After the 0-4 drubbing at the hands of Bayern Munich, many asserted that this is the end of an era for Barcelona. This was not unlike similar assertions after the 0-2 in Milan (which was sandwiched by losses to Real Madrid). The side’s back line has looked terribly exposed on several occasions this season leading to questions about the form and health of the respective back liners and fueling talks of eras and endless transfer speculations. But one needs to ask a different question when considering the future of Barcelona’s defense: Are the problems due to personnel or tactics? Is it about who defends or how they do so?
The failure to meet the expectation of signing a new high-profile center back is arguably one of the main factors in the back line being looked at with a microscope this season. Here are simplified echoes of common criticisms currently thrown at Barcelona’s defensive players.
Alves – going through a rough patch, poor form.
Pique – poor form.
Puyol – too old.
Mascherano and Song – not defenders.
Bartra and Montoya – inexperience.
The idea is that a summer signing of a big name central defender will stop the line from leaking goals. While I agree that it is a good idea to bolster the options for the position, I don’t think it can be looked at without a rigorous tactical analysis.
What Pep achieved in his final season as Barcelona’s coach was the purest form of his attacking and defending philosophy. By playing a defensive midfielder in the back line, Barcelona admitted that they want to defend in that part of the pitch. As in Total Football everyone attacks and everyone defends, but most of the defending is done high up the pitch, smothering the opponents midfield creativity and chances to play dangerously close to your goal. The result was, for the third straight season, Barcelona had the best defensive record in La Liga.
This season, Tito Vilanova’s first, has seen them fall to third best defensively with largely the same personnel. Barcelona have already given up more goals than they did last season, but despite still giving up only a goal per game in the league (and being on the verge of winning it), it has been the manner of their defending and the concession of embarrassing goals that has led to the soul-searching we currently see.
The main problem has been the relaxation of the relentless high pressure defense we saw under Pep. The first main consequence of this is that the defensive line has a whole pitch, as opposed to a half pitch, to cover. This essentially means that the side are more frequently counterattacked, leading to the kind of last-gasp defending that leaves them looking exposed. Busquets, who debuted and came to prominence under Pep, is a genius at reading plays and intercepting passes in the compressed spaces of the opponents half, but lacks the pace to cover the added ground he has to make up when his defense retreats and the ball is often simply played around him. The same can be said of Pique and increasingly Puyol’s lack of pace.
The second consequence of not defending high up the pitch, is that it quite simply leads to their having to defend in their half more often. This exposes Barcelona’s weakness in the air, their difficulty defending set-pieces, and the limitations of using defensive midfielders in the back line. Mascherano’s skills at reading, tracking, and intercepting attacking plays are all but lost here and the Argentine often looks nervous as the last line of defense in front of Victor Valdes.
Tito Vilanova basically needs to make up his mind tactically. He is playing a side built to defend high that is failing to do so. The brilliant performance in the second leg against Milan, where he played a nominally three-man defensive line, worked because the players defended high up the pitch with a tenacity we have not seen enough of this season. The intangible statistic of who is “controlling the game” when Barcelona plays comes from who is defending better. When Barcelona are out-defended by their opponents, their possession is rendered all but useless and their opponents control the game without the ball. When they out-defend their opponents, they keep the ball and their opponents on the back foot and control the game with the ball.
Tito must get Barcelona to once again defend high up the pitch, to defend at the first-gasp rather than the last one. Or he should build a defense more suited to transitional and deep-lying defensive play. A tall center back, and arguably a tall attacker that can come off the bench and defend corners and set pieces, may help the side deal with being pressured in their box. Moving Mascherano back into the midfield to play a double pivot with Busquets, the latter winning the ball high, and the former covering transitions is another option. As is going for a three-man defense, to force his players to win the ball back quickly.
If I could suggest the winning formula, I wouldn’t be here, but I will say that Vilanova has the players to succeed right now. And while new personnel may help, how Vilanova uses them is the most important factor in deciding who Barcelona should buy. This hardly seems the end of an era, but whether this defensive nightmare is a half-season hiccup, or a long-term liability is in the balance next season, starting with the summer transfer window.