Match Review: FC Barcelona vs Athletic Bilbao

Eneko Boveda (Athletic Bilbao) and Neymar (FC Barcelona)AFP

And so 2017 has begun. What was meant to be a promising start to the season has now become a rather interesting start to the season. Let us make one thing very clear: this match is not, and was not, doomsday. The truth is, there is still a second leg to be played at Camp Nou, where an MSN explosion is likely. However, this match exposed weaknesses and chinks in Luis Enrique’s armour that have existed since last season’s UEFA Champions League Quarter Final.

Once again a great defensive outfit has managed to lock Lucho’s men in their own half. Once again, Sergio Busquets has looked drowned under pressure, albeit, after a very solid stretch of performances. Those of us who thought this was all coincidence, now is the time to take note:

There is a system that has been created and almost perfected, to stop the MSN, in other words, our team. This is a very simple system:

Suffocate them to death

This system entails pressing every member of our side, goalkeeper included, ensuring the ball rarely leaves our own half. This does not mean we will never leave our half, just that when we do, it is with almost no momentum and makes our attacks less potent.

Granted, Lucho’s men most probably should have been 2-0 up by the 19th minute. Were this the case, the entire game most probably would have followed a different path. However, this was not the case, and a cat and mouse game of “what if’s”, “should have’s” and “could have’s” is a losers mentality.

The goals conceded were of the most disturbing variety. Where does one even begin to explain them? Nevertheless, this writer will try.

The first goal conceded was symbolic of longstanding issues Luis Enrique has still not figured out. Though one has to give respect where it is due, one must also critique worrying tactical performance. Andrés Iniesta should not be subject to having to play such risky passes to begin with, as his skill-set does not lie in bringing the ball out of defence. This is Busquets’ role; one which it seems Luis Enrique has left him to drown in. Ivan Rakitić has come under some fire lately, for some not-so-Ivan Rakitić performances. Most of the criticism has been unjust and disrespectful to a man who has given this club a treble of trophies, and some change. Not to mention, he had the boots of a mystical figure to fill, and for the most part, he has done so superbly. This writer’s initial inkling was to criticize Rakitić’s inability to provide Busquets with the needed support to successfully navigate situations of high pressure. However, the situation has now gone beyond being just Rakitić’s problem – this skillset was never possessed by Ivan, to begin with. This is now a bigger issue that has not been addressed by Luis Enrique. Lucho has provided great cover for his men in midfield to allow for rotation, however, Lucho has also not addressed critical issues that arose in last season’s UEFA Champions League Quarter Final tie against Atletico Madrid, our only failure of last season. Lucho’s men simply do not have a solution for relentless high pressing that is executed to perfection.

Ernesto Valverde and Diego Simeone are not scared of a single player in our side who is not Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez or Neymar. Their way of dealing with them is indirect. Relentlessly press every single player and completely suffocate the ball to be kept in Barça’s half of the pitch- this will ensure that when the ball does leave Barça’s half, it will be with little momentum. Do this especially in the first 40 minutes of the game, and a goal, coming from a mistake from the Barça midfield is surely inevitable. Valverde and Simeone have not reinvented the wheel. This tactic has been used for years against Barça sides, however, it has become increasingly effective as there is no Xavi Hernández to find his way around it. Xavi offered the perfect support to Sergi Busquets to navigate these situations. Our playmaker at the time, Iniesta, was never tasked to take this role. And as he now has been tasked with this role, each and every time he has been up against great defensive sides, he has understandably struggled to evade their pressure. How fitting that it was his loose pass which led to the first goal.

The second goal was even more of a blunder, and fits the narrative manager’s such as Valverde and Simeone surely discuss with their men in the pre-match changeroom speech. Something that most probably sounds a lot like this:

Boys, today is our chance. We’re playing in front of our home crowd, and we know how much Barça struggles against hostile crowds. The objective today is simple: PRESS PRESS PRESS every player on the pitch, especially the midfielders and defenders, but also don’t forget Ter Stegen! If we do this perfectly, eventually they will make a mistake or a loose pass, and when that happens, you know what to do boys! Exactly like how we practiced all week- get the ball wide, put in a cross, and Aduriz will finish it off. Boys, I can promise you that if we can get a goal in the first 20 minutes, this game is ours. Let’s go!

It is important to remember that it is still early January. We did manage to get a goal back in the second half, and this sets us up for a cracker second leg at Camp Nou. It is likely that this game will not prove pivotal, however, what is worrying is that a precedent of how to beat Lucho’s men has been set. These type of performances will not be reproduced weekly by our opposition, as they require much nuance and attention to detail. However, what surely is inevitable, is that this Barça side will run into similar opposition in March, April and May in European competition, and if no solutions have been found by then, Lucho may be in serious trouble come June.

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  • Peter Tinkler

    An accurate evaluation and an enjoyable read.

  • Kneowell Anyanwu

    Is lucho not out yet? Can’t wait to see that coach who won’t suffer same with the barca philosophy of building from the back, pep suffered it even with xavi, I vividly remember some of those games.
    What this writer ignores to state is that we have won many of such games too when our boys gives just as much performance (and more) like the opposition.

  • Nana Kwame Koranteng

    Sack this guy…he is clueless it is only a bad coach who would bank on sergi roberto as a right back, now the board will see how important alves was….I just want LE out he should just go….

  • Nana Kwame Koranteng

    All this money spent and no better right back in the team at least even try the other left back there

    • Kneowell Anyanwu

      In as much as we need a RB, but that isn’t the summary of our problem, roberto has not only survived buit thrived at that position considering he is a midfielder, there are a very few RBs in the world that can play that position the way sergi plays it for barca, he hasn’t made more mistakes than an Alves would have made, sergi is so good he benched Alves some part of last season. Vidal was supposed to replace alves but roberto is every inch better than he is. We all knew Alves was important, so did the board, but he isn’t gonna be here forever is he? Plus the coach has also been on the look out for a RB since vidal failed to impress, cancello of valencia is been considered, these things take time, they don’t happen overnight. But give sergi all the credit he deserves, even if Lucho leaves this minute, roberto has made that position impossible to hand to just anybody, if we don’t get one better than him this january, sergi will remain there all season long even if LE is sacked.

  • Jason Rodriguez

    This year’s team has failed to find the momentum it should already of had going!
    I think the only great game this season, where Barca played like Barca, was that 7-1 game against Celtic! Oh, and that last one where Arda had that hat-trick! Everything else, it’s like we never got off our feet! And seriously, I think Busquets’ form has dipped, and I don’t think he should be an automatic starter anymore! Segi-Roberto was awesome last year as a mid-fielder, but not as much this year playing multiple positions!
    Arda is too important to be a sub, and Barca has looked best with him in attack! If Messi isn’t gonna occupy that Rightwing, then make him a midfielder and let Arda play in attack!

    • Jason Rodriguez

      I would line up:
      Neymar——–Suarez————Arda
      ———————Messi——————
      ———–Gomes———Rakitic———
      Alba—–Umtiti—–Pique——-Masche

      • Kneowell Anyanwu

        Interesting, but when messi is suffocated, who’ll be your next creative outlet? I’ll probably pair him with iniesta up the pitch, move mascherano further to the middle a notch to help Gomes, And readjust or centralize the position of the remaining back 3 to accommodate masherano’s movement in a make shift manner, replace Arda with Rafinha as RF as rafinha excels and scores more from there Bearing in mind that Rafinha is also far more willing to fall back and defend if need be, Arda is most effective playing Neymar’s role and we’ve seen that countless times already, he doesn’t do too well as RF

      • Pius Kamau

        Your line up is tactically faulty, there’s no natural holding midfielder and Masch as a rightback is a gamble I wouldn’t take.
        Busquets isn’t out of form, he just doesn’t suit Lucho’s technically mediocre and tactless pragmatic approach.

  • Abdallah Wuntah

    damm le fucked up today pretty badly these match could have easily been won but he made tactical errors a lot and am afraid the LE bashes might be having some point to prove i mean we are 1 down you take 1 exception midfielder in the game andres comes and replace him with an inexperience Denis i mean where do you see that done? I was expecting a Paco in these game when he took off andres i mean the ball was all over penalty box and considering how a poacher he is he could have put one of them in Suarez don’t like to make things easier for him self when he score goals so he is not that kind of player who can score such lose goals it will have been ideal to replace gomes with paco and we will have won these game simple even if we win treble these season the credit goes all to the players to be honest is not like i hate LE or something but he been found out or outdated is time now for barca to put that bullshit away and start bringing in scary coaches i agree pep also failed thats why we brought LE to solve the issue so if he cannot solve it then we have to give another coach a chance

    • Pius Kamau

      Pep “failed?”…how??

      • Abdallah Wuntah

        when i say fails i meant he was outdated that doesn’t take history away from him but facts is most of his tactics was found out thats why he left that doesnt not make him bad manager same goes to LE

        • Pius Kamau

          ..//…facts is most of his tactics was found out ..//…
          I don’t remember any team or tactician that came up with a tactical game plan to effectively nullify his Barcelona team and win a match without resorting to physical aggression, bus parking, provocation (as was so often with Mourinho), dubious refereeing decisions (eg the Bojan goal that was questionably ruled offside) that should have seen us eliminate Inter in 2010, our players (Cesc, Alexis, Pedro missing sitters), bad luck eg Messi hitting the crossbar in that penalty that should have seen us dump Chelsea out…etc
          I don’t also remember seeing one single team that outplayed us.
          This “Pep was found out” mantra is a ridiculous myth my friend.

    • Kneowell Anyanwu

      LE fucked up because we didn’t take our chances. It’s alright

  • futbolistaviva

    Give the Yellow Submarine credit as they played a tough match, very disciplined on defense and hitting on the counter with a soft goal that Ter Stegen should have stopped. Messi hit the woodwork twice, scored a brilliant free kick to save the day. Iniesta had one of his worst matches ever in a Barca shirt.
    Villareal also handled the ball twice in their penalty area and Barca should have had two penalties awarded.
    Neymar gave the ball away 11 times which is below his usual average and had two weak attempts on goal. Too bad he cannot mimic his Brazil shirt performances with Barca. Luisito was way off form, again.
    Gomes still cannot seem to fit into this side. Rakitic is a much better option although he may be off to City soon. Busquets i splaying too high a line. Digne gets forward but his service is not a good as Alba’s.
    Roberto, as much as like him is a wildly inconsistent choice at right fullback.

    Pique and Masch seemed a bit out of synch today. I like Umtiti better with Pique.

    And enough with the crying about how Enrique should be fired.

    This side needs to execute better.

    • Abdallah Wuntah

      Are you listening to your self? you just made correct statesmen yet you want LE to stay? if you have a tough away match as Villarreal you don’t bench ur key players and we all know how Villarreal are good with the ball as well. LE is not clueless but the talent on in the team is too much for him to handle there is simple too much of talent in these barca to to even play away match draw not to talk of lose we need coach who is not scared to bench key players that are not performing when there is a bad performance.

  • Jason Rodriguez

    That Villareal game was a tough match, but Barca played a great game! They didn’t get the win, but adjustments were made, we were just not lucky! TerStegen could have maybe saved that shot, Pique could have tackled earlier, or maybe Neymar could have curled his shot better! That was the only difference from a win and a draw!

  • Nana Kwame Koranteng

    Here he goes again rotating rotating without any result till now all the new midfielders haven’t played consistently to even develop some momentum yet you still rotate and Paco is on the bench cuz ur MSN is rotation free, you rotate but never does Vidal get a chance at least that’s what you have for now…I will start watching matches again if i finally see LE gone till then am not killing myself….

  • Peter Tinkler

    Another dire decision…

  • Peter Tinkler

    It should be 1-0

  • Peter Tinkler

    YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES!!!

  • Peter Tinkler

    Cross…header…goal…bah!