The Blaugrana returned to the top of La Liga with a 1-0 victory over 10-man Granada, showing signs of their old magic under their new coach.
Quique Setien promised to take Barcelona back to the future by restoring the possession-based, attack-minded game so beloved at Camp Nou and, as he made his bow on Sunday night, the Catalans took their first steps towards recovering their identity.
Barca beat Granada 1-0 with a performance that epitomized their footballing philosophy, dominating the ball, strangling the opposition and eventually finding the chink in the armour, with Lionel Messi – who else? – applying the finishing touch.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the Blaugrana are suddenly back, though. This is very much a work in progress and, for large periods, Barca failed to create clear cut chances at a blustery Camp Nou; the winds of change perhaps hampering their precision in possession.
There were several differences from the Ernesto Valverde era evident from the start, though.
Setien, who has been hands-on in training, came out to watch the warm-ups – unlike Valverde or Luis Enrique – and the team worked more on their movement than with the ball.
His starting line-up was unsurprising, though. With Frenkie de Jong suspended, Arthur still not ready to start and Luis Suarez injured, he opted for Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal in the middle and Ansu Fati in the attack.
Valverde gave Ansu wings and will have told Setien only good things about the teen sensation when they crossed paths at the training ground on Tuesday.
Barcelona lined up 4-3-3 without the ball and 3-3-4 with it, with Jordi Alba pushing very high up the left flank to join the attack, and right-back Sergi Roberto dropping in at center-back.
As promised by the Cruyff-loving Setien, his players constantly demanded the ball, recording 82 percent possession in the first half and attempt 508 passes.
They failed to score, though, and, in truth, despite the tactical changes, the first half as a whole left rather the same feeling that has been in the air at Camp Nou for a while. This looked like a Barcelona far from their heyday, still reliant on Messi for some magic.
The Argentine turned it on as per usual, despite being brought down several times by a Granada defense looking to stop him at any cost.
With their captain pulling the strings, Barca turned the screw in the second half but dodged a bullet as Yan Eteki’s low drive hit the inside of Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s post and bounced out.
Then, German Sanchez’s harsh second yellow card – for a trip on the evergreen Messi – tilted the game in Barcelona’s favour.
The defender was dismissed after 69 minutes and Barcelona was ahead by the 76th, with Messi coolly passing the ball into the net after an intricate team move.
This was the football that Setien promised and it was sweet, with substitute Riqui Puig winning the ball back to start the play, before Antoine Griezmann, Messi himself and Arturo Vidal combined to put it on a plate for the Argentine.
There was no way back for the 10-man visitors, with Setien pocketing a debut win to take Barcelona back top of La Liga on goal difference ahead of Real Madrid, who defeated Sevilla on Saturday.
With Ansu starting, and Riqui Puig and Carles Perez being brought on from the bench, the coach also nodded towards La Masia, which will have gone down well with Barca traditionalists.
The Catalans already have more structure, purpose, and hope. After a week in charge, that’s as much as Setien or the fans could have hoped for, with one very good goal giving them an exciting glimpse of a brighter future.