The 2020/21 campaign was effortlessly one of mind-numbing tedium. As fans, we tend to overstep the limits of emotion one would normally devote to an activity of leisure. The sheer helplessness of being able only to watch as mistake after reckless mistake is made on the pitch edges, some ever closer to the brink of insanity.
Under Ronald Koeman, the unpredictability that came with every matchday was just as much a source of thrill as it was frustration. One facet in his team’s play that consistently brought up feelings of angst and dread was his defence, and for the same reason; it was far too incalculable for anyone to firmly place any bets on.
The solution on paper seems straightforward and undemanding: Barça simply need to purchase more defenders to countervail whatever weaknesses they have in their backline. A failure to read in between the lines will inevitably lead to footballers being brought in who fail to meet any of the requisites of the club; much like those of Junior Firpo, Nelson Semedo or Yerry Mina.
The myriad of problems the defence suffers from are far more intertwined than many think. Activity in the transfer market is simply worth nothing if the issues in the inner workings of the team are not weeded out. An endless cycle is unearthed: the Blaugranas’ tactics make the defence just as weak as the defence makes the strategies brittle.
It isn’t a case of one taking precedence over the other but both happening concurrently to fabricate quite the disaster. Far from a cornucopia, the entirety of the defensive system is an all-consuming black hole.
Decoding the team’s problem areas
Monotony in player profiles and fragility in defence
In Barcelona’s golden age, the Catalans boasted a dearth of talent on all fronts. The defence itself held an embarrassment of riches within its ranks, however contrary to the current state of affairs, there was diversity in thought pattern and style but carefully moulded to maintain a balance.
The defensive duo of Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol provided a symbiotic yet neatly crafted contrast of styles. With the former, the Catalan giants had a mobile unit, and with the latter, a stringent force acting as the difference between imminent failure and the propensity for success.
Part of the reason why this duo worked was because the profiles of both players complemented as much as they differed from one another. Whenever Pique would trek forward to further ball progression, Puyol would be the last man in defence. He would be the one to do the dirty work, going out of his way to make those last-ditch tackles; he always, both in the literal and figurative sense, put his body on the line for the team. Who could forget his heroic block against Lokomotiv Moscow in the Champions League back in 2002?
The same simply can’t be said about the last few iterations of the side. With the exception of Ronald Araujo, Barcelona have an argosy of the same player; even when taking into account the slight differences in style that separate the five. Samuel Umtiti, Oscar Mingueza, Eric Garcia, Clement Lenglet, and Pique himself offer more or less the same services though to varying degrees and quality.
Ball carrying is a skill sought after in Barcelona, but as Theodore Levitt put it, “An excess of anything is poison”.
The only footballer who seems to offer any differential dexterity is Ronald Araujo. The Uruguayan centre-half has naturally drawn many parallels with Puyol stemming from his no-nonsense stance on defending. Nothing gets past him. At his highest point in the season, the Barça number four went on a run of eleven games without being dribbled past.
Perhaps the only truly fatal flaw that can be detected when one looks his way is his poignant injury struggle. While just 22 years of age, Barça’s newly dubbed brick wall spent a significant portion of the campaign surrounded by them in the med bay. Upon recovery, as is expected with footballers who succumb to repeated lesions, he was repeatedly out of form and more prone to error.
Just as the Blaugrana thought they had returned to a state of normalcy, his injury problems reared their ugly faces once more, prematurely cutting short his Copa America journey.
The aforementioned monotony is not done any favours when the defence makes a habit out of shooting itself in the foot. On a plethora of occasions last season, it mattered not how well the collective had performed, as the team would always fall apart when the stakes were at their highest.
In this regard, every individual has a stake in the blame at one point or another. The inability to run, nonchalance in positioning, inexplicable errors leading to the goal (which themselves led to a loss of close to 20 points) were the undeniable catalysts to the team’s downfall.
The prosaicness and uniformity in player profile, as well as the costly defensive mistakes, can easily be remedied with better coaching, butBarça have another problem in their hands.
A limited manager, an inefficient system
Ronald Koeman is just about as big a mixed bag as his own defence. If his backline can be criticised for not offering more dynamism, then he can receive the same in equal measure for not being more ingenious with his tactics or adept at spotting the flaws within his own tactical set-ups.
At some point during the campaign, fans were treated to the potential of Ronald Koeman’s tactical nous. With the 3-5-2, Barcelona were able to maximise on everyone’s strengths while synchronously mitigating the pungent effects of their weaknesses. His first match using the setup was an undeniable success and a paragon for the way forward.
Reminiscent of theBarça of old, the Blaugrana demonstrated the zeal and zest that was so desperately lacking at the club for years against Sevilla. The collective, asphyxiating press, the immaculate positioning and the strategised possession reduced Los Nervionenses to rubble.
As was the case the last two times Koeman pulled the rabbit out of the hat, his little magic trick became overused, predictable, and thus nimbly stoppable. Any formation with a back three carries with it great risk, and these risks were known all too well by the Dutch manager, who admitted so himself.
With just a single error in coordination or a sudden drop in intensity, what seems initially to be a sturdy, impenetrable, while at the same time lethal concoction metamorphosizes into a defensive mess as porous as a sponge.
Defenders are only there as a last resort for when the defensive work of the forwards and the midfielders proves not to be enough to halt a rival attack. For a system proclaimed risky to succeed, everything needs to be perfect to the nth degree, and in the latter stages of the season, this couldn’t have been farther from reality.
The intense press so beautifully demonstrated in the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan seldom rematerialised, or at least was never implemented to the same effect as it was before. As such, the very defence that conceded just 0.12xG against Spain’s was now constantly bombarded with wave after blistering wave of attack. Every phase of pressure carelessly implemented by the Garnet and Blue was naturally easily bypassed.
Even with the glaring problems within his system, he maintained his stern, almost religious faith in it. Solutions were present, but he was either too blind or too inept to see them.
Oscar Mingueza, for instance, could have started as a wingback, but in possession phases against teams with play more oriented towards the wings, he could drop into the defence and form a makeshift back four while still maintaining a high press.
The youngster has shown immense aptitude at performing in one versus one situations, an element painfully missing in the team’s repertoire in the closing weeks of the campaign. This is just one of many possible adjustments that could have been made.
Also, knowing the team’s issues with pace, training Marc-Andre ter Stegen to perform a sweeping role would have gone a long way in adding some much needed defensive reassurance. Sure, it would be risky, but at the same time, so is constantly leaving him with 1v1 situations in the worst form of his career. This would especially be useful given how high a lineBarça play at times.
It is not all bleak, as there is light at the end of the tunnel if at all one is willing to seek it. For this, we take a look at a club whose defensive fortunes were recently reversed and to whom European glory now belongs.
A page from Thomas Tuchel’s book
Having controversially been sacked from Paris Saint Germain as the year drew to a close, few, if any, would disagree with the notion that Thomas Tuchel has had a stellar first half-year with the Blues. Ever since his arrival, the Londoners have lost just three of the 19 Premier League games played with the German as head coach.
In the same school of thought as the likes of Pep Guardiola and Julian Nagelsmann, Tuchel is a firm believer and easily one of the best practitioners of positional play. In his half-season in the Premier League, he has more than demonstrated that amassing clean sheets and playing good football can go hand in hand.
In fact, no one in the English top-flight has been more efficient defensively, as the Lions lead in almost every metric. Ever since his debut game against Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Champions League winners have: conceded the least goals (13); kept the most clean sheets (11); conceded the fewest passes within twenty yards of their goal (74); have the third most lethal press (with roughly 8.8 passes made by their opponents before a defensive intervention is made); and perhaps most importantly, conceded the least xG (11.70).
None of this came out of thin air. Through his meticulous planning, tactical nous and openness of thought, like an alchemist, Tuchel has been able to turn the muddy mess of Frank Lampard’s Chelsea into gold for the world to see and admire.
Under him, Chelsea boast a quickness in defensive transition many could only dream of. With the players firmly convinced with his tactics, he has gradually formed a well oiled and perfectly coordinated team which over time has only become more technically rich and positionally adept.
With the players’ added knowledge of space-time naturally came their aptitude in pressing. The unit maintains a compact and cohesive shape, intelligently and intuitively distributing roles of pressor and defensive coverer.
Tuchel wants his side to dominate possession and thereby control the ball. Ever since he arrived, Chelsea have consistently averaged 60% of the ball, owing to the fact that when in possession, they have much less a need to defend. If at all the ball is lost, then the onus is on everyone to recover it as soon as they possibly can, but not recklessly.
“If you have the ball you must make the field as big as possible, and if you don’t have the ball you must make it as small as possible.”Johann Cruyff
The forwards press opposing centre-backs, while Mason Mount positions himself near his opposing pivot so as to cut off access to a central zone. This, in effect, forces play out wide to a fullback. If the play shifts to the right, Chelsea’s wingbacks, either Reece James or Callum Hudson-Odoi, press their fullback. If this is bypassed by virtue of the back three, Chelsea can easily rearrange the defensive setup to form a makeshift back four while still maintaining the press.
The goal is to win the ball back as near to the opponent’s goal as possible. Knowing this, they make the pitch as small as possible, forming a diamond shape as the players remain in close proximity to one another. This is done such that once the ball is won back, play can easily be redirected elsewhere.
On the odd chance that this press is bypassed, the European champions can rely on the defensive presence of their centre-backs to save their blushes.
His side are defensively sound and have convincingly beaten the best in the world. Recording victories against Jürgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho, Zinedine Zidane, and Pep Guardiola (thrice) and conceding just two goals certainly deserves its plaudits.
While this brief analysis of Chelsea is not nearly exhaustive enough, it does paint a picture of how best a team can defend. All of what Tuchel does can be implemented at Barcelona, however, it would need a team capable of defending on all lines.
Over the past few years, spearheaded by Lionel Messi, the Blaugrana have been the paradigm of how not to defend from the front. Laxity in the defensive aspect of the game from one player has severe ramifications on the collective. Antoine Griezmann has tried to salvage this reputation over the last two seasons, but with very little success overall.
With rumours of Koeman opting for a front three of Memphis Depay, Sergio Aguero and his Argentine counterpart, unless, of course, the entire forward line is willing to contribute to the pressing game, then making acquisitions in defence would be just about as productive as putting hot tea in a chocolate teapot.
Defenders alone cannot defend themselves; the system needs to defend with them. If Joan Laporta were to bring in the likes of Matthijs De Ligt or Aymeric Laporte, it would certainly serve to improve the overall quality of the team, but only to a certain extent. There is only so much the two can do if the collective structure is always falling in on itself.
On Koeman’s part, creativity and planning will be paramount to his tenure asBarça manager. Hitting tactical roadblocks and standing helplessly on the sidelines serves only to help one team: the opposition. Adding variety to the formations, for instance, by defending in a 5-4-1, which then transforms into a 3-4-2-1 in possession, would be particularly helpful against teams that attack centrally.
He can also help his own case by moving the pieces in defence depending on the needs at the time. Not every game requires a back three or four. By being adaptable, he is, therefore, less predictable, more effective, and any success brought forth from this is certainly going to be sustainable over the long term (or until he leaves).
To press as well and at the same volume and efficiency as Chelsea will require an incredible work ethic from everyone involved and consistency in the same. Anything less will provide the same results as last season.
Barcelona as a squad suffer from a host of self-inflicted problems which when compounded with other factors outside their control, make for a shambolic mess in defence. The personnel has as much an influence on tactics as the tactics do on the personnel. Pointing a finger to one when both are complicit in each others’ demise is blatantly unproductive.
Solutions to these problems are there, but unless they are sought after, then they will never be found. A number of them start with the manager himself in that he needs to expand his tactical scope to be more dynamic and reliable when his back is against the wall. As for the players, more desire needs to be seen. The defensive game is not just one’s to play. The encumbrance of defending is one for everyone to bear.
Radical changes in one’s defensive fortunes are feasible, with Chelsea being the prime example of this. By implementing a positional play based style, Thomas Tuchel has turned a bruised and battered side into one well and truly capable of winning the treble next year. The tactical blueprint is there to be followed. The question is, will it?