Before the start of the current campaign, the majority of the news centered around the issue of Barcelona’s attack. With new midfielders and wingers, many begin to wonder not if the champions would win games, but by how many.
Caught in the thick of things, Barcelona’s defensive stability crumbled a little, almost under the radar -- the signings of Yerry Mina and Lucas Digne were shown the door, Mina after only six months and an impressive World Cup. But, even with those notable departures, Barcelona brought in the young French center-back, Clement Lenglet, to add to a backline that includes Gerard Pique, Nelson Semedo, Sergi Roberto, and Jordi Alba.
For all the talk of the offense, Barcelona’s defense has been an anchor for a while… Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Coming into Sunday’s game against Real Betis, Barcelona were unbeaten in 42 consecutive home games, the most in a row by any team in Europe’s top five leagues. Betis were coming into the game ranked 15th in the table and more telling -- with only one away goal to their name this season.
Well, that all changed at the Camp Nou. Betis quadrupled their season tally of away goals and had two in the first half. In a game that many considered to be a quick, easy game for Lionel Messi to return in, Betis’ attackers looked like replicas of world-class football players.
So, with that said, let’s look at some of the numbers behind Barcelona’s terrible defensive displays thus far and why they are occuring.
As a team last year, Barcelona fought with not only an attacking intensity, but defensive as well. In 38 La Liga games, they only allowed 29 goals and Marc-Andre ter Stegen finished the year with an impressive 19 clean sheets.
That goal total equates to a .76 goal per game average. With Pique, Umtiti, Alba, and the mixture of Semedo and Roberto on the right side, Barcelona’s defense helped utilize their attacking threat to a devastating tune.
This year, in La Liga, Barcelona have already given up 18 goals after matchday 12 for an average goals allowed of 1.5 per game. Even with an unstoppable attack, numbers like this make it difficult for the entire squad -- fighting from behind becomes tiring and is not the hallmark of a trophy winning team.
In La Liga, Barcelona’s last clean sheet came on matchday 2, against lowly Real Valladolid, and they have only two clean sheets in the league this year.
Some fans and pundits will say that these defensive frailties are shown only in La Liga, but Barcelona’s Champions League woes combat that. Although successfully shutting out PSV and Inter Milan in respective 4-0 and 2-0 defeats, against a Tottenham side, Barcelona were lucky to only allow two goals at Wembley.
A majority of the blame has to be placed on the right side of the defense. Clement Lenglet, while not great, has been playing motivated football and seems to be in the right position more than his center-back partner for his tackles and aerial duels. Jordi Alba, while marauding up the flank has also proven indispensable defensively at the left-back position often tracking back with the speed of a 1,000 cheetahs.
On the other side, since the World Cup, Gerard Pique has looked a shell of himself. More than two months into the current campaign, rust is no longer an excuse, neither is fatigue. A player like Ivan Rakitic has played more minutes than Pique over the summer and still looks to be at his best.
With Pique’s decline in form reminiscent of Luis Enrique’s first year in charge -- the right back position has been terribly handled by manager Ernesto Valverde. With Nelson Semedo roaring for a chance to be included in the starting XI, Valverde continues to trust Sergi Roberto who not only looked out of place at right-back against Betis, but out of place in the starting XI.
Roberto is a La Masia product and has the touch and philosophy that all Cules demand, but simply put -- he is a converted right-back, who doesn’t possess the positional or situational awareness to be trusted in the largest of games.
Ultimately, Barcelona can look forward to their upcoming fixtures after the international break as an opportunity to prioritize what has been lacking, defense. Even after such a tragic defensive start to the season, Barcelona were the first team to qualify for the round of 16 in the Champions League and are still top of La Liga.
Even though there is much to be improved, especially before facing the likes of Manchester City, Juventus, and even Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, Barcelona know that they now have the time to drop their anchor where it has always been for successful seasons -- in the defense.
Until Valverde figures out how to get the best of back line, Barcelona won’t reach the heights of previous treble winning teams. On a high note, there is still plenty of time to do just that. Visca Barca!