Barcelona’s unbeaten start to 2023 came to an end on Thursday as the Blaugrana bid farewell to European football this season thanks to a 2-1 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford. After dominating the first half the Blaugrana allowed the home team to come back and couldn’t create enough offense to find a late equalizer, and have been eliminated from the Europa League for the second straight season.
Here are the winners and losers from Thursday’s action.
Note: Applying the labels “winners” and “losers” is not intended to be a judgment on the talent or character of any of these players. It’s just a simple way to grade their performance in a single game. No disrespect is intended.
Frenkie De Jong: United fans dreamed of watching Frenkie at Old Trafford all of last summer, and tonight they got see why Erik Ten Hag wanted the Dutchman so badly. Frenkie was sublime in the first half, solving every problem that came his way and always making quick decisions to beat the United press. He was at fault on Fred’s equalizer as he didn’t close the space on the Brazilian fast enough to affect his shot, but he responded well to that mistake and was one of the only Barça players with enough clarity to try and create a chance late in the game.
Jules Kounde: After a few shaky performances in the last couple of weeks the Frenchman rebounded well tonight, facing Marcus Rashford directly in the first 60 minutes and pretty much shutting down United’s biggest weapon. Ronald Araujo and Andreas Christensen offered help behind him and also deserve credit for their excellent performances on the night, but Kounde was the primary defender on the other team’s best player and more than held his own.
Franck Kessie: Another rebound performance from a player who struggled at the weekend. Kessie was arguably Barça’s best player in the first half, with incredible intensity in his high pressing, constant runs into space to offer passing options to his teammates, and great movements into the box that broke lines and created chances. He could have given up on his Barça career and returned to Italy in January, but the Ivorian kept fighting for his place and is now an important part of the team.
Xavi Hernández: Another big European night, another huge letdown from the Barça coach. These are now routine, and extremely frustrating. He does deserve credit for the first half plan that stopped United’s best attacking players and provided a strong attacking platform with full domination of midfield and great high pressing. But everyone knew at halftime that United would amp up the intensity and probably score a goal, and everyone wanted to know if Xavi would finally rise to the occassion and push the right buttons to avoid a second half collapse.
Instead, we got more of the same. An early goal because of bad defending followed by head-scratching, desperate substitutions that don’t answer the questions being asked by the opposition, and a general fear of conceding more goals when the team is already being eliminated and has nothing to lose but isn’t given enough attacking weapons to try and create chances late.
Xavi had the perfect excuse tonight with Pedri, Gavi and Ousmane Dembélé out. All he needed to do was try his best with what was available, and make sound decisions if things went wrong in the second half. Yet he made the wrong calls again, and the obsession with Marcos Alonso in the biggest games just doesn’t make any sense. He might be great in La Liga against mostly mediocre teams, but Xavi is proving time and time again that the big leagues might be too big for him.
Marcos Alonso: It’s not Alonso’s fault. He was handpicked by Xavi Hernández, and the coach will continue to try and prove a point by using a player who has no business being on the pitch in big European games. His 10-minute substitute cameo was an absolute disaster as he was brought on seemingly for the reason he’s a better passer than Ronald Araujo and could make dangerous passes and crosses into the box, but he missed every single thing he tried and ruined a couple of promising moves. Once again, Alonso is not the one to blame. It’s about who wanted him.
Ansu Fati: I’ve always been a massive fan of the young man and thought he had a real chance of becoming a great Barcelona player who would be a foundational piece for the next decade-plus. But the two major injuries he suffered have clearly destroyed his confidence, and Ansu looks like a shell of his incredibly promising self. I’m sad to see who Fati has become, but it’s time to seriously consider a future without him.