In the return to the Camp Nou, Barça got a well-earned win through Ansu Fati and Lionel Messi. A match review of the Barcelona 2–0 Leganés.
Top or bottom, no rival is easy in La Liga. Regardless of the individual quality each side possesses, everyone is ready to put up a fight in every game. Anyone can beat anyone. In fact, sometimes the most desperate, and the most limited, groups are the ones that can be trickiest and most challenging. With nothing to lose while they fight for their lives, they will try to compensate for their lack of talent with their ferocious competitiveness and on-point organisation.
No one symbolises this more than Leganés. Orphaned after the exits of their stars Youssef En-Nesyri in January and of Martin Braithwaite in February, the Madrid-based club are definitely struggling to keep their head above water. But here they were. At the Camp Nou, against leaders Barcelona, with their main man Óscar Rodríguez suspended, and with the poorest goalscoring record in La Liga. Actually, in their starting XI, Lega had a frightening total of…one goal. Of all the starters on Tuesday, only midfielder Roque Mesa had found the net for Leganés this campaign.
Little does the form or past matter when you are fearing for your future. As if Barcelona were no opposition to be scared of, Leganés combined a reactive with an ambitious approach. Solidity and defensive organisation is often wrongly associated with parking the bus, but Los Pepineros utilised a fairly high back five line, and with a lot of compactness and aggressiveness in midfield. With the overcrowding in the central areas, creating and finding spaces was far from plain sailing for Barça. An extremely fast and precise ball circulation was needed, but the blaugranas were by no means moving the ball with the optimal speed and finesse to break such a coordinated block.
The best antidote: patience. Patience, move the ball, and tire the opponents. Even if Quique Setién had previously suggested that the new five substitutions rule could favour the defensive sides, as they could keep their players fresh in spite of having to chase the ball, on most occasions it looked like it was a matter of time for Barça. On other occasions, though, time seemed to be running in Leganés’ favour. Only their problems to convert their chances prevented them from frightening the locals even more.
Again, individual brilliance, which is just what Lega missed, saved Barcelona once more. Nevertheless, this time it was not the usual Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué or Marc-André ter Stegen who became heroes for the culés. Instead, it first was Clément Lenglet. With key interceptions and, mostly, a vital save on the line, he kept the gates closed for the Spanish giants.
As Barcelona continued to move the ball with inexhaustible patience but some lack of inspiration, it was 17-year-old Ansu Fati who stepped up too. In the 42nd minute, after an assist from Junior Firpo, the teenager had little space to shoot but still smashed home the opener for Barça with a low strike into the far bottom corner. It is usually said that opening the scoring is the hardest thing when there are so little chances and spaces, but it was the young Ansu who, once again, showed that age is not a problem for him when it comes to impressing through goals or performances. Pressure relieved.
Not even an effective way to stop Messi anymore | Photo by Lluis Gené via Getty Images
With the deadlock broken, Lionel Messi wanted to join the party too. Rebellious and determined, he was willing to make a contribution too. In the end, stats will exclusively show that he only scored a penalty goal. But what preceded cannot be described by numbers. A well-timed pre-assist to substitute Nélson Semedo ended with Antoine Griezmann finding the net, but VAR had to re-check it before ruling it out for offside.
However, Messi did not stop there. Roughly in the 69th minute, he won the ball in the halfway line, drove it forward, nutmegged a rival, battled with two defenders, completed a nice one-two with Luis Suárez, and then awarded his team a penalty inside the box. After a long wait, VAR gave it validity and Leo did not miss from the spot. 2–0.
Enough was enough, said Messi. The result would not change, in spite of a couple of good chances for both sides. With the dense schedule that awaits every single team in La Liga, Quique Setién introduced more substitutions with Friday’s visit to Sevilla in mind. The likes of Gerard Piqué, with a knock, Sergi Roberto and Sergio Busquets were subbed out, just like Frenkie de Jong was rested for the full 90 minutes.
While for many minutes it did not look like a comfortable fixture, Barcelona ended up ticking all boxes they could possibly tick. Three points, two goals, clean sheet and a few rotations. Even the young Riqui Puig got some minutes to showcase his usual energy and personality. He got a couple of chances to score too, but that will have to wait. If Barça continue to record all wins after the break, time will run much faster.
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.