Winning is a cure all, and Barcelona got two big ones this week thanks to the next men up on the roster who are officially new weapons at manager Ronald Koeman’s disposal.
Although concerns continue to grow around defensive injuries, Barca reminded themselves that a dominant offense can provide needed cover, putting four goals past their last two opponents, and earning two shutouts. Martin Braithwaite in particular has surprised by taking advantage of his first starts under manager Ronald Koeman, scoring three goals, and elevating the level of play of the players around him.
Against Dynamo Kiev, the team looked risk averse to start the game, which was understandable given the new faces in the line up, and the comfortable lead in the standings. But once the tempo picked up in the second half, Barcelona were reminded of their superior talent, and the value of being aggressive and direct.
It was a team effort for sure, but the impact of Braithwaite should not be discounted.
The first goal was, first and foremost, an incredible bit of determination from Sergiño Dest, and skill from Pedri, as they linked up in the final third, looking to break down a stubborn defense. The goal isn’t scored, however, without the presence of a center forward who knows his way around the box. Braithwaite peeled out and brought the defenders with him, Dest continued his run, and two of them combined to ignite a team in desperate need of life.
Just five minutes later, the Dane showed again his instinct in front of goal by converting a corner kick at the back post off a flick from Oscar Mingueza, who was also involved in the first one.
After that, Barcelona was locked in, and pressing for more goals. Jordi Alba received a clever ball over the top from Carles Aleñá, and found Braithwaite breaking forward, leaving a defender chasing his heals. The Dane not only earned the penalty, but had the confidence as a natural goalscorer to step up to the spot and convert.
Going into the game against Osasuna, in spite of his breakthrough performance, it was surprising to see Koeman reward Braithwaite with another start, choosing him over the in-form Ousmane Dembele. In large part, it’s because the experiment needed to continue.
What’s the true value of a number nine? When you have two of the most skilled players in the world in Messi and Griezmann, it’s tempting to think that a false nine can get the job done. This season, however, we’ve learned it doesn’t always yield goals, but Braithwaite has revealed that using him there creates problems for defenses, resulting in opportunities for himself and teammates.
On Sunday, his goal wasn’t pretty, and it didn’t have to be. His value is in being in the right place at the right time, and when you have full-backs in Alba and Dest who are eager to provide service, there’s going to be garbage to collect. It’s been encouraging to see increased intent to get the ball in the box, but it only works with the presence of a forward who knows how to navigate it.
Barcelona should be assured this week knowing that they have depth, and more options than they have given themself credit for. The nice thing about experimenting with new players is seeing the way their additions affect everyone else.
It’s no coincidence that Griezmann and Messi looked so lively and creative. Martin Braithwaite may not be a superstar himself, but he can help his team-mates return to their best form. Necessity is the mother of invention, and in this case injuries created the need for Koeman to experiment, and if this last week was an indicator, it looks like in Braithwaite and other rarely used players, he has some good options going forward.