Barcelona got back to winning ways with a comfortable win over Villarreal at the Camp Nou, bringing back some much-needed confidence after a tough few weeks for Xavi’s men. Here are some quick thoughts in the aftermath of the game.
1) Fans have been calling for the three of them to start in midfield for some time and they finally got their wish as Xavi started Frenkie De Jong, Gavi and Pedri together for the first time this season. Consequently we saw the hosts play a more dynamic game with verticality the main theme as the ball was zipped around with pace and attacks reached the final third in double-quick time. While Pedri and Gavi were their usual excellent selves, De Jong was man of the match in the centre of the park. The Dutchman combined technique and physicality gracefully as he ran the midfield with effortless dribbling and pinpoint passing. How anyone at Barca can think De Jong doesn’t make the team better in midfield is beyond me. The standing ovation he got when subbed off spoke volumes about what the Barca faithful feel.
2) While the win was important after the setbacks against Real and Inter, some of the deficiencies that have been exposed by better opponents were on display against the Yellow Submarine. While Marcos Alonso is the kind of player who is effective for big moments, surely Barca didn’t anticipate using him as a makeshift centre-back when they signed him at the end of the summer. Alonso was caught out easily by a few long balls and coupled with the fact that defending isn’t the strongest suit for either Jordi Alba or Sergi Roberto on the flanks, it becomes easy to see why the Blaugrana have relied on Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s heroics over the past month. Simply put, if Barca are to beat better teams than them, Xavi needs his first choice defence fully fit.
3) That Villarreal weren’t able to expose the hosts weak link came down to their usual problems associated with an inability to find the net. The injury-enforced absence of several key attackers does provide Unai Emery some mitigation, but the slightly archaic tactics from the Basque manager meant the visitors didn’t do enough to really test Barca’s defence. Better build-up play and intricate passing could surely have posed more of a threat than route one football on this occasion.
4) No such problems for Barca up front as they scored three quick-fire goals against a defence that was the stingiest in the league before kickoff. Robert Lewandowski displayed brilliant awareness in the box to give the hosts the lead, then showcased his pure quality a few minutes to later to add another goal. Ferran Torres finally expressed himself in setting up the third for Ansu Fati, who himself deserved to score for another effervescent performance. While it was understandable that everyone at the club wanted him wrapped in wool at the start of the season, the growing understanding between Lewandowski and Fati suggests its time for Xavi to start the La Masia graduate ahead of Raphinha. Goals just seem more likely to come for Barca when Fati is on the pitch.
5) A final point on Villarreal. Dani Parejo is a midfielder I love to watch, an elegant passer who knits things together in midfield effortlessly. However, with both Frances Coquelin and Etienne Capoue out injured, Parejo’s lack of pace and physicality got exposed by the different qualities of the opposing midfield trio. It just goes to show that no matter how tactically savvy a manager may be, outside of the rarefied air of the elite clubs, there simply isn’t much many clubs can do when afflicted by an injury crisis.