On a day when Leo Messi became the leading goal-scorer in La Liga history, there was more to note than the new record, Messi’s hat-trick, or the win. Let’s take a look at several interesting facts about today’s game.
1. The Lineup
According to official team announcements, no players were injured heading into the match – meaning Luis Enrique had the entire team as his disposal for this match. In the 18 man squad, he excluded Iniesta, Mascherano, and others – giving some insight into what we might see. Starting the game, we had the standard 4-3-3. Let’s take a look at each “section” of the team sheet and what we learned from today’s performance.
- Fullbacks – Pique, Mathieu: A solid game from both, most notably from Pique who has been under fire since the beginning of last season. Mathieu also had a great game, both positionally and with the ball at his feet – much better in CB than he has shown at LB.
- Wingbacks – Alba, Alves: Yea, I’m calling them wing backs. Both players played great in offense, overlapping with style, setting up chances, and helping to solidify the mid-field (the key to this game in my opinion). Alba continually outran the Sevilla’s forwards when in retreat, and truly looked world-class. Alves, the bain of many Barça supporters, seems key to the team and I will be sad if he does in fact move away from the team in the near term.
- Midfield – Instead of utilizing Iniesta or Mascherano, Enrique went with the stalwart Sergio accompanied by both Xavi and Rakitic. This is an interesting move, since Rakitic has been pegged as the successor to Xavi, and up until now they have not really been positioned together in the same 11. Sergio could best be described as a CDM, with Xavi and Rakitic both being CM (not CAM, a role usually played by Iniesta). In the end, this move proved fruitful, as the midfield pairing dominated possession and limited counter attacks on multiple occasions. With the firepower of the forwards in place plus the advancing wing-backs, there’s no need to have an advancing midfield to the degree we often see. Going forward, can Iniesta fit into this mold? His play so far this year has been great, but even as Rafinia was subbed in (a more offensive mid), we could see the game start to open-up, removing the control that Barça previously had over the play.
- Forwards – Neymar, Messi, Suarez: More on them below.
Suarez has yet to score a goal at Barça. Nobody minds. He’s had 4 assists now, in 277 minutes of action (averaging more than one a game). He’s completed over 81% of his passes, and while he’s only averaging 1.5 shots per game, he’s involved in the offense in creative ways and is contributing to the flow of the game. The decision to start him over Pedro (or others) is easy now, and while that goal will come (likely along with many others), nobody is yelling for his replacement. Had Messi not been 3 feet inside him and lunged for the record-breaker, he would have tipped it in and none of this would be of discussion.
3. The relationship between Neymar and Messi
Last year, the relationship between the two most valued Barça players seemed a little strained. Both seemed able to make runs, react to formation changes ahead of them, and score goals – but they weren’t really working TOGETHER. This year, it’s a completely different story. At times, they seem to be working to set each other up before scoring for themselves, working TOO had to get that perfect assist instead of the shot into the upper 90. Their partnership is amazing, and they both talk about how happy they are to be playing together so easily. With the coming Copa America, it’s nice to see an Argentine and Brazilian working so well together in club soccer. The balance between assist and shot is key – and this will be important to watch going forward. Too often Barça looks to “pass it into the net”, but when Neymar and Messi can team up well, it’s well-set shots that clear the keeper.
What does this mean going forward?
Who knows. The team looked great on Saturday for most of the game. While Sevilla is a good team (currently 5th in the standings), they’re not Madrid, and thinking that the five goals could be repeated against one of the bigger teams in Europe is silly. It does, however, show us that some changes lead to results. Iniesta, while still an amazing player may need to change his role (again) in order to fit with this Barça. Mathieu may be best served in central defense. Suarez might be the assist maker more than the goal maker – and he’ll need to be okay with that.
All in all a good win – and one that brightens the hopes as we head into a stretch of 2x/week games up until the Christmas break.