Barca’s La Liga opener against dark horses Athletic Club saw the Blaugranes make a worrisome start to their new campaign. While seemingly in scintillating form after four straight wins in their pre-season campaign, the Blaugranes’ world came to a crashing halt as a stunning Aritz Aduriz bicycle kick in the 89th minute silenced the Barcelona faithful. So what exactly were Barca’s downfalls that prevented them from taking home the three points? And more importantly, what can they do to change their fortunes?
Lack Of Drive Up Front
Playing with a 4-3-3 formation, Ernesto Valverde started Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele as the front three, going from left to right. Unfortunately, this entire front line seemed to be lacking the creativity needed to truly rattle the Athletic defense.
Looking at the stats, the Blaugranes maintained a colossal 72% possession. While they certainly seemed to dominate the flow of play, particularly after the break, they only managed a total of 11 shots, with just two on target. Their Basque opponents, on the other hand, managed to equal their shot total of 11, while getting five on target. These shot statistics are completely disproportionate to the general flow of play, and prove that while Athletic did what they could to get the most out of their minimal control over the game, the Blaugranes failed time and again to provide the finishing blow to a team that they should have beaten with ease following the order of proceedings.
Their attackers’ individual performances were also underwhelming. Suarez’s shot that beat the keeper yet hit the woodwork marked the extent of the Uruguayan’s impact on the game. The 2018/19 season was far from his best, and Suarez still seems to be a shadow of his former self following his brief performance on Friday night. Perhaps it’s time to allow some of Barca’s promising youngsters the opportunity to shine, particularly after showing so much hunger on the field in the pre-season.
While Griezmann’s performance also seemed to be lacking, this could mainly be put down to the fact that he was played out wide rather than in his preferred position as a center forward. This leads to the second issue, namely Valverde’s failure to play his stars in the position in which they shine the brightest.
Valverde’s Failure In Role Allocation
While perhaps placing him on the left wing due to his dominant left foot, Valverde took Griezmann out from his position where he is known to be able to cause his opponents the most damage. For 46 matches in all competitions last season, Griezmann was featured as either a center forward or a second striker. As a center forward, he racked up 17 goals and four assists, while managing four goals and five assists when slotted behind as a second striker. Not once last season did Griezmann play as a left wing. While he may have done so in his earlier career, it has become apparent that he has since evolved, and Valverde’s decision to play him out of position disregards this development.
Another player whose performance was limited by strategic choice was Frenkie de Jong. A creative midfielder, De Jong has a talent for orchestrating the midfield while also pushing forward on the attack and providing forwards with game-changing support. This was not a side of De Jong that was exhibited against Athletic, as he was mainly restricted to fulfilling the defensive-minded aspects of his game.
While Sergi Roberto may be regarded as a utility player, he has certainly shown more of an aptitude at right-back, and converted all seven of his assists last season from that position. While Semedo is a fine choice at right-back, Barca are still spoiled for choice in the center of the field, with Busquets and Rakitic having been stellar midfield options on the bench. One can’t help but think that if either of these players has started the game alongside De Jong, they could have provided him with far more room for creativity, covering his holding-mid duties while he generates some innovative movements.
Too Much Reliance On Messi
While Lionel Messi is a club legend and always will be, he cannot be expected to carry the team. While Barca have managed without Messi in the past, especially in games such as their 5-1 thrashing of Real Madrid last season and a 2-0 win over Inter in the Champions League, the Blaugranes seemed particularly uninspired without their captain on Friday night. Hopefully, this is not a sign of an over reliance on one man as the glue that holds the team together, but rather just the effects of a bad night.
With such a strong squad on paper and the potential to win big, as was seen in pre-season, Barca needs a shift in gear to show their true potential. Such a performance is unacceptable for a team of this stature, and is an unnecessary setback, particularly at the start of the season. The Blaugranes must do better.