Football Features

“The ultimate enabler” – Brilliant Braithwaite shows the value of a no. 9 as Messi bags brace in breezy Barcelona win

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 20:16, 24 February 2021

In an interesting night of football, Barcelona beat Elche 3-0 at the Camp Nou to move up to third in La Liga.

The game itself was half-awful and half-interesting, with a curiously definitive performance from Martin Braithwaite.

The first half, with Braithwaite playing wide on the left, was absolutely abysmal. Now, it wasn’t abysmal because Braithwaite was wide left, but that was definitely a factor in the poor performance. This is not a criticism of him; Braithwaite is just not a winger.

The thing is, with Ansu Fati still injured Barcelona don’t have a left-wing option that looks a genuine goal threat (Ousmane Dembélé is a creator not a scorer, Francisco Trincao can only really play on the right and the less said about Antoine Griezmann, the better).

Playing Leo Messi in 2021 means you have to play him in the middle. Putting him out wide doesn’t work as it unbalances the team too much in defensive transition. But false nine only works when the midfield is dominant and the wingers are genuine goal threats. As Barcelona saw against PSG and Cadiz, Griezmann and Dembélé cannot offer that threat, missing chances that could have won Barca those games.

Back to tonight, and Barcelona were dysfunctional playing 4-3-3. At half-time it was 0-0 for Ronald Koeman made a proactive switch, removing the awful Miralem Pjanic for Ousmane Dembélé and switching to a 4-2-3-1.

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Instantly, Barcelona improved. They didn’t necessarily move the ball around midfield more fluently (4-2-3-1 is often a hindrance to that) but they were just as solid with the ball but suddenly, their attacks carried more menace as Martin Braithwaite was now leading the line.

The Dane is not a world-class player, but he is a relentless worker with athletic ability and more importantly: he knows how to play no. 9. He’s always known how to play the role, but since Ronald Koeman took over he brought the legendary Henrik Larsson onto his coaching staff, he’s been getting extra attention and some immense mentoring in the art of being a no. 9.

And today, when put up-front, Braithwaite showed his skills and why there’s a case to be made for 4-2-3-1 being the Blaugrana’s go-to formation for the rest of this season. At least in the crunch games until Ansu Fati returns.

He assisted Messi’s opening goal with a move straight out of the Luis Suárez playbook, backheeling a Messi pass back into the Argentine’s path, allowing him to score. It was a wonderfully deft move that set the stage for Barcelona’s best period of football for two weeks.

And Braithwaite also set-up Barcelona’s third, peeling away on the back-post and heading a sublime Messi crossfield ball perfectly into the middle of the box where Jordi Alba was on-hand to nod home his second of the season.

It’s not that Braithwaite is a genius, it’s that he knows how to play a role well. And it’s a role that no one else in the Barcelona squad can do –  something Antoine Griezmann proved when he replaced Braithwaite in the second-half – despite how important it is to getting the best out of Messi and both wingers (who can play high and wide in a 4-2-3-1) The Dane is the ultimate enabler; and that Koeman is wrapping him in cotton wool already indicates that the coach has realised that fact.

Obviously Leo Messi scoring his 17th and 18th goals of the season is a story (no one from Europe’s top five leagues has scored more across all competitions in 2021). Pedri again excelled in midfield, playing two roles equally effortlessly. And sure, the power of dribbling when it comes to breaking down defences was also on display given the key role it played in the Blaugrana’s first two goals – with Frenkie de Jong’s driving run to set-up the second a particular highlight – and Francisco Trincao’s glorious run and chance in the first-half.

But for the future success of Barcelona’s season, for whatever slim hopes they have of winning La Liga, the Copa del Rey or yes even the Champions League; the switch of Martin Braithwaite to no. 9 and the brilliance that enables all over the pitch remains the most important factor in what otherwise seems like a routine Barcelona win over Elche.