As far as 4-0 wins go, Barcelona’s midweek victory over Almería was as close to a non-event as it gets. Their performance was perfectly creditable and there was a fair bit to admire about certain aspects of it, but given the lack of interest shown by their opponents it’s impossible to say that it was a great performance or that it proves they’re back to their best.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Almería boss Sergi Barjuán threw the game, but his reasons for doing so were valid. With a relegation battle on his hands and very winnable matches against Granada, Rayo Vallecano and Eibar immediately following this one, it made sense for him to save his best players for occasions on which three points are very much available.
Consequently, even though only one of his regulars was unavailable – the suspended Verza – Barjuán made wholesale changes and fielded a barely recognisable starting eleven. As soon as Barça saw the teamsheet, they must have known three points were in the bag. If it wasn’t obvious then, it became pretty clear soon after the kick-off. One team wanted to win, the other one wanted the match to end so they could go home.
Barça also rested some key players – Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta and Neymar – but nonetheless they fielded a very strong eleven, playing with a familiar swagger and pressing with a higher degree of intensity than we have seen in recent weeks. It was admittedly easy to hurry such disinterested opponents off the ball, but the fact that the average Almería moves ended after three passes is impressive all the same.
Almería’s default strategy was to let Barça have the ball, hold a high line and try to prevent them playing forwards. It was a pretty dismal failure. Barça have struggled against this sort of setup in the past but it needs to be applied with ferocity and each individual needs to give everything to stop Barça having space and time to pick passes. No Almería player came close to giving 100% and therefore Luis Enrique’s men found it extremely easy.
Barça’s tempo was set by Xavi, who clearly relished the chance to roll back the years against an obliging opponent. The soon-to-depart midfielder was at the heart of everything good about Barça, constantly showing for the ball and almost always using it correctly (giving it to Messi). Xavi recorded 110 touches of the ball in this game – it’s hard to imagine any other 35 year-old being that central to a competitive game at this level.
That said, it was only technically a competitive game. The contrast between the forward passing maps from this game and the Celta Vigo game say it all. While Barça struggled to play in the previous game because of the aggression shown by Celta, only completing 77% of their forward passes, Almería put up pretty much no resistance, allowing Barça to complete 90% of their forward passes without breaking a sweat.
Even though Barça were in complete control for the entirety of the game, they found it hard to create scoring chances for some time. They knew exactly how to get around Almería’s narrow but high-line – they repeatedly switched the ball from one flank to the other, where there was always a Barça player in space – but this focus on wing play meant that they usually arrived in the final third with a cross into the box their only real option. As we well know, Barça and crosses don’t mix well. Almería’s strategy, however stupid and flawed, nearly worked.
The reason it didn’t work because one of the players repeatedly receiving switches and diagonal passes in loads of space was Lionel Messi, and leaving Messi with that much time to play will always cost you eventually. Within the first minute he had taken the ball with acres of space to play on the right flank, and it happened again and again and again throughout the match. I considered taking a screengrab of every example of this but it would have made the write-up unreadably long, so here’s every example from the first 20 minutes instead.
Truth be told, Messi didn’t have a particularly good game by his standards. He curled in a glorious opener after Almería left him wide open on the right one time too many, but otherwise he gave the ball away repeatedly, too often trying the most difficult pass available seemingly just because he could. It’s tempting to say that he detected his opponents’ apathy and decided it was a night to mess around – there seems to be no other explanation for him putting in a performance as strange as this one.
Speaking of strange performances, it’s pretty hard to remember another goalkeeper kicking the ball out of play as often as Julián did in this game. One of the reasons Almería struggled so much to get out of their half was that their keeper kept surrendering possession with horrendous kicking. They clearly had a plan to exploit Dani Alves’ weakness in the air, but Julián’s kicks into that zone were almost always too long.
Having gone behind to Messi’s wondergoal as a consequence of allowing him the freedom of the right flank, Almería decided to extend the same courtesy to Luis Suárez at the start of the second half. The Uruguayan’s goal was certainly eye-catching and his finish was undeniably exquisite, but what the visitors were doing letting him score from this situation is anyone’s guess. Despite easily having the numbers to crowd him out, they didn’t bother at all.
From that point on the match was dead. Almería made next to no effort to attack and Barça moved the ball back and forth in front of them, patiently looking for openings and conserving their energy. Marc Bartra added a third from a corner, keeping up Barça’s recent good run of scoring from set-pieces, and Suárez added a fourth in stoppage time. Both goals were further embarrassments to Almería, whose defending on both occasions can charitably be described as lazy.
Yet again, Luis Enrique made good substitutions. Dani Alves and Ivan Rakitić will be needed for the sterner tests ahead and both were withdrawn with plenty of time left on the clock, to be replaced by Martín Montoya and Rafinha respectively. Perhaps if we were being hyper-critical we could say Messi or Suárez should have come off too, especially with Neymar so desperate for a goal at the moment, but that’s a minor issue.
This was one of the easiest games that Barça will play all season, but that doesn’t mean every positive from the game should be entirely discounted. As well as all of those mentioned above, Sergi Roberto gave another excellent performance in the pivote role. His emergence as a reliable backup for Busquets, at least until Samper comes through, is a welcome surprise. Luis Enrique will know that tougher tests lie ahead in the coming weeks, but this would still have been a very satisfying day at the office for him.