Is Javi Martinez the next converted holding midfielder that will provide Barcelona with an impenetrable defensive wall?(Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Apart from left-back, center-back seems the most likely position that needs to be bolstered during the transfer window. Carles Puyol is a living legend, but he is 34 and facing another tough injury. Gerard Pique, a wonderful talent, had an up-and-down season in which he sometimes seemed completely switched off and not in sync with the rest of the team. The biggest bright spot was Javier Mascherano, who completed his switch from holding midfield to become one of the best central defenders on the planet.
After those three, there is not a lot of depth. Andreu Fontas was not impressive before an injury ended his season and there are rumors he will be sent out on loan. Eric Abidal, who filled in well as a central defender, is still recovering from life-threatening illness. Sergio Busquets can fill in but he is much better in midfield. Marc Muniesa and Marc Bartra are also options, but they are quite young and inexperienced.
Barcelona's main targets are thought to be Thiago Silva, Milan's Brazilian star, and Javi Martinez, another converted holding midfielder who blossomed in the central defender role in Marcelo Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao. There are of course, other options, that Barcelona has to evaluate. After the jump are the alternatives Barcelona has at the central defender position.
Stay Put: Rely on B-Team
The best case scenario is that Puyol bounces back from injury to excellence yet again, Masche remains in fine form, and Pique consistently plays at the great level he is capable at. Meanwhile, Fontas, Muniesa, and Bartra grow up quickly to become dependable alternatives. All, at no cost.
The worst case scenario: Puyol returns but his advancing age and mounting injuries limit him greatly, Pique continues to play distractedly half the time, Masche's great run of form comes to a close. The youngsters develop, but not quickly enough to be relied on.
The trouble for Barca is the uncertainty: the team's margin of error is small if they don't buy another player. It would be great if the best case scenario actually takes place, but what if it doesn't? It's too much of a risk to take if the team has enough cash to bolster the position.
Thiago Silva (AC Milan)
Silva is considered among the top defenders in the world, and he offers everything Barca could hope for: he is fast, good at positioning, great in the air, and tall. He can even score on set pieces. At 27, he is entering the prime of his career.
The main thing is price. Milan had a lot of talented players retire and will be scrambling to find suitable replacements. Would they be willing to part with one of the pieces they have left? Perhaps, but only if it would fund the purchase of two or three other players.
Silva has admirers the world over and Barcelona have targeted him for a few years now. Milan will not let him go cheaply, however, and may seek an inflated version of his already substantial price. The reality is Silva does not want to leave and Milan do not want to sell him. As much as some Cules may want him, it is perhaps an unlikely deal.
Javi Martinez (Athletic Club de Bilbao)
Martinez has the makings of a classic Barcelona central defender. He was a defensive midfielder prior to Bielsa's arrival, much like Mascherano was at Liverpool. But injuries led to Martinez taking up a position further back, and he excelled. His previous experience in midfield give him the tools required to be a great Barcelona defender: amazing positioning and excellent passing. He has a fairly good shot and scored 4 goals for Athletic last year. He is also quite tall (1.90 m) and good in the air.
There is the rumor in Spain that he doesn't want to play in defense and would rather play in midfield, and at Barca he would rarely play there (remember how rarely Mascherano plays in midfield?) He won't be cheap, but he likely won't be quite as expensive as Silva. I see the bidding starting at around 20m, with several clubs interested. Lastly, his experience isn't quite the same as Silva, who has played for a top club and started several Champions League games already.
If Jordi Alba is the most natural pick to be Barca's new left-back, Martinez is the natural pick to be Barca's central defender. His experience in the Spanish national team and with Bielsa make him a natural fit for Barca's system. His good passing, positioning, and aerial ability would help greatly. And at 23, he can only get better
David Luiz (Chelsea FC)
Luiz resembles Puyol not just because of his shaggy, curly hair; he is quick and with a good work rate, pretty good in the air, and actually fairly skilled offensively. He is a bit taller, too, and much younger. Like Puyol, he can also operate as a fullback.
While Puyol is intense, Luiz is a bit... mental. He is a lot goofier and at Chelsea his season was not a resounding success. His defending left much to be desired at times, though paradoxically his attacking was better than one would expect. He was inconsistent and at times almost frustrating for the team, despite his natural talent. However, he did start the Champions League final, and convert in the shootout that won the trophy for the Blues.
While Silva and Martinez are logical choices, Luiz is an intriguing prospect in his own right. He is definitely talented, but Barcelona probably prefer a surer player at the back as defensive errors cost them too much this past season. For the money he will cost, I believe Javi Martinez is better value.
Mats Hummels (Borussia Dortmund)
Quite tall, yet still a good tackler. He is not a bad passer either and has a certain elegance to his style of play. Hummels has been steadily getting better for some time now. Considering he's only 23, the German might not even be at his peak.
Six months ago, Hummels to FCB seemed a near-certainty. Now, that talk has cooled significantly. Maybe it's that while he is a good passer, he is not quite up to the level of some other targets. Maybe it's that his price tag has grown to the point that he is overvalued. Maybe it's that Barca already have Pique and would prefer someone faster than Hummels. Maybe it's the cultural barrier of a German playing in Spain.
Actually, maybe none of the above Hummels is still a great player. There isn't much to complain about his latest campaign, in which Dortmund did the national double. Perhaps the only thing that is keeping him from being in a blue-and-red jersey is that he is comfortable in yellow-and-black and Barcelona still prefer Javi Martinez in that price range.
Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea FC)
A tough, physical presence, Ivanovic can play right-back and center-back. His versatility make him a good option as cover at either position. He is a jack-of-all trades: good passer, pretty good in the air, good tackler.
...But master of none? This is truly the question: is Ivanovic truly world class? Because if he is not, at 28, he is unlikely to ever be. Perhaps then he would be a good rotation option but it is understood Chelsea value him at over 20m.
If Barcelona can get him cheap enough, there is some merit. After all, Ivanovic was part of the defense that frustrated Barcelona in the CL semis (he was unavailable for the final). For the kind of money Chelsea seem to want at the moment, however, there are better options.
Barcelona are keen on adding another central defender to cover for the uncertainty and add some security to a backline that seemed vulnerable at all the wrong times last season. Supposedly, they had already approached Manchester City's Vincent Kompany, who refused and stated his preference for remaining with the English champions.
Like left-back, the main choice is between an international superstar (Gareth Bale and Silva) or a highly-regarded Spaniard thought to be a good fit (Alba or Martinez). My personal feeling, and the feeling I think a lot of Cules have, is that for the money it's best to go for the Spanish players who will have little trouble adapting to the system. Perhaps the Euros will be a good time for Spain to imagine a backline that includes Pique, Alba, and Martinez.
Which central defender should Barcelona sign?
No one / rely on B team (35 votes)
Thiago Silva (110 votes)
Javi Martinez (98 votes)
David Luiz (22 votes)
Mats Hummels (35 votes)
Brainslav Ivanovic (11 votes)
Other (Comment) (4 votes)
315 total votes