When people talk about Xavi’s team being a work in progress, this match is precisely what they will point to in a deeper analysis. Barça poleaxed a team that can’t score or defend, a team whose manager might as well be laying his neck on the guillotine, to save the executioner the bother of searching for him.
And yet, Xavi’s work in progress avoided having egg on its face in large part thanks to man of the match for me, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, who came up with four massive saves, including an early one against Ivan Rakitic that might have painted this match in a very different light.
The same deficiencies that were documented in this transfer window recap — fullback play that needs work but most crucially a midfield that can’t stop a counter mounted by a youth side — manifested themselves against Sevilla. And it doesn’t matter how good your back line is, and Barça’s back line is very, very good, if it can be that easily gotten at.
It’s also worth noting that Ter Stegen’s saves this season are likely goals last season. It’s taken a while for him to shake loose from his physical complexities and find his groove again, but the team has a shot stopper again, and it’s great to see. It was invaluable against Sevilla in a hard-rocking home stadium, on a night when they came out to kick the glamour boys in the face.
A better team converts those chances that Sevilla couldn’t, and that will worry Xavi, who has already pushed aside the seeming ease of the victory that was never in doubt. The only question was when and by how much. What will worry him is that his keeper had to make four exceptional saves to keep that clean sheet. And that should worry him. It’s hard to find a bigger mess in La Liga than Sevilla, who for the first 15 minutes looked like trouble until Barça found its stride and shortly thereafter, a goal.
Gavi, MOTM 1a, worked loose a ball and fed Dembele, who made a remarkable run, then picked the exact right pass. Lewandowski chipped the keeper only to have it saved off the line, directly to the head of Raphinha, who nodded home.
Gavi also showed exactly why Frenkie De Jong, who chose to stay and fight for a place in Barcelona, is destined to be the world’s most expensive sub. The pugnacious young midfielder was omnipresent, making the right passes in attack and the correct moves defensively. He even ran himself into late-match cramps in a 10/10 performance.
The second Barcelona goal spotlighted two of the club’s summer signings, as Kounde laid a perfect pass in for Lewandowski. who cushioned it down with his chest and spanked home, almost in one motion. It wasn’t just an elite finish, but one done with ease. It seemed like he had all the time in the world to control and finish, making an extremely difficult play look easy.
And that pass from Kounde was but one of a match full of exceptional actions. Anyone doubting his status as best CB in La Liga should watch his footage from today. Confident and fluent on the ball, confident and fluent in defense, it’s a combination that is as special as it is rare. He and Lewandowski are next-level players that it’s great to see in blaugrana.
The first half should have ended 0-3, except for an exemplary piece of obliviousness, from Ousmane Dembele, who took the ball, made the run and chose to ignore Lewandowski, who had made a lung-busting run and was wide open. What Dembele did instead was try a rainbow of a finish that sailed over the far corner. Sure, it’s what a forward does, and many a forward has made that identical decision.
That makes it no less wrong. Even if Dembele had scored that shot, it was still a wrong decision for the simple reason that football is about decision making and risk management. If your team is up by four goals? Sure, take that shot. Up two goals, your team is an error away from suddenly being in a tight match in a hostile away stadium. You make the pass, and Lewandowski slots home. Simple as.
The other complexity with that action is that Dembele is a player who, while he is at Barcelona, will be defined by his mistakes. He made a brilliant run to set up the first goal, and another run concluded in a sharp pass for Raphinha, that should have led to his second assist of the half. He made smart decisions on the ball, created danger, tracked back and worked hard on defense.
But his entire match will be defined by that moment, and there are 140 million reasons why. He won’t care about that part, but you can bet your dwelling that both Lewandowski and more crucially, Xavi will have reminded him in no uncertain terms that you make that pass. Football is a high percentage game, even to players who thrive in low-percentage situations. Make the pass, celebrate the goal because goals aren’t all that easy to come by. Not every team Barça plays will be as big a yard sale as Sevilla.
As the quality of the two sides became even more apparent, the match devolved into Sevilla desperately seeking a goal of honor, and Barça making subs and looking to see out proceedings. This led to a disjointed second half. Ferran Torres came on for his usual performance, and Ansu Fati looked as much like a player working his way back to match fitness as he has so far this season, while Jordi Alba subbed on to make everyone with eyes understand why Balde will be starting the next match for Barça as well.
As Sevilla pressed harder and fouled more, the soft slowness of Barça was exposed, qualities that will be exploited by better teams. Would but that Gavi’s backbone was transplantable. His teammates could use some.
Barça won, but not all of the sensations were good. Thankfully the team’s talent pool is broad and deep, something that Xavi will relish as he looks to shape his group of players into something like a fist that will be able to punch its way into something good.