It is not the perfect season for Barcelona, but there are a few reasons to be satisfied. Among them, Gerard Piqué, who, with his consistency, fight and intelligence has become more essential than ever at Barça. One of the team’s best players this term.
Gerard Piqué started the season at Barça in a disappointing way. The world of football began to doubt him, thinking that it was already the twilight of the career of the blaugrana legend. The reality is that he had many defensive mistakes, he did not seem physically or mentally focused, and game after game he demonstrated that he was far below his best level. However, once again, Piqué has made a brilliant bounce back to lead the defence of the Catalans.
Since midseason, Gerard has been perfecting the details in his football until becoming an almost flawless player on the defensive side. From there, with the arrival of Quique Setién, Piqué has been improving more and more until, with the return of La Liga, he has played every match in a masterful way. He has been one of the most responsible players for Barça’s great defensive work and high number of clean sheets since the break.
Since the opening post-pandemic game against Mallorca, Piqué has had an average of 77 passes per game with an effectiveness of 96%. Something surprising considering that he is a centre-back. Not only that, but he has also excelled in terms of interceptions, clearances, tackles and low number of errors. In addition, the culés have kept six clean sheets in the nine games played, all of them featuring Gerard.
But not all of Piqué’s work can be measured by stats. The Spaniard has been displaying an immense intelligence in his positioning, in moving the ball out from the back and in closing down spaces, doing everything in an impeccable way.
“In the end, being at a club like FC Barcelona who must win titles, you have to stay motivated, and often times, using your head is more important than using your body”
Moreover, as everyone knows, Gerard Piqué is quite a character off the pitch. Charismatic even to enter the parking lot of the Camp Nou by bicycle, and with enough confidence to protest jokingly in the face of referee Matheu Lahoz against Real Valladolid. Also, he never minces his words in press conferences, transmitting the reality in his eyes or encouraging the rest of the team to continue fighting in the title race.
This superiority that he exhibits in front the media is later implemented in the matches, generating a perfect symbiosis with all the elements. Attitude and talent to retain total hegemony on and off the pitch. A born leader capable of building an empire with his football.
With two games to go in La Liga, Piqué is undoubtedly one of those who will want to continue fighting until the end. And the end is not when the league is over, but when the full season ends with the Champions League in August. With enough rest and with the level that the number 3 is showing, Geri will be an essential piece to increase Barcelona’s chances of going far in the European tournament.
For now, fans have to continue enjoying Gerard Piqué, who, despite all the discussion surrounding him, is one of the all-time greats in his position. Piqué will continue to prove himself by being Piqué, and there are no other words to describe what he means. Simply: Piqué.
Years go by, players grow old and the rising youngsters take the places that the legends leave. But Gerard is different. Like a good wine, the older he gets, the better. Every year he is improving himself. Each season he solves the deficits of the physique he is naturally losing, to end up being better than in the previous campaign. There are many reasons to be disappointed at Barça right now, but Gerard Piqué is one of the few to be thankful for.
Ansu Fati and the return of natural wingers
In Ronald Koeman’s La Liga debut as manager of Barcelona, he handed Ansu Fati a starting place in the team. It proved to be the correct decision as the youngster stole the show. It was great seeing Barça play with proper wingers again which helped unlock the Villarreal defence.
On Sunday night, Barcelona played a strong Villarreal side. As the Blaugrana kicked off their campaign, the Yellow Submarine had already played two La Liga games. The Barça defence looked shaky at times but in the end, kept a clean sheet. They passed the ball out from the back well with Clément Lenglet breaking the press with a beautiful left-footed pass on several occasions.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets struggled to adapt to the double pivot role and was off the pace with his passing. On the other hand, Frenkie De Jong looked more comfortable in this position. His build-up play was excellent, and he covered a lot of ground. Miralem Pjanić also impressed in his cameo and will be pushing for a starting role.
In attack, the Catalan side went with a front four. Antoine Griezmann was the quietest of the forwards and sometimes found himself too wide again. Philippe Coutinho looks to be regaining some form in his preferred position. He was involved in the build-up plays and gave a great assist to Fati. Lionel Messi put in another impressive performance and seemed to be enjoying himself. The attackers linked well and there was a lot more movement than recent seasons. Their understanding should continue to improve as the season progresses.
Ansu Fati celebrating the opening goal of the match against Villarreal | Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images
However, the real stand out of the game was Ansu Fati. The 17-year-old started on the left-wing and was a constant threat down this channel. Most of Barcelona’s attacks came down the left side with Jordi Alba having one of his best games in a long time. The two players combined well and seemed to effortlessly know where space was. When Alba and Neymar used to play on the wings they would sometimes compete over the same areas. But with Fati and Alba, they looked like a great partnership
On the night, Ansu Fati scored two goals and won a penalty for the team. His first goal came after a beautiful pass from Lenglet over the top of the defence found Alba. The left-back produced one of his classic cutbacks, but this time found Fati instead of Messi. The Spanish international unleashed a confident first-time finish leaving Sergio Asenjo almost static on his line.
Minutes later, Coutinho played the young winger through and again Ansu finished at the near post. Again, Lenglet found the pass through Villarreal’s press that started the move. Fati is proving to be a clinical finisher with 9 goals from just 14 shots in La Liga. Such composure in front of goal is rare for any player let alone a 17-year-old.
“When I am handed a chance to play, I become eager to take it and make the best out of it.”Ansu Fati
The young winger was involved again when he was brought down in the penalty box by Mario Gaspar. Once again, Fati demonstrated his ability to take defenders on and beat them. His pace caused a lot of problems for the opposition’s defence. Ansu showed just how good he is tactically, as he is technically. His positioning and decision making were almost flawless, especially for someone who has had so little minutes in the first team. When he was substituted in the second half, he received a warm embrace from Koeman for his fantastic display.
The performance of Ansu last night also highlighted how important is it for Barcelona to play with wingers. Almost all the attacks came from the left-hand side where Alba and Fati played. However, there was only a handful of attacking plays coming from the right side where Roberto and Griezmann were. Having that width and pace really stretched the Villarreal defence and created space for others to exploit.
Ansu Fati scoring his second goal in the 20th minute against Villarreal | Photo by David Ramirez via Imago
“I criticized Ansu for his performance in pre-season. That’s what gave him a boost. He made a huge impact, especially on the wings.”Ronald Koeman
The second goal of the evening shows how important having that width is. With Coutinho running through the centre, Griezmann was directly ahead of him. Two defenders were then dragged into the area around Antoine which allowed Fati more space to run into. If there was no left-winger, that space could not have been exploited and the goal would not have happened.
With the success down the left-wing, the manager may consider playing with a more natural winger on the right too. The right-wing was almost invisible for Barça over the 90 minutes and this is unsustainable for the full season. The substitutions of Francisco Trincão and Ousmane Dembélé showed how having two natural wingers could work. Dembélé was positioned on the left and Trincão on the right. Both offer width in the team and are can dribble past defenders. It is something to consider when playing against teams that play in the low block.
Overall, Barcelona’s first game of the season looked promising. There was a lot more intensity in the team and plenty of movement. The competition for places should keep players’ levels high and allow for rotations. So far, the 4-2-3-1 formation seems to be working and allows for some to play in their favoured position. Ansu Fati impressed during the game and showed why having pace and width is so important to any Barça team. The performance levels should continue to improve as players get used to the system and get more minutes on the field.