Barcelona delivered what was an all-together listless performance on tilt against Getafe. This was a somewhat predictable outcome if you consider the defensive nature of the opposition and Ernesto Valverde’s decision to field a team with no rotation and only one regular starter on the bench.
I can see why Valverde took a chance on his senior players having enough gas to get through a dicey away fixture; three points here and Barcelona would be seven points clear of Real Madrid if they slip up at the Anoeta, giving him the perfect chance to rotate the squad at home against Eibar on Tuesday.
But as Valverde found out, his rotations needed to come sooner than that, and credit to the manager for nailing both of his substitutions in the second half. After going down 1-0 in the first half thanks to Gaku Shibasaki’s sensational volley, while losing Ousmane Dembélé to a hamstring injury in the process, Barcelona were in desperate need of a mixup. The midfield trio of Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic wasn’t getting overrun, per say, but they weren’t running the game like they were against Espanyol or Juventus, either.
Valverde’s first move was to insert Denis Suarez for Iniesta at halftime. Fifteen minutes after Denis tied the game with his brilliant strike in the 62nd minute, Paulinho came on to replace Rakitic. Seven minutes after coming on the pitch, Paulinho scored the goal, the first of his Barça career, that secured all three points for the Blaugrana.
The difference both players made was striking, and in a larger context, I think the difference these goals will make for the players will be massive.
For Denis Suarez, his 45 minutes on the pitch were a statement to the manager, all but demanding more opportunities in the starting XI with the quality of his play. From the moment he came on, Denis gave Barcelona a dynamic threat in midfield that it was lacking in the first half.
With Getafe bracketing Messi well, there was room in the left side of midfield to build attacks through, and Denis immediately became Barcelona’s creative hub. He slithered in between the lines, always looking to get on the ball, picked a couple of key passes and was showed great skill on the ball in tight spaces.
Suarez had some similarly bright moments during his occasional starts for Luis Enrique, but the thing that always kept him from earning a constant place in the team was his lack of end product. It seems like Denis doesn’t want the new manager to get the same impression. His equalizing goal was a world class finish; he did brilliantly to stop Sergi Roberto’s pinpoint pass with the bottom of his boot, paused for a brief second to calculate his shot and connected with a lovely finesse finish across the goalkeeper’s body.
For Paulinho, his goal changes the perception of him more so than the reality of his role in the team, and that can be important for a player’s psyche. In his brief cameos this season, Paulinho has shown that he is not some deadweight consequence of shady backroom dealings by Barcelona’s board. This is a talented player with a skillset unique to Barcelona’s midfield palette, and he has just won Barcelona a game with his trademark powerful run through midfield.
Paulinho has the steel and workrate to be an asset against teams that are good with the ball or as a late-game substitute to help secure a result, and he also has the desire to make late runs into the box and the finishing to give Barcelona a few goals throughout the season. He is a textbook box-to-box midfielder and his performances with Brazil rate him as one of the best in the world at his specific function.
Given the massive criticism of the signing and of him as a player when he made the move to the Nou Camp, scoring such a vital goal so early in his Barça career will go a long way in helping him settle at the club while Valverde searches for the most effective way to get him involved on a regular basis.
One thing Valverde’s successful second half subs couldn’t change was the listless nature the team started the game with. Dembélé’s injury didn’t help matters, but even as they remain undefeated this season, Barcelona has made starting slowly a habit. It isn’t just that the team isn’t scoring quickly enough, it is that they aren’t creating much, and the opposition has often been the more dangerous side in the opening half hour of games.
That was the case again against Getafe, with the difference being that they actually managed to get a goal past Marc Andre ter Stegen. Despite Shibasaki’s screamer, I actually thought the defense was OK and did a decent job of keeping the game in front of them. Gerard Pique had a couple of gaffes, but Samuel Umtiti was sensational at covering for everyone’s mistakes, often cutting out play before it began and using his pace and strength to secure a few last-ditch tackles.
The rest of the team, though, offered very little quality. Messi’s brilliant free kick, which forced a world class save from Getafe’s keeper Vicente Guaita, was the only real chance of the first half, and Valverde must have went into the locker room knowing he had to change something to give his attack a bit more creativity and fervor.
And change something Denis and Paulinho did. Their goals were massive in the moment, helping bring Barça back from the grave to steal three points. But even more so than what they meant for the team, I think these goals can be early-season bookmarks for Denis and Paulinho in what is a critically important campaign for both of them.