Football Features

“Their new no. 9 has been under their noses all along” – Five things learned as Barcelona batter Leganés

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 20:16, 30 January 2020

In a one-sided night of football, Barcelona thrashed Leganés 5-0 in the Copa del Rey.

The win sends the Blaugrana into the draw for the quarter-finals and marks the biggest win of the Quique Setién era. What did we learn?

1. AntNINE Griezmann

Barcelona have spent all winter desperately looking for a no. 9 to replace Luis Suárez who is likely to be out for the rest of the season. They have been unable to secure a deal for anyone, partly because they don’t want to commit too much money to a striker given they are intent on pursuing the €111m-rated Lautaro Martinez in the summer.

But tonight Antoine Griezmann shows that he is perfectly capable of being the side’s no. 9 in both the short and even medium-term. Obviously Griezmann is primarily a 10, but his time at Atlético Madrid playing as a lone forward has honed the skills needed to lead the line and he brought them to bear against Leganés.

From the first whistle, Griezmann was pushing forward into the middle of attack. He was leading the Barcelona press and also showing up in key attacking zones. He scored his side’s opening goal by moving across the face of goal, collecting a Nelson Semedo cross and then, without hesitation, calmly slipping the ball onto his right-foot and clipping a delicate shot into the back of the net before Pichu Cuellar could move.

It was a delightful goal, and the Frenchman followed it up with a hard-working display that would have made Suárez proud. Hell, it would have made Suárez circa 2016 proud. The Frenchman flanked right in the defensive phase, allowing Messi to remain in attack without extending himself, and was willing to track all the way back into the right-back spot to help out the side.

There’s no doubt that Barcelona will want to sign Lautaro Martinez in the summer but this game showed that they never needed Rodrigo or any of those players. Their new no. 9 has been under their noses all along.

2. Semedo lives!

Nelson Semedo is a player bursting with talent, but one who repeatedly saw his confidence chipped away by Ernesto Valverde constantly dropping him and never really giving him an extended run in the side. And then in Quique Setién’s first two league games he didn’t feature (he played in the first Copa game but in a wing-back role).

But today he got the start at right-back in a 4-3-3 and showed instantly what he can give. Semedo is a far more dynamic player than given credit for, especially in attacking zones. His run beyond Leo Messi saw him pick-up the ball from the Argentina. Semedo then cut it back perfectly, laying it on a plate for Antoine Griezmann.

The Portuguese continued to play well for the rest of the game, albeit notably tiring near the end of the game. This is probably Semedo’s last chance to make something of himself, but on the evidence of tonight it’s a chance he may well take.

3. Setién can compromise

One of the big questionmarks over Quique Setién’s reign was going to be how a player with such a hardline view of how to play the game handle a squad of full of superstars that had won all there was to win in the game.

At first, Setién seemed to go hard with his philosophy, immediately implementing his 3-5-2 shape and putting Sergi Roberto on the right side of a three-man defence. That delivered on good display against Granada and two poor ones away to Ibiza and Valencia.

So rather than dogmatically sticking to his guns, Quique Setién compromised and switched to a 4-3-3. The general approach to building from the back and pressing from the front remained the same, but the Barcelona shape was much more orthodox. Setién being able to compromise and implement his system in a different formation will go a long way to helping him thrive at Barcelona.

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4. New midfield, new issues

Barcelona started Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong and Arturo Vidal against Leganés. This midfield, in Quique Setién’s 3-5-2 shape, makes sense. Busquets is protected by the back three and can push up and play across a smaller area knowing that if the ball gets by him one of the three defenders can step up to win it back and he doesn’t necessarily have to chase all the way back.

Meanwhile Barcelona keeping possession intensely in a 3-5-2 means that Arturo Vidal’s natural instinct to bomb forward into the final third becomes a fantastic weapon for adding dynamism to proceedings. Frenkie de Jong is then free to push beyond Messi and link things in the final third (Setién seems to want him to act as a counterweight to Messi).

In a 4-3-3, however, it doesn’t work. Vidal and De Jong advancing leaves Busquets is left with too much space to cover. And when they lose possession Busquets has to sprint back and chase because there’s only two men, the two centre-backs, behind him covering. Moreover as Barcelona are a bit more stretched out and have more vertical thrust from both wingers, Vidal gets lost in the shuffle.

De Jong still functions as a counterweight, but given Messi has more to do because the midfield is more dysfunctional, it doesn’t all come together. In a 4-3-3, it would make more sense for Arthur to occupy that third midfield role, or perhaps Busquets to drop out altogether and Frenkie de Jong take his role at the base (behind Arthur and Riqui Puig).

Juventus extended Andrea Pirlo’s career by playing 3-5-2 with two athletes either side of him, and Real Madrid have got Toni Kroos back in the saddle by playing him alongside both Casemiro and Fede Valverde. Barcelona cannot afford Busquets that level of cover, so without the protection of 3-5-2 maybe the great man has to take a seat on the bench.

5. Moving on Cup?

The new format of the Copa del Rey has certainly made the whole tournament feel like less of a drag, and we’ve had some near-shocks like Barcelona’s match against Ibiza or Atlético Madrid going out against Cultural Leonesa in the last round, but by and by it’s not changed things too much in terms of who progresses.

Barcelona advance to the quarter-finals next week, where they will be drawn against Real Madrid, Athletic Club, Valencia, Villarreal, Real Sociedad… basically all the best sides in Spain. They played what was essentially a full-strength team against Leganés, and that will be much the same all around the competition. The cup may be slicker now, it may seem fairer, but in truth it’s just as predictable as it always was and the loss of a second leg could deprive smaller sides of bigger television and gate receipt windfalls.