- The excitement for the opening La Liga weekend was tempered by news that Lionel Messi would miss the match with a calf injury. Ernesto Valverde gave no updates on the long-term prognosis for the Argentine striker.
- In previewing the upcoming season, Valverde said that “if I am compared to George Clooney all day long, it’s going to be difficult” in explaining how the current Barcelona side stacks up to the best squads in the club’s history. So we should expect more pragmatism, and more Messi having to win matches, in lieu of any tactical innovation.
- Though there are still rumors of Neymar’s potential return hanging over the club, with Valverde wishing that the transfer window would close at the start of the season similar to the Premier League. “It’s inconvenient, there’s no logic to it” in keeping players in limbo for the rest of the month, according to Valverde.
- Staying on the topic of new transfers, the opening match against Athletic Bilbao will feature debuts from Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong. In fact, Barcelona could set out a starting 11 worth close to a billion dollars this season.
- Although that billion dollar number could be tempered by Coutinho’s rumored loan move to Bayern Munich.
- In looking inwards in contrast to Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao most significant move this summer came in extending 25-year-old Inaki Williams’ contract for nine more seasons. The striker had been the frequent target of moves away from the region. Considering both Williams’ ability plus the difficulty of finding a homegrown replacement, it is difficult to argue Athletic president Aitor Elizegi’s assessment that keeping Williams was the most important signing this summer.
- In adding to the further importance of Williams staying with the club, Aritz Aduriz announced that this upcoming season will be his last.
- Luis Suarez, Ousmane Dembele, and Griezmann make up Barcelona’s starting front three as expected. Messi will most likely take Dembele’s place in the lineup when he returns, though how does that lineup get further shuffled if Neymar signs? This Barcelona lineup without Messi and Sergio Busquets presents a vision of how the club could move on in the future.
- The match begins as expected, with Barcelona in possession and Athletic hitting out on the counter. Griezmann is whistled every time he touches the ball, even though his Real Sociedad years seem much longer than five years ago.
- The last we saw Barcelona, they lost 2-1 to Valencia in the Copa del Rey final. The match had a familiar rhythm with Barcelona passing around midfield without any direct threat while their opponents happily sat back and waited to create the better chances. De Jong and Griezmann were signed to add incision in the final third in these types of stylistic matchups.
- Griezmann is starting on the left wing and cutting in to create space for Jordi Alba. Meanwhile, Williams keeps getting free up the middle on counters as Athletic’s main outlet.
- Through 20 minutes, Suarez, Griezmann, and Dembele have yet to truly connect for any combination sequences. Suarez has barely touched the ball as the middle striker, with Griezmann and Dembele focused on 1 v 1 attacks on the wing. It is a similar story of Valverde’s side relying on individual brilliance like last season, but without Messi to bail them out.
- The commentators point out that this is the type of match where Coutinho’s creativity could have made a difference. De Jong is playing it safe thus far with no trademark carries through midfield. With Athletic this organized, Barcelona need that surprise ability to unlock this match.
- Athletic have under 40% possession 30 minutes in, but also have the only three shots of the game.
- Suarez hits the post on a wayward back pass. It’s telling that Barcelona’s first shot on target came off an opposition mistake. Suarez is then subbed off for Rafinha due to injury. Neymar may not only be a luxury, status signing, but a necessity with this aging attack.
- Griezmann is now the lone striker up top, with Dembele moving to the left wing.
- Rafinha, cutting in from the right wing, hits the crossbar right before half. This half has been as much about Athletic being comfortable with only 35% possession as Barcelona failing to connect in possession. You can see the structural deficiencies in Valverde’s setup without Messi. There’s no threat to Athletic’s goal.
- Ivan Rakitic, another subject of numerous rumors involving Neymar’s return, subs on for Carles Alena in the second half to inject more tempo to the side.
- Rafinha’s no-frills directness has been Barcelona’s most lively attack in the second half as they lack imagination in possession. Where is the buildup play between Griezmann and de Jong? Either Griezmann or Dembele will have to come up with something individualistic to win this match.
- Though as Barcelona attempts to figure out their possession, there are glimpses of Williams threatening just enough to keep ter Stegen and Barcelona focused.
- 19-year-old Oihan Sancet makes his senior debut for Athletic 65 minutes into the match. Sancet has been labeled as the crown jewel of the next generation of the club.
- Barcelona continue to pass along the edges of Athletic’s midfield in the dreaded U-shape. And while De Jong has shown little of his trademark drives, what room does he have to dribble through if Barcelona’s opponents are happy to defend deep in their own half? Athletic could do this - sit back and counter - all game.
- 21-year-old Carles Perez, who made his La Liga debut last season, subs on for Sergi Roberto. Griezmann and Dembele move up as the two strikers in an effort to make Athletic’s backline think just a little more. Barcelona are creating something of quarter and half chances through crosses and headers, but no definitive through balls to free up their attack.
- Williams subs off late for Aduriz, a symbolically appropriate sub featuring the club’s present and past goalscorers.
- In what will be one of the goals of the season, Aduriz scores off a bicycle from a cross in the 89th minute. Even at age 34, a goalscorer is a goalscorer, regardless of the moment. It’d be difficult to describe any match as “easy,” but this is a bread-and-butter performance of direct play from Athletic, and one which Barcelona has yet to figure out even with their summer signings.
- A 1-0 win is some way to start the season for Athletic. And while one will look at the possession stats, Gaizka Garitano’s side had Barcelona in front of them the entire match. They created the best chances even before the goal, and looked most likely to score from the start. Athletic could repeat that performance in their sleep.
- Valverde’s side brought little in the way of new ideas for their playing style. They continue to overrely on Messi - or any genius - to win matches without any combination play to create space for their nine-figure attack. I don’t remember Barcelona creating any chances through long passing sequences with slick movement. Neymar may need Barcelona, but Barcelona need Neymar even more.
La Liga Match Abstract: Athletic Bilbao 1, Barcelona 0