Football Features

“Frenkie will be fine” – Five things learned as Rayo Vallecano hold 10-man Barcelona to a 0-0 draw

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:39, 13 August 2022

In an amusing night of football, Rayo Vallecano held 10-man Barcelona to a 0-0 draw at the Camp Nou.

It was Andoni Iraola’s third straight clean sheet against the Catalan side as Rayo boss, having won both of last season’s games 1-0.

What did we learn?

1. Frenkie will be fine

For all the talk about Frenkie de Jong wanting to leave Barcelona, that has never felt like reality when he has actually stepped foot on the pitch or strolled around training. His interactions with the coaching staff and his team-mates have felt positive and only reinforced the line from the Catalan press that he wants to stay at the club, his dream club, no matter what.

One of the big issues around this, besides the obvious financial issues surrounding De Jong’s deferred wages, was the fact that Frenkie had often not really played very well under Xavi. There had been moments of genius, for sure, but too often the Dutch midfielder had been lost.

Not so tonight. When Frenkie de Jong stepped off the bench against Rayo Vallecano, he hit the Camp Nou pitch like a man possessed. Frenkie was picking the ball up and driving forward with relentless skill and agility. No one on the pitch completed more than his 2 take-ons and he won all 5 of the duels he engaged in. Moreover he also completed 86% of his 28 passes, creating 2 chances on the way.

Frenkie will be absolutely fine.

2. The levers lead to packed stands

With all the team’s struggles and the squad’s miserable make-up for half the season, 2021/22 was a down year for Barcelona. The Blaugrana averaged just around 55,000 in their stadium with a capacity of over 98,000. That’s well below what it should be.

There have been plenty of criticisms for the way Joan Laporta and his Barcelona board led by Mateu Alemany have gone about raising funds by “pulling economic levers” (i.e. selling 49.5% of Barca Studios and 25% of their future La Liga TV rights for 25 years) and risking future income to build a superstar squad in the present. However, even though it’s just opening day, you can already see the difference.

Despite being in the middle of August on a sweltering night against a lower mid-table team, conditions that would usually have kept a large majority of fans away from the stands; the attendance at the Camp Nou was massive with 81,104 people packing the stands to see this new and exciting team. Last season only the home Clásico saw a greater turnout than tonight, showing just what pulling those levers have led to.

An exciting team leads to packed stands leads to a genuine home advantage developing which helps the team become more dominant which leads to packed stands, etc. etc. – all of which spikes revenue. This is the start of Joan’s Laporta’s Virtuous Circle in action.

3. The kids are alright, but that’s not enough

Barcelona’s summer transfer activity has been intense but obviously came off the back of financial risk. Critics of Barcelona have said that they could simply make use of La Masia’s famed ability to produce youngsters and “play the kids” rather than spend big on new signings and simply accept a spot in the top four.

Well, as we saw against Rayo Vallecano that solution was never viable. As good as La Masia is at producing quality players, it isn’t literal magic. Moreover the burden of throwing all of the expectations of Barcelona fans onto the shoulders of youngsters with no alternative is negligent to say the very least.

Pedri and Gavi both played well against Rayo, but they weren’t able to pick the Rayo lock. Pedri even picked up a knock and had to be subbed off as a precaution. Eric Garcia looked every bit as vulnerable as he did last season and although Ansu Fati was bright it as only in a short cameo off the bench.

There’s just no way Barcelona could put everything on these kids, without new signings like Lewandowski or Raphinha or Jules Kounde, and pick up a top four spot. To assume they could is insulting to the rest of La Liga, which as Rayo Vallecano showed at the Camp Nou tonight is much better than people give it credit for.

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4. Pathé Ciss the key for Iraola’s excellence

One of the main reasons Barcelona didn’t score for the first 70 minutes was because of Rayo Vallecano’s midfielder Pathé Ciss. The Senegalese midfielder is 28 years-old, so while he’s far from some hot prospect he was a surprise performer for them last season, two games of which involved 1-0 wins over Barcelona.

Well in 2022/23 he appears to be picking up where he left off. Ciss was superb at the Camp Nou, easily the equal of any of the Barcelona midfielders in terms of his impact on the game if not his quality on the ball (although he did complete a team-high 27 passes at a 90% completion rate).

His quality off the ball was exemplary, however. He completed 3 clearances, swept passing lanes and made a game-high 6 tackles. Ciss was a monumental disruptive force, constantly preventing the Blaugrana from advancing the ball through the middle of the pitch. He didn’t start either of last season’s wins over Barcelona but showed this season that he can continue to carry the torch for Andoni Iraola’s weird hold over the mighty Blaugrana.

5. Barcelona are still a work in progress

For all of the hype surrounding their genuinely impressive summer in the transfer window, Barcelona are still a work-in-progress. Yes they signed new players, but those new players need to be fully integrated into the team. Pre-season helps, but it’s got nothing on competitive games, especially when you have several signings who are new to the league.

Barcelona need to get better at linking with Lewandowski and creating space for him, and Xavi needs to find a better balance with the way he uses his wingers (Dembélé is better on the left than Raphinha, who is more reliable and consistent than the erratic Dembélé on the right). While the midfield chemistry needs to improve and obviously the team just needs more minutes together.

Rayo Vallecano, playing a deeper block and running out on the break (with sporadic periods of high pressing) were worthwhile opponents who wasted time and rode their luck while also just being really good. They didn’t roll over like a pre-season opponent would and showed Xavi and his Barcelona side that there is still a long way back to the top of football, new signings or not.