It has taken Ronald Koeman a good first part of the 2020/21 season, but it does seem like Barcelona are finally on an upward trajectory. Of course, while the three wins in a row confirm as much, these weren’t clashes against the Catalans’ main rivals and could be seen as somewhat ‘easier‘ fixtures.
Still, a win is a win and considering Barcelona have struggled against all kinds of opposition lately, this comes as a breath of fresh air. The latest 4-0 routing of Granada was especially enchanting to see, not least because we once again got a glimpse of what some fringe players can do when given a chance.
We are, of course, talking about Riqui Puig, arguably the biggest La Masia talent currently in the team, bar maybe Ansu Fati, and the one whose fate seems the cruellest as well. These two statements should not belong to a single sentence and yet, somehow, in some way, they do.
With his 17 minutes against Granada, the 21-year-old midfielder has increased his overall 20/21 tally to a total of 95 minutes, which, needless to say, is incredibly low. It does not take a big analyst to decipher that Koeman is not really a big fan of the youngster.
The reason behind that is still largely unknown but could, as alluded to by the coach himself, have something to do with Puig’s commitment in training and work rate in general. Unfortunately, whether that is true or not, we do not know at this moment and will likely never find out.
What we do know, however, is that those 95 minutes were enough for Puig to dazzle the audience and completely take over games. It has to be noted, though, that the only bigger chances he’s gotten so far have been in games that were already settled, one way or the other.
Looking at the stats and the end-result, Puig’s introduction would always occur in the latter stages of the matches with Barcelona 4-0 up against Granada (17 minutes), 2-0 up against Dynamo Kyiv (25 minutes), 3-0 up against Ferencvárosi (25 minutes) and 3-0 down against Juventus (24 minutes) respectively.
It goes without saying that the youngster is a fringe player through and through, regardless of his talent. But even with so little time to demonstrate his skill, Puig has been a clear standout performer in all of those games. Let’s take the latest game, the one against Granada, as an example.
Just look at the magician Riqui Puig! pic.twitter.com/W0HPYPX4MC— 7 (@AfikaK7) January 9, 2021
The 21-year-old needed only 17 minutes to dominate the opposition completely, dictate play and emerge as a big piece of the whole jigsaw. According to SofaScore, he completed 21/23 of his passes (91% accuracy), one long ball, registered 26 touches and completed one dribble.
Considering he’s done all of that in just 17 minutes, it’s quite impressive, to say the least. The eye-test confirms what the data has initially suggested – Puig was heavily involved in all aspects of Barcelona’s play.
He was dropping deep to assist the build-up, staying active and moving around the pitch, connecting the thirds and creating chances. He has played in multiple roles on the pitch and it seems clear that there is no hindrance to his game. Don’t forget that it was his piercing pass that provoked Jesús Vallejo into making a reckless challenge on Martin Braithwaite, ultimately resulting in the red card.
And yes, the game had already been done and dusted by that point, but Puig was toying with the opposition nonetheless. To some, this may come as a key argument. Considering that he’s not a starter and only comes on when matches are no longer a contest, it does lower the competition level as a whole.
The 21-year-old faces the opposition when they are tired and already beaten or have already won the game anyway, so they don’t care as much anymore. That side of the argument is valid but should it diminish his performances?
While the state of the game may affect the opposition, it stands to reason that the player coming on only as a late and largely irrelevant sub would experience the same thing. Why would Puig care about his overall display if he is so inconsequential in the first place?
But he still does care, and that shows on the pitch. Would his performances be as good as they are if he didn’t care? Highly unlikely. The other reason why this should be held against him is that there’s still a clear shift in Barcelona’s overall quality once he enters the pitch.
The play is massively accelerated, they seem more unpredictable, more creative, and deadlier in the attack at the end of the day. And yes, Granada were well beaten even prior to his introduction, courtesy of some Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann magic. However, Puig’s display was still worthy of praise and admiration.
If he can do that much damage to the opposition in so little time, imagine what he could do as a starter and with more game time under his belt. The alternative, however, while unpleasant, would at least give us enough clarity on the situation.
If Koeman decides to give Puig more chances from the very start of the game and the youngster keeps underperforming, the case would be closed. The Dutchman claims only the ones that deserve to play more will play more.
But in Puig’s case, this isn’t evident at all. He keeps performing well whenever selected, but that doesn’t seem to impact his overall game time at all. The latest cameo appearance against Granada is just another proof his expulsion is unwarranted.
Unfortunately, it seems Koeman’s mind is made up and it will take a colossal effort from the youngster to change it.
Can the ban to Messi turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Barcelona?
Though the ban to Lionel Messi does seem terrifying news, a deeper thought suggests that it could be a blessing in disguise for Barcelona, opening up several avenues for Ronald Koeman to experiment.
Lionel Messi has made a name for breaking records for fun. Be it goals or assists or dribbles, he has the accolades decorating the walls of his quiet haven in Barcelona. On Sunday the Argentine found himself breaking yet another record, however, not one he would have relished too much.
The six-time Ballon d’Or award winner was sent off for the very first time in Barcelona’s famous Garnet and Blue. An unarguable offence involving a violent swing of the arm at Asier Villalibre was the incident that saw him earn the same. Consequently, a ban awarded will see Messi missing action in the upcoming two fixtures – namely against UE Cornella and Elche.
Though it does seem terrifying news, to begin with, a deeper thought suggests that it could indeed be a blessing in disguise for Ronald Koeman’s side. Temporarily so, though. Moreover, it could benefit both parties involved: the player and the team.
Sparing a scenario where he participates in Barcelona’s second-round fixture in the Copa del Rey, Leo will return to action once again against the side he received his marching orders against. The speculated return date is the 31st of January against Athletic Bilbao.
Having just come back from a muscle injury he picked up against Granada, the Argentine was far from his best in the Super Cup final. A red card was a miserable end to a painful night for him. It was evident that he was not ready to play. He pulled on through the night, almost till the very end before his patience caved in.
A fit and ready Lionel Messi is one of the key cogs in Barcelona’s engine. Rushing the captain back from injury would not be wise either for the team or the player. Messi, at 33, needs to be managed efficiently yet cautiously. This includes embracing the fact that regaining rhythm after injuries will require a longer window. Bearing that in mind, a forced two-game hiatus could be exactly what he requires to return raging.
However, the absence of the La Liga top scorer will put more burden on the shoulders of €100 million club players Antoine Greizmann and Ousmane Dembele. The French duo can see this as the perfect opportunity to step up. It is the perfect chance to prove why exactly they do have a bright future at the club. The talisman’s absence provides Griezmann with exactly the position he considers his own, and enable him to take up the baton of scoring. It will be the ideal stage for him to dictate the play between the lines and orchestrate the proceedings.
Meanwhile, for a certain Dembele, it almost guarantees successive starts. The youngster is just beginning to find his rhythm at Catalonia, and he will be looking forward to making up for the absence of his captain.
The games Leo is set to miss are relatively low-pressure on paper. This could now tempt Koeman to push in youngsters and experiment with the forward line. The Copa del Rey fixture against Cornella could well see young Alex Collado and Konrad get deserved minutes.
While Collado has constantly been superb for the B team, Konrad has been patient on the bench for many games. The La Masia graduates deserve a chance in the top flight, and Messi’s suspension could give them a chance. Either way, both have made it to the squad list for the Kings’ Cup fixture.
Similarly, the opening up of a spot on the right-wing, an infrequent occurrence, could see chances given to Fransisco Trincao. The youngster has hardly got a sniff of a start so far, and the opening up of a spot in his natural position could be what it takes for him to earn a start.
Moreover, there is a certain aspect of this on the team as a whole. Coming back after a defeat poses its own range of challenges. Nonetheless, bouncing back after a defeat in the final of an event requires suturing of a much deeper and painful wound. Having Leo on the side is always a reassurance to his teammates on the field. However, his absence following a major defeat will be a real test of the sides resilience.
An individual effort will not suffice in the coming games. With the captain on the sidelines and the hounds of the traumatizing defeat set loose on them, the players will have to be on their toes. It will be a test for the coach, and one that examines the drive in the players. What could that be in the eyes of a true fan, if not a blessing in disguise.
The team is in dire need for motivation, and for a sense of confidence. Victories in two games without their talisman can provide the biggest boost in morale for all the players alike. As for his return, Messi will be looking to come back with a bang against Bilbao next week once his ban calls curtains
It is no secret that the club-captain’s presence would lift the spirits and confidence of all personnel involved. However, the ban to Messi benefits multiple parties in the given situation, himself included. It also provides the chance for the likes of other players to step up and take responsibility on the pitch when, namely the likes of Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, among others. Alternatively, an empty spot in the team might force Ronald Koeman’s hand to give minutes to Konrad de la Fuente, Fransisco Trincao, and even Alex Collado. Will the side be able to cross the line? One really hopes so.