After the showtime against Villarreal, expectations were very high for Barça as they faced Espanyol. However, the level displayed was far below expectations. In the end, three important points, but with much left to improve. These are five takeaways from the Barcelona 1–0 Espanyol.
Against Villarreal on Sunday, the feelings that Barcelona left were almost perfect. That’s why, against Espanyol, fans did not expect less. After five consecutive defeats and an extremely subpar season, Espanyol were heading to an inevitable relegation. But it was still a Catalan Derby, and the locals could not relax. As expected, los Periquitos came out to the pitch with a very defensive approach, except for the final ten minutes. Meanwhile, Quique Setién’s Barça repeated its 4–3–1–2 that had worked so well in the previous match, but in Wednesday’s duel the team had many problems in creativity and generating danger.
Fortunately, all of these issues gradually improved in the second half, albeit without glitter. However, a goal by Luis Suárez, and great performances by Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Clément Lenglet, were enough to get the three points and officially relegate Espanyol. Now, for the blaugranas it remains to spot and work on their mistakes. These are five things we learned from the Barcelona 1–0 Espanyol.
1. 4–3–1–2 doesn’t work against teams that park the bus
The 4–3–1–2 was the system Quique Setién had chosen against Villarreal and that had been a complete success to get the best out of multiple players. Without wingers, but with a great job from the full-backs that day, it was enough to generate enough width and spaces. Villarreal is an offensive side, and they always like to have the ball. Similarly to Barcelona, though, they struggle a lot to recover the ball and focus more on long spells of possession. That’s why that scheme made the Catalans have a near-perfect game on Sunday. Nevertheless, it did not go as well as expected in the duel against Espanyol.
Espanyol, due to their limitations and struggles, have opted for a more defensive approach in the second half of the season. Given this type of scheme, it takes a lot of width and speed on the ball to find spaces. Otherwise, it is almost impossible to even be able to shoot at goal. In fact, Barça did not make a single shot on target in the first half.
Barely enough to get the victory, but certainly not enough to entertain | Photo by Lluís Gené / AFP via Getty Images
Moreover, Jordi Alba and Nélson Semedo, who were great at La Cerámica, did not have their best day on Wednesday, and Barça did not have enough threat on the wings. Happily for the locals, this changed when Espanyol’s Pol Lozano was sent off early in the second half. And although Barcelona were also playing down to ten with Ansu Fati also shown a red card, there were more spaces with ten vs ten than with eleven vs eleven.
2. Marc-André ter Stegen is always there when things go wrong
Surreally, Espanyol had more clear cut chances than Barcelona and almost achieved a goal. Although the locals finished with a clean sheet, this was largely thanks to Marc-André ter Stegen. The German goalkeeper, again, transformed himself into a wall to prevent the rivals from scoring. While Luis Suárez managed the winner, without Ter Stegen this match would have had a completely different result.
“We knew it was going to be difficult. We knew their [Espanyol’s] situation. We have to be aware of the fact that we put in a great performance on Sunday [against Villarreal] and were still feeling the consequences of that physically. The important thing is to win and to get three more points”
Like all heroes, Marc-André also needed support. Luckily for him, Clément Lenglet and Gerard Piqué did an almost impeccable job. Piqué was very aware to stop Espanyol’s attacks, led by Raúl de Tomás. On the other hand, Lenglet, despite being unusually out of position a couple of times, was essential thanks to his ability to block shots. All two centre-backs plus keeper combined so that no rival could find an easy opportunity inside the box and score.
3. Riqui Puig is needed for this type of games
From minute one, supporters knew that this match was tailormade for Riqui Puig. His characteristics, such as his speed in moving the ball and across the field, his ability to break lines and his great impact in the final third, made him look like the key to unlocking Espanyol’s defence. After the first half, the most obvious introduction, and the one all fans were asking for, was that of Riqui Puig. Still, the minutes passed by and Riqui kept warming up. In the end, he didn’t play a single minute.
Yes, the azulgranas took the victory, but they were also very close to not getting it. Perhaps Quique Setién was wrong in not giving minutes to the 20-year-old, or perhaps he did consider it but Ansu Fati’s red card changed his plans. Yet the truth is that Riqui has proven time and time again how essential he is for Barcelona when they desperately need a spark of imagination from midfield.
4. This time Sergi Roberto didn’t shine as much as an interior
In recent years, the versatility of Sergi Roberto, a natural midfielder, has allowed him to operate frequently at right-back. However, with Nélson Semedo’s form and Frenkie de Jong‘s absence, Roberto has been used as a left interior in the last couple of games. Against Villarreal, Sergi was one of the best performers. Defensively he added support and numbers, and in attack he perfectly connected the lines and looked for the free man. Arguably his best display as a midfielder. Facing Espanyol, Quique repeated his method, although it was not what was expected.
“We have not had a great match. They have made it difficult for us in defence. We have not found spaces nor have we had precision to handle ourselves”
Without the help of the full-backs, yesterday Sergi Roberto could not carry the ball as much as, due to Espanyol’s compact block, he was more static. He had a lot of trouble in activating himself when receiving the ball, making the game predictable and slow. Nonetheless, in the second half Sergi moved to the right-back position, since Semedo was subbed out. In that position, the Catalan regained his form and ended up being one of the best in the match from the right side. He was a great asset when the team began playing with ten men.
5. Will Ansu Fati’s red card affect Barcelona?
Ansu Fati continues to break records, but this time it was a negative one. Against the Blanquiazules, he became the second-youngest player in La Liga history to be sent off. During the match, Barcelona needed Fati on the pitch as soon as possible to generate width and open up spaces. To the fans’ delight, number 31 was subbed on at half-time. Within seconds, though, he saw a red card. It was a tough and dangerous action as, in spite of touching the ball first, he then hit Fernando Calero in the leg.
This suspension means that Ansu will not play the next clash against Real Valladolid. Valladolid are one of the teams that have conceded the least goals this season, and it is worrying that the 17-year-old winger will not be able to be part of the duel. The good news is that, apart from Martin Braithwaite, there is Álex Collado, who could act as a winger and fill in such absence. But will Setién trust the young Collado?
Barcelona player ratings vs Sevilla — Hosts unable to get past Mingueza, the wall
Turning headless chickens into mature students of the game turned out to be Ronald Koeman’s biggest achievement at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, where the Catalan giants had recently just suffered a disappointing loss. On the score-sheet, the margin may not have looked considerable, but on the field, Barcelona were pretty much untouchable, courtesy in large parts to the structural change made by Koeman.
A performance this cohesive and harmonized was much needed after the countless defeats Barça have suffered on the big stage. Everything Cules have strived to see in this team, was present, and while consistency has been the club’s biggest hurdle, this win undoubtedly holds a great deal of significance.
The Blaugranas have arguably exerted more energy in other games over the course of the campaign, but the spirit Barcelona lacked suddenly came to life. The pressing was in sync, every move was calculated and well crafted. Playing the Barcelona way in hostile territory against a team as dominant as Sevilla brought back life into a team devoid of wins in high magnitude encounters.
Marc-André Ter Stegen: 7
Ter Stegen oozed confidence as he came off his line and claimed the ball several times. Not only did he display composure, but the German rushed out of his box on one occasion to clear the ball and remove any danger that Sevilla’s potential attack possessed. With the exception of a poor pass, his distribution was immaculate. Even so, it must be admitted that the Sevilla forwards barely tested ter Stegen in goal with dangerous attempts on target.
Oscar Mingueza: 8.5
Oscar Mingueza was a vital reason as to why the Blaugrana defence was impenetrable. Piementa’s prodigy did not allow Lopetegui’s men to advance into any areas on the right side of the field. He won 6 out his 9 duels along winning 5 tackles, proving the 21-year-old’s precise ball-winning abilities remain crucial. Not to mention, his exceptional ball-playing ability enabled Barça to play with a high line thus applying further pressure on Sevilla.
Pique was the nail in the coffin to Barça’s counter-pressing strategies. The players would press the Sevilla Keeper and force him to heave the ball away, and this is where Pique’s aerial ability flourished, which particularly authorized the Catalans to regain possession. The Spanish veteran won 5 out of 7 of his aerial duels, thus showing his dominance in that area of play. His distribution was reliable as always and allowed the Catalans to retain a high defensive line at selected times.
The Frenchman is on route to recovering the form he once had, and this performance should do his confidence a world of good. Still prone to making errors, he dealt with Sevilla’s threat in a respectable manner. An improvement was observed in his ability to stay ahead of his man, which led to his positioning being marginally better. His second-half performance was key to the win as he stepped up after Pique and Ronald Araujo had to be subbed off. Lenglet must be appreciated for his tackling as they successfully neutralized a few well-structured attacks from the hosts.
Sergiño Dest: 7
Despite typically being perceived as a full-back, Ronald Koeman handed Dest the responsibility to play higher up the field as a right-wing-back. The American speedster enjoyed his new role with piercing runs behind Sevilla’s defence and looked a lot more explosive, with defensive cover behind him.
Sergino Dest vs Sevilla:— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) February 28, 2021
• Touches: 58
• Accurate passes: 36/42 (86%)
• Shots: 2
• Ground duels (won): 4 (2)
• Fouls won: 2
• Clearances: 2
• Interceptions: 2
— SofaScore pic.twitter.com/IjN74fDwhc
Dest launched a couple of promising crosses, but a major issue was that he shied away from entering 1v1 duels and instinctively looked to send in crosses. The US international also came oh-so-close to scoring after striking the post on one occasion.
Jordi Alba: 7.5
Similar to his wing-back partner in crime, Jordi Alba raided forward at any given opportunity, stretching the play wide and utilizing his raw pace throughout. Without having to worry about his defensive duties, the marauding Spaniard looked a lot more imposing. He was just inches away from tapping the ball into the opposition net after proceedings.
Frenkie de Jong: 8.5
De Jong’s season just proceeds to take massive leaps as the Dutchman proved to be a defining factor in the Catalans’ applaudable 2-0 victory. In spite of not stamping his name on the score-sheet, De Jong’s performance was worthy of endless praise, almost making it seem as if he was carrying around an extra pair of lungs. The former Ajax wonderboy surged forward, breaking the opposition’s lines tirelessly and constantly squirming his way out of tight areas.
Sergio Busquets: 7.5
The ageing veteran appeared to be recreating glimpses from the past as his counter-pressing was absolutely decisive in the Catalans’ attacking plays. Sergio Busquets – unlike most big game he has participated in – was not cheaply bullied off the ball and made possession purposeful for the Blaugranas. With defensive aid behind him, Busquets was back to his brilliant best.
The cog in Ronald Koeman’s midfield was once again a trusty figure in midfield and managed to string together some impressive plays in what appeared to be a 3-5-2 formation. Though Pedri’s involvement was substantially lower than usual, his display was mainly impeded by an injury he suffered in the 71st minute, disabling him from completing the full 90 minutes.
Lionel Messi: 8.5
Against his favourite opposition, Lionel Messi savoured the occasion to the fullest. The Argentine was an influential figure in the club’s victory away from home, with his creativity and efficiency in front of goal second to none. In the 29th minute of the game, Leo spotted a raiding Ousmane Dembélé through on goal as he bagged himself an assist for the Frenchman’s finish.
To cap off his outing, Barcelona’s captain weaved his way past a couple of Sevilla defenders and, after failing to chip the keeper, delicately slotted it into the net.
Ousmane Dembélé: 8
Sevilla were haplessly left chasing Ousmane Dembélé’s shadows. The Frenchman – without having to worry about his defensive tasks – waltzed forward continuously and enjoyed playing as a secondary striker, making runs in behind the defence and eventually proving his worth with a beautifully placed goal just before the half-hour mark. A much more mature and composed exhibition from the electric winger.
Ilaix Moriba: 7
Ronald Araujo: N/A
Martin Braithwaite: N/A
Samuel Umtiti: N/A