The Ongoing Dilemma of Barcelona’s Center-Back Situation

BarcelonaUpon Pep Guardiola’s appointment as Barcelona manager in 2008, the club embarked on a new challenge, and history was written in the four years that followed. Guardiola became the most decorated manager in the history of his beloved club, obliterating opponents week in week out, breaking records that stood for years, and playing a scintillating style of football that left spectators worldwide in awe.

At the end of the 2012-13 season Guardiola stepped down, and his trustworthy assistant Tito Vilanova was chosen to take charge of his dynasty. Lately, Tito had to unwillingly resign due to a cancer relapse, leaving behind a team made up of some of the most talented players in recent years. Between Guardiola and Tito, Barcelona’s football defined an era. Their style of play was labeled Tiki-Taka by some, and a modern version of “total football” by others. But regardless of the name, no one can argue against the fact that Barcelona managed to capture the hearts of cules all over the world.

In his four seasons in charge, Guardiola implemented a high pressure system that enabled his team to win the ball back in the opposition’s area, thus rendering the rival team’s attacking threat to a minimal level. In addition to that, Pep emphasized on having superior ball possession in order to limit and control the opponents’ influence. By doing so, his team managed to only concede 55, 39, 36, and 48 in the seasons between 2008-09 and 2011-12 respectively.

When Guardiola took his much-debated sabbatical, Rosell’s decision to appoint Vilanova stemmed from the thought of keeping the same philosophy going, and the majestically played football flowing, since Tito was his predecessor’s effective right hand man. It’s only normal to assume that he would have grasped every bit of his methods, but unfortunately, this did not seem to be the case.

Tito’s Barcelona managed to scandalously concede a sum of 66 goals in 60 games. This 1.1 goal/game rate is much larger the 0.88, 0.66, 0.60, and 0.75 rates achieved under Guardiola’s guidance, which simply implies that things have not been running as smoothly as they should be. A thorough analysis of some of Barcelona’s games shows that the previously implemented defensive strategies were completely missing as of late: no intense pressing, no versatility or effective ball possession.

The result was a team susceptible to counter attacks and dead ball situations. Spartak Moscow, Sevilla, Mallorca, Malaga, Real Madrid, Deportivo, and PSG managed to score two or more goals against Barcelona, while Bayern completely demolished them, exposing a defense that has been suffering for too long. As a result, Tito and his sporting director Zubizareta promised club supporters a world-class center back to solve the team’s defensive shortcomings and deputize for the aging Carles Puyol. So what has happened since then?

Upon the conclusion of European competitions, transfer rumors started to surface, and almost every top defender was linked to Barcelona. Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Laurent Koscielny, Thomas Vermaelen, Daniel Agger, Mattheus Doria, Inigo Martinez, Raphael Varane, Eliaquim Mangala, Mats Hummels, Jeremy Mathieu, Branislav Ivanovic, Adil Rami, and recently Santiago Vergini were some of the names associated with plugging the gap at Barcelona’s defense.

BarcelonaOf all the mentioned names, only few were realistic targets; players that have the capability to function in a not-so-easy Barcelona system and that are practically followed by the Catalan club. Thiago Silva was deemed “untransferable,” PSG’s president even went as far as threatening to hijack Lionel Messi if Barcelona continue to pursue his Brazilian defender.

Marquinhos was labeled an “interesting talent” by Zubizareta, but Barcelona was not given a chance to negotiate his transfer as he was snapped up by PSG. David Luiz and Branislav Ivanovic were automatically retained and declared fundamental to team’s plan by Mourinho. Hummels was seen as a similar type of player to Pique. Where does this leave Barcelona in their hunt?

Before delving into names, the manager (now Gerardo Martino) will have to address the functionality of the team in terms of pressing, a more balanced structure, and turning possession into creativity and goals, as was the case under Guardiola’s management. Then the issue of who will be insignificant. Pep’s team managed to dominate several games with a makeshift defense, some of which were finals (Champions League to be particular), simply because the team functioned in a certain way that capitalizes on its qualities while covering up its deficiencies.

Last season in particular, Barcelona were susceptible to defensive exposure because they failed to come up with any new tactics, always playing the same way, and teams can sit down and work out exactly how they can prepare their team to beat them. Jupp Heynckes stated before the semi final game against this team that he knew exactly what each of the Barcelona players would do, and he worked out exactly how to neutralize the threat.

Mourinho also had the luxury of trial and error games to sort out his tactics. In the end, he sacrificed his midfield, crowded his defense, and left a couple of his very fast players upfront to inflict menace on Barcelona’s defense. Whomever the defender, be it Puyol, Pique, Mascherano or any other world class player that will be signed, if the team functionality is not set up in a way to protect the team’s defense, then the Catalan club will suffer like they did last season.

Now Fontas joined Celta Vigo, Abidal  and Muniesa were released, and Puyol is not getting any younger, so Barcelona have to sign a player to compete with Mascherano, Pique, and Bartra for a center back position. But what should be noted is that the issue of the name is not as important as the team strategy as a whole.

There is absolutely no need to splash the cash just to cover up administrative and technical blunders. Papers worldwide scramble daily to fill the pages, and while some stories are clearly garbage, others are based on some inside information, so Barcelona should avoid dipping in an inflated market just for the sake of spending. After all, Rosell claims that the sole focus of his board is to reduce the financial dampening that Laporta put his club in.

Written by Hassan Chakroun