Barça’s first match back from another international break would be against Athletic Bilbao. At home against the Basque side and with several key injuries, Xavi had to find a way to finish with all three points. If he did, the Catalans would be just 1 point behind the league leaders. In the end, it would be Xavi’s substitutions that saw Barça escape with the win.
The match started at a good pace, with both teams having their chances in the first half. In the second, however, the Barcelona defense would slowly choke Bilbao out of the game as they gained more possession and more chances.
Xavi decided he needed a different presence up front, and decided to sub in Marc Guiu, a 17-year-old striker from La Masía. The youth academy never fails to disappoint, as he would finally find a way through to the back of the net. A difficult game against an always complicated opponent saw the fans at Montjuïc celebrating when all was said and done, but how did each player perform?
Marc-André ter Stegen – 8/10
The German keeper pulled off a few very fine saves in this one to deny the Williams brothers. He cut the angles very well to deny them clear chances and once again showed off his quick reflexes. He also was decisive in the air on more than one Bilbao corner. He, along with Iñigo Martínez, kept Barça in the match on more than one occasion. On the ball, he was solid. Nothing flashy, but that also means nothing risky.
Balde – 8/10
As I’ve been saying, Balde has all the physical tools to be one of the best left backs in the world. All of those skills were on display last night, for sure, but he also showed improved decision-making in the final third. He didn’t just fire balls into the box willy-nilly, but found Félix on more than one occasion and kept his head up. He also defended well against Iñaki Williams, whenever the Basque forward was on his wing. If he can keep this up, his potential truly is insane. Sometimes we forget that he’s still just 20 years old.
Martínez got the start against his former team, and he must have remembered some of the things they worked on in training in the Basque country, because he barely put a foot wrong in the first half. He defended very well and was in the right place at the right time often. Being a left-footed center back, he also showed off his passing range with several good switches of play over to Ferran on the right. He gave the team a bit of a different look in a game that required some more pragmatism. In the second half, his passing wasn’t quite as crisp, but he still defended well and looked good with Araújo at the back.
Christensen – 7/10
We need to start appreciating Christensen’s consistency more. Every time he plays, he drops a 7/10. He almost never makes mistakes, is competent on the ball, and is fast and strong enough to defend someone like Iñaki Williams and not look flustered. He made a good pairing with Martínez and kept Bilbao relatively quiet.
João Cancelo -7/10
A bit of a different game from Cancelo last night. He stayed back much more, and defended quite well all night against Nico Williams. You would’ve thought the speedy winger would get the better of Cancelo at least a few times, but he didn’t really. In the second half, he became more of a traditional overlapping right back, but he needs to start associating more with Yamal and Ferran. The hold-on-to-the-ball-for-way-too-long bug seems to have spread to Cancelo as well.
Araújo – 7/10
Came on in the 60th minute for Christensen. Truly one of the best defenders in the world. This is never more evident than when he’s barely noticeable on the field. Of course, he can pull off a goal-saving challenge or chase down a winger, but when he is simply solid at the back, he’s great. I quite like the tandem of him and Martínez (though not quite as much as him and Koundé).
Marcos Alonso – 7/10
Came on in the 79th to replace Balde. Right after he entered the match, Guiu scored, and his role basically turned into “hold the ball and waste time”, which he did quite well on a corner and a run down the left side. Alonso is good for this team in short stretches, or perhaps as an LCB if Martínez can’t go.
Gavi – 7/10
Not his finest game, but Gavi did well to combine with Félix and Fermín when he was able to receive the ball in between the lines. Gavi’s been at a very good level this season, but him occupying Pedri’s role doesn’t seem to work quite as well as Pedri yet. Not that they can’t co-exist, but Gavi simply does things a bit differently, and if Pedri had been playing there tonight, it might’ve looked a bit better. Of course, Gavi defends extremely well, so he always at least plays well.
Romeu – 5/10
Looked simply overmatched in this one. Defensively, he was fine, but not as resolute as he usually is. However, on the ball, he was pressured and looked shaky. Xavi tried to help him out a bit by dropping Gündoğan a bit deeper, but Romeu personifies an issue that Barça have at the moment – one of tempo. He holds on to the ball for far too long at times instead of quickly circulating it, and that caused him to lose possession a few times. The isolation in the midfield doesn’t help him, either.
Gündoğan – 6/10
Apart from one very good through ball to Balde in the first, Gündoğan is struggling. The German, along with Romeu, is simply not getting in done in the first phase of the buildup from the defense to the midfield. It’s a matter of positioning, yes, but also quick thinking and fast ball circulation. If the team can’t build through the middle, they’re forced to play it wide to Ferran and Félix. This isn’t ideal, though, since they’re receiving passes under heavy pressure, hugging the touchline, and with their back to the opponent’s half. This makes it difficult for them to do anything but lose the ball or pass it back. This, in turn, forces the defense, especially Martínez, to play long balls, which can work, but it simply isn’t the Barcelona style. The pivot position is going to be a difficult one to sort out for Xavi until he gets a true number 6.
Fermín Lopez – 7/10
Fermín’s energy and willingness to drive the ball forward is a breath of fresh air from the midfield positions. He definitely has an eye for goal, with an ability to make intelligent runs into the box. It didn’t quite come off for him today though, as he had a point-blank scoring chance smothered by Unai Simón (who did very well, to be fair). Despite not always being able to pull every forward pass, he was good in this one.
João Félix – 8/10
Speaking of energy, Félix seemed to take leadership of those forward positions with Lewandowski and Raphinha out. He was probably Barça’s best player from start to finish, taking the brunt of the offensive responsibility and looking very dangerous at times. He’s very motivated at the moment, and it shows. He had a shot quite early on that just grazed the crossbar, and another that forced a good save from Simón in the second half. He’s joined Xavi’s team in full stride, and was unlucky not to score in this one. He did find Guiu with a nice assist. On the other hand, he did hold the ball too long at times, but that seems to be a team-wide issue for some reason.
Ferran – 7/10
I’m tempted to give him an 8, because he did do very well as essentially the wide right winger. Despite intense defense from Yuri and later Lekue, he pulled off a few moves that made them look silly. He also made his way into the box a few times, but didn’t look too dangerous overall. Despite this, he had a good match.
Lamine Yamal – 7/10
Came on in the 60th for Romeu. Did well. He had one nice dribble that helped him find his way into the box, but his cross was just headed over by Félix. As always, did well to hold the width on the right, which sneakily helped Guiu find a run in behind for his goal.
Marc Guiu – 9/10
What a night for the 17-year-old from Granollers! With his very first touch of the match, he controlled the nice pass from Félix, and with his second, he snuck the ball under Simón’s arm for his debut goal and the match-winner. While Barça attacked well at times, the types of runs that a youthful, pure striker would make were what was needed to break this game open. Masterful substitution by Xavi here.
Do you agree with my player ratings? Who stood out to you today? Let us know in the comments below.