For the first time in 182 minutes, Barcelona found the net. For two whole matches, spread over three fixtures, the Catalans had been utterly toothless in front of goal. Even when Ivan Rakitic did sweep home what proved to be the winner against Athletic Club on Tuesday night (Barca’s first goal since Lionel Messi’s penalty in the second half last week’s win over Leganes) there had been no sense of an impending breakthrough.
Indeed, there was an element of good fortune to Rakitic’s winner, with Messi inadvertently turning the ball into the path of the Croatian inside the box when trying to dribble through himself. Without that piece of luck, Barcelona would have registered back-to-back goalless draws in La Liga for the first time in 14 years.
This is a reflection of where Barca are as a team right now. Their flaws and faults are well-documented. Much has been made of Antoine Griezmann’s struggles to fit in at the Camp Nou this season with the January firing of Ernesto Valverde and hiring of Quique Setien emblematic of a club that just wants to find some sense of self again.
The condensed conclusion to the Liga season, which will see Barcelona play 11 games in just five weeks, is exposing their every vulnerability. This is a team that is still overly reliant on its Old Guard. They need 32-year-old Messi and 33-year-old Luis Suarez to give them cutting edge in attack, and 31-year-old Sergio Busquets to anchor them in midfield. 31-year-old Jordi Alba remains Barca’s greatest source of width, while 33-year-old Gerard Pique is still their defensive bedrock.
Without any of them, Barcelona aren’t just weaker, but compromised. Their structure depends on each of these stalwarts and this has put Setien in a difficult position. While Real Madrid have the squad to rotate and keep their players fresh, Barca don’t have that. Right now, that is costing them, demonstrated by the listless performances turned in over their last three games.
And yet, hope still presented itself for Barcelona against Athletic Bilbao, with the second half introduction of Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig giving their side some life. Seen by many as the club’s brightest young talents, two players capable of re-establishing the pathway between Barca’s famed, but recently neglected La Masia youth academy, and the first team, they might also be key to the Catalans’ title chances this season.
Ivan Rakitic of FC Barcelona celebrates a goal during the spanish league, LaLiga, football match played between FC Barcelona and Athletic Club de Bilbao at Camp Nou Stadium on June 23, 2020 in Barcelona, Spain. The Spanish La Liga is restarting following
Image credit: Getty Images
With Ansu on the pitch, Barcelona’s frontline tends to open up. The 17-year-old provides a width Griezmann doesn’t. What’s more, his directness and willingness to take on defenders adds an element of chaos that invigorates others around him. Messi and Suarez play better when Ansu is in the side, whether it’s from the start or off the bench.
Puig’s contribution to Barca’s season hasn’t been so profound, but he could still prove an important squad member over the final few weeks of the title race.
Barcelona’s midfield is a conundrum right now, with Setien still to settle on the right formula between Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, Arthur and Arturo Vidal. Quite often, it is the latter who offers drive and dynamism. Otherwise, Barca’s pass-masters can play it a bit safe.
Billed as the natural heir to Andres Iniesta, Puig offers something a little different, proven by his 34-minute cameo on Tuesday. It was his risky pass into Messi that created the scenario from which Rakitic scored the only goal of the game. It was a pass Arthur, hooked after an hour, wouldn’t have made and Busquets likely wouldn’t have been in position to make.
Barcelona are in such a tangle right now, both as a club and a team, that no comprehensive solution will be found between now and the end of the season. At this moment, it’s simply about getting through each game. Ansu and Puig showed against Athletic Club that they can help them do that.