We wrap up this series comparing where the rosters stand for Barcelona and Real Madrid at the close of the season by looking at the defenders.
For Barcelona in particular, if you are to believe the rumor mill, this is an area ripe for change.
Before Xavi arrived, the frustration after many games was how the unforced errors from the defense cost the team points.
Perhaps with better performances early in the season, Barca could have competed for the title. Then again, if that were the case, Xavi wouldn’t have become the manager.
Out of Madrid, the big news here is the departure of Marcelo and the arrival of Antonio Rudiger. There could be more additions for the Merengues, but most of the speculation on the defensive side is with Barcelona.
Who will stay and who will go, and who will be arriving at the Camp Nou?
Will Barcelona do enough to improve the defensive line to make them title contenders?
Dani Carvajal vs ?
No one can say with any certainty who the starting right-back will be for Barcelona going forward.
Dani Alves is looking to sign another one-year contract to see him through to the World Cup in Qatar, and it’s likely Barcelona will give it to him, especially considering he is on the minimum salary.
Everyone seems to agree that his primary role won’t be as the lockdown starter. His value will continue to be as a vocal leader on the pitch and in the dressing room, knowing he can also put in a professional shift as needed.
That leaves the great question of Sergino Dest. One minute Xavi doesn’t rate him, and the next he is back in the side performing well in the role he was brought in to occupy.
Last season was underwhelming for the American. Under Ronald Koeman, he played as a forward because of an injury crisis up front. Then under Xavi, he struggled to stay healthy himself, and he never truly hit his form.
Dest will likely be sold if a suitor comes in with a cash infusion of around 25 million euros. It’s also been speculated that he could be used in a swap deal given the fact that many clubs around Europe are intrigued by his young age and potential.
My take has always been that he is a unique utility player that gives Xavi options on both the left and right at a time when Barcelona desperately needs depth on both sides of the defensive line.
It looks like the arrival of Cesar Azpilicueta could make Sergino Dest dispensable in the eyes of Barca. If Azpi can’t reach a deal with Chelsea to let him out of his contract, then Dest is much more likely to stay.
You can also throw Sergi Roberto into the mix, which highlights this position as a critical area of need.
On the other side, Real Madrid have the dependable Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vazquez.
As a tandem, they have given their club stability at the position in recent years. Nothing too flashy, but reliability in big moments, and an ability to let the skill players around them shine.
Carvajal always brings intensity and toughness, and isn’t bad at creating danger in front of goal. Vazquez has done just about everything that’s asked of him, accepting a backup role, while staying ready to contribute whenever his number is called.
Real Madrid gets the advantage here. Barcelona will need to do some serious thinking about what they want from their full-backs, or maybe even wing-backs, if they are to finally play to the strengths of Dest... if he is still around.
Jordi Alba vs David Alaba
Jordi Alba is the man who just won’t quit.
Still susceptible to being caught out defensively, Alba still finds a way to make up for it by being the most creative player in the attack on the left wing.
This season, he was second in the team in assists (10), and scored several big goals off the volley.
Xavi will pencil him in as the starter again, but will be desperate to find a backup who can provide not only cover, but also internal competition to put pressure on Alba to be more consistent with his performances.
Marco Alonso is the dream option, but Thomas Tuchel will be keen to keep him around at Chelsea. Javi Galan from Celta Vigo is also at the center of gossip, but didn’t look good being dominated by Ousmane Dembele a few weeks back. Maybe we can give him a break given the tough assignment.
For Real Madrid, I predict David Alaba will move over to left-back to make room for Antonio Rudiger as the center-back.
Alaba has plenty of experience in this position at Bayern Munich and for the Austrian national team. He’s athletic and quite formidable as a threat going forward.
The depth at this position seems good, even with Marcelo saying goodbye.
Ferland Mendy had big moments for the Merengues this season, and made a case to continue on as the starting left-back. Carlo Ancelotti is loyal to his players, and doesn’t do anything too crazy with rotations, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mendy maintain his starting role.
Real Madrid has the depth here, but in a Clasico, I’d bet on Jordi Alba to be the player in this position most likely to make a decisive impact.
Eder Militao vs Ronald Araujo
Militao led Real Madrid with just over 3,000 minutes played domestically. Barcelona juggled injuries throughout the season, but Ronald Araujo, Gerard Pique, and Eric Garcia received just about equal playing time with 2,000 minutes a piece.
Militao and Araujo are a good comparison because they are likely to be center-backs of the future.
For me, Araujo is the second coming of Carles Puyol, in the sense that he is the spiritual leader on the backline. First to every ball, and able to chase down and match up with just about any forward he faces up against.
Another hole he has filled is providing Barcelona with an aerial threat that has been missing for the better part of the last decade. He had four goals in all competitions, and was unlucky to have not scored more.
Eder Militao has worked hard to lock down his spot on the back line, making it surprisingly easy to move on from Raphael Varane who anchored the the defense so successfully before him.
Araujo beats out Militao if he can stay healthy, and that’s a big if. You wonder whether his aggressiveness and physicality, arguably his greatest strengths, are also the thing getting him into trouble. Araujo needs team-mates who can take some of the pressure off him to keep him fit and contributing at a high level over the course of a long season.
Antonio Rudiger vs Gerard Pique
Barcelona dodged a bullet with Kylian Mbappe turning his back on their rival, but weren’t so lucky with Antonio Rudiger.
Rudiger was perhaps the best center-back on the market, and Real Madrid swooped in to strengthen their own squad, and also to keep the prized asset away from the blaugrana, who weren’t able to put together a strong enough financial package.
Pique had a strong season under Xavi, and fits the profile that Barca expect from their center backs. Problem is he’s old, and getting injured more and more often. Although he’s able to bail himself out with intelligent positioning, he remains vulnerable in the open field, especially while backing up Sergio Busquets, a player who often needs cover.
The success of Barca’s defense depends on how dominant they are in possession. If they dominate the ball, they can play a high line and not worry so much about their vulnerability on the counter attack. Under Xavi, it was a big improvement from what we saw under Koeman.
But in modern football, you can’t get around the necessity of having strong, fast, and physical defenders, even if you are a talented possession based team.
Advantage here to Real Madrid.
Other Center-Back Options
Andreas Christensen, Eric Garcia, Nacho
Barcelona does have nice back-up options at center-back.
Andreas Christensen will challenge for starting minutes. If Xavi wants to experiment playing with three center-backs, he has an experienced player here.
Eric Garcia is seen by most as a rotational option depending on the tactical matchup, but not likely to win a starting spot outright.
He is fantastic on the ball, and can pick a pass on a dime that switches the field of play. He is unfortunately undersized and not particularly fast, so will always be a liability against speedy teams, and those that are dangerous on set pieces. Let’s just keep him away from Athletic Club as a starting point.
Nacho is a smart player who fits the Real Madrid mold, and will also challenge for minutes. Ancelotti won’t be worried if he needs to rely on him if circumstances call for it.
Barcelona have the depth advantage, and could really turn into a defensive powerhouse if they find a way to sign Kalidou Koulibaly, as well as a right-back solution.
One thing’s for sure, Barcelona are the ones who need to make moves to improve their defense. If the status quo persists, they will be at a great disadvantage compared to their rivals.
With all the gossip swirling, what defensive moves do you think Barcelona should make, or not make, going into the summer?