After the draw against Sevilla, and Real Madrid taking the lead, Barcelona needed the victory. However, it wasn’t going to be easy. The azulgranas faced one of the best defensive teams in La Liga. Fortunately, a great Riqui Puig and a goal from Iván Rakitić goal gave Barça the win. 5 takeaways from the Barcelona 1–0 Athletic Club.
Barcelona had lost the lead in the weekend and had to win Tuesday’s match if they wanted to be alive in the title race. It was against Athletic Club, one of the best defensive teams in La Liga, and a rival that is always difficult to beat. The first half was average, with a great defensive work, but without creativity or verticality. Fortunately, the introduction of youngster Riqui Puig changed the flow of the game.
Later, while there had not been many clear cut chances, a goal from Iván Rakitić gave Barcelona the win. A goal that has a heavy value in the league and that can be crucial in the search for the trophy. Still, there are many details to polish to win La Liga. These are five takeaways from the Barcelona 1–0 Athletic Club.
1. Five clean sheets in a row
At the start of the season, Barcelona had serious defensive problems. The azulgranas were too vulnerable at the back. However, the team has radically improved in this regard. So much so that, after the the victory against Athletic Club, Quique Setién’s men achieved their fifth clean sheets in a row. Something that did not happen for the Catalans since May 2016. Four years have passed, but the defensive solidity seems to be restored. A run of matches without conceding a goal that is no coincidence.
It has included great performances from each of the members of the defensive line. Of course, Marc-Andre ter Stegen is one of them. Furthermore, day after day we are witnessing pure concentration from players like Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet. In addition, Jordi Alba and Nélson Semedo have returned with a great level. Against the Bilbao side, the full-backs were very proactive in an attack that had no proper wingers, while the centre-back duo was in charge of circulating the ball, anticipating and keeping Iñaki Williams silent.
2. Luis Suárez, unrecognisable
After playing 90 minutes against Sevilla on Friday despite not seeming in shape to do so, Luis Suárez was a starter again against Athletic Club, to many’s surprise. In a front three made up of Suárez, Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann, the Uruguayan was the one who had the most opportunities and who received the most balls to finish dangerous actions. For a world-class striker like El Pistolero, it should have been an easy task. Nevertheless, Luisito had a very poor night offensively. Not to mention that in defence his support was null.
For the team and even his own good, Luis Suárez should be rotated frequently | Photo by Joan Gosa / Xinhua via Imago
Suárez made inexplicable technical errors that years ago were unimaginable for him. Against Athletic Club, he shot without precision, lost many balls and wasted many chances. He is returning from an injury, and it is understandable that he is picking up pace so that he can regain his lethality. Yet, in such an important match, and with substitutes in better form than him, Suárez should not have started, or at least should not have played as much as 85 minutes. Luis has been magnificent since his arrival to Barcelona in 2014, but it must be admitted that he needs to slowly move into a more secondary role. He could still play several minutes, but not too many.
3. Riqui Puig puts Barcelona on his back
Imagine a team full of stars like Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, Arturo Vidal and Antoine Griezmann, among others. Now imagine that a 20-year-old is the one with the most weight on the team. Not in terms of leadership, but of talent on the pitch. For those who have followed him at Barça B, it is not surprising everything that Riqui Puig is doing. He does this every weekend. This is why fans demand more opportunities for him, because they know what he is capable of. Without him, who knows if the Catalans could have obtained those three points.
“I’m very happy that I’ve gained the confidence of the coach. It was a match in strange conditions – you could hear the firecrackers…It was a good result and I can’t complain”
From his entry in the beginning of the second half, Riqui Puig changed the course of the game. He was the musician that orchestrated the midfield. The artist who painted a work called victory. The writer who wrote his best poem. That was Puig during the match. He made vertical movements, was very quick to make decisions and ran from one side to the other looking for the ball when a teammate had it. In addition, in defence he pressed with great intensity and recovered many balls. He was everywhere. Without a doubt, this match was a sample, of the many there have been, of Riqui Puig deserving more minutes. Now, with Frenkie de Jong‘s latest injury, Puig deserves to be a starter in most of the remaining fixtures in La Liga.
4. Is Griezmann letting the team down, or is the team letting Griezmann down?
Antoine Griezmann has been one of the main reasons of debate for culés. Is he really worth what he cost? Why doesn’t he prove to be the superstar that he was at Atlético de Madrid? Many questions, few answers. Against Athletic Club, a new question arose. Is Griezmann really letting the club down, or is the team letting the player down? During the duel, Antoine was energetic, intentional, but, at the same time, with fear, despair, frustration.
On many occasions, it seemed that Griezmann was invisible to the team. While the azulgranas lacked verticality and clarity, Antoine intended to be involved in almost every play, asking for the ball and going to the attack. Even so, his teammates did not look for him, nor did they send him passes as they preferred other options. Probably the Frenchman has not performed well in the past games, but against Athletic, on an individual level, he was the most sacrificed man, even if not being in the spotlight. To get the best out of Antoine, it is necessary for the team to find him, and for him to find the team.
5. Sergio Busquets: the only man in midfield
Sergio Busquets has been one of the best players in this return of La Liga. Yesterday, in defence, he was always available to add support and was continuously anticipating correctly thanks to his positioning. In attack, he maintained the control and serenity that the team needed. Unfortunately, Busi was booked and will miss the next meeting against Celta de Vigo.
On the other hand, Arthur Melo did not seem up to Sergio’s level. Maybe the rumours linking him to Juventus are doing him no good. Arthur had a fairly average performance, without shining but without disappointing. This is not what Barcelona needs at the moment. Besides, Arturo Vidal failed to deal with the pressure of the opponent, to break lines in attack, and lost many balls due to his poor passing precision. Finally, the additions of Iván Rakitić and Riqui Puig in the second half were a complete success, leaving signs that they should be key in the following matches. Could both be starting at Vigo?
3 takeaways from Dynamo Kyiv 0-4 Barcelona
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?