In a breathless night of football, 10-man Barcelona twice came from behind to beat 10-man Real Betis.
The battle at the Benito Villamarin was an absolute scorcher from start to finish that had a penalty, two red cards and five sublime goals. Quique Setién picks up his first away win in La Liga; but what did we learn?
1. Mes Que Un Goleador
Leo Messi came into this game having taken 22 shots in his last three La Liga games and, amazingly, not scoring. It has been a frustrating time of things for the Argentine but, in many ways, it allowed the true extent of his genius to be shown as he turned into the supreme creator.
Messi has always been a magnificent playmaker, both in terms of playing killer passes but also helping control games. It has often been ignored as people focused on his gaudy goalscoring numbers that allowed comparisons to be made that simply weren’t possible if you looked at the whole picture.
Today Messi was once again frustrated with the shot (his 4 shots were a game-high) but still dominated the game with not one, not two but three assists. The first a delicately chipped through-ball to Frenkie de Jong, the second a deep free-kick turned in by Sergio Busquets and the final one a looped free-kick that Clement Lenglet thumped into the net.
A hat-trick of supreme assists that prove Leo Messi is mes que un goleador, more than a goalscorer.
2. Clement and Nabil’s Wild Ride
Nabil Fekir has scored 6 goals in La Liga this season and two of them have come against Barcelona. The Frenchman is a mercurial talent who can often look as bad as he does good, but today he was very, very good; right until he was very, very bad.
The Frenchman started the game in furious form, forcing a penalty after some great dribbling and then scoring a sensational goal to double Betis’ lead. He looked devastating in that first period, forcing Barcelona to make desperate lunges. Then as the game wore on he started to make lunges of his own, he picked a yellow, then another instantly for a show of dissent, and then he was gone.
His compatriot Clement Lenglet was also in for a crazy night. It began when he handballed a Fekir shot, conceding the penalty that Betis took the lead from. Then he actually played quite well for a stretch, culminating a superb header that put Barcelona into their first lead of the night. Only for him to join Fekir in the locker room, picking up his second yellow just three minutes after the Betis man.
The two Frenchman gave the game two goals, two red cards, one penalty forced and one penalty conceded. What a wild ride!
3. Finally, Frenkie!
Frenkie de Jong joined Barcelona in the summer, but under Ernesto Valverde he often flattered to deceive. He scored his first goal for the Blaugrana against Real Betis at the Camp Nou, but that had honestly been one of just a handful of great performances. Otherwise he was stifled by Ernesto Valverde’s tactics, to the point where people had forgotten just how good he is.
Just three weeks under Quique Setién, however, and we’re finally starting to see the real Frenkie de Jong. There have been moments, flickers, signs that he was now playing in a system that suited him. Well today Frenkie exploded all over Real Betis. He scored Barcelona’s first equaliser, a sensational effort where he dribbled out of his own half, found Leo Messi with a lovely trivela pass before powering forward into the box, controlling Messi’s lobbed pass and finishing fluidly. It was a goal of beauty and the highlight of a display where he looked in his element, exchanging passes with his team-mates and playing at the heart of Quique Setién’s fluid system of play.
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4. Where is Antoine Griezmann?
Everyone at Barcelona has improved under Quique Setién’s leadership, except perhaps Antoine Griezmann. The Frenchman was Barcelona’s big signing in the summer and he has quite simply not managed to live up to the billing yet. Now, that’s not entirely his fault after all Ernesto Valverde basically had him playing at left-back, spending his energy defending and then, in attack, being absurdly wide.
But since being liberated by Quique Setién he’s not looked that much sharper, and often cuts a peripheral figure on the game. His defensive work is unimpeachable, so you can’t say he’s not impacting games, but he’s not as involved as he should be. His movements off the ball aren’t always sync-d up with what his team-mates want and so he often gets ignored as a passing option by team-mates who understand each other much better. Whatever the reasons for his woes, the Frenchman needs to figure it out and step his game up if Barcelona are to prosper.
5. Barcelona’s shoddy squad planning will make them suffer
Real Betis’ second goal was a sensational counter-attack that saw Guido Rodriguez rip the ball from the Blaugrana in midfield and then Carles Alena play it through to Nabil Fekir who arrowed it home low into the far corner of the net.
It was a supreme goal that highlighted almost perfectly how poorly Barcelona have planned their squad. First, Vidal turned the ball over uncontested whilst standing in 10 square yards of space. Arturo Vidal is a horrible choice to start in the Barcelona midfield. He makes a great impact sub, but from the start he disrupts the Blaugrana as much as his own team-mates.
But Vidal has to start, because Barcelona don’t have another attacking midfielder in the squad. They have one on the books, but he was wearing no. 24 for Real Betis and bagged the assist on the play Vidal was dispossessed on. Symbolism, eh?
Secondly part of the reason Fekir was able to finish so well was that Samuel Umtiti backed off his compatriot rather than closing him down. And this is because as a left-footed centre-back playing on the right, Umtiti would have had to step up and contend with the electric Fekir on his weaker right-foot. And he had to pay right-centre-back because Gerard Piqué was both injured and suspended and the Spaniard’s natural replacement, Jean-Clair Todibo, was shipped off to Schalke in January for no real reason.
These kinds of errors that went unaddressed in the January transfer window will continue to haunt the Blaugrana for the rest of this season, blighting otherwise impressive performances like today’s with memories of the misery that was the Ernesto Valverde era. Can Quique Setién overcome these issues? It’s certainly possible, if unlikely given how steep they can be especially given Ousmane Dembélé’s long-term absence. And hell, even if they can overcome them, they will suffer as they did today. But then anything worth having is worth suffering for.