Barça’s 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao was an interesting game, and an exciting one to watch. It was a rainy night at the San Mamés, a night when Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez weren’t at the top of their games, missing several chances to score. Their defense was having some trouble with the high pressure Athletic Bilbao were playing with, and Barça’s midfield had to help break the pressure. Arda Turan lifted a cross into the box for Ivan Rakitić to head home, and Barcelona left the stadium full of 50,000 fans with an away victory. But that wasn’t the biggest statement made on Sunday night. That would be the play of Marc-André ter Stegen.
Some of the things he does out on the field leave us shaking our heads, and I’ll admit sometimes they make me nervous, but he’s proven his quality, and not just at making saves. He’s skilled with his feet and a very good passer. In fact, he broke a record against Bilbao that had stood for nearly ten years:
Something Ter Stegen clearly has no shortage of is confidence. In fact, he had more touches (77) than Messi (72) or Sergio Busquets (67). He made several passes that seemed tough in tight spaces where the Bilbao press was advancing towards him. Some of the passes and moves he made with the ball seemed almost irresponsible.
That’s all right. With a player like ter Stegen, you need to let him do what he does best. His boldness in attempting the difficult pass led to several counter attacks, and when the defense was in trouble, Gerard Piqué and Samuel Umtiti had him open to release that pressure. He took his time with the ball, as opposed to some other keepers who just launch the ball away to get it out of their area. This is the part that makes me nervous. Sometimes, he’ll hold the ball until the defender is almost upon him, appearing to take risks with tricky passes too often. However, his risks are calculated, and he’s skilled enough to shift the ball around to give him all the time he needs.
Often, ter Stegen completely bypassed the Bilbao pressure and fired a long ball to Jordi Alba or Sergi Roberto, who were able to take advantage of the advanced positions taken by the Bilbao players and begin to attack on the break. With virtually half the team behind the ball, Barça could enjoy a numbers advantage and push up quickly, putting pressure on the Athletic defense. Notice how many balls he lifted over the defense to the wing, from where the midfield was able to generate some possession:
Ter Stegen became the 1st GK completed more than 50 passes in La Liga since the season 2005/2006. pic.twitter.com/vIy5h6m7E7
— The Catalan Giant (@TheCataIanGiant) August 28, 2016
A common defense opponents have employed against Barcelona since the Pep Guardiola days is the high press. They put the defense in positions that make them uncomfortable. The point is to keep Barcelona bottled up in their own half for as long as possible. After all, they can’t score if they can’t get near the goal. And as we’ve seen sometimes in the past, Barça’s defense is prone to slipping up and giving the ball away in positions close to the goal. If the defense can steal the ball close to Barça’s area, they might grab a goal to possibly win the match.
Bilbao is a talented, athletic team that has the personnel to do that. Iñaki Williams, Aritz Aduriz, and Markel Susaeta kept the pressure on Ter Stegen all game long, as well as Iker Muniain when he was subbed on in the second half. They were well-organized and consistent, but they didn’t have any real chances to score from open play. Ter Stegen made sure that the ball moved from side to side quickly and on target, effectively neutralizing Bilbao’s entire strategy. The high press is nothing new to Barcelona, but not in many years have they had a keeper skilled enough to render it useless against them.
Of course, ter Stegen is not perfect, but apart from his footwork, he has quick reflexes and a firm hand. Sometimes even a firm face:
When he does give the ball away, he has the skills to make a great number of saves, and at just 24 years old, he’s already one of the best young keepers in the world. With the move to Manchester City of Claudio Bravo, ter Stegen is the undisputed number one now, which will give him more playing time and opportunity to improve.
Against Bilbao, the team squandered many opportunities, maybe due to the rain, maybe because they were just off. Usually, Barça are much more clinical and ruthless in their finishing. Imagine if they had finished just one of the 8 chances created off one of his passes. Ter Stegen’s vision becomes even scarier when Neymar returns to the team. How many Barça keepers have done this recently?
So yes, ter Stegen does seem to have a surplus of confidence at times. At times he can make questionable decisions with the ball at his feet and put the team in unnecessary risky situations, but to have him, we’ve got to take him as he is. Sure, he’s crazy, but when the defense pushes up – and push up it will – it might be ter Stegen who takes us to new heights.