In a combative match at Camp Nou, Barcelona beat Leganes 3-1. The first half was illuminated by a brilliant display from Ousmane Dembele, and the second half saw Leo Messi light up the Camp Nou yet again. Who were the winners and losers?
Winner: Ousmane Dembele
What a mixed night for Ousmane Dembele. First the bad: his injury. It doesn’t look too serious, Ernesto Valverde said they believe it’s a “light sprain” in his post-match interview. But any time out right now is such a horrible setback for a player who is absolutely flying right now.
Because that was the good part of his game tonight. He was absolutely sublime from the first minute right up to the point when he hurt his ankle stretching for the ball. This was not just a display of great decisiveness with his goal, he’s done that many times already this season. No, this was a wholly collective display, the kind of thing that shows why, despite what some say, he was born to play for Barcelona.
Dembele had the Camp Nou on their feet repeatedly with his dribbling in the first hour, taking opponents on with child-like glee. Kind of like Neymar but without any of the absurd theatrics. His use of skill and his love of dribbling recalled Ronaldinho, the Brazilian sorcerer who taught Catalunya how to smile again over a decade ago.
But all of those tricks, all of the “oohs” and the “aahs” never came at the expense of genuinely intelligent football. A true collective display of passing, pressing and precision play. Though he relished in some ankle-breaking skills, his head was constantly up; he never ignored team-mates in better positions than him and was quick to release the ball.
In many ways, his goal, a sublime finish where he opened his body up to slap the ball in off the far-post with his right-foot, was probably the least impressive thing he did at the Camp Nou. This was Total Barça, and whenever he gets back from injury, he will do so knowing that all his critics were wrong and he has everything it takes to become a Barcelona legend.
Winner: Jordi Alba
There’s no better left-back on the planet right now than Jordi Alba. The man exploded under Ernesto Valverde last season but in 2018/19 he has taken his quality to new heights. His movement has always been on-point, but now his passing range has improved and so has his intelligence and decision-making. He’s become such a supreme outlet on the left.
He registered two assists against Leganés. First to Dembele with a delightful square pass, and then again a delicious clip back for Leo Messi, reuniting the most deadly partnering in world football right now. Alba’s understanding with Messi was perfect as it nearly always is; the way that he knows when to run, when to hold, and most unerringly when and where to put the ball.
Messi lit up the second half with a goal and a fantasy-style assist, a true virtuoso performance like Dembele’s great solo skill in the first period, but it was Jordi Alba who was the thumping bass line running beneath this battling Barcelona performance.
Loser: Thomas Vermaelen
Look. it can’t be easy to be a professional footballer that is constantly injured. Thomas Vermaelen is an extremely talented player who has spent the better part of the last half decade injured, so while it’s always nice to see him in the line-up it has to be done with the understanding that all the downtime has very much dulled his ability.
Ernesto Valverde selected him to keep Clement Lenglet fresh, and he looked alright for much of the game. Nothing too special, but solid enough. That is until Leganés actually attacked the Barcelona defence with any real thrust; then he played Youssef En-Nesyri onside as the Moroccan was played in down the wing and then when he sent a cross in, despite being ahead of the near-post so not under threat of an own goal, Vermaelen didn’t attempt to cut out En-Nesyri’s cross and allowed it fly across the face of goal for Leganés to score. There was one nice bit of defending against sub-Michael Santos late on, but one can see why Barcelona aren’t going to renew his contract.
Winner: Martin Braithwaite
What is it with Middlesbrough strikers and La Liga? Cristhian Stuani has been a roaring success in Spain’s top flight after bombing out of the Riverside, and now Martin Braithwaite has joined Leganés and in his first week has bagged goals against Real Madrid and Barcelona.
For much of the game, Braithwaite was isolated from everyone. He battled with the Barcelona centre-backs all night long but rarely had any support even though there were flashes of athleticism and intelligence that showed he could hurt the Blaugrana if supplied. And then just short of the hour, En-Nesyri supplied him and Braithwaite was on hand to bag his historic goal. What a week!
It really is incredible to see the third most expensive player in the world look so devoid of confidence, but Coutinho really struggled to make an impact against Leganés despite playing 90 minutes in the same position and seeing plenty of the ball.
Ernesto Valverde put him in the perfect position to succeed, yet the Brazilian just couldn’t get it together. Sure there were lots of nice touches and some relatively smart decisions being made, but in terms of doing anything of substance, making key passes, there was just nothing.
One can see why people are linking him with moves abroad to Manchester United and other places. Coutinho’s quality cannot be doubted, of course, but right now he just looks lost and frustrated on the big pitch in Catalunya.
Winner: La Masia
For all the stagnation of La Masia under Luis Enrique’s time in charge of Barcelona, and despite Ernesto Valverde’s seeming reluctance to give young players the minutes they need to improve, the victory over Leganés may well have been a watershed moment.
Carles Aleña started the match, a serious match in La Liga. That alone would have been a big statement, but Aleña actually played brilliantly. He was courageous, making forward passes full of intent and then also carrying the ball forward repeatedly. The way he would hold off challenges and drive the ball forward at the Leganés goal was almost Messi-esque.
Given all the rumours about Frenkie de Jong choosing PSG, and that Adrien Rabiot is proving to be a demanding headache to deal with as a free transfer, Aleña playing this well in midfield felt like a very important performance. Why should Barcelona invest so heavily in creative midfielders if they can produce talents like Aleña and Riqui Puig? That money could be better spent in attack and defence, letting these young talents shine in midfield.
Winner: Ernesto Valverde’s stature
There’s been a lot to criticise when it comes to Ernesto Valverde’s second season as Barcelona boss, but today he showed multiple instances of him very much “getting it” – i.e. understanding that he is managing an elite club with a great squad and serious aims to win it all.
First, Leo Messi and Ivan Rakitic weren’t in the starting XI. This was crucial, Messi is obviously the side’s best player and Rakitic is Valverde’s safety blanket. A tireless worker who brings true stability to the midfield with his solid defensive work. Resting them both (as well as Clement Lenglet) showed that Valverde understood that a long season necessitated rotation.
Second, when Leganés pulled it back against Barcelona and Valverde had to make changes, it would have been very easy for him to remove a misfiring Coutinho and retain the side’s 4-3-3 shape or even switch to a cautious but focused 4-4-1-1. Instead he removed two midfielders (albeit he brought Ivan Rakitic on alongside Messi) and switched to a 4-2-3-1.
Third, when Dembele unfortunately got injured just minutes later, Valverde could have brought on trusted midfielder Arturo Vidal – after all he is a goalscorer. But it seemed like Valverde finally understands the value of pace, as he brought on Malcom. The Brazilian proved this to be a smart move as his pace proved effective at keeping Leganés from piling forward in attack.
All in all, Valverde’s line-up was great and his changes were smart. He rotated well but then made good changes to react to a setback on the field. It does seem as though the coach is really hitting his stride in this second season.