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Barcelona - Leaving the back door open?

Barcelona - Leaving the back door open?

Jacob Steinberg on 16 September 2011

Barcelona's Champions League tie against Milan exposed potential weaknesses in their defence. Have they been complacent in not buying cover for defensive personnel?

Barcelona are in crisis. They haven’t won a game this month. They haven’t even won a trophy since August. Much more of this and their fans will be calling for Pep Guardiola’s head.

In Jose Mourinho’s dreams, perhaps. The above is, of course, utter nonsense. The only crisis likely to unfold at Camp Nou in the near future is making space in the trophy cabinet for yet more silverware this season. The reigning champions might be two points off Real Madrid in the league after the opening two games, but they are still expected to win the title and although no team has retained the European Cup since AC Milan in 1990, if any side can finally put that statistic to bed, it is Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Not if they defend like they did in the 2-2 draw against Milan in their opening Champions League match on Tuesday night, goals in the first and last minute allowing the Italians to escape Camp Nou with a point. No-one had seen this coming. Milan arrived without their big-name striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and were also deprived of the injured Robinho, but ultimately Barcelona’s defensive shortcomings let them off the hook, when at one stage it seemed certain Massimiliano Allegri’s side were going to be on the end of a thumping.

That they weren’t can be put down to the absence of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique at the heart of Barcelona’s defence, meaning that Guardiola was forced to pick two defensive midfielders, Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano there instead. Both have deputised in defence before - the latter performed notably alongside Pique against Manchester United in the Champions League final - but never as a pair. It took all of 25 seconds for Milan to capitalise on the weakness, Alexandre Pato picking up possession 40 yards from goal, knocking the ball past Busquets and Mascherano, outpacing both and finishing coolly past Victor Valdes.

Unsurprisingly Barcelona had 70% of the possession but in one swift, individualistic moment, Milan had stunned them. Pato’s speed and Barcelona’s high line, necessary due to their pressing game, was initially disastrous for the home side and in the early stages, the Brazilian forward had to be denied by last-ditch tackles from Daniel Alves and Seydou Keita. Against Villarreal in the league, Guardiola played just one defender, Eric Abidal, and his side won 5-0, but Milan gave them a reality check; even the best teams have to defend - and even those that are arguably the best of all time.

There wasn’t much wrong going forward, of course, with Lionel Messi as brilliant as ever. He could have scored four, but in the end he had to settle for a marvellous assist, his awesome turn of pace embarrassing Alessandro Nesta and Ignazio Abate. Pedro finished the move off at the far post, and then David Villa made it 2-1 with a sublime free-kick early in the second half. That should have been that, yet Milan hung on and then in the last minute Thiago Silva headed an equaliser from Clarence Seedorf’s corner.

Let’s not bring up the Stoke question - but it is true that Barcelona, due to their lack of height, can struggle to defend set-pieces. Real Madrid scored twice from corners against them in August, and Arsenal were also given hope in the second leg of their tie last season when Busquets headed into his own goal. Famously in that game, a surer touch from Nicklas Bendtner late on would have sent Barcelona crashing out. Add to that the vulnerability displayed against Pato’s speed and a certain weakness begins to become obvious. Against the majority of teams, this will not be a problem. It could be against their rivals.

It is nothing that cannot be solved by the return of Pique and Puyol, though the latter, getting on in years, has barely played all year due to injury. Is it down to complacency or simply an unerring belief in their own ability that has meant Barcelona have not addressed their lack of cover in defence? Certainly they remain more than good enough to overcome it, even against the likes of United and Madrid, though it still seems remarkably short-sighted for the European champions to be compromising in such a key area. Abidal can be moved across from centre-back, but then that leaves a hole at left-back which may not be solved by the buccaneering Adriano, while Andreu Fontas could be too inexperienced.

These potential dilemmas have been addressed in attack. Alexis Sanchez offers a challenge to Villa and Pedro, though he is currently injured, while on Tuesday there was a pertinent rebuke to those who scoffed that Cesc Fabregas would be nothing more than a bench-warmer at Barcelona when Andres Iniesta went off injured. This is precisely why Fabregas was bought: to lift the burden on Xaviesta. In previous seasons, Iniesta’s injury would have forced Barcelona to rely on Keita, a decent squad player, but not in the same class as those he was replacing. When Inter beat Barcelona in 2010, Keita played instead of Iniesta in both games. He was there again when Madrid won the Copa del Rey last season.

Yet he still had to start against Milan, a direct consequence of the injuries in defence, which meant neither Busquets nor Mascherano could play in midfield. In the past two years, Barcelona have released Dimitry Chygrynskiy, Rafael Marquez and Gabriel Milito and have not bought a replacement for any of them. How appropriate that Milan, the club of Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, were the ones to take advantage.


Jacob Steinberg writes for The Guardian, and is a regular contributor to The Blizzard. Follow him on Twitter here.

Comments

Some really good points there Jacob. It would be a little more concerning if Pato was skinning Pique and Puyol but it has certainly highlighted the lack of depth they have at centre back.
With all the other top sides aspiring to Barcelona at the moment many are beginning to develop the slicker attacking style. However, sides like Chelsea, Madrid and United have stronger options at the back. At United Jones and Smalling are just waiting to take over as the first choice partnership. Who is the next set at Barca? (although admittedly Pique will be around for a while)
Don Bradman - the legendary Australian cricketer used to say 'if you keep the ball on the ground you cant get out' and Barcelona's ball retention is in a similar vain; if we have the ball you cannot score. However, as the gap closes with other teams Barca will have to strengthen in that area. Pep must know already what next summers business will revolve around.
by Andy Hunter on 16 September 2011 at 11:00 AM

Barcelona, due to their lack of height, can struggle to defend set-pieces

This is not true, they have an excellent record from set pieces.

http://defensiveminded.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/barcelonas-zonal-marking-at-corners/
by Jonny on 16 September 2011 at 11:48 AM

That's what she said?
by Robert S on 16 September 2011 at 03:39 PM

Keita did not start the Copa del Rey final last year. He came on as substitute in extra time.

I think Puyol, Pique and Abidal are all top quality centre backs. The young Marc Bartra in the B team looks a better bet than Fontas for the future.

I believe the bad experiences of buying Martin Caceres and Chygrynskiy have led Pep to question incorporating centre backs from outside the club. They need to be quick and comfortable on the ball to succeed, not too many around in truth.
by Julio on 16 September 2011 at 09:24 PM

'although no team has retained the European Cup since AC Milan in 1990, if any side can finally put that statistic to bed, it is Guardiola’s Barcelona.'

Point of order, Jacob... that is not a statistic...
by Maurice on 17 September 2011 at 12:41 PM

The companion stat to Barca not being good at defending corners is that Manchester United won exactly 0 corners against them at Wembley. Also, the back 3 of Abidal, Busquets, and Mascherano looked outstanding against Villarreal two weeks ago (Rossi usually gives Pique a lot of trouble, but only created one chance against Mascherano). It's just that Alves' presence in the lineup demands additional cover in defense, because he's the most reckless/careless player Barca have in possession. He's much more liable to expose the defense by losing the ball than Thiago (who played on the right of the diamond against Villarreal).
by matt on 17 September 2011 at 05:38 PM

'Keita did not start the Copa del Rey final last year. He came on as substitute in extra time.'

Mea culpa.
by JacobSteinberg on 17 September 2011 at 06:23 PM

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