Although Barcelona’s perfect start in La Liga has been spotted with a few rough patches of disconnected or sterile football, the most encouraging thing about each result is the distinct summation of the match. Sure, the common denominator across all of the fixtures is Lionel Messi’s brilliance, but when you look elsewhere around the pitch, every game has told us something new about Barça’s players or how Ernesto Valverde plans to use them.
In Barcelona’s 6-1 victory against Eibar, two players making their first starts of the season took all of the plaudits – well, whatever ones were left after Messi’s four goals, that is. Denis Suarez and Paulinho were the second half heroes at Getafe, earning Barcelona all three points with their first goals of the season, and Valverde rewarded them with starts at the Nou Camp. With the injury to Ousmane Dembélé and the general need for rotation in the squad, those starts might have been no brainers, but nonetheless, both players did all they could to give Valverde a bit of a selection headache going forward.
If you told me Paulinho would end up being one of the top performers in the match after the first 30 minutes, I would have thought you were crazy. The Brazilian started the game poorly with heavy touches and loose passes. After a few early mishaps, you could sense the Camp Nou start to grumble. But his performance, the disposition of the team and the flow of the game all changed in an instant, when Paulinho came flying in to the middle of the box to thump home Denis’ corner kick in the 38th minute.
Once Paulinho scored, giving him goals in back-to-back games, he looked much more at ease and he delivered a phenomenal second half performance. All of a sudden those poor touches and questionable decisions turned into brilliant dummies and lovely interchanges with Messi. His decision to let the ball roll past him on a counter attack set Messi free down the right wing, and after Messi’s shot was saved, Denis buried the rebound. Ten minutes later, Messi and Paulinho combined again on the break, this time with Paulinho picking up the assist for Messi’s hat trick goal.
It wasn’t just a boost in confidence that had Paulinho played better, though; it had a lot to do with tactics. In the first half Paulinho was playing in a more conservative midfield role, playing closer to Sergio Busquets in the hole so that Iniesta had the creative freedom to roam in the attacking midfield areas. Paulinho can do this job, but he’s more suited to doing it against a team that plays with the ball so he can go win it back; on a night when Barcelona had 61 percent possession, that trait wasn’t needed.
In the second half, Paulinho was making more forward runs than anyone else on the pitch, and by occupying that right half space, he put himself in positions to link up with Messi, just like he did when he scored the winning goal against Getafe. Once Paulinho started getting forward, we got a glimpse of the kind of attacking support he can provide, particularly against teams that will set back and try and condense the pitch.
While Paulinho offers a bit of verticality and directness, Denis Suarez showcased his ability to fill the creative template the Barcelona needs to replace Dembélé in his absence and supplement Iniesta as he conserves himself throughout the season. Although he played on the left wing against Eibar, I still think Denis’ best position is Iniesta’s left centermid role, but it is good to know that he can still influence a game with his creativity from wider positions.
Suarez helped the Blaugrana break down Eibar with his mazy dribbling and willingness to combine with the midfield and forwards. His goal wasn’t quite as good as his one against Getafe, but it was still a fine near post finish, and once again hitting the back of the net provoked a rather violent first pump from Denis, who clearly senses that this is his moment, and he is seizing it well.
As Valverde’s tenure at Barcelona grows out of its infant stages, how he uses his players will become a less pertinent question than how often he uses them. Paulinho and Denis Suarez have made it clear during the past two games what they can offer the team. Now it up to Valverde to determine how badly the team needs what they offer.