In a wonderfully open night of football, Barcelona beat Levante 2-1 at Camp Nou.
The win moved the Blaugrana back to within three points of La Liga leaders Real Madrid. What did we learn?
1. Prince Ansu
Ousmane Dembélé is one of the brightest young players in world football. Even though his career at Barcelona so far has been blighted by injury, no one doubts that he is still an immense talent who could go on to have a long and successful career in the game.
Ansu Fati is five and a half years younger than Ousmane Dembélé.
It’s hard to really describe how young and raw Ansu is. He’s the youngest-ever goalscorer in Champions League history. That’s a pretty good indicator. He debuted for the first-team before he had the chance to do so for the B team. That’s another.
Ansu Fati is the youngest player in LaLiga history to score multiple goals in a single game.
102 seconds between them. Both assisted by Lionel Messi. pic.twitter.com/LpGzYXqgvc
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 2, 2020
Of course young players in football is nothing remarkable. Young players playing for Barcelona? That’s a bit more remarkable. Young players scoring braces for Barcelona? Alright, now we’re talking. Ansu is the youngest ever player to score a brace in La Liga history.
Ansu had struggled with a wide-right winger/wing-back role so far under Quique Setién, but now he’s playing on the left of a front three he’s truly in his element. He tore Levante to bits with his movement both on and off the ball, always making the kind of runs in behind that could come to demarcate the difference between Quique Setién’s Barcelona and that of Ernesto Valverde’s Barceona.
Those runs in behind delivered him both his goals today. Surging in behind the Levante defence before punishing Aitor Fernandez with dead-eyed finishes between the goalkeeper’s legs. That leaves him on five goals for the season so far. Five. He’s still only 17. Leo Messi is still the King of Barcelona, but there can be no doubt that Ansu Fati is the Crown Prince of the Camp Nou.
2. Setién makes it fun again
Sometimes looking at results is so misleading in terms of judging the quality of a coach’s work. Quique Setién has taken charge of three games in La Liga, winning two (1-0 and 2-1) and losing one (2-0). Looking at the results, it’s not been a massive improvement on what Ernesto Valverde was doing, right? Wrong.
Barcelona are lightyears better than they were under Valverde, even if the results aren’t quite there yet. They move the ball faster with greater purpose and control. They space the field better, making greater use of pace in behind and look just in general so much sharper. The players are more confident (look no further than how well Nelson Semedo played today) and even though they are still adapting, they play with so much more joy. And that’s the key, things are fun again. If they can get good too? Then things are really looking up.
3. Messi is miraculous
There has been a lot of talk lately about Leo Messi and how he doesn’t look happy, doesn’t look sharp. These “concerns” always seemed like a lot of noise about nothing as Messi has always had short bursts of poor form during his career. It’s just he’s so consistent for the most part each one is treated as a disaster, a cataclysm to be discussed and debated.
Tonight against Levante, he showed the absurd ability he possesses by simultaneously playing well, absolutely carving Levante open with his movement, dribbling and passing; but also being ridiculously wasteful. Messi rattled off 10 shots, getting six of them on target, yet not scoring once. Part of that was bad shot selection, and the rest was bad luck.
However just to highlight the breadth of his genius; Messi also notched two assists, moving him top of the assists chart with 8 (as well as topping the Pichichi with 14 goals). Despite missing a month of the season through injury and then struggling with middling form through a coaching change, he’s still dominating everyone in sight. He has no equal.
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4. Shallow at the back
Part of the reason Barcelona had to abandon Quique Setién’s ambitious 3-5-2 shape is that they simply didn’t have the quality defenders to play it. As Barcelona sent the brilliant Jean-Clair Todibo out on loan (just after Setién arrived, too!) the new coach had to start Sergi Roberto in a back three, which worked in the build-up phase as the Spaniard is a good passer, but he’s a weak enough defender as a full-back, as a centre-back it was a disaster as Valencia proved when they hammered the Blaugrana.
So Quique Setién switched to a back four, and in fairness it’s worked quite well so far. But against Levante we saw Barcelona’s lack of centre-back depth exposed as both starting defenders came into the game one yellow card away from suspension. In the end Gerard Piqué picked up a booking so will miss next week’s trip to play Real Betis, which means that Setién will have to field Samuel Umtiti as a right-sided centre-back next to Clement Lenglet and will have no senior centre-backs on the bench. There’s a good three months left in the season so there’s a good chance this problem could rear its ugly head again. Keep an eye out.
5. A work in progress
For all the positivity about Quique Setién’s Barcelona, and there should certainly be a lot, they are very much a work-in-progress. Despite absolutely dominating this game for vast stretches of it, they only scored two goals. Their profligacy in front of goal, namely from senior forwards Leo Messi and Antoine Griezmann, allowed Levante to stay in the game right up to the end.
Barcelona were absurdly wasteful in the second-half, not playing with the incision they did in the opening period. Moreover they failed to really get a grip on the tempo of the game. The hosts were constantly pushing forward which, given they were missing all their chances, was wicked reckless and led to Levante having a host of chances on the break.
If you’re finishing as roughly as the Blaugrana were, you should slow the game down and kill things off with a bit of possession. Of course to do that they need to be more in sync with the ideas of Quique Setién, and that will come with time, but in the meantime Levante created loads of chances to match the hosts and the game genuinely could have ended 6-4 instead of 2-1. They’ve come quite a way in a short time, but there is still a long, long way to go.