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From struggle to strength: Three reasons behind Barcelona’s recent improvement in defense

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Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Heads were drooping low as Barcelona sulked their way back into the dressing room after suffering a humiliating 5-3 defeat to Villarreal earlier this year.

The club’s inability to act cohesively on the pitch and concede goals as frequently as a leaky faucet drips water eventually culminated in coach Xavi Hernandez dropping the bombshell news of his departure at the end of the season.

After reigning supreme in La Liga last season, all the positive sensations that enveloped Barcelona seemed to have evaporated.

In just eight games during January, Barcelona conceded 15 goals, allowing a whopping 110 shots and having -1.4 goals saved.

But adversity often has the effect of eliciting talents that, in prosperous circumstances, would have lain dormant.

And Xavi, in particular, recognized he had to formulate a new plan of action, with the defeat to Villarreal serving as the breaking point.

Since then, the Catalan giants have undergone a structural overhaul, which has led to a considerable decrease in the goals Barcelona are conceding.

Indeed, Barça have simply conceded 7 goals in 10 games and are yet to lose a single encounter owing to the newfound solidity at the back.

In this piece, we take a deep dive into the three reasons behind Barcelona’s defensive improvement and, consequently, their overall form.

1. Christensen: The stopgap savior of Barcelona

Against Alaves, whom Barcelona defeated with a comfortable 3-1 score, Xavi made two fundamental changes that represented the most important structural change: Christensen’s move to the pivot, and Pau Cubarsi’s situation in the Gala XI.

The consequence of Christensen playing at the base of midfield was a shift to a closed double pivot, with Christensen assuming a focused defensive role.

The Danish stalwart eschewed a prominent role in progression but diligently covered the space vacated by Frenkie De Jong or other creators.

Is Christensen the pivot Barcelona have been looking for? (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

His value as a ball-winner immediately alleviated the concerns Barcelona were facing in defensive transition, as he liberated the progressors in the team and carried out the grunt work.

Being well-placed to win loose balls and thwarting the threat aerially has been a staple of his game so far.

Despite difficulties on the half-turn, his lack of mobility has not been a significant burden considering Christensen’s quick feet and diverse passing range enable him to eliminate pressure often.

A number six who understands his responsibilities, does not go beyond what is required of him, and liberates his teammates will always be helpful to a possession-based side like Barcelona.

Just as his teammates’ brilliance grows, so does the lens through which we view his performance.

The result of him playing in midfield is that Barcelona finally have an anchor to play off of in possession, and without the ball, they have increased assurance.

2. Complementary profiles

Before Barcelona settled for a new approach, the Blaugranes‘ structure entailed two center-backs and two low full-backs.

The meteoric rise of Pau Cubarsi allowed Xavi to change things, however.

Implementing three center-backs with Cubarsi, Ronald Araujo, and Jules Kounde offered solid cover and numbers at the back.

Having a three at the back allowed Barcelona to overcome facing crosses, as the extra center-back added an additional presence in the middle to deal with deliveries from out wide.

The rise of Cubarsi. (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

Most importantly, though, the profiles in Barcelona’s back-line complemented each other. Cubarsi, as the primary distributor, brought the best out of his compatriots in defense.

Ronald Araujo, who was going through an incredibly difficult period, was finally able to pair up alongside a ball-playing center-back, allowing his strengths as a front-footed defender to come to light.

Specifically, the Uruguayan did not have to rely excessively on his positional duties but could operate as an aggressor to win the ball back early or make last-ditch tackles.

Moreover, with Cubarsi handling the bulk of build-up responsibilities, Araujo’s occasional lapses on the ball were concealed.

On the other hand, Jules Kounde has also shone as the wide right center-back. His comfort in possession is visible, and he is able to showcase his excellent ability to anticipate off-ball movements of tricky wingers, which will be particularly needed soon against Kylian Mbappe.

3. Slow and steady wins the race

Since abandoning the old ideas that held Barcelona back for a large portion of the season, the Catalan giants have observed a notable decrease in their directness.

Indeed, Barcelona has embraced a newfound patience and poise, markedly reducing their inclination towards overly direct play.

This shift is underscored by empirical evidence. Compared to the month of January, Barcelona’s passing speed has decreased from 9.45 to 8.24.

Moreover, their verticality has taken a significant plunge, with the numbers going from 32.4% to now 27.72%. Even the height of their defensive actions has decreased from 35.56 to 28.65.

Gundogan has been Barcelona’s key element for accurate passes.

Similarly, Barcelona are spending less time in the opposition third and availing more time to build up through the back, reminiscent of how Barcelona normally operated at its peak.

Owing to the fact that the Catalan giants are taking their time on the ball and patiently prising defenses open, they have significantly tightened their defensive lines, conceding fewer goals— precisely from 1.32 to 0.69.

The data suggests Barcelona are now a conservative passing team with a less direct play style, barring Pau Cubarsi, whose long balls have proven to be a cheat code.

Furthermore, a greater presence in their own field with the ball creates safety in defense, resulting in fewer goals and shots.

While this shift towards a deeper defensive line naturally translates to fewer shots on the opposition’s goal, it has concurrently enhanced their attacking efficiency.

This hardly comes across as a surprise considering Barça have historically been more confident with purposeful possession and tend to lose confidence in chaotic scenarios.

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