Football Features

“Ter Stegen the titan” – Midfield takes centre-stage as Barcelona beat Real Sociedad on penalties in Super Cup

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 23:10, 13 January 2021

In a back and forth night of football, Barcelona beat Real Sociedad 3-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the semi-final of the Spanish Super Cup.

Frenkie De Jong opened the scoring with a stunning header only for Mikel Oyarzabal to equalise from the spot soon after. It ended 1-1 after extra time despite both sides missing chances to grab a winning goal.

In the shootout, Marc-André Ter Stegen went absolutely supernova, saving La Real’s first two penalties and palming the third onto the post to give Barcelona an unassailable position in the shootout which Riqui Puig promptly won with the fifth spot-kick.

In the beginning is the end.

The impending expiry of Leo Messi’s contract in six months casts a looming shadow over everything Barcelona do, because it might be the last time they ever do it with Leo Messi in the side. And given he’s the best player in the club’s history and probably the best player in football history, that’s pretty historic. So even their comedic slips in the Spanish capital (vs. Atleti, Getafe and Madrid) carry a sense of gravitas; “the last time Messi watches his team surrender meekly to Real Madrid” etc.

But what games like tonight’s against La Real do is offer a glimpse into the future of Barcelona should Leo Messi pull the trigger and walk away in the summer. What might life after Messi look like for Barcelona? Well, promising for sure but also absolutely chaotic.

Assuming Messi’s false nine role and playing against his former club, this looked like a game tailor-made for Antoine Griezmann to make it plain that Messi leaving would not plunge Barcelona into misery because he would assume the mantle of leader.

Except, he didn’t. Sure he picked up the assist for Frenkie de Jong but he owed a lot to Martin Braithwaite’s pass and frankly he almost got that wrong as he put it behind the Dutch midfielder.

Not that Griezmann was bad, his defensive work was as relentless and impressive as ever, but he was in the side to be the offensive catalyst but he just ended up being a non-event; at least that was the case for 90 minutes. In extra-time he missed an easy reverse pass for Frenkie de Jong that would have resulted in a sitter for the Dutchman, and then he blazed his penalty over the bar in the shoot-out. He most definitely fumbled his chance to stamp his claim on post-Messi ownership of Barcelona.

Instead, the match belonged to three men: the Barcelona midfielders. And when was the last time you could say that? For the last half-decade at least Barcelona have been a team defined by their attack, but this match (at least, the first 90 minutes) was a throwback.

Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong and Pedri; this was their show (at least until extra time when Ter Stegen the titan made two heart-stopping saves to deny Adnan Januzaj before stopping three spot-kicks in the shootout).

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Busquets was in sublime form for the 90 minutes he played. There were moments when La Real were able to exploit the fact that he can barely move anymore, but in general they were few and far between as he swept up and killed counters with precision positioning. He just always seemed to be standing in the right place and of course he used the ball wonderfully.

Pedri was liquid, constantly offering himself and never once being intimidated by La Real’s pressing game. He’s only just turned 18 but Pedri plays with the kind of authority and composure that a 38 year-old would be proud of.

Frenkie, meanwhile, was the drive. The up and down. Defending, moving the ball nicely during the build-up and then making lung-busting runs forward both with and without the ball. Frenkie was most often the furthest man forward and of course opened the scoring with an absolutely stunning header. He also gave away a penalty thanks to an accidental handball, but he was pure energy and drive.

Pedri and Busquets were providing the control, however, which is why extra time was pure chaos as both of them left the field on 90 minutes. Truth be told even the end of the second-half got a little chaotic as the ageing Busquets notably tired. La Real came on strong in extra time and Adnan Januzaj had two great chances to score only to be denied by Marc-André Ter Stegen both times.

The problem when your midfielders are your best players is who’s scoring? All of Barcelona’s good play only resulted in one goal; so it could be fair to speculate that post-Messi it will be hard for the club to find the back of the net. But perhaps not.

Obviously Ousmane Dembélé is so unpredictable even he doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing, but a good few months of fitness could be just what he needs to re-find his best self. And of course Ansu Fati, Barcelona’s other teenage genius, should be a fixture in the team for years to come and he was joint-top Pichichi of La Liga when he got hurt. So between the two of them, they should have attack covered. They will be the added touch of lethality, but the focus of the team will be, as it was tonight, the midfield.

Which means that Sergio Busquets, Frenkie De Jong and Pedri will be the ones to inherit the team should Leo Messi leave the Camp Nou in the summer. Control of the side will belong to midfield once more (and how apt should Xavi become coach) and Barcelona can build from the area where they’ve always been strongest.

And of course, when Busquets needs replacing they can call upon Riqui Puig to seamlessly slot into the starting midfield, or maybe bring Carles Alenya back from loan. Or maybe they’ll unearth another La Masia gem.

The fact that Riqui Puig won the match felt apt in terms of summing up where the future of Barcelona lies. It was just a penalty shootout of course, but it felt poetic for him to step up and convert the winning penalty, for him to be the hero. With all that’s gone on between him and Ronald Koeman, and given the Catalan’s status as the supposed next big thing and his refusal to go on loan and determination to stick it out with Barcelona, it just felt right. Tonight’s game offered a glimpse into the future of Barcelona, and it turns out that the future is the same as the past: in midfield. In the end is the beginning.