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

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Barcelona Unveil Gerardo Martino as New Manager

Gerardo MartinoMany were left in shock last week as the heir to Pep Guardiola’s throne, Tito Vilanova, announced his decision to resign as manager of Barcelona after just one season in charge. In the 2012-13 season, the 44-year-old led Barcelona to win back the La Liga title from Real Madrid, who won it in the previous year. The reason stated by Vilanova for choosing to step down was his battle with cancer, having already suffered from it twice in the last few years and most recently in late last year. Thankfully, both times his treatment was successful, and many around the world are hoping this will again be the case for the man who joined Barcelona in 2007.

Seeing as Barcelona are one of the biggest clubs in world football, the job as manager is obviously very prestigious and highly coveted in Catalonia. Many names were listed as possible contenders to succeed Vilanova, such as Guus Hiddink and Andre Villas-Boas, however many people were quick to distance themselves from the post. After big names such as Villas-Boas and Jupp Heynckes ruled themselves out of the running, all the signs seemed to be pointing towards former Real Madrid and Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink as the new manager at Camp Nou.

The Dutchman turned speculation up a notch earlier this week when he resigned from his job as manager of Anzhi Makhachkala after just over a year in charge. He was replaced by former Manchester United assistant manager Rene Meulensteen, but all the talk was about whether this resignation signaled Hiddink’s appointment was set to be confirmed by the Spanish club.

However, this was not the case. Less than a day on from the news that Hiddink had resigned from his job, Barcelona announced the appointment of Argentinian Gerardo Martino as the successor to Vilanova. This was a shock appointment to many, given the names that had originally been linked with the job and also because most football fans know very little about the 50-year-old.

There’s no doubt that the man who takes over at a club like Barcelona, a club that have such a rich culture of winning trophies, that the manager also has to be a winner too. To the untrained eye, this would rule Martino out of the running for the job. However, a bit of research shows that in the last 11 years, he has won 5 league titles with three teams in two different countries, as well as winning an award for South American Coach of the Year in 2007.

Some people will be worried that Martino, despite his success in South America, may not be able to challenge for domestic titles in Europe too. However, we have to accept that in most countries it is very difficult to win the league, unless it is one of the few that are dominated by one or two teams. An example of such a league is Scotland, where Celtic and Rangers have been the two biggest challengers for a long time now, and this fact will always be difficult to break up.

The leagues that Martino has managed so far in his career haven’t been like this. Argentina’s league is very wide open with several teams that could challenge for the title each year. This means it was a challenge for Martino to triumph last month with Newell’s Old Boys, and deserves credit.

Gerardo MartinoIn Paraguay, Martino won titles with two different clubs - showing it wasn’t just luck - and he genuinely does have the consistency to challenge in different leagues and at different teams. He even won three of them consecutively - twice with Libertad and one with Cerro Porteño between 2002 and 2004 - and he also won the top division again with Libertad in 2006 after a spell with Colon.

These five league titles show that Martino knows how to win trophies and that he has valuable experience which could prove a huge advantage at Camp Nou with all those fans watching. Both Barcelona and their fierce rivals Real Madrid will now start the new season with new managers after both Tito Vilanova and Jose Mourinho left their respective clubs in the last few weeks. It will be interesting to see how Martino and Ancelotti do at their new clubs, as both have won lots of silverware so far in their career and are also very experienced.

Whenever a new manager takes over at a big club, there is always a worry about whether they will be able to handle the attitudes of the big players, and often this can be the downfall of the new man. We saw it in 2011 at Chelsea, where Andre Villas-Boas lost it in the dressing room and failed at the club as a result. It’s never nice to see this happen to a manager, but it could be even more of a risk at the Nou Camp under Martino, as he won’t have handled players anywhere near the level of the ones playing in Catalonia.

Thankfully, this looks like it will not be the case for the Argentine. Even just days into the job, Barcelona’s key player Lionel Messi has come out and voiced his support for his compatriot. Messi has been an integral part of Barcelona’s side for years now, and if Martino has him onside, it won’t be long before the rest of the squad follows suit in their support for the new manager too. Should this happen, it could certainly have a dramatic effect on how well Martino does at his new club, and could be the deciding factor in league titles over the next few years, during the reign of Martino.

It’s vital for Martino’s early success at Barça that he claims the La Liga title this season, at the very least, alongside the Copa Del Rey. This would convince doubting fans that he can win with the club, and win them over to have the majority of the club behind him. He also needs to be a serious challenger for the Champions League, but with the new-found success at Bayern Munich, it could be difficult at this early stage.

I do feel that the criticism some have laid onto Martino since his appointment is unjustified. However, it’s because he’s relatively unknown as manager in Europe. Had he been a manager over here before people would be a lot more supportive of the new man, and I hope it won’t take him too long to win them over.

There is, however, always that chance that he may not succeed in Europe, which would be a shame, although the chance of this happening is minimal. The senior staff at Barcelona know what they’re doing, and they won’t have messed about in appointing Vilanova’s replacement. They will certainly feel that they’ve got the right replacement, and I’m sure there’ll be many football fans watching him try to prove them right.

Written by Ben Warner