Managers come and go but Lionel Messi remains. There were 15 minutes remaining in Quique Setién’s first game as manager of Barcelona and the tension was growing, when the Argentinian finally escaped to score the goal that prevented his opening night ending in failure.
Barcelona were closing in on 1,000 passes but they had struggled to create clear chances until Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Arturo Vidal combined. Down on the bench, Setién celebrated. It was only 1-0 but it was enough, for now. It was a start.
Setién had said it was not enough just to win; he wanted his team to play well, too. Yet he knew that he had to win to on a cold, windy night when summary judgments would be served and everyone would search for clues as to what the future holds, signs of what has changed. It is only one match but if they did not come with the score they did come with the intentions – the ball is above all else. Yet doubts remain too, things to improve.
There were no major surprises in Setién’s first starting XI, no grand statement made. In the absence of Luis Suárez this was a team Ernesto Valverde would probably have chosen, including Vidal and Ivan Rakitic, two footballers sometimes offered up as further proof that Valverde didn’t getBarcelona. This was only the first day and there were few other options, while the late introduction of young Riqui Puig may well be just the first of many.
Besides, when it started, there were shifts. Setién put Ansu Fati on the right, with Messi moved into the middle. Griezmann lined up to his left, but narrow and close to him, leaving the wing free for Jordi Alba. That meant that much of the time, it was a back-three, with Sergi Roberto staying while Alba stepped up – in possession he was as high as Fati on the right. In attack, it appeared a 3-5-2; in defence a 4-3-3.
The ball was Barcelona’s and always brought out from the back, never thumped long. That said, Granada, seemingly unwilling to press high, may have been complicit in that pattern. Barcelona accumulated men inside, close together. One early Messi run through the middle especially concerned Granada but his options were different and at times he was less fluid, the decisions less automatic, his passes not always reciprocated or delivered with the same sense of security. He also found more players crowded around him.
Barcelona played around and in front of Granada more than beyond them, only occasionally finding a way past the men accumulated around the edge of the area. They had 82% of possession which meant protection as well as progression; perhaps more so. After two good early chances that were put over by Fati the production slowed until he missed the ball from close range at the far post and Messi and Alba executed their signature move only for Messi’s shot to bend just outside the post.
As the second half began Messi struck wide after Griezmann had injected pace into the move and Rakitic hit a long shot past the post.
At the other end there was a sign of vulnerability. One break left Vidal having to bring down Darwin Machís and two minutes later Yan Eteki hit a post.
With 20 minutes to go Germán Sánchez was shown a second yellow card, for a foul on Messi. As he went off, Puig came on for Rakitic, marking Setién’s first change. And Puig was involved when Barcelona finally cut through, winning the ball back and finding Sergio Busquets. From there it went to Messi, Griezmann, Vidal and Messi again. The assist was lovely, a backheel into Messi’s path, for the goal that meant Setién’s start was at least a winning one.