BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 13: Lionel Messi (L) of FC Barcelona duels for the ball with Thiago Silva of AC Milan during the UEFA Champions League group H match between FC Barcelona and AC Milan at the Camp Nou stadium on September 13, 2011 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
In the past week, Barcelona have suffered two set backs that have highlighted the importance of having a solid pair of central defenders. Both, Real Sociedad and AC Milan, were able to claw their way back into matches that seemed all but destined for a Barcelona victory, and snatch a point from the jaws of defeat. Within a single week, what has become evident is that Barcelona is now top heavy. Barcelona is top heavy in the sense that it has immense attacking talent, but relies upon a defense that cannot ensure that when this talent has a game won, it preserves the result. If attackers win games by scoring, then defenders can ensure you don't lose them or tie them by shutting out the opposition. Barcelona's back line, in its current state, has lost the ability to nullify the opposition. It is so porous that almost any attack is a serious threat that endangers the ability of the team to comfortably control a match. Such is the serious, and preventable, state of the defense. The reasons for such problems are four fold in nature.
The initial problem of the defense can be described as a lack of squad depth. During the summer months Barcelona sold Gabriel Milito but failed to buy an adequate replacement. Granted, the sale of Milito was not bad business since the Argentine defender had not seen a consistent string of performances for the past two years, but, the fact that Barcelona did not go searching for an experienced substitute surely helped to cement the situation we face today. While other teams will replace a loss of talent in a sector by acquiring an adequate, or at least capable, replacement, Barcelona simply ignored the defense and instead focused on pursuing more attacking talent. Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas were both acquired, and thus they consumed the total budget for summer signings. Although players such as German international, Mats Hummels, were being considered by Barcelona, serious interest never materialized. Ever since Guardiola took over control of the Catalan outfit, one could see that Barcelona had a small squad. The squad had limited depth, so when no reinforcements for the defense were acquired, it further depleted the ranks. Barcelona simply had fewer men with which to cover for the extended absence of members of the squad. Indeed, Guardiola is a man that rarely changes his preferred starting XI, but this team heavily relies upon the condition that he has a full squad of players at his disposal. Thus a lack of preparation for an uncertain future only contributed to making Barcelona a squad that was more reliant on its very limited, but world class pool of talented defenders. Since these defenders where expected to do the work of a much larger squad of players, the extra exertion resulted in the inevitable, injuries.
Injuries are another reason Barcelona currently find itself in a defensive conundrum. Barcelona's captain, Carles Puyol, spent the latter part of last season with knee problems that kept him out for about half the season. Puyol underwent surgery in June to correct this recurring condition and is now barely returning to action for the club. Barcelona were able to cope with the injury of their stalwart captain because they had a reliable center back in Gerard Pique, and could convert either, Javier Mascherano or Eric Abidal, into his defensive partners. Indeed, Barcelona where able to win their fourth champions league without their captain. However, it seems that Pique, a natural center back, is what was keeping the system stable and working. Barcelona were also able to use this system to win their Super Copa matches against Real Madrid. But even then the system was showing signs of waning under pressure since the games proved to be close affairs. Barcelona received further bad news on the eve of their European Super Cup match against Porto. Pique sustained an injury in training in which he tore his calf muscle, and with this injury, Barcelona were now without any recognizable center back. A makeshift back line was improvised for the Porto match and Barcelona were able to claim that cup as well. It should be noted though that the makeshift line did consist of mostly defenders in Alves, Adriano & Abidal. Only Mascherano was the exception. In the subsequent league opener against Villareal, Sergio Busquets was added to the line-up and Adriano dropped. The games scoreline of 5-0 only helped garner a false sense of security that would soon be exposed. The makeshift defense finally reached its tipping point against Real Sociedad. Barcelona included Andreu Fontas in the line-up against Sociedad and dropped Maschrano from the starting XI.
Real Sociedad Vs Barcelona 2-2 - All Goals and Highlights - La Liga 10/09/2011 (via QuickSportMusicNews)
The game against Real Sociedad served to really highlight a third mistake on the part of the Barcelona's management, and that is to assume, that a young and inexperienced, Andreu Fontas, could actually deputize for experienced world cup winning center back pairing, Pique and Puyol. The fact that Barcelona chose to promote a player who was not of exceptional quality, shows how truly overconfident they have become in their youth products. Andreu Fontas is not a central defender of the quality Barcelona actually needs to have on the first team roster. Although Fontas was handpicked from La Masia to join the first team, there was a telling sign that should have alerted Barcelona immediately to his inadequacy to serve the team. The fact that Fontas, unlike fellow promoted La Masia graduate, Thiago, was not a first team regular in the U21 Spanish team that won the Euro cup, should have sent a clear signal to Barcelona that he wasn't ready for such a responsibility. Exceptional players start early, the fact that Fontas did not make the starting lineup of a U21 national team should have been enough for Barcelona to realize that his promotion was premature. That was in June, and last Sunday, Andreu Fontas once again demonstrated why exactly he had been excluded from the U21 lineup. Against Real Sociedad, Fontas lack of pace, commitment, and poor positioning, constantly put Barcelona at jeopardy, and exposed his partner, makeshift center back, Sergio Busquets. It was not the only game in which the young defender has performed poorly; in pre-season matches he showed similar lack of readiness. Andreu Fontas promotion up to this point can truly be labeled a La Masia failure. To his defense, Fontas is still young and could become better, but Barcelona cannot wait for him to drastically improve, at least not on their time, if they wish to retain La Liga and the Champions League among other silverware.
Lastly, the final mistake Barcelona has made in trying to cope with their lack of center backs is to introduce defensive midfielders as replacements. Although Javier Mascherano has proven he has good positional sense and tackling ability, he lacks height, and therefore relies on his defensive partner to be equally adept to balance out his shortcomings (no pun intended). However, by pairing Mascherano with Sergio Busquets, Guardiola has coupled one makeshift center back alongside a midfielder who has no idea how to actually defend. The pair has proven disastrous. Busquets has largely failed to serve as cover for Mascherano. Busquets often leaves Mascherano alone, and subsequently exposed himself and his partner in the process. Pato's 24 second goal proved, that in terms of forming a center back pair, these two think on a different plane. Center backs are supposed to work as a pair, a unit that help each other cope with the enemies attacks, but, while Mascherano now possess the instincts of a (natural) defender since he's played in the position so consistently, Busquets still operates as if he were the sole defensive midfielder. It is a much more dangerous way of thinking and playing, especially since one cannot rely upon the fail safe, in form of center backs, in central defense. Busquets also clearly lacks the aggression and positional sense of a midfielder capable of serving as a center back. The plays that have exposed Busquets lack of defensive instincts have been the two headers which he has failed to stop within the week. Thiago Silva and Imanol Agirretxe both were able to out-position and out-jump Sergio Busquets. For a defender, this is unacceptable. Busquets cannot be faulted since he is not a center back, and with his more passive nature cannot assume the role as easily as Mascherano has done. Therefore what is needed is an actual defender to accompany Mascherano at the back and move Busquets up field where his skill-set is best utilized. No other defensive midfielder is better equipped to "interpret" the defensive midfielder role for FC Barcelona as Sergio Busquets does. He is the auxiliary (third) center back when FC Barcelona are in attack-mode, intelligently fills the gaps created by one of the marauding full-backs, and passes the ball quicker than either, Seydou Keita or the aforementioned Javier Mascherano. The Malian, too, is a failed experiment. He is not a defensive midfielder.
FC Barcelona 2-2 AC Milan | Highlights (13/9/2011) (via eiFutbolero)
The conclusions that can be made from this analysis are both positive and negative. One the positive side, our defense will improve as the season goes on. Currently, Puyol has returned to the squad and with the addition of minutes he should regain match fitness. Pique who was injured before the Super Cup, was estimated to be out for around three weeks, and therefore his recovery and fitness draws near. On the negative side, Barcelona lost valuable points and learned a variety of things about the squad. Fontas promotion is premature, and at the time of this writing looks very much out of his element. It is doubtful if he will remain a Blaugrana past this season. The inclusion of Sergio Busquets as a center back has thrown the balance of the makeshift system in jeopardy, since he cannot form a defensive partnership with any defender. Busquets does not have the qualities of a central defender, thus leaves his partners exposed. The last and most damming conclusion is that Barcelona will not sign a top-class, well-known, center back this campaign. The fact that the start of the Champions league has cup-tied most quality defenders in Europe has left Barcelona with limited options. Therefore the hopes of many - seeing Mats Hummels, or any other big name defender, arriving in January is not likely to be realized anytime soon. The best option for the arrival of a central defender is one who is well regarded, but does not belong to a Champions league squad. Such candidates include Gijons ex-Barcelona player, and newly capped Spanish international, Alberto Botia, or a player from a non-Champions league team such as PSG's Mamadou Sakho. The fact that Barcelona need to wait until mid-season to make a move exponentially hampers their options. Barcelona are therefore left with the options of waiting out the season and hoping that their defenders are not injured further, and/or that squad depth is not tested beyond the current limits. However, it would be wise to at least take advantage of the January transfer window and swoop for defensive talent, because the stakes in Europe only increase, after the winter window.