Despite Athletic Bilbao giving Barcelona a scare in the closing stages of the game, Barcelona cruised to victory at a stadium where they have recently not found much success, making huge strides in hostile territory. The Blaugranas managed to immediately comeback after going 1-0 down with their elevation in mentality visible throughout the game.
Individually and collectively, the club were in sync for large portions of the game and the ascendancy displayed by Koeman’s men managed to pay them dividends at the full-time whistle as they now climb up to third place in La Liga.
Marc-André ter Stegen: 6
Ter Stegen was forced to pay the price for Barcelona’s defensive calamities on two separate occasions, but while he was not at fault for the goals Barça conceded, the German could have certainly done a better job at denying Iñaki Williams from scoring the opener.
Sergiño Dest: 6
Sergiño Dest’s responsibilities were reduced drastically with the inclusion of Ousmane Dembélé on the right flank, which allowed Dest to cover up for the defence on a frequent basis. Nonetheless, it could be argued that the American was caught high up the pitch for Los Leones’ opener. Added to that, Dest also missed a prominent opportunity to score after forcing a save out of Unai Simón.
Ronald Araújo: 7
Ronald Araújo proceeded to be a rock wall at the heart of the defence, making up for Piqué’s absence seamlessly. The Uruguayan centre-back looked slightly shaky with his distribution, but maintained remarkable composure at ground duels and emerged successful aerially as well. Araújo’s setback against Eibar was simply a setup for his awe-inspiring comeback, which begs the question, does Barcelona really need Eric Garcia?
Clement Lenglet: 5
Clement Lenglet was scarcely tested in the air and did not fare well in a majority of his aerial duels. Additionally, the Frenchman was partially at fault for Athletic’s opener as his sluggish reaction to Iñaki William’s change in direction enabled the forward to put his side upfront. Having picked up an unnecessary yellow card to top off a subpar performance, Lenglet is also now suspended for Barça’s upcoming clash.
Jordi Alba: 7
Jordi Alba was bursting with energy, bombing down the left flank occasionally and proving to be a reliable outlet in the final third, giving the visitors a numerical advantage. Albeit the Spaniard had a few lapses in concentration at the back, he quickly made interceptions and anticipated the threat Bilbao’s nifty forwards carried.
Sergio Busquets: 5.5
Starting at the base of midfield, Busquets was arguably one of the few weak links in the team. The veteran was largely at fault for Iñaki’s goal and was moderately involved in the Catalans’ counter-pressing. Although Busquets gradually grew into the game, winning 5 duels defensively –, age appears to be taking its toll and doubts of him being able to start games consistently for the full 90 continue to loom over him.
Frenkie de Jong: 8
No longer does Frenkie de Jong exhibit his innate abilities in purple patches; the Dutchman has finally found his groove again, producing displays with applaudable consistency. De Jong was as per an engine in midfield, covering large distances and surging forward tirelessly. The former Ajax prodigy was repaid for his efforts in the first half as he picked up an assist for Pedri’s goal, reading Messi’s excellently executed cross with a touch of class.
The boy from Tenerife was arguably Barcelona’s most impactful player after Lionel Messi. Pedri, despite being a mere 18-year-old, played as if he had played the beautiful game for decades. In addition to scoring Barça’s equalizer with a simple header, he was instrumental in Messi’s goal, with his trademark back-heel once again highlighting his telepathic connection with Leo. Pedri’s ability to be involved in every meaningful play for the Blaugranas signifies the youngster’s tremendous talent – truly a sight for sore eyes.
Ousmane Dembélé: 8
In spite of not finding the back of the net, Dembélé waltzed past Berchiche and Balenziaga at the speed of light, taking on defenders continuously and always accelerating the flow of the game in moments where Barça would find themselves trapped in a stalemate. The Frenchman astonishingly won 7 out of 8 ground duels and made possession purposeful for the visitors, forming a formidable partnership with Sergiño Dest.
Lionel Messi: 9
Unplayable and unparalleled in terms of quality on the field, Lionel Messi was simply the star of the show. Producing his best game on the road this season, the Argentine was involved in practically every Barça attack. Leo’s mesmeric pass to de Jong helped his side equalize, he went onto wreak havoc himself with two sublime finishes. Although Leo made a cheap dispossession which enabled Athletic to score their second goal of the game, his outstanding exhibition was enough to overshadow that uncharacteristic error in judgment.
Lady luck unfortunately was quite harsh with the number 10 as he hit the crossbar on two occasions and had one of his goals ruled out, but it was an immensely encouraging performance from the captain, who is now back to doing what he does best – scoring goals and tormenting oppositions.
Antoine Griezmann: 7.5
Berthed on the left flank, Griezmann had to adapt to unfamiliar territory, but he did a fairly decent job throughout the game. With admirable off the ball movement and an excellent work ethic, the Frenchman made a whopping eight recoveries, more than in any other game for Barça in all competitions. After doing a considerable amount of the ‘dirty work’, Griezmann was then awarded with an assist to Lionel Messi in the second half as the duo embraced with gleeful faces.
Martin Braithwaite: 6
Oscar Mingueza: 6
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.