In a ferocious night of football, 10-man Barcelona battled to a 1-1 draw with Athletic Bilbao in San Mames.
The legendary stadium hosted its first home game with fans since the pandemic began and the Athletic faithful were treated to a simply phenomenal opening 30 minutes where Athletic had more than double the shots of the Blaugrana and they should have been miles ahead.
For Barcelona, you could not pick a worse game for your first away trip of the season when you can no longer call on the magic of Leo Messi. And for the majority of the game, but those first 30 minutes in particular, the Blaugrana looked like every culer’s worst nightmare for a post-Messi side.
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They couldn’t negotiate the Athletic press to save their lives (save one magical moment from Memphis Depay that led to a truly inexplicable miss from Martin Braithwaite), their midfield was overwhelmed and Eric Garcia in particular was being given a really rough ride by the Athletic attack.
And although the waves of Athletic’s attack lessened in ferocity once Araujo came onto the pitch to put in yet another towering defensive display, they were still looking more dangerous than the Blaugrana and did in fact take the lead at the start of the second-half when Inigo Martinez escaped Eric Garcia to wonderfully head home Iker Muniain’s corner.
After the joys of their opening day win against Real Sociedad, this looked like a side being brought back down to earth with a resounding thump. And yet in the fires of San Mames, with harsh truths being exposed and a few tweaks being made, Barcelona managed to earn themselves a point but more impressively forge themselves a new side. A new direction.
Gerard Piqué was withdrawn on the half hour having picked up a knock. He was a fitness doubt coming into the game but still completed a ridiculous 8 clearances in 30 minutes of play. He wasn’t bad, by any stretch of the imagination, but the limitations imposed by his declining physical mobility (exacerbated by Eric Garcia’s physical frailty) meant that Barcelona had no recourse to Athletic’s aggression.
Ronald Araujo isn’t as refined a passer as Piqué, for sure, but he is a much more dynamic athlete than the Catalan has ever been. And when he came on, Barcelona were able to handle the Athletic physicality with greater ease and because of the security provided by Araujo’s recovery pace, they could push up a bit higher and actually take some risks in attack.
This was perhaps best seen where Araujo got back to clear the ball off the line following Garcia and Neto’s mix-up. Or when Araujo scored an overhead kick at the very end of the first-half that was ruled out for reasons which have yet to be adequately explained. It was an absolutely colossal display from the Uruguayan, especially when you consider how much Garcia struggled.
And those struggles made it clear that as well as game time, Garcia badly needs to work in the gym to bulk up – his inability to win even simple 50/50’s is a glaring weakness other teams will exploit more ruthlessly than Athletic. But Araujo? He shone. He literally made Barcelona defensively solid (Athletic had 7 shots for the hour he was on the pitch compared to 6 in the 30 he missed) with merely his presence; his performance then helped them be potent.
Ronald Araujo, not Gerard Piqué, is now the most important centre-back at FC Barcelona and must be the first name on the team-sheet.
In good news, the midfield functioned well. Frenkie De Jong was absolutely incredible, matching Athletic’s energy while producing liquid quality on the ball, while Pedri and Sergio Busquets were also really good and even Sergi Roberto added some useful energy off the bench.
However the attack was just as dysfunctional as the defence. Memphis Depay excelled pretty much all game, running the front-line by himself, but his two strike partners were charitably less than useful. Memphis’ excellence early on should have given Braithwaite his third goal in two games but the Dane blazed over and did absolutely nothing all game after that. While Antoine Griezmann… well if you’ve watching him at Barcelona then you can figure out how he played.
But again, even here Barcelona figured themselves out. It’s Memphis, not Griezmann, who is emerging as the team’s post-Messi talisman. His chemistry with Frenkie De Jong is supreme, his links with Jordi Alba are improving. It’s clear people trust him and from the thundering nature of his equalising goal you can see why. He could (should?) have even scored the winner late on. The attack must now pivot around Memphis, chemistry with him is essential.
And Braithwaite’s poor performance highlighted just how important Ansu Fati still is to Barcelona and how his return is oh so necessary. Yes we all liked Braithwaite’s turn against La Real but he is not up to standard. Tonight the Dane was subbed off for 18 year-old Yusuf Demir, and the teenager he showed a confidence and ability that puts him above the Dane in the pecking order when the game is going to be ferocious like this one. Demir had that ice in his veins and always seemed able to find time.
Antoine Griezmann defended well. He was largely anonymous in attack but Barcelona just have to hope that it will click for him at some point. Maybe Demir playing more or the return of Ansu will awaken Griezmann’s top level in a Barcelona shirt? Who knows. But Memphis, Griezmann and Demir must be the starting attack in big games until Ansu returns. No more Braithwaite.
Finally, Athletic’s press would not have been nearly as successful as it was were it not for Neto being so poor in goal. The Brazilian is a decent shot stopper but is too timid coming off his line and his passing from the back is just shocking. Athletic squeezed the Blaugrana repeatedly whenever Neto was in possession, knowing he could do little with it. This highlights the importance of Marc-André Ter Stegen’s return, sure, but also that Neto’s reputation doesn’t make him a better fit to be Barcelona’s back-up than, say, Inaki Pena or Arnau Tenas.
So Barcelona didn’t play well at San Mames, sure. They struggled in the first-half and looked about as bad as one can. However they showed their resilience, both physical and mental. Athletic bent them but didn’t break them. Some harsh truths were exposed and changes will need to be made, but if Ronald Koeman learned his lessons, then the blueprint for the rest of the season was written across the San Mames pitch.