This week it felt like a game couldn’t come soon enough for Barcelona. Even if it was a tough match against Athletic Bilbao at the San Mamés. Conflict, transfer failings, and too many articles about Manchester City licking their lips over a Messi transfer made it a frustrating week.

Are Barcelona in crisis?

Yet, for all the issues away from the field, the Copa del Rey match against Athletic would be the distraction everyone needed. Due to the recent negativity, a result felt like a do-or-die situation. However, even in a heart-breaking lost, Barcelona crash out of the Copa del Rey having played well.

Playing well doesn’t amount to much when the team loses, but as Quique Setién said afterwards, “Everything went well except for the result. It’s sad to get knocked out, but I think we took a step forward in terms of where we must improve.”

That’s the key here. Barcelona looked improved – they dominated Athletic for long stretches, seemingly working out their issues on the fly.

The one tactical takeaway was the position of Frenkie de Jong in the game. The Dutch midfielder was the farthest forward we’ve seen him. Not just under Setién, but in his career. To play with possession and melt teams down to their boots, Barcelona need to capitalize on through balls. Aside from Messi, who showcases his ability for a through ball every week, Sergio Busquets and de Jong are the other threats. Playing that final ball requires picture perfect chemistry with Messi. Regrettably, it’s doesn’t yet exist for in the same way that it does with Messi and Arturo Vidal. Hopefully this match is another step in the right direction.

If Busquets is back in his defensive position and de Jong is pushing upfield, that leaves Ivan Rakitic to help out in both ways. Unfortunately, he struggled to do either against Athletic. His long shot has betrayed him in recent months and his forward passing hasn’t been crisp enough to help offensively. The issues under Ernesto Valverde with Rakitic and Busquets won’t have changed just because of a new manager. It’s no knock on the Croatian, but personnel just doesn’t seem to be working. Arthur’s inclusion injected life into the midfield and created additional chances down the stretch.

Like five of his teammates, Arthur picked up a yellow card in a match with nine total yellows. The match was physical, as any match with Athletic tends to be, but the official also lost control of the match at times. That factor may have been out of Barcelona’s control, as well as the call for a penalty when de Jong was brought down in the box. Finishing, however, was firmly in the team’s control. Fati missed. Griezmann missed. Messi missed. All three put in decent attempts and forced Unai Simón into several saves, but today wasn’t the day for the ball to go into the net.

Under Valverde, winning didn’t necessarily mean that the team played well. It seems that under Setién, losing doesn’t necessarily mean that the team played poorly. That doesn’t mean that poor results are acceptable – they will cost Setién his job in due time. However, losing while playing well gives the impression that things will improve. If Barcelona are to win La Liga or the Champions League, they’ll have to improve in a hurry.