In a tense night of football, Barcelona beat Real Sociedad 1-0 at Camp Nou.
The story of the game can be read in one of two ways. Looking at the result, Barcelona won thanks to a late Leo Messi penalty given by VAR and Real Sociedad were in many ways unlucky to not also be given a penalty by VAR soon after. The win puts Barcelona top of La Liga for now but they didn’t really rebound from the Clásico defeat in any sort of commanding fashion.
But if you look at the performance, particularly for the first 60-70 minutes, Barcelona are a side that have indeed learned key lessons from the Clásico defeat and have found a line-up that allows them to play the kind of football they are known for playing. And that line-up hinges on one player to supercharges the whole system: Martin Braithwaite.
The €20m emergency signing from Leganés was not thought to be an impressive signing, and many scoffed at the idea of Barcelona grasping for a “Middlesbrough flop” like Braithwaite, someone who had no great reputation nor fashionable nationality to hint at any great potential.
But whilst Braithwaite is a simple player, he is a thoroughly effective one. He is fast and smart and makes runs off-the-ball behind defenders. These are qualities that all of the greatest Barcelona sides had. Whether through Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, Pedro, David Villa or even the 2016-era Luis Suárez.
Braithwaite isn’t a player with that kind of reputation, sure, but Barcelona don’t need him to be. They need that profile, and he provides it. So much of what Barcelona have become involves passes to feet and an ever-decreasing amount of vertical play. This lack of pace in attack has made them increasingly easy to deal with by pressing sides, and has been the root cause of their last two Champions League humiliations in Rome and Anfield.
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As ridiculous as it may seem, Braithwaite is a player who would have prevented those eliminations by simple virtue of being an outlet for Messi. A player who stretches teams out and punishes those who push forward. He would have provided the kind of outlet for Messi, Busquets, and other Barcelona playmakers that Luis Suárez and Philippe Coutinho were unable to be.
Today in his first start for Barcelona, Braithwaite looked phenomenally in tune with what was demanded of him in this role. For the first hour he was constantly surging into space and looking to head into space so that there would be a vertical pass on.
This opened up the pitch for Leo Messi and time-and-time again the Argentine would look for the Dane with a pass in a way they he rarely does for the infinitely more talented Antoine Griezmann. The Frenchman rarely makes the kinds of runs that Braithwaite does, and even when he does, he lacks the electric pace to make them truly dangerous.
Lionel Messi has been directly involved in 31 goals this season for Barcelona in LaLiga:
❍ 22 games
❍ 19 goals
❍ 12 assists
Coming up clutch once again. pic.twitter.com/b2DI0U1dKa
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 7, 2020
It has to be said that Braithwaite tired as the match wore on, but given the physical and mental demands of playing for Barcelona that’s not a surprise. He’ll improve in that regard with more starts, starts that he must be given based on tonight’s performance.
Also notable was that Ansu Fati was a late-game substitute and added a similar burst of pace and intention in attack to Braithwaite. Setién has clearly learned the value of always having pace in attack. The Dane was subbed off with a minute to go but by then Ansu had taken up his baton. He made a couple of lovely runs, including one right at the death where he made an option for Leo Messi, received the miracle pass, then showed great intelligence and composure to set-up Jordi Alba for a second goal that was ruled out for a nonsense precision offside.
At 17-years-old Ansu can’t be overexposed and overplayed, but if Braithwaite has set the template in La Liga then in the Champions League, where the Dane cannot play, it’s going to be up to Ansu to fill that role. He will no doubt take inspiration from Braithwaite, a player whose path to the Barcelona first-team is as ridiculous as his own and whose impact could be just as important.
He isn’t world-class, he didn’t cost €100m, but Martin Braithwaite is exactly the striker that Barcelona have needed for the last two years. His arrival solves so many problems and in-time, could lead the Blaugrana back to the level they want to be at.