As much as today’s victory was a monumental team effort, make no mistake; Luis Enrique deserves all the plaudits for achieving what he has with all the pressure that following in Pep Guardiola’s footsteps comes with. With today’s win at the San Mames, Lucho became the fastest ever coach to reach a hundred victories in charge, surpassing the now Manchester City boss’s records in both Barcelona and Munich. This game typified exactly how far he’s come from his first game in charge, making this team his own.
The best way to understand why this team is different from his teams in the previous two seasons is to notice that the poorest players, relatively at least, against Athletic Club, were Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, the current two best players in the world in this writer’s humble opinion. Lucho’s Barca went to one of the most difficult away stadiums in Spain, had their two best players misfiring and were without their third, yet still managed to contain and beat an enthusiastic and dangerous Bilbao team comfortably. That is a coach’s doing more than anything else.
Bilbao’s infamous pressing was obvious from the offset, as our new no.1 had a few nervy moments early on, but for the most part he kept his cool to act as the first line of offense. As much as we will miss Bravo, Ter Stegen showed today just how valuable his skill set can be, and his regular playtime will be like a new signing of sorts.
Ter Stegen’s comfort in possession meant that both Pique and Umtiti had an extra option to help them out whenever they needed as well. The former misplaced a few clearances here and there but on the whole their partnership was solid. Umtiti, in particular, had Aduriz in his pocket, and the fact that one of Athletic’s three major chances came from a free-kick conceded by Mascherano, because he failed to reach a header, means that the Frenchman may have a major role to play this season.
On the right side of the defense, Sergi Roberto continued to ensure that Aleix Vidal continues spending a lot more time on the bench this season. His awareness and intelligence both on and off the ball allows Rakitic to do as he pleases, free off the shackles Dani Alves’s runs imposed on him. Our new right-back was always available to receive the ball on the right and knew when to pass the ball and when to dribble into the middle of the field. Lucho unearthed a gem last season and he’s polishing it this season; another almost flawless performance.
Unlike most games last season, midfield was where Barca impressed most today. Ivan Rakitic had his most complete game in a Blaugrana shirt to date. He didn’t put a foot wrong, was all over the pitch creating chances and scored the only goal of the game. It’s going to be really interesting thing seeing him do what he does best this season, and not have to worry about defending.
Denis, like Sergi Roberto, continues to impress and show why Lucho wanted him back this season. His link-up play with Jordi Alba was excellent and he managed to get himself out of a few tight spots with his dribbling. He may turn out to be the signing of the season if he continues in this vein of form, fingers crossed of course.
Arda, finally, also continued to impress and made sure that while Neymar’s pace and dribbling ability may have been missed in a high-pressure game like yesterday’s, he was always available and ensured that he had a final say in the result as well, providing a wonderful cross for Rakitic to poke in. Ney will definitely have some competition for that left wing spot.
All-in-all, Athletic Bilbao only had 3 major chances in the game, which is at least half of the amount of shots that Suarez managed to place into the stands. Lucho knows what he’s doing, and if these first few games are anything to go by this season is shaping up to be more exciting than any other in recent history.