In a stunning night of football, Athletic Bilbao beat defending champions Barcelona on the opening day of La Liga.
The victory came courtesy of an 89th minute wondergoal after something of a stalemate. What did we learn?
1. Aduriz The Ageless
Aritz Aduriz is 38-years-old and as a result cannot play all that much. He came off the bench with two minutes plus stoppage time left to play. The idea was obviously just for him to hold the ball up and preserve Athletic’s draw, and maybe cause Barcelona some trouble in the air if he could, but primarily they wanted his leadership and sense of calm.
Here’s the thing, Aduriz is not your typical veteran. Here is a striker who turned 30 with just 54 goals to his name. Since the milestone which usually signals a players’ decline, however, Aduriz has hammered home a ludicrous 159 goals. He has gotten unquestionably better with age and in this, his final season, he has started things off in the most perfect of ways.
Aritz Aduriz's game by numbers vs. Barcelona:
3 minutes played
1 aerial duel won
Match winner. pic.twitter.com/h68gJxYR7K
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 16, 2019
Again, he came on with just two minutes left plus stoppages. This was not a change to try and win the game, but guess what? When right-back Capa sent a deep cross into the Barcelona box, Aduriz wasn’t thinking of controlling it and killing some time. He contorted his body into an absurd shape for someone his age and rattled in a stunning, staggering and sumptuous strike. An overhead bicycle kick to smash into the back of the net and defeat La Liga’s defending Champions on the opening night just one minute after coming on.
If this season is his farewell tour then Aduriz has begun it with one hell of a bang. Take a (first of several) bow!
2. The winds of change
One of the biggest criticisms of Ernesto Valverde’s time in charge of Barcelona was his unwillingness to rotate and rest his star players. No matter how many minutes these key men had in their legs, Valverde would put them into the side. The main beneficiaries of this were Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suárez, but even Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba were almost comical in their ever-presence.
But lo and behold Valverde began La Liga playing one of his most difficult away games without Ivan Rakitic and even Sergio Busquets. He started an incredible midfield of Frenkie de Jong, Sergi Roberto and Carles Aleña. Then Luis Suárez picked up a calf injury midway through the first half and had to be subbed off for Rafinha. It felt like the winds of change had come to Barcelona.
Now, alright, he withdrew Aleña at the half for Rakitic but that’s why it’s only the winds of change and not a full blown storm of revolution. But things are changing at the Camp Nou. Slowly, sure, but there are signs that Ernesto Valverde is learning from his mistakes.
3. Iñaki to the nines
Earlier this week Iñaki Williams signed a staggering nine year contract at Athletic Bilbao. The deal sees the Basque forward tied to his hometown club until 2028, unless someone wants to bid his €135m release clause that is. Renewing Williams amid interest from some European heavyweights (chiefly Manchester United) but tonight’s game showed what he can produce, but also why committing so much time and you’d imagine money to a player like him is a big risk.
In the first half, Iñaki looked like he could hurt Barcelona every time he touched the ball. Possessing terrifying speed and fantastic instincts, Williams terrorised Barcelona. His runs in behind were well-timed and he was a sublime outlet for an aggressive Athletic who were the better side in the game’s opening period. But after the break, with his side playing a more withdrawn style, we saw the limitations of Iñaki Williams. As a forward who functions so well off the ball, if Athletic aren’t playing aggressively then he can drift to the margins of the game and vanish – and when you’ve committed so much towards him – that’s a real problem.
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4. Barcelona need a forward
Barcelona signed Antoine Griezmann for €120m yet tonight’s game really laid bare the fact that they still need another forward. Despite the colossal outlays on Griezmann and his compatriot Ousmane Dembélé, the Blaugrana still found themselves having to turn to old squaddie Rafinha and untested youngster Carles Perez at the San Mamés.
Alright this whole situation was caused because Leo Messi is injured, and Luis Suárez got injured during the game… but both men are 32 years old and Suárez in particular plays at 100mph so injuries are going to be a common theme of his career from this point. Having those two be half of the strikeforce when you have three starting positions to fill is shockingly negligent.
So a forward is needed. That needn’t have been the case but the club sold the bright Brazilian Malcom this summer for some reason. Perhaps the pursuit of Neymar isn’t just chasing a market opportunity but filling a massive need in the squad.
Watching Barcelona without Leo Messi and Sergio Busquets can often be an alien experience because they don’t really look like Barcelona, but some sort of terrible tribute band made up a bunch of really sad dad plus one of their nephews who can really play. Even tonight with Frenkie de Jong looking supremely confident, composed and adapted in the middle of the park, the Blaugrana were still slow and sluggish. The ball didn’t move with the authority it should have done, especially in the final third.
New signing Antoine Griezmann was almost criminally isolated in the second half, barely seeing the ball as the midfielders popped it around inoffensively, never possessing the kind of guile that Messi does to open up even the most stubborn of back-lines nor the ruthless control over tempo that Busquets has which forces Barcelona to play so intensely on the front foot that chances are inevitable.
Whatever else happens with this season going forward, Barcelona need to have Messi and Busquets in the side for the big games – otherwise they will be in for many more rude awakenings like the one they just received in the Basque Country.