This is part three of the Barca “report card” series, a look at the performance of the Barcelona players and staff during the 2019-2020 season.
The plan is to first grade the players individually. From there an overall grade will be given to the team at that position. In this article I will take a look at the defense.
The motivation here is not to condemn players for a bad season, or to praise others for individual accomplishments. Rather, the final judgement will be one where everyone shares responsibility since the team trophies are the ones that matter.
Performance will be evaluated using the following criteria.
Exceeds Expectations: At Barca exceeding expectations is the only way to get a passing grade and this category shows you are in good standing.
Room for Improvement: Everyone at the club is here because they have at the very least shown great potential. If you fall in this category it’s because you aren’t quite realizing it, and yet you are still finding ways to contribute. Going forward though, more is expected.
Not Good Enough: This category implies that the performance was below the high standards of the club. It does not mean that there is no hope. Given the financial instability at the club, even players who fall here will need to be given chances to redeem themselves.
Let’s take a look at the defense.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen
Ter Stegen has been outstanding. If there were a way to go beyond exceeding expectations I’d say he’s done it. He started out as a young and unknown keeper from Mönchengladbach oozing with potential because of his exceptional ability with the ball at his feet. After beating out Claudio Bravo he lived up to the reputation right away. This last year he improved further making countless highlight saves in high-pressure moments with lightning reflexes. Some people call him Spiderman, but I think the better analogy is Neo in the Matrix. You can imagine time slowing down as shots fire towards him from every angle, but none getting through. He makes the impossible look easy.
A big achievement from the year was the record he set going more than 450 minutes without conceding a goal. At the beginning of the restart he recorded five straight shutouts keeping the team alive in the title chase. Get Chelsea away from him. Blaugrana should be the only colors he ever wears.
A happy accident for Bartomeu. Lenglet was not supposed to be more than a reinforcement on the defensive backline. But Samuel Umtiti’s injuries gave him a chance to claim the center-back position alongside Gerard Pique. He’s made some minor mistakes but overall Lenglet is exactly what you want from someone in his position in that you can forget that he even exists.
His composure and high soccer intelligence allow the other defenders leeway to take risks on the attack. Rarely is he out of position when defending a counter-attack. His physicality and speed are a good compliment to the attributes of his companion Pique whose most important asset is his ability to facilitate possession. Lenglet has also shown he can be a threat on set-pieces, an area Barca defenders have struggled with since the exit of Carles Puyol. Going into next season, and most likely for years to come, Lenglet will have a big role on the team.
Room for Improvement
This was the first year when people around the club started talking about a plan for life after Pique. He is a club legend and continues to represent the standards that he helped establish in the glorious Guardiola era. When you watch him now it’s clear that his skill on the ball is as good as it’s ever been. I don’t see this diminishing in the near future because it’s the type of thing you can maintain into your mid and even late thirties.
The problem is that he was never a conventional defender, and it’s in those fundamental areas where he has struggled recently. Like Busquets, Pique shines the brightest when the team dominates possession. The ball moves faster than the man, so if you embrace this tactic then the age of the players becomes less of a liability. But the exact opposite has happened. As the roster has aged the team has become less sharp with their possession. As a result other teams are seeing more of the ball and the lack of speed and physicality makes the defense vulnerable. To the extent that Pique will be able to contribute at a high level going forward depends on the coaches implementing the right system for players like him.
In recent seasons Jordi Alba has become one of the main goalscoring threats by establishing a special connection with Messi on the left flank. This was much needed in light of the drop in productivity the team experienced when Dani Alves left, who also had brilliant chemistry with Messi. This year, however, there was a notable drop in his form. The number of assists he recorded dropped to five, and he also made a few consequential defensive mistakes.
Since Junior Firpo wasn’t able to seriously compete for the position, Alba will be the left full-back for the foreseeable future. The question hanging over his head is how a new coach may perceive him. We can’t forget that he famously didn’t get along with Luis Enrique, and was the player who gained the most under Ernesto Valverde. Enrique was ahead of his time in experimenting with a three-man backline. Changing to a formation like that would be the only thing putting Alba at a disadvantage in the future.
I like Nelson Semedo. I especially like having him around as someone who may not always be the starting right-back, but can be used when shut down defending is required. When it comes to his offensive contributions I think we’ve seen enough to know he has a lot to offer. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen him give up a ball, and he is very good on the give and go. The one thing I can’t understand is why we don’t see more service in the air from him or Alba. Maybe we were just spoiled by how good Dani Alves was at it, but if Semedo can develop this part of his game I would be interested in seeing him get more playing time.
The reality, however, is that Semedo is the first name that comes up in transfer negotiations. This tells you one important thing. Other teams want him. He is young, tough, and skilled. Barca should take note of this, and realize that a better manager may be able to unlock his full potential.
Still the first choice right full-back when healthy Sergi Roberto had another solid season in the position. Under Setien it looked like the preference was to play him in the midfield when possible. As a defender it’s commendable that he accepted the role and continues to do the job at a high level.
Perhaps it’s time to ask the question whether he is truly a long-term solution there. The idea started with Luis Enrique and at the time it was brilliant. Ultimately I’d like to see him play more in his natural position so that the team can fully leverage opportunities on the right wing from someone more dangerous. There likely won’t be room in the budget this year so I anticipate Sergi stepping up and doing whatever is needed for the team as he usually does.
Not Good Enough:
No doubt he got better as the season went along. One improvement was realizing how effective he was making runs off the ball. In these moments we saw how he made a name for himself at Betis. The problem so far is that he’s lacked confidence and has been too timid. Modern full-backs need to be energetic and relentless on the wing.
This is a lesson for any new player coming to the club. No one is secondary to anyone else. It’s easy to believe you’re just a supporting actor when your team-mates are the best players players in the world. But the truth is that in order to succeed at the Camp Nou you must find a way to be a primary contributor. Full-backs are given more freedom than ever these days, and Firpo should take advantage of it next year because he has nothing to lose.
Such a sad story. In the beginning of his time at the club he was honestly one of my favorite players. So much tenacity in helping the team win trophies, not to mention the World Cup with his native France.
It doesn’t look like he has a future with the club, but he seems like an amazing person so I hope he has a full recovery and then finds success elsewhere. When healthy you can still see how lethal he can be with penetrating passes and on set-pieces. Defensively he has looked rusty, but I know it’s because of the lack of playing time and not because he doesn’t know better. I’ll be supporting him wherever he goes next.
Cumulative Grade: Room for Improvement
I’m tempted to say it’s just not good enough from the defense. Mostly it’s because we’ve been waiting for so long to see the unit take a step forward and be as elite as the Real Madrid and Atletico defenders who in my opinion are the best in the world.
In fairness the Barca defense is pretty good most games. The concern is consistency, and maybe that will come from adding depth to the roster. It may also require scrutinizing the way the club has evaluated defensive talent. For whatever reason they have shunned defenders who are defenders first. I hope Ronald Araujo comes in next year and disrupts that a bit showing you can come from La Masia and also possess traditional defensive skills that make the team more secure.