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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Is Tito Vilanova to Blame for Barcelona’s Defensive Issues this Season?

Tito VilanovaWe’ve gone from one extreme to another; the most successful start to a season in the club’s history to one of the most humiliating endings to a Champions League campaign for many years. It’s fair to say that this season has been full of the most extraordinary highs and lows and, but we’re now La Liga champions so that incredible beginning to the season has finally got its rewards.

And deservedly so. With just two defeats in La Liga this season there’s no doubt that despite some questionable performances at times and an almost non-existent defense, that Barcelona were the best team in the league. But it hasn’t come without great difficulty. Barcelona won the league despite not winning a Clasico this season and that has to be a sore point for Cules everywhere. No one likes losing a Clasico, and after Barca had been so dominant in the fixture for the last few years, dealing with defeat to Jose Mourinho and his men is just not acceptable to some people.

So is it Tito’s fault that we lost the Clasicos? We didn’t lose the first one, on October 7, despite our defense having been at its most fragile in months. We managed a 2-2 draw with a rampant Cristiano Ronaldo scoring two, but the ever-reliable Lionel Messi making sure the scores were even by the end. The 2-1 defeat to Real at the Bernabeu in the second league Clasico was much more difficult to comprehend; Real had a few of their star players benched, including Ronaldo, so defeat to them when the odds appeared to be in our favor was tough to swallow.

I don’t think anyone needs reminding of the Copa Del Rey games either. At the time of the back to back defeats to Real (in the Copa Del Rey at the Camp Nou and then the second league match), Tito was in the middle of intense cancer treatment and was in New York. Despite many people suggesting it was Tito making the decisions from America and not Jordi Roura, it’s extremely difficult to understand exactly how much control Tito would have had. The point of him being in New York was to receive specialist treatment to save his life, not for him to instruct the team, so I doubt he would have had quite as much control as some people suggest.

However, even if he did, it was extremely tough for him to have any say in what to do once the games started. It would have been left almost entirely up to Roura to decide the substitutions, which tactical decisions needed to be made, and this was a problem in itself. Roura has had no experience of coaching a team before this season and, whilst I don’t believe that it was all his fault, it was down to management problems that we have struggled this season; both with mistakes made regarding coaching decisions and the choices we made during last season’s transfer window.

BarcelonaWhen it comes to our defense there really is no easy solution to explain quite how appalling it has become. Certainly the defense has suffered from its fair share of injuries but it can’t be the only excuse. At times, the players simply haven’t played well enough. Gerard Pique has shown brief signs of brilliance but overall has had yet another incredibly disappointing season. Pique has been rated among the best in Europe for the last few years, but I’m beginning to think that he no longer deserves to be considered.

That, however, is up to debate and should be the subject of a separate article. Even other players who deserve much more credit for their efforts, Javier Mascherano for example, have had turbulent seasons. Mascherano has scored the most own goals this season, and also missed some important games through injury. Add to that the constant injury concerns surrounding club captain Puyol and it’s not surprising whatsoever that Barcelona have struggled so much defensively.

How much of this is down to Tito? Obviously Tito can’t be blamed for players having injuries, but there have been some questionable decisions in defense. Barcelona have frequently chosen the likes of Alex Song, Mascherano, and Adriano to play in the center back role, but there is a serious problem with this: none of them are center backs. Adriano is a winger, not a center back, and despite putting in as much effort as possible whenever he’s called upon, his defending is a weakness.

Song is very slow and unused to the center back role (although better prepared for it than Busquets for example), and the question has to be why did Barcelona spend so much money on buying a midfielder to play in the center back position and spend most of his time benched than a genuine center back? It’s an odd question considering the price Alex Song was bought for was the same price as that of Mats Hummels, the Borussia Dortmund center back Barcelona have been linked with on several occasions. Are we getting value for money?

The defense remains the most complex problem facing Tito, and some would say that he has done nothing to solve it. It has been reported that it was Tito’s decision not to buy a center back last summer, and if that was the case, then it was a very foolish decision to make in my honest opinion. Some excuses can be made for him, it was his first season as coach, but not filling an enormous hole in the defense is ultimately what has cost us the most this season. What Tito can do is learn from his mistakes and make sure that he doesn’t do the same thing again.

BarcelonaIf Barcelona fail to buy a genuine center back this summer, then Tito can be seen as the culprit with all responsibility. How can you expect to win anything when you’re allowing a weakened spot to stay weakened whilst other teams strengthen in attack? The fact that Deportivo, who were in the relegation spots at the time, were able to put 4 goals past us is a sign of just how bad things got.

It doesn’t even take a particularly strong offence, with no disrespect meant to Deportivo, to really hurt Barcelona and it’s something that has to be stopped. If Barca want to stay at the top (and with the emergence of Bayern Munich and the recent change in Clasico results that seems unlikely) then something has to be done about it. If not now then when? Wait until we have a completely trophyless season for them to do something? Wait until we lose a Clasico 5-0? As soon as a problem presents itself it’s there to be fixed as and when it happened, not waiting for it to get worse, and for me that was the biggest mistake Tito made all season.

But what did Tito get right? No doubt that some of his decisions later on in the season were dubious at best and even some of the earlier ones, despite such a tremendous start, were baffling. None more so than his decision to delegate David Villa a regular spot on the bench. As Spain’s number one top goalscorer and a reputation as one of the best strikers in Europe, Tito’s decision to lose Villa far less frequently than his talent deserves not only raised important questions about what Tito was up to at the time, particularly when the team struggled for goals, but also increased the dependency we have on Lionel Messi.

The Messi dependency, despite us being fortunate enough to have a player capable of scoring an enormous amount of goals, is dangerous. What happens if Messi gets a major injury and is sidelined for several months? Every team has a player they rely upon more than most, but Barcelona can’t afford the level of dependency they’ve had on Messi. As cruel as this may seem, it’s about FC Barcelona, not FC Messi, and it’s time we started looking for other options and sharing the spotlight a little bit more.

Lionel MessiOf course that’s probably not entirely Tito’s fault. David aside, no one could have guessed that both Pedro and Alexis would choose the exact same season to go completely off form. Pedro has been out of form since almost the beginning of the season and this one is more than a little forgettable for the star. Alexis, on the other hand, despite some real blunders in front of goal, has recently improved enough for me to think that perhaps his season wasn’t a washout and there is still something we can gain from keeping Alexis. Even when he wasn’t able to score, his ability to drag defenders wide, create distractions for other players to sneak in and score and then use his pace to get back and help out the defense was remarkable at times. Alexis is, in my honest opinion, one of the most underrated yet most hardworking players at Barcelona and deserves a lot more credit than he gets.

But apart from the players being off form, could Tito be blamed for the lack of time he dedicated to the youngsters? Yes! Tito barely gave any time at all to the likes of Martin Montoya, Marc Bartra, and Cristian Tello. Was this a mistake? Clearly it was. Dani Alves was badly off form and injury-prone at the beginning of the season, and ever since, hasn’t been brilliant at times and Montoya has impressed when called upon.

In smaller games (or even the bigger ones as he shone during the Clasicos) Montoya should have been given the chance so Alves could get some rest and Montoya could show the skills that will one day lead to him becoming our first-choice right back. When Montoya has been called upon in some games it has usually been in the place of left back Jordi Alba which shows just how versatile a player he is. Montoya is a valuable asset and will one day become Spain’s number one right back. It’s time to help him gain more experience, more trust and develop before he decides that.

Written by Liberty AliHasan Al

Real Sociedad 3-2 Barcelona: Red Card and Own Goal End Undefeated Streak

Real Sociedad played an exceptional game against league leaders Barcelona Saturday, coming from behind to deliver Barca ‘s first defeat of the season with the score of 3-2.Real Sociedad 3-2 Barcelona

Lionel Messi and Pedro sent the Catalan Giants off to a great start at Anoeta Stadium, putting them up 2-0 for most of the 1st half. As of then, it looked as though Barcelona’s 19th La Liga victory of the season was within arms-reach. Real Sociedad needed a miracle to get back in the game, set aside win it all.

But unfortunately for Barcelona, that is exactly what had happened.

A red card for Gerard Pique let Sociedad fight back though, and with goals from Gonzalo Castro, Javier Mascherano (own goal), and Imanol Agirretxe, the squad secured the jackpot.

But the jackpot was much more than a mere 3 points. It was a win against an undefeated side that has a total of 21 La Liga and 4 Champions League titles, and if that’s not a feat worthy of praise, I don’t know what is!

The surprising part was that Barcelona had hugely dominant possession of the ball, a whopping 68% of it! Their pass accuracy was 89%, compared to Sociedad’s 74%, but all other statistics had gone in the opposition’s favor.

Sociedad made nearly double the number of shots during the match. 6 of those 14 shots were on target, while only 3 of Barca’s 8 had any chance at finding the back of the net.

Barca only made one change to their starting lineup from last week’s Copa del Rey draw against Malaga, putting in captain Carles Puyol for Javier Mascherano (who still managed to score an own goal). Tito Vilanova put only the strongest men on the pitch to amend their weak performance at home against Malaga, but they still fell short of Sociedad.

The 1st half was surprisingly all Barcelona’s, and getting into rhythm quickly, they look as though they were unstoppable. The squad made many meaningful attacks early on, but few actually tested the defenses. Messi had a one-on-one moment with Sociedad goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, and though it looked like it was an easy shot to make, it went completely wide, something very unlike the Argentine legend.

Just a minute later, Messi had another chance, but the keeper cleared it. Unfortunately for them, it landed at Iniesta’s feet, who found Messi once again with an assist and slotted the ball past Bravo and into the goal on the 7th minute.

On the 25th minute, Pedro produced another series of attacks against Sociedad. Dani Alves pressured the defense and set up Pedro, who scored his 4th La Liga goal of the season.

2 goals up, Barca continued to push for a 3rd. Messi surged toward the goal and beat Bravo in another 50-50, but his shot hit the post, hinting at what was yet to come.

Real Sociedad 3-2 BarcelonaSociedad cut the lead to just 1 when they used Dani Alves’ mistake to their advantage. As a result, Chori Castro had complete control over the left side of the penalty area, and after an assist from Carlos Vela, he fired his side right back into the game.

Messi had another chance to score for Barca before the half, but it went wide, leaving Barca up 2-1 as the whistle was blown.

Vilanova made no changes to the squad as they entered the 2nd half, a mistake he would later regret. The team made unclean passes and allowed Sociedad and easy entry back into the game.

Pique, who picked up a yellow card in the first half, should have been more careful, but he stuck his leg out in front of Carlos Vela to get the red. This caused Vilanova to make his first change of the match, substituting Mascherano for Fabregas to maintain all 4 men on defense.

Just 3 minutes later, Castro made a powerful curled shot at the Barca goal. Although it would have probably been saved by Valdes, it took a deflection off of Mascherano, whose own goal tied it up at 2 just after the hour mark.

Both teams exchanged attacking plays after the equalizer, but Sociedad manager Philippe Montanier had one substitution left to make, which in fact won them the game. He put in Imanol Agirretxe for Carlos Vela, who evaded Barca’s poor defense on the 90th minute and scored the winner.

You can argue that their loss was largely Gerard Pique’s fault, who had left the squad one man down. It was a significant factor, but not the only thing that caused them to lose at Anoeta.

No matter how you bend it, the team did very poorly both offensively and defensively. All 11 men were on the pitch when Sociedad scored their first, so Pique was not to blame for that goal. They were unable to recover after that, though, and although I’m not diverting the attention from Pique, they shouldn’t have been crushed that badly even with only 10 men.

Now that they have recorded their first loss of the season, Barcelona stays in 1st on the La Liga table with 55 points. Both Madrid teams are still fairly far behind (but haven’t played their 20th games yet), Atletico in 2nd with 44 points and Real in a close 3rd with only 37.

Meanwhile, Real Sociedad stay in 9th place with 29 points. They are just 3 points away from 5th placed Malaga, meaning that they can rise to that position fairly quickly if they are to have a more successful second half of the season.

Written by FutbolPulse