Barça came out victorious in their clash against Athletic Club on Tuesday, but their starting attack looked toothless and dysfunctional, for the umpteenth time this year.
Football is back, and Barcelona have already slipped up in La Liga and are now chasing the league rather than being in the driving seat. While tied in points with Real Madrid after Barça’s goalless draw against Sevilla a week ago, it’s Los Blancos who have the advantage thanks to their favourable head-to-head record.
Yes, for Barcelona, Quique Setién’s style is defensively sound and reliable. With the latest 1–0 win over Athletic Club, Marc-André ter Stegen hasn’t conceded in 450 minutes as centre-back partners Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet are having the season of their lives. Nélson Semedo is having a renaissance at the Camp Nou, and Jordi Alba is and will be the starting left-back for the Catalans. Nevertheless, Quique’s slow passing style is lacking something that seems important enough that his team struggles without it.
Setién had a problem in his final 18/19 campaign at the Benito Villamarin with Betis, scoring 44 goals in 38 games, a far cry from their astonishing 60 the season before. Many people blamed it at the strikers, who were deemed not good enough to play in such an intense gameplan. At Barcelona, the chance creation under Setién has been poor, and when there are goalscoring opportunities, the forwards seem to forget how to finish. Just look at Antoine Griezmann’s golden chance against Athletic Club on Tuesday, or Luis Suárez tripping on the ball in front of Unai Simón’s goal.
Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suárez both like to be central and can’t offer the width that Barcelona and Lionel Messi need | Photo by Imago
These are chances Barça’s former MSN attacking trio would put away blindfolded, and it is unfortunate to see Luis Suárez decline that fastly. In his last two outings, the Uruguayan has looked rusty, and that’s partly because of the six months without football through injury. But the chances he has been missing recently are unacceptable for a striker of his caliber. Misses like the ones in Mallorca, Seville or at the Camp Nou against Leganés or Athletic are shocking, especially for one of Europe’s best finishers of the last decade.
Additionally, it seems like the chemistry between the three forwards is severely lacking. Antoine Griezmann had some pretty disappointing displays since the return, but against Athletic, he looked more into it. He tried to open the play many times with his runs, but was ignored on so many occasions by both Lionel Messi and Suárez.
For example, the former Liverpool man decided that shooting from outside the box was a better idea than feeding the Frenchman who was through on goal. The Uruguayan seemed injured in Seville and may not have recovered fully, but why does Quique Setién insist on playing him if he’s that out of form? For the majority, it is crystal clear that this MSG trio is not working.
Moreover, when Ansu Fati and Martin Braithwaite came on, the culés had more width and energy, and the floodgates opened, also because the Basque team chased a draw. The running from the two substitutes added so much to the attack. They were two out of three players who were willing to run in behind and drop deeper to receive the ball. With Griezmann, those runs are made but not often enough. Still, he compensates by running like a madman to help in defence, in the way Diego Simeone taught him at Atlético de Madrid.
Comparing Braithwaite’s cameo to Suárez’s performance is not pertinent enough, but one noticeable thing when the Danish man came on was his will to run and be mobile with the ball to open up the play, something that Luis stopped doing a long time ago. Against managers like Gaizka Garitano, you will never get space, especially in the middle of the pitch. Pacey tricksters must be utilised to counter that style of football Athletic use.
In Lionel Messi‘s case, his performance was fine; he had some moments of sheer brilliance, but most of the time chose the wrong player. As mentioned, he ignored many Griezmann runs and tried looking for Suárez even when the whole Basque defence marked him. His incisive runs were the only cause of danger before youngster Riqui Puig came on, but the end product wasn’t really there, for once. Even so, Messi’s situation is different, as his brilliance always amazes Barça fans and he improves on a game to game basis.
Age should not be a problem when picking Ansu Fati over other veteran stars | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
For Suárez, it might be too late. There aren’t many players that recover from a knee injury at 33. Ask Villarreal’s Bruno Soriano, who had to wait three years to make a single appearance. The Uruguayan seems lost at sea, and his pace is gone. He ruined many counter-attacks in Seville and against Athletic, and he cannot continue to play like this if he wants Barcelona to win. At the end of the day, no footballer is more significant than the club, and Suárez has some replacements on the bench. Players that have more chemistry after playing a full season together, like Ansu Fati and Griezmann, or others that just look fitter and would tire out other defences, like Braithwaite.
However, chemistry does not mean Antoine Griezmann doesn’t have to improve. If Iván Rakitić hadn’t opened the scoring, many would talk about Griezmann’a bad miss in front of Unai Simón. Antoine looks dysfunctional on the left, and it is normal. He spent five years at Atlético playing in the middle, and with France too. Now, at 29, he is asked to play as a winger when there is a true winger in Ansu Fati waiting on the bench.
“While he plays out wide, he has a tendency to drift into the centre. We never instruct him to stay wide because he is not that dribbling kind of player”
on Antoine Griezmann
If Quique Setién could learn something from that tight victory, it is that Barcelona should not let MSG‘s inappropriateness influence the performances and even results. Instead, Setién should revert to more astute tactics, which worked against Los Leones for some period of time and could have worked at the Sánchez Pizjuán.