Football Features

“Riqui Puig will not go away!” – Midfield runs the show as Barcelona ease their way to win over Elche

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 18:00, 24 January 2021

In a tense afternoon of football, Barcelona beat Elche 0-2 to keep pace with Real Madrid in second-place.

The Blaugrana played their second game without the suspended Leo Messi and picked up a comfortable win.

There was never really a doubt that Barcelona would win this game as they felt dominant for the vast majority of the contest. Elche fought back well in the first half of the second half, but bar one moment that was entirely self-inflicted, they didn’t create a great chance.

Barcelona are changing into a different side now to the one that they were earlier in the season where they would leak chances for fun and Marc-André Ter Stegen would need to perform miracles to keep them in games.

The 4-3-3 shape combined with the emergence of Ronald Araujo in defence and a greater show of restraint by Jordi Alba with his forward runs has made Barcelona more solid at defending counter-attacks where before they were shambolic.

Alba’s staying a bit deeper has allowed him to help sweep up with his pace. And with three midfielders on the pitch Barcelona rotate the ball in a more balanced and healthy way, rejuvenating Sergio Busquets at the base.

Busquets had looked an absolute liability as recently as late 2020, but this formation change alone has allowed Barcelona to maximise his strengths (his excellent pressing and passing) while covering somewhat for his weaknesses.

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Barcelona’s midfield dominated Elche’s, with De Jong providing vertical thrust exemplified when he poached the opening goal and created the second. He now has four goals in his last 10 games for Barcelona and is providing real presence in attack, and the freedom to run that he now has means that he can do things like his assist for Riqui Puig where he drove through the Elche midfield and defence before lifting a gorgeous cross into the box.

Pedri meanwhile was the star of the show. The teenager has been so good he’s even managed to bring a smile to Leo Messi’s face and today, in the Argentine’s absence, he controlled the game and his movements into space and passes forward were a constant source of creativity. Moreover, he is an absolute joy to watch.

Of course Pedri was replaced by Riqui Puig, who scored the second goal of the game and his first ever for the club. While scoring is hardly what the Catalan midfielder is best at, if he keeps on having these impactful appearances off the bench it’s going to make it easier for Ronald Koeman to include him. Riqui Puig will not go away!

Ronald Araujo and Samuel Umtiti provided the platform for the midfield to dominate as they did. Despite being just 21-years-old, Araujo has emerged as the leader of defence. In many ways the Piqué replacement that Barcelona have been trying desperately to find. He’s tall, he’s fast, he’s strong and he has superb instincts.

Today he was joined by Umtiti starting a second consecutive Liga game for the first time since February last year. A fit and focused Umtiti is quite literally world-class (he was one of the top five centre-backs in the world back in 2018 before his injury woes) and makes Barcelona so much more resilient to counter-attacks.

The final step for Koeman’s Barcelona is now to add goals to this structure and solidity. Scoring has been a major issue basically all season but especially of late and in key games. Part of this is down to never replacing Luis Suárez in the summer, part of it is Leo Messi’s profligacy and part of it is Antoine Griezmann being mostly useless in an offensive capacity as he was again today.

Yes they scored twice today but they should have managed more against a side like Elche. The Frenchman’s inability to do anything useful in attack puts far too much onto the shoulders of Ousmane Dembélé and Martin Braithwaite, and over the long-term is going to lead to more and more games where the front three are shut out.

And while the midfield can cover for them occasionally, they won’t always be able to. Barcelona are finding themselves again and remembering how to control games and play through midfield. That’s good, but the next step of scoring repeatable goals through the forwards, is the hardest step and they need to take it before they can be a serious side again.