With everything on the line this season, Barcelona are looking strongest in the most unexpected area.
Yes, Robert Lewandowski has scored his goals, and is on pace to win the Pichichi. That was a big signing that had to pay off, and already has.
His goals have been critical, leaving big questions for the team to answer in his absence, as the center forward serves a three-game suspension.
Who would replace him? That was the debate of the week. In the end, it went to Ansu Fati, and later on Ferran Torres, both of whom had quiet performances against Atletico Madrid.
From what we’ve seen in the two games since returning from the World Cup, Xavi will need to find fixes to refine the effectiveness of his attacking trio.
The midfield has also struggled in its job to control games when being pressed high up the field. When they’re given the ball for free, as Atleti did prior to the opening goal, the possession fiesta is on. A little bit of pressure, however, and there’s been serious trouble building out of the back.
Without the ball, however, Barcelona is looking more stable than they have in years.
The gritty 1-0 victory on Sunday was a case in point that you need a backline you can count on to win the tight games that will determine the league winner.
Take a bow Ronald Araujo, Andreas Christensen, and Jules Kounde, who collectively absorbed and repelled the barrage of second half pressure thrown at them, and individually had big moments to help secure the victory.
None bigger than Ronald Araujo’s last minute save at the goal line.
The defense has been switched on all season (at least domestically), and are leading La Liga with only 6 goals allowed, and 12 shutouts. The next best are Villarreal with 12 goals conceded.
The back four of Kounde, Araujo, Christensen, and Alejandro Balde, is not your traditional Barca defense.
Balde did come out of the academy, which is an added bonus, but against Atletico Madrid, we saw the importance of having defenders who can physically boss the game, and fast enough to chase down attacks that are played behind their high line.
Balde didn’t have his best game, and yet he still made big contributions defensively, showing his recovery speed, and ability to win back balls. This is why Jordi Alba can no longer start over him. Alba continues to be world class with crosses into the box, but is too big of a liability in the other direction. Barcelona should continue to prioritize defensive stability, and that’s what Balde gives you, whether he’s being used as a full-back or a wing-back.
Jules Kounde was stellar again on the right side. He has no hesitation to go forward and combine with Ousmane Dembele, and takes care of the dirty work in support of his French compatriot to provide the cover needed for the winger to play in a higher attacking position. No surprise that Dembele was so effective, netting the game winning goal, and coming close in transition on several occasions.
But the real stars of the show were Araujo and Christensen, who frustrated Atletico Madrid all night.
Christensen is proving to be one of the signings of the summer when you consider the value Barca is getting for him. The Danish international is a no-frills defender. In the right place at the right time, with the strength to win duels in the air and on the ground, and the speed to help cover for Sergio Busquets, who Xavi has no intention of dropping.
Araujo is a warrior, giving Barcelona more of a Carles Puyol than a Gerard Pique.
And going forward, as modern football continues to evolve away from the tiki taka era, that’s exactly the spirit that the Blaugrana need.
Everything the Uruguayan does is with contagious energy.
The way he scores thunderous headers.
The way he wipes out attackers in transition when a tactical foul is required.
The way he stepped up in stoppage time, when all the pressure was on, focused and ready to put his body on the line to snatch the three points for his team.
Araujo sets the standard for intensity, which helps his teammates follow the example and ride the wave.
A special shoutout needs to be given to Marc-Andre ter Stegen who is once again showing his superhero abilities. Playing in front of a goalkeeper who is consistently making big saves inspires confidence up and down the field. The German is having an MVP season.
The lack of depth, however, which was supposed to be an area of strength entering the season, was also revealed against Atleti.
It was unsettling to see Marcos Alonso and Sergi Roberto come on to see out the game.
The experiment of playing Alonso as a center-back hopefully is over.
Roberto has surprised everyone by putting in solid performances lately, at least relative to expectations, but is still not a solution at right-back for a team looking to win trophies.
In an ideal world, when everyone is healthy, Barcelona has perhaps the best defensive line in La Liga, and that’s the one we saw on Sunday.
The problem with the backups, which include Alba, Alonso, Roberto, and Eric Garcia, is that they have such a different profile, and all of them weaken the team from a purely defensive point of view.
Imagine if the Barcelona of the future included a balanced right full-back like Nahuel Molina or Diogo Dalot. Even Juan Foyth continues to impress, most recently by shutting down Vinicius Junior over the weekend.
Defense wins championships.
It’s an old cliche that Barcelona could ignore in the past, but not anymore.
It wasn’t pretty against Atleti, but through solid defending in the back, the team got the job done.
And look at those faces at the end of the match. Scoring goals in fun, but defense is what makes you proud.
Now we turn our attention to the Spanish Supercopa.
Barcelona will need that grittiness to beat a confident Real Betis, and potentially against Real Madrid in the final.
For the boys to emerge with a title in hand, the defenders will need to play a big part in it.
I have a feeling they’ll be up for the challenge.