Barcelona kept up their excellent away form with a comfortable 2-0 win away to Basque minnows Eibar. It was always going to be a mismatch given the unprecedented disparity between the two sides’ budgets, but the ease with which Barça got the three points was slightly worrying. The game was pretty much over as a contest before half-time and the second half was a slow, meandering procession towards the final whistle.
That said, there are important positives to be taken from the game. Sergi Roberto’s display suggested that he can be a capable pivote in Sergio Busquets’ absence and Rafinha had one of his best games in a Barça shirt to date. Gerard Piqué and Marc Bartra were excellent in the centre of defence, while Adriano and Martín Montoya gave creditable displays at full-back.
The tactical battle was quite simple: Eibar surrendered possession, assembled in a 5-3-1-1 formation behind the ball and waited for Barça to turn it over. Barça moved the ball with speed and purpose but simple numerical disadvantage – Eibar had three centre-backs and three defensive midfielders just in front of them, all crowding the centre of the pitch – meant that it was almost impossible to enter the final third without moves breaking down.
When the ball turned over, Eibar hit long first-time passes into space for lone striker Saúl to chase and quickly got runners forward in support. Unfortunately for Eibar, Saúl didn’t really have the quality to work Barça too hard. He lost the ball almost as soon as he got it and Barça were quickly back in the driving seat.
While his attacking plan was flawed, Garitano’s defensive strategy was solid and for a while it seemed perfect for dealing with Messi. When Messi got the ball on the right flank, he had three opposition players in his immediate vicinity, preventing him from driving towards the goal or combining with teammates. When he came inside, as he often did, he found Eibar’s organised swarm of defenders sat in front of him. It was very hard for him to influence the game.
Whenever Eibar advanced, Barça’s defence dealt with their attacks admirably. To their credit, Eibar managed to put together some promising breaks, often getting down the flanks and posing Piqué and Bartra problems with balls into the box. Perhaps the lack of full-pitch pressing from Barça against such a relative minnow could be construed as rather worrying, but the fairer verdict would be to praise Barça for another assured and composed display.
Of course, the big problem with a reactive strategy, particularly when used by an underdog, is that you’re handing the initiative to the other team. When they’re much better than you man for man, it doesn’t really matter how many defenders you put between them and the goal. If you let the other team attack for ninety minutes, they’ll find a way through eventually – and if they’re as good as Barça, sooner rather than later.
Barça didn’t really create much in the first twenty minutes or so – a few chances to make chances, but nothing more – but once the players had found their rhythm and worked out where the useful spaces were developing, they looked more dangerous. Rakitić and Rafinha started to break beyond the Eibar midfield and link up with Suárez, and almost instantly broke Eibar down.
If the most exhilarating moment of the first half was Messi’s marathon slalom through the centre of the pitch, the most decisive came shortly afterwards when Neymar drove into the centre from the left, slipped a short forward pass to Rakitić, who then laid off for Suárez, who then touched to Messi, who then won a penalty with a shot that hit the outstretched hand of Borja Ekiza.
It was a spectacular interchange: a move that tore apart Eibar’s expertly organised collective and arrived at exactly the right time in the match. Messi buried the penalty and Barça were ahead. In truth, it wasn’t a great spot-kick – goalkeeper Jaime Jiménez could possibly have saved it – and it still feels hard to place total confidence in Messi from the spot, but he got the job done here.
Now that Eibar were obliged to come out and play a bit more, the game opened up and Barça had more space to work with. It never quite became end-to-end, but the midfield was noticeably more frenetic, Suárez and Neymar looked livelier and Messi was everywhere. The tactical battle didn’t change, and Barça still found it hard to create clear scoring chances due to Eibar’s defensive formation, but they looked more dangerous and remained in complete control.
The second half was pretty much a non-contest. Eibar seemed to have run out of steam in the first forty-five minutes and with so much of their strategy still predicated on stopping Barça, they weren’t able to adapt their system to mount a comeback. Oddly, they played as though it were 0-0 again, standing off Barça and giving Piqué and Bartra time to make the first pass, over and over again.
Such passivity at one of the pitch is permissible if the other end is impregnable, but Eibar’s soft belly was routinely exposed, and the manner in which Messi’s second goal arrived was embarrassing. It’s completely acceptable to concede a goal to Messi if you make him work to score it, but giving him a free header from a corner is unforgivable, and Garitano will be furious that such a soft goal was conceded in a game he had declared one of utmost importance.
See Messi's second goal here: https://streamable.com/5nx6
The two-goal lead established, Luis Enrique set about further preserving his key players for the Manchester City and Real Madrid games. Rakitić came off for Xavi on 63 minutes and seven later Pedro replaced Neymar. It was slightly surprising to see Messi and Suárez complete 90 minutes but really none of the remaining substitutes would have made suitable replacements.
From that point, Barça were content to play out the game without scoring any more goals. Sergi Roberto, Xavi and Rafinha kept things simple and played conservative positional games, rarely moving up in support of the forwards, who necessarily dribbled more and took more risks to compesneate for their lack of support.
It was too little too late, but Eibar finally tried to get back into the game during this period, committing more men forward and putting Barça’s defenders under more pressure when they had the ball. While it would have been good to see Eibar push Barça, they had neither the stamina nor the quality to make a fist of it. It more-or-less fizzled out into an open training session for Barça’s second string.
Luis Enrique will be pleased with what was undeniably a professional and motivated performance – one that more than deserved the three points. Of course, the bigger tests lie ahead this week, and Manchester City and Real Madrid will be exponentially harder to play against than Eibar were here.