Busquets suspended, Koeman was obliged to replace one of his key players in the midfield. The Frenkie-Pjanic pivot never worked, but the two played nonetheless — just not in a double pivot to ensure the clock would still be ticking without its metronome. Thankfully, it seemed to work. In the first half at least.
Whilst the two midfielders did tend to have interchangeable roles, the majority of the game saw Frenkie taking up on Busi’s build-up duties, Pjanic to keep the shape intact, attempting to stabilise the ensemble. And to a certain extent, it worked. Barcelona wasn’t only 65% in possession, but also didn’t find it hard to build-up and provoke threats. Cruising past Athletic is an exxageration, but Barcelona was confident enough in order to generate chances.
In fact, the first ‘big’ chance came around the 14', an attempt of Leo Messi to chip the keeper — the latter reading the situation well and saving Leo’s attempt. But that didn’t matter, Barcelona was on a high spirit. A goal was incoming for sure, it was only a matter of time before one would bang in.
Barely six minutes later, the inevitable happened. Messi scored, and not from open play. A free-kick it was, twenty five meters away from the goal. Despite the obvious attempt by both defenders and the goalkeeper to defend, the goal went in. A goal that was a reply to El Mundo’s leak on Messi’s salary. Messi is priceless, and no matter how much he will be paid, his replay will most of the time be found on the pitch. In this case, the free-kick was needed to ensure the lead. Done!
Griezmann’s role can not be omitted in Barcelona’s various threats. Given Pedri pulling his marker inside, Griezmann often found himself with not only space but a favourable 1v1 position against his marker(Bilbao’s full-back). What’s better than space and time for Griezmann? Nothing, surely. He has thrive recently in this position for multiple reasons — the straight forward answer being him sacreficing his individuality for the greater good. This resulting in Griezmann having greater performances, particularly in goal/assists.
As seen below we can also highlight Umtiti’s role. If Frenkie dropped deeper to create a 3v2 situation á la Busquets, eventually splitting the remaining two centre-backs in opposite directions: Araujo to the right, Umtiti to the left. Umtiti’s role is important to highlight as he simultaneously played on that left-wing while also completing his role as a central defenders — eventually helping the team to progress while imposing himself defensively.
If Alba wasn’t especially bad — despite the own goal that became Bilbao’s equaliser barely five minutes into the second half — Mingueza struggled more on that right hand-side. Right-back was never his preferred position, but Marcelino’s genius exploited Mingueza’s main weakness: Defending against overlapping. Whether teammates are to blamed for his error is another question, but Mingueza finding himself in a 1v2 minority meant that the La Masia graduate was forced into taking a decision — that proved problematic, eventually causing Alba’s move in panic — an own goal.
Barcelona’s problem wasn’t attacking or defending, but a mentality issue that translated into doubtful tactics. When Barcelona were 1–0 up before the second half, a logical strategy would have been to continue pushing, suffocating Bilbao and force mistakes. After all, Barcelona’s pressing seemed good in the first half, and one would assume the Catalans would continue so.
This not only didn’t happen, but Bilbao was given the initiative. Barcelona gave space, time and possession to Athletic Club, even defending with five defenders at times (evenmore so following Roberto’s incoming susbtitution for Pjanic after ~20 minutes into the second half). Barcelona cannot defend for lapses of longer periods. They committ errors under pressure, and more importantly, give up the centre. In fact, this cause Alba’s o.g and that is why such errors shouldn’t be repeated: Barcelona encountered the same problem against the same opponent in the Supercup barely a few weeks ago. It’s a mentality problem that influences the tactics negatively.
Barcelona will be happy to finish the month of January with a 2–1 win over Bilbao, continuing the good form — all of this matters, both confidence and automatisms before the ‘big’ game: The encounter against PSG in the last sixteen, and a big test to many, Koeman primarily. Until then, every win translates into more confidence that will help the Catalans get back on track — starting by stealing Madrid’s second spot in La Liga yesterday.