Ansu Fati was Barcelona’s star attraction off the bench as they romped to a 1-4 win away to Real Sociedad.
The 19 year-old forward started the match on the bench but came on and unleashed a 15-minute cameo of match-winning excellence with two assists and a goal to take the game from a knife-edge 1-1 draw to a procession. It was another reminder of his acute match-winning genius but also why Barcelona need to take their time bringing him back to a full participant in their first-team.
Ansu was the main story, but was just one of many notable events at the Anoeta. Here are five things we learned:
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1. Ansu Fati is the chosen one
Ansu Fati emerged as a 16 year-old prodigy, breaking several records including becoming the youngest goalscorer in Champions League history. However after that breakthrough in 2019/20 he played just 25 games across two seasons as a knee injury plagued him.
He is fit to start this season, however, and came off the bench today to change the game. Replacing Ferran Torres, Ansu added so much incision and drive. His first big contribution was a ridiculous backheel assist for Ousmane Dembélé to give Barcelona the lead.
Then he drove into the box, receiving an amazing pass he slipped it to Robert Lewandowski to score his second. Later he received a beautiful ball from the Pole and added an electric finish of his own. A stunning game-winning performance.
Many have called for Barcelona to “rely on the kids” and trust in the likes of Ansu Fati, and while he clearly has the technical and mental skill to be Barcelona’s chosen one; that is a role he will want to occupy for a decade or more. So rushing him back from injury when he isn’t physically ready (and he failed in a few 1-v-1’s, showing his struggles) would likely end in more long-term misery.
The new signings in attack serve many purposes for Barcelona, but chief among them is that they will allow Xavi to bring Ansu Fati back into the picture at a more measured rate, ensuring that he is never rushed back as he was last season. Ansu is the chosen one; a player for a decade, not a single matchday. Take it easy and reap the rewards.
2. Maestro Pedri
For the first 10-15 minutes Barcelona were really suffering playing their 3-3-1-3 formation against Real Sociedad’s high press and high energy attack. They couldn’t control the midfield and the ball just kept pinballing all over the place.
Then Xavi spoke to Pedri and moved the Spaniard deeper in midfield, next to Frenkie de Jong (who was really struggling despite the collective good will being sent his way from Catalunya, Manchester and London), and suddenly everything calmed down and Barcelona got more control (especially so after half-time).
“They play with two strikers; it was not necessary to play with four, it was enough with three,” said Xavi after the game when asked why he layed a 3-3-1-3. “Open well with wingers, with two defensive midfelders we control really well the game when we understood that we had the superiority inside. So we play much better, especially second-half.”
That understanding came when Pedri moved deeper. When Pedri took control. No Busquets? No problem. At just 19 years of age, Pedri was the best player on the pitch at Anoeta.
Barcelona’s first goal? Possible because of Pedri’s unreal outlet pass. Barcelona’s third goal? Possible because of Pedri’s unreal reverse through-ball. In both cases he took apart the Real Sociedad defence with just one pass. Even if he had just done that, he would have been amazing, buit he was so, so good at everything else besides.
He had a game-high 96 touches, made a game-high 71/78 passes including a game-high 19 passes in the opponent’s final third. He completes a game-high 3/3 take-ons, created a joint game-high 2 chances and even chipped in with 3 tackles, 3 interceptions (another game-high) and 2 clearances. An absolute miracle of a footballer.
3. Baldé’s time to shine
Everyone was shocked when Alex Baldé started ahead of Jordi Alba. Well, everyone except those who have watched Jordi Alba at all so far this season. The 18 year-old has been making his case to start ahead of the 32 year-old veteran during pre-season and through Barcelona’s baffling pursuit of Marcos Alonso.
Well, Alonso hasn’t arrived, Balde got his start and with 44 seconds he had torn up the pitch and set-up Robert Lewandowski for the first goal of the game. Thereafter he was solid at both ends and despite his youth has made a compelling case to compete with Jordi Alba to be the starting left-back (or left-winger) all season.
“He played really well,” said Xavi when asked about Baldé’s peformance. “He suffered a little bit in the first-half, but we suffered together. But ok. Very good in attack, very good in defence. He worked very well for the team, so he can be important in this season I think.”
4. La Real are brilliant but blunt
Real Sociedad ended up being blown away by Barcelona’s superior gameplan and quality, but for an hour they matched them and took advantage of defensive lapses from Frenkie de Jong and Eric Garcia to punish the Blaugrana. And if they had better players in attack, they might have been able to do more than just worry Barcelona.
This is, in essence, Real Sociedad’s problem. They don’t score enough goals. They play beautiful football with Alexander Isak leading the line and the brilliant Take Kubo and David Silva buzzing behind and the robust Mikel Merino raiding into the half-space… but they don’t score! They get the ball right up to the point of scoring and then seem to forget what they’re doing.
Every week, if you can, you should tune in and watch them. Imanol Alguacil is a great coach and they play great football; just don’t expect them to, y’know, score that many goals.
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5. Happy Birthday Lewy!
Robert Lewandowski turned 34 today. A big birthday but one that, following his failure to score against Rauo Vallecano last week, only intensified the scrutiny around his signing.
Just as well then, that he scored 44 seconds into his second appearance of the season. A lovely near-post run and left-foot finish to give Barcelona a big lead. He then continued to lead the line with exemplary skill, focus and intent. He was constantly looking for space, constantly linking with team-mates and constantly causing danger.
Lewandowski’s excellence came to the fore when he bagged the third goal for Barcelona with a wonderful run and finish. The kind of goal most strikers wouldn’t be in position to take, but he was. He then turned provided with a delicious backheel flick through for Ansu Fati to score the fourth (albeit a deflection will rob him of the statistical assist).
Four shots, four shots on target, two goals off an xG of 0.83. Is this lift-off for Lewandowski in Barcelona? His post-match comments seem to indicate he is in no mood for complacency: “always we have to be focused and doing better,” said the Pole. Having that kind of leader and presence in the locker room is going to be huge if Barcelona are to challenge for any trophies this season.