After an encouraging preseason that included a victory against a similar portion of this Real Madrid squad, Barcelona were eviscerated at the Nou Camp in the opening leg of the Spanish Super Copa.
Barcelona offered virtually nothing in the first half, with Valverde electing to have his team sit back in a narrow 4-4-2 shape while offering little pressure as Madrid tried to build from the back. Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez did no closing down of Madrid’s center backs while Gerard Deulofeu and Ivan Rakitic both tucked into the midfield line to create a compact block. Barcelona was successful in preventing Madrid from creating a lot of scoring chances, but this is simply not how Barcelona is expected to play against Real Madrid, especially at the Nou Camp.
Once Madrid identified Barcelona’s weak link defensively – the right-hand side, Aleix Vidal in particular – they focused on getting Marcelo the ball and created chance after chance around the right side of Barcelona’s box. Although it wasn’t their most dangerous move, Marcelo created the opening goal by skinning Vidal and putting in what should have been fairly routine cross, except Gerard Pique intervened (likely unnecessarily) and scored an own goal.
After that goal, Barcelona’s mindset changed and they had more intention of getting up the field, but unfortunately they displayed neither the tactical awareness nor the skill to cause Madrid’s defense any trouble. Messi was forced to drop into central positions all half in order to get moves started, which kept him from being able to get into the final third to create a goal. Without Neymar and with a midfield featuring an aging Andres Iniesta and an exhausted Ivan Rakitic and Suarez in such poor form in front of goal, Messi is both Barcelona’s only creator and only finisher, and it isn’t possible for him to be two places at once.
In the second half, Barcelona was even more aggressive, but once again, intent didn’t translate to invention. Barca was lucky to get on the scoresheet at all, for Suarez’s dive in the box led to a seemingly underserved penalty, which Messi buried to level the game in the 77th minute. But as so often is the case against Real Madrid, once the Blaugrana started pushing for a goal, they were always vulnerable on the counter. With Vidal in particular pushing so high up the field on the right hand side, Cristiano Ronaldo was able to race up the pitch and fire in a spectacular long-range goal in the 80th minute as Pique backed off him to give him space.
Vidal can’t be totally blamed for being in such advanced positions; with Messi playing as a 10 as he has for almost the entire preseason, someone has to provide Barcelona some width on the right side, and Vidal is the most obvious candidate. But that doesn’t mean it won’t lead to disastrous consequences, especially against the best counter-attacking team in the world.
Once Madrid scored their second, I would have suggested that Barcelona ease up on their pursuit of an equalizer because another away goal would have been the end of the tie. Unfortunately, Valverde thought otherwise, subbing on Paco Alcacer for Rakitic and instructing the team to get numbers into the box rather than taking a more conservative approach to finish the game at the Nou Camp so they could push for a win at the Bernabeu where their goals would have more value.
Marco Asensio, Madrid’s second sub of the evening, would add the third in the 90th minute, again beating Barcelona’s defense in transition and firing the ball past a helpless Marc Andre ter Stegen as Pique did little to close him down. And as Ronaldo did before him, Asensio got revenge on the Nou Camp for Messi’s celebration at the Bernabeu last season, adding insult to injury for cules.
There were horrid performances all across the pitch for the Blaugrana. Worst of all was on the right side of the defense, where Vidal and Pique were exposed countless times throughout the night. Madrid could have even had more goals at Pique’s expense had Jordi Alba not saved Dani Carvajal’s shot off the line in the 55th minute. It was also shocking to see Vidal make it through all 90 minutes with both Sergi Roberto and Nelson Semedo on the bench. I couldn’t believe that Valverde didn’t put Semedo on the pitch at halftime after the way Vidal played in the first half.
Roberto would eventually get on, replacing Iniesta in midfield, and he was the only player in the middle of the park for Barcelona that showed a desire to get forward. Rakitic, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets were run ragged by Madrid’s star-studded midfield, with Isco in particular dazzling the Nou Camp with flicks and tricks, while Toni Kroos and Mateo Kovacic offered Madrid control in key areas.
Barcelona looked a team without a plan, nor a shred of confidence, in their first competitive game of the season. There will always be a buffer period while a team adapts to a new manager’s tactics and philosophies, but what we saw in the first leg of this competition was nothing short of a betrayal of Barcelona’s roots. From sitting back in the first half to offering no quality in midfield and getting played off the pitch at the Nou Camp by their arch rivals, Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona could not have made a worse first impression.