relax; they need to step up. It takes something else to win this tournament. It’s not enough to be complacent. Barcelona must not settle for results that come from a terrible collective game by the culés. This whole Catalan entity needs to take the next step. Put its feet on the ground. The league is not Blaugrana yet. To achieve this, commitment and intensity to maximum are mandatory in each encounter. This team is not completely dead. There are still many games left, but we must start today. Visca el Barça.
3 things we learnt from Barcelona 3-0 Elche — A one-man attacking unit
On the back of a two-game winless run, which saw Barcelona mauled at the hands of PSG as well as drop points against Cádiz in the Camp Nou, the Catalans recorded a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Elche in the Nou Camp. Thanks to a brace from Lionel Messi and two assists from Martin Braithwaite, third-placed Barça kept up the pressure on their rivals up top.
It was, in many ways, a game of two halves for the hosts. In the opening 45 minutes, they struggled to generate any real chances on goal, and if not for a mistimed effort from Lucas Boyé, they easily could have been a goal down. Overall, a poor showing from the hosts in the first period.
Following a few structural changes from Ronald Koeman, the team’s shape improved and thus too their propensity to win. Elche were far more open defensively than in they were in the first half, and searching for blood, Barcelona took advantage of the slightest of spaces to punish their opponents. Their second-half performance should serve as a confidence boost ahead of their crucial league tie away at Sevilla this weekend.
1. A weary Messi seals all 3 points
Despite having scored a brace and played a large part in the creation of the third goal, Lionel Messi was far from his usual best for a large chunk of the match. Either due to a lack of motivation or fatigue due to the tight fixture schedule, his passing was off, and he lost plenty more balls than he usually would.
Following Ronald Koeman’s tactical adjustments, most notably with the entry of Ousmane Dembélé following Miralem Pjanić’s exit, the Argentine was a far more liberated figure in attack. By partnering up with Martin Braithwaite centrally, he became much more involved in play as he had all of zone 14 to himself.
Two minutes after the restart, he opened, scoring off a phenomenal backheel assist from the Dane and sealed his brace with a moment of individual brilliance as he slots the ball home past a helpless Badía. As the cherry on the top of the cake, La Pulga played a delightful dink into the Barça number 9, who then set up Jordi Alba for the third and final goal.
Even at 75% capacity, Messi was the best player on the pitch. His presence on the pitch, as always, was invaluable to the side.
2. Pjanić seals his fate
Miralem Pjanić has often been the first to complain about a lack of game-time, perhaps under the impression that there is a supposed conspiracy against him by the Barcelona manager. Offered an opportunity to prove himself against one of them minnows of La Liga, he once again proved to the Dutch manager precisely why he sits out so many games.
His first half was one of his individual worst in a Barcelona shirt, and possibly his most lethargic performance in years too. Tasked with playing in the pivot role, the Bosnian was meant to act as an anchor from which the team could find balance, but rather than give it, he took it away.
Either due to a misplaced pass, poor positioning, slow and poor releases of the ball — or all of the above —, barely anything went right for the 30-year old. Despite having periods in which his influence was helpful, many other actions he made took their toll on the team, and so much so that he had himself withdrawn from the team at the break.
It is rather unfortunate that he played in such a woeful manner, as given the sheer magnitude of Barcelona’s next three or four games, a good performance here could have earned him a spot. He did seal one, though, on the dugouts rather than on the pitch.
3. Back to midfield dominance?
Despite a myriad of problems under Ronald Koeman, the midfield has gradually taken back the importance bestowed upon it by legendary managers from Johan Cruyff through to Pep Guardiola. While Miralem Pjanić was a far cry from what one would call exceptional, his replacement in Sergio Busquets with 30 minutes to go as well as the two interiors in Pedro González and Frenkie de Jong were absolutely sensational.
When it comes to this Pedri, next to anything seems possible. On the night, bar his usual creative duties, the 18-year old was all over the pitch. As an artist with a paintbrush, his actions were skin to streaks of acrylic on a canvas to form the most majestic artwork. He desired to get as involved as he could with as many individuals as possible, also making up for others whenever in need. His pressing game was through the roof, as despite being designated the right halfspace, he was more than open to helping out up forward and out wide too.
As for De Jong, he reverted to his new-usual self. Contrary to the old, more conservative yesteryear version, the Dutch midfielder was a constant threat to the Valencians’ defence through his unmatchable dribbling and in-game awareness. Through his differential dexterity in this particular trade, he attacked the holes that Elche would leave behind, and it was in this was that he quite brilliantly set up Messi for his second of the game. Quite a commendable performance from him.
While nothing more than a cameo performance, Sergio Busquets offered all that Pjanić couldn’t and more. It seems as though he is gradually returning to his former self, with yet another exemplary performance. With him, ball circulation was a notch faster, and with it at his feet, there was a prevalent sense of security that could be sensed with every pass to and from him.