After a convincing win in the first match of the post-Messi era, Barcelona was brought back down to earth with a thud in Matchday 2, lucky to escape with a 1-1 draw from Bilbao against an Athletic Club that was the better team but unable to capitalize on a multitude of chances.
This was the marquee matchup of the La Liga weekend slate and Barcelona was never going to have an easy time of it. Athletic gave Barca a tough time in four matches last season, including the two cup finals they split. And the home team played with no fear: The Athletic players were all over Barcelona in the first half, forcing multiple turnovers and creating chances before tiring late in the second half. Athletic ultimately took the lead before a moment of magic from Memphis Depay led to an equalizer with 15 minutes remaining.
The game was revealing because it exposed a handful of Barcelona players and other weak spots that should give manager Ronald Koeman plenty to think about ahead of the club’s next match against Getafe. And this wasn’t even Athletic Club’s best team:
This is an absolutely incredible performance from Athletic Club. Without their first choice left back, right back, centre back and goalkeeper. They have steamrollered Barcelona.
— Phil Kitromilides (@PhilKitro) August 21, 2021
Griezmann and Braithwaite fail to show up
At least Martin Braithwaite had one chance. His fellow attacker Antoine Griezmann was invisible for the entire match (a lone off-target shot) and never a threat, although he worked hard tracking back to help in midfield. Still, the front trio of Braithwaite, Griezmann and Depay rarely connected and it was only a solo run and rip by Depay that got Barcelona on the board.
Braithwaite’s incredible miss after six minutes could have changed the course of the match. But setting aside that one chance, the attackers left a lot to be desired: Outside of Depay, there weren’t many dangerous runs or creative plays coming from the front three. That includes teenage debutant Yusuf Demir, who came on for Braithwaite for the final 30 minutes.
Their cause wasn’t helped by a Barcelona midfield that struggled to dictate play, though it looked better with Sergi Roberto in place of Pedri, who appears ready for his forced two-week vacation after a busy summer.
“We didn’t play a great game. It cost us from the start,” Griezmann said. “They pressured well. We were slower than usual — things to improve upon and keep working like we’re doing. It’s a point. We’ll take it and we’ll focus on Getafe. But we didn’t have a great game.”
De Jong, Depay step up in a big way
Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets are the club’s veterans, but at their age (34 and 33, respectively) they’re not going to have a significant influence on matches like they once did. That was left to Depay and Frenkie de Jong on this day.
De Jong was making plays on both ends. He hit the crossbar in the 74th and made a sensational sliding tackle in the 18th. He had his share of giveaways, but he didn’t shrink in a tough game and he started the play that led to Barcelona’s goal.
And when Barcelona needed a player to come up with a flash of talent, Depay came through with his first goal for the club, taking a feed on the left and then placing the ball in the top corner. It was a sensational strike. He almost won the game with four minutes left on a diagonal shot that finished just wide.
Both of them showed that they have the personality to assert themselves during one of the most pressure-packed moments in the club’s recent history.
What is Barcelona’s best back line?
In the end, it may have worked out for Barcelona that Pique picked up an early hip injury and was forced to leave the game, replaced by Ronald Araujo after 30 minutes. Araujo’s youthful athleticism was very necessary; the Uruguayan saved a goal on an acrobatic clearance and arguably should have had Barcelona’s first goal on a bicycle kick. (It was erased for an alleged foul in the attacking build-up.)
Pique been subbed off six times in his last 13 Barca starts, says @OptaJose, which is a bit worrying.
— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) August 21, 2021
The other starting center back, Eric Garcia, had an equally rough go of it, victimized by Athletic’s center back on their corner kick header goal. But Garcia also played the match after receiving the news that his grandfather had died. Whether or not he was in a frame of mind to play the match, the bottom line is that he was regularly beaten by Athletic’s attackers in one-on-one, open-field plays, including on his stoppage-time red-card foul. The automatic red-card suspension will force Koeman to experiment more with the back line next weekend.
Eric García found out his grandmother died minutes before kick-off. He’s a 20-year-old kid making his second appearance for Barcelona.
Sure, this won’t be the best game of his career, but some people need to lay off him a bit.
— Sam Leveridge (@samleveridge) August 21, 2021
The fullbacks — Sergino Dest on the right and Jordi Alba on the left — were also targeted by Athletic every time they pushed up the field. As usual, Dest was the most enterprising, though he often indulged a bit much with the dribbling moves. But neither of them made a significant contribution to Barcelona’s stunted attack and their crossing was lacking — they hit on one of 10 combined cross attempts per SofaScore stats.
By the end of the season, a draw at Athletic Bilbao should look like a strong result (Athletic only suffered three losses in 19 home matches last season). Not many teams will have what it takes to go into the San Mames and survive the pressure that Athletic exerts. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that new-look Barcelona is still very much a work in progress two games into the La Liga season.
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