Barcelona pummelled Eibar 3-0 to maintain pressure at the top of La Liga as Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi all scored in the same game together for the first time.
Griezmann opened the scoring in the 13th minute after racing through down the left channel and finished well at the near post.
The France international then turned provider by deftly diverting the ball into Messi’s path inside the box with the captain applying a smart finish in the 58th minute.
And Messi then returned the favour for Suarez, squaring to the Uruguayan when slipped clean through by Griezmann on 66 minutes.
There were a number of impressive performances in Blaugrana and here’s how we rated Ernesto Valverde’s side.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen 6 – Eibar’s imprecision in front of goal meant he had a quiet afternoon despite the bombardment of crosses into the Barca box. He’ll be delighted with a third straight league clean sheet.
Sergi Roberto 5 – Valverde insisted before the season Sergi would return to midfield, but he played right-back and struggled in the first half as Eibar surged through the channels. Was substituted at half-time with a suspected knee injury.
Samuel Umtiti 7 – A strong performance for the Frenchman who was making his first competitive appearance for Barca since May 12 against Getafe some five months ago. Dominant in the air and assured on the deck as well.
Clement Lenglet 7 – Barca don’t often go from back to front for their goals, but with Lenglet’s delivery perhaps though should do so more often. Beautiful pass to set a scampering Griezmann away for the first and typically solid all afternoon.
Jordi Alba 7 – The left-back had been missing since limping off against Borussia Dortmund last month but it was as if he’d never been away on his return to the XI. High energy on both sides of the ball and very neat in possession.
Frenkie de Jong 8 – He was everywhere and did everything. The Dutchman is growing into his more advanced midfield role and he absolutely dominated on Saturday. Led the way in key passes for his side alongside third-highest pass accuracy of 90 per cent from 50 attempted. Physically he was very impressive and took control of this game.
Sergio Busquets 6 – Looked the weak link in midfield once again. Slowed down Barca transitions and was inaccurate with a number of passes.
Arthur Melo 8 – Not too far behind De Jong when it comes to relevancy in this game. Super cute turns and quick passes to aid the Barca’s possession flow. Added bite defensively against the robust hosts.
Messi, Suarez and Griezmann all score in the same game together for the first time ⚽️⚽️⚽️ pic.twitter.com/0K4yMwLPn4— Sport360° (@Sport360) October 19, 2019
Lionel Messi 8 – He’s returning to his best form. Some moments of hesitation, particularly in a one v one with the Eibar keeper in the first half, but he was typically central to Barca’s attack and took his goal well.
Luis Suarez 7 – Gratefully tapped in from Messi’s unselfish pass but was great all afternoon, linking superbly with the Argentine and Griezmann.
Antoine Griezmann 8 – One of his best displays in a Barca shirt. Looked so comfortable with Messi and Suarez closer to him and influenced all three goals, scoring one, assisting another and playing an unreal pass before the assist for Barca’s third. First goal away from Camp Nou as well.
Nelson Semedo (45′) 7 – He’s in good form for Barca and that continued when brought on at the break for an injured Sergi. Eibar didn’t have any joy thanks to his physical presence on the right side.
Arturo Vidal (71′) 6 – Brought on for Arthur to add steel and see the game out. Did his job.
Ivan Rakitic (79′) 5 – Replaced De Jong but his heavy touches were the sign of a man in a reduced role this season.
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Barcelona have a rich history of playing fluid attacking football, are the reigning Spanish champions and boast a wealth of technically gifted players.
Yet, the La Liga giants have been rather hit and miss this season with the extent of their underwhelming performances only mitigated by the similar struggles of rivals Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.
Early in the season for instance, they could only muster half the efforts at goal as newly-promoted Osasuna when they paid them a visit. The Catalans came away with a 2-2 draw, taking their points tally to five from a possible 12 at the time.
The caveat remains that Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele were all missing through injury for that encounter. But while some suggested Ernesto Valverde could hide behind their absence, the truth is that the shortcomings of his approach were never more exposed.
Good systems and styles of play transcend personnel. Yes, a drop in performance is inevitable if key players are absent but the functionality should largely remain consistent.
After deploying a compact 4-4-2 formation in his first season – that made Barca purists wince – Valverde had found the necessary balance to compensate for defensive shortcomings. However, the same vulnerabilities began to reappear last term.
Meanwhile, with fans, and quite possibly the club hierarchy, urging Valverde to play a more attacking brand of football, he’s succumbed this season and opted for an on-brand 4-3-3 system.
Yet, that is neither here nor there. It’s a compromise which serves no one.
Results have improved in recent weeks but none have been entirely convincing. A 4-0 win at home to Sevilla was the outlier but even that result was slightly flattering.
Valverde has fumbled around for the right formula while seemingly married to a 4-3-3 set up. There may, though, be another system which is more suited to this Barcelona side and extracts the most out of their players.
Here, we make a case for the 4-2-3-1 formation.
THE DOUBLE PIVOT
Frenkie de Jong is one of the most gifted midfielders in the game but his start at Barcelona has been underwhelming, though through no fault of his own. He’s shown glimpses of brilliance but in certain games he’s been asked to play more advanced to accommodate Sergio Busquets as the anchorman.
De Jong’s ability to drop alongside the centre-backs and either pass or carry the ball out from defence is wasted if he’s not in a position to do so. A double pivot in midfield would see both Busquets and De Jong benefit from deeper roles.
The veteran would bring experience and stability at the core while De Jong’s mobility ensures gaps are plugged and space is exploited in possession.
For Valverde, the system provides the defensive assurance he craves without the limitations of a 4-4-2 formation. From a spectator’s perspective it does allow for more freedom further up the pitch.
There are also options to tweak the approach with personnel changes. Valverde has Ivan Rakitic, Arthur and Arturo Vidal to choose from, each offering a different skill set.
Sergi Roberto divides opinion, not only in terms of his ability but also his position. A central midfielder by trade, he’s always looked like a square peg in a round hole when deployed at right-back.
However, his ability to retain possession and his positional sense makes him a steady option in that role, even if the attacking aspects of it are often lost on him.
The good news is, Roberto needn’t concern himself with actions in the final third within this system. That can be left to the expertise of the front four and the marauding Jordi Alba.
Instead, Roberto would be tasked with maintaining shape and equilibrium while the attacking players run riot.
When the Catalans attempt to play the ball out from the back, the 27-year-old would likely hug the touchline to provide an out-ball, much like Alba would on the opposite flank.
However, during a prolonged period of possession, he would tuck into central midfield, making it a 2-3-1-4 formation in that phase. That helps the Catalans keep the ball and maintain pressure on the opposition.
Crossing may not be Roberto’s greatest strength but he can play a diagonal ball and switching play from right to left, most likely finding Alba, would be a useful ploy.
Finally, when the ball is lost, Roberto is in a position to drop and form a back three in the transition, guarding the Blaugrana against a counter-attack. Essentially, his role lends Barca control in possession and stability in the transition.
FEARSOME FRONT FOUR
For Barcelona to capitalise on the wealth of attacking talent at their disposal, all four of their star forwards need to be on the pitch. This could be the system within which Messi, Suarez, Griezmann and Dembele not only co-exist but thrive.
First, and most crucially, it maintains Messi as the central figure in attacking midfield from where he can continue to orchestrate proceedings masterfully in the final third while posing a significant goal threat.
Everything will flow through him and the Argentine can operate freely with the security of the double pivot behind him, who not only offer defensive assurances, but can also feed him the ball between the lines.
That’s precisely where the 32-year-old will look to exploit space with the other three attackers working in tandem to pin the defence back and afford him more room.
Griezmann would operate coming in from the right and perhaps even swap with Messi on occasion while his presence in and around the box gives Suarez another quality option to link-up with, ensuring he’s not isolated.
Dembele brings an X-factor into the mix. If defenders focus too much on the movements of Messi and Griezmann, they may lose sight of the dangerous Frenchman who has all the necessary weaponry to punish them.
And just when the opposing right-back thinks he has him covered, Alba storms down the outside from where his trademark cut-backs can be swallowed up by Messi arriving late into the box.
The possibilities for that attack are endless when every member is fit and firing, but even when a couple are rested or sidelined by injury, there are some exciting young talents to step in like Ansu Fati, Carles Alena and Carles Perez.
Even now, with his career still ongoing, the name carries a mystical, mythical air. This little man from a little town in central Argentina is one part human, two parts living legend and four parts supernatural being, transcending sport, even transcending life itself.
Few sportspeople reach such heights. Many strive with all their might, but only a select few are able to conquer our imaginations, enrapture our senses and propel themselves into history.
Muhammed Ali did it. So did Donald Bradman, Michael Jordan and Pele. In the 21st century, Usain Bolt attained immortality, Roger Federer is on his way to veneration and then, the king of modern-day sporting kings, there sits Messi, implacable and serene on his throne.
It feels petty and deeply unimaginative to reduce Messi’s achievements to plain statistics, but the numbers he has achieved are so stupendous they cannot be ignored.
For starters, 604 goals for Barcelona – a ludicrous 372 more than the second-highest scorer in the history of one of the world’s greatest sporting organisations. Thirty four club trophies, including four Champions League winning medals and no less than 10 league titles.
The numbers speak for themselves. But there is, of course, one very significant gap: senior international honours.
Somehow, Messi’s tragic failure to win anything with Argentina – despite reaching three consecutive finals between 2014 and 2016 – makes his story even more compelling.
Had he casually strolled his way to every possible trophy, his flawlessness would have risked veering towards tedium: there he goes, winning everything again. How boring.
The fact, therefore, that Messi has encountered regular doses of heartache, even drawing outbursts of venemous ire from some of his over-demanding countrymen, reminds us that he is, despite all appearances to the contrary, only human. One of us.
From our perspective as spectators, after becoming accustomed to watching Messi conjure marvels and miracles on a weekly basis, the danger is that we take him for granted.
Let us not. Let us take this milestone, 15 years after his debut for Barcelona, as an opportunity to stop, reflect, and cherish. To cast aside partisan club preferences and just celebrate his magnificence. To be grateful that we have been alive to witness his magic.
To be thankful for Lionel Messi.
On the 15th anniversary of his official Barcelona debut, that is exactly what we will do.
In the below links are five distinct chapters, all hallmarking the genius of Messi…