Ernesto Valverde’s gambles paid off, with Arturo Vidal stabbing home from a yard out to earn Barcelona a barely deserved 2-1 win at Leganes on Saturday.
However, the Spanish champions’ many flaws were once again exposed in Madrid, proving that their beleaguered boss still doesn’t know how to get the best out of his players on the road, particularly Antoine Griezmann, or even how exactly he wants his team to play. The consensus is that Valverde still doesn’t know his strongest side.
Valverde’s line-up certainly raised plenty of eyebrows here, with Arthur Melo left out of the squad completely, even though he has been one of the club’s better players this season and is an exponent of the passing game the fans want to see.
Gerard Pique started, not least because of an injury to Clement Lenglet, but you get the feeling that Valverde would have preferred to rest the veteran centre-half, given he has spent a significant chunk of the week jetting to Madrid and back to look after his ‘baby’ – the Davis Cup.
Pique is the brains behind the revamp of one of tennis’ most famous tournaments and recently admitted that he is so busy at the moment that he rarely gets more than five hours’ sleep these days.
He certainly looked sluggish during what was an early start against Leganes, with his slack defending partially to blame for the opening goal, which was finished brilliantly by Youssef En-Nesyri after just 12 minutes of play.
With Pique still dozing, Leganes could have grabbed another, but Oscar Rodriguez sent his vicious snap-shot inches wide of Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s near post.
Most curiously, the coach opted for a ‘Fantastic Four’ up front for the first time, with Luis Suarez leading the line, ahead of Griezmann on the left, Lionel Messi floating and Ousmane Dembele on the right.
It didn’t work, with Barcelona’s star names failing to click at all.Griezmann still looks lost on the left. It’s not his natural position, and, to tell the truth, neither is centre-forward.
At Atletico Madrid, the Frenchman worked best playing off Diego Costa, a position which Barcelona don’t use.This match was the closest they have come to using it but if anybody is going to take that free role, it’s Messi.
Unsurprisingly, the Argentine was the architect of Barcelona’s equaliser, with his perfectly placed free kick giving Suarez the simple task of nodding home the equaliser just after the restart.
Valverde brought Ivan Rakitic on for the booked Sergio Busquets – the Croatian may have to play in the holding role next week against Atletico Madrid with the Catalan defensive midfielder now suspended for that crucial clash – and was then joined by Vidal, who was introduced in place of the ineffective Griezmann.
That meant that Barca had two battlers in midfield, a far cry from the pass masters of previous eras.
Vidal ended up sweeping home the winner with just 11 minutes to go but there was a huge element of luck about the goal, with the ball having dropped invitingly for him in the six-yard box courtesy of a deflection off a Leganes player.Indeed, this was a victory that came more by desperation than design.
Even Valverde’s third substitution was utterly baffling, with Ansu Fati thrown on in place of Frenkie de Jong, one of the few players who have pulled their weight this season.
It was a move that made little sense. Not much about Valverde’s Barcelona does right now.
The Catalans got away with another bumbling performance at Leganes. They are unlikely to be so fortunate if they produce something similar against Atletico next weekend.