I’m not sure a team has ever needed a win on the first day of the season as badly as Barcelona did on Saturday night. Aside from the football situation, which either deteriorates or develops by the hour depending on what reports you believe, after the attacks in Catalonia during the week, the Blaugrana were looked upon for some brief moments of levity and joy.
And Ernesto Valverde’s men delivered.
Despite a horrid showing the both legs of the Spanish Super Copa against Real Madrid and despite a roster that has neither gained a star talent in Neymar’s weight nor shed any of the excess players who are being paid big wages to make up the numbers in training, Barcelona put together a strong performance against Real Betis, capturing a 2-0 victory in their initial voyage of what promises to be an intriguing season.
Valverde made a big call with his selection and tactics, putting Lionel Messi back in the false nine role that he became familiar with under Pep Guardiola, while starting Paco Alcacer and Gerard Deulofeu as the forwards alongside him. In defense, Valverde once again had Barcelona in a flat 4-4-2 shape, but instead of putting Alcacer up top alongside Messi, Paco was a left midfielder in defense while Sergi Roberto partnered with Messi up top.
Having Roberto up top with Messi was a smart decision from Valverde because his tireless work ethic was able to offset Messi’s lack thereof and it got him involved in the game from kickoff. Roberto’s defensive work set the tone for the team’s pressure in winning the ball back, and his fluid pressing positions made it extremely difficult to pick up for the Betis defenders to pick him up once the ball turned over.
Barcelona showed a great intensity and desire to win the ball back whenever Betis had possession in their own third, which created useful turnovers and greatly contributed to Barcelona’s comfortable and careful tempo throughout the game. The Blaugrana would create a moment or two of chaos with their high press, with Javier Mascherano stepping up into midfield as Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic joined the full backs and the forwards in trapping Betis in tight areas.
While Barcelona dominated possession in the first half, first half hour of the game was mostly devoid of the chances. The game’s heartbeat spiked in a three-minute span around the 36th minute when Gerard Deulofeu began to get into the box and make things happen. For the first goal, Messi spread the play wide for Deulofeu, who seemed to connect with him for a brilliant 1-2 around the box, but the ball took a deflection off Betis defender Alin Tosca and Messi just missed getting a touch on it for his first goal of the season.
To Betis’ credit, they nearly leveled the game in the immediate aftermath of the own goal. Some great work in tight spaces down the left side of Barcelona’s defense and a missed clearance from Samuel Umtiti opened up a terrific counter attack for Sergio Leon. Leon was able to pace past Mascherano initially, but as he slowed up to open his body for a shot, Mascherano pulled off one of his trademark tackles to win the ball back inside Barcelona’s penalty area.
Mascherano’s goal-saving tackle not only prevented Betis’ best chance of the game from taking place, it also sprung a move that led to Barcelona’s second goal. Not even 30 seconds after Mascherano’s heroic challenge, Deulofeu was working a bit of magic right side of the penalty area, nutmegging a defender on the goal line before dribbling into the box and cutting the ball back to Roberto, who made an intelligent run to the top of the box and finished his chance creatively across the keeper’s body.
Barcelona would threaten to add more goals to the scoreboard after that, mainly through Messi, who hit the bar three times in this game and had two free kicks just graze over the bar, but Betis wouldn’t attempt another shot until the 90th minute. It was a dominant game in the middle of the park for a Barcelona team that was demolished in that area against Madrid, and the Blaugrana were able to keep comfortable possession of the ball for the entirety of the game after taking the lead.
Busquets and Rakitic played in a double pivot in possession and were magnificent in controlling the game. Busquets led the team with 110 touches while Rakitic followed closely behind with 108, and both completed 90 percent of their passes or better. Even though Betis is far from the finished product, at least that is what new boss Quique Setien will hope, how well these two played alongside each other can’t be ignored. Busquets has not always thrived while playing in a two-man midfield, but he looked excellent on the ball and in defense with Rakitic playing on his right-hand side.
Speaking of dominating on the right side, new signing Nelson Semedo made his first start as a Barcelona player and was incredibly lively down the flank. He was magnificent on the ball in tight spaces, combined well with Deulofeu and even made some infield runs that will surely be more profitable once Valvede’s strongest possible XI is on the pitch. And though Betis didn’t test any of Barcelona’s defenders much, Semedo showed a willingness to close down the ball and get tight to his man, which was a welcome sight after Aleix Vidal’s rather lackadaisical approach in the first leg against Real Madrid.
Betis will have far better days than this. The lack of familiarity within the squad and the absence of a couple of key contributors certainly made this an almost impossible opening day fixture. But they are still a solid side and Barcelona’s all-around performance was encouraging. Of the 14 players that Valverde put on the pitch, very few of them ever put a foot wrong in this match, and while the squad is very much a work in progress as the close of the transfer window approaches, the players that are here now did well to start the season off on a positive note.