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Barcelona defence under Xavi: Record-breaking and highly underrated



Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

Over the course of the last year, there have been many changes made to Barcelona’s team, both internally and externally.

While obviously new players, superstars, rather, have been brought in, like Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha, and Jules Kounde, among others, the Catalan giants look like a completely different team from yesteryears.

Xavi’s Barcelona are not always the highly-nuanced Pep Guardiola’s sides that crave structure and control. They do not always overwhelmingly dominate possession, or take charge of games with the ball.

Nor are they a counter-attacking side that replicate Luis Enrique’s Barcelona from 2014-2017. In fact, this season, Barcelona have looked closer to a prime Diego Simeone or Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea than the side often associated with them.

This is not to discredit the progress Barcelona have made this season. There have been a fair few games this season when Xavi and co.’s tactical approach has been clear.

The Spanish Super Cup final win against Real Madrid, for example. Or the 3-0 battering of Sevilla. The first half against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena was rather spectacular, too, even though it did not end well.

But, all said and done, it has been clear that the most impressive aspect about this Barcelona team is their ability to control games without the ball.

Barça of the past would have, more often than not, found it difficult to contain teams if they could not dominate the ball. Xavi’s side, however, is built on a solid foundation, and has more than one way of winning games, even if Xavi himself disapproves of them.

The characters

It is clear that the protagonist of this solid defensive charge is Xavi and his coaching staff.

They have managed to mirror the dependant defensive systems that have made Guardiola’s Man City so strong over the last season, while bringing the best out of the individuals in the team.

Barcelona defence has become rock solid under Xavi (Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images)

On paper, the 4-3-3 transitions into a 3-2-2-3 system, with the three-at-the-back screened by the double pivot of Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets.

It brings out the best in de Jong, who likes to be the first receiver of the ball in the build-up phase. It also gives more authority to Busquets to move upwards and make his impact felt in the final third.

Similarly, using three proactive defenders in Jules Kounde, Ronald Araujo, and Andreas Christensen in the backline helps share the burden of the defence. All three happen to be very mobile players who can cover for each other with ease.

On a more individual level, Christensen, for example, has acclimatised brilliantly. The Danish international has had no problems adjusting to Barça’s style, and is consistently dominating aerial and ground duels.

Kounde, too, has performed brilliantly over the season, barring a few games. While he has been asked to play as a right-back over his more natural role as a centre-back, the Frenchman is exceptional in his hybrid role, and can deal with most threats on the flank.

Araujo, who, as the heartbeat of the defence, has grown leaps and bounds with his ball progression. He was always a defensive beast, but has shown tremendous improvements with the ball at his feet.

Not to forget Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who has gone from his worst form over the last two seasons or more to arguably his best. The new coaching staff has instilled an incredible level of confidence in him, making him arguably the most complete goalie on the planet right now.

Best in the world?

The numbers

As the individuals and nuances have become clear, the numbers of this Barcelona team must be contextualised, because it is hitting record-breaking levels.

The Blaugranes have conceded just nine goals in the league this season, which is the lowest total in the history of the top five leagues after 30 gameweeks.

These nine goals are also spread across no more than seven games. Real Madrid are the only team to have scored more than one goal against Barça in a single La Liga match this season, when they scored three last year.

In fact, across both fixtures, they have four goals, which means Barcelona have conceded five goals across the rest of the 28 matches.

Ter Stegen has to be credited for a lot of this, especially coming up clutch so often. Barcelona would have lost several games this season if it was not for him – Atletico Madrid home and away, Real Madrid, Valencia, Athletic Club, among so many others.

He has a massive 23 clean sheets under his name, and is on course to winning the Zamora Trophy for the La Liga goalkeeper with the least goals conceded per game in a season.

If Barcelona get two more, they will match the record set by Chelsea in 2004/05 for the most clean sheets in the top five leagues in a season, at 25. Individually, Petr Cech holds that record at 24, from the same season.

That Chelsea team also boasts of the record for the least goals conceded in a 38-match season in the top five leagues, letting in just 15. Counting other seasons, in 1969/70 Cagliari only conceded 11 goals across 30 games.

With eight games to go, Barcelona are on course to break records that have not been touched with a ten-foot pole in the 21st century. Time to give credit where credit is due.

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