From the most dedicated Culés to the laymen of Barcelona supporters, anyone would come to the same conclusion if asked about Barça’s biggest problem: defence. It is no secret that defensive frailty has been the biggest thorn in Ronald Koeman’s side (backside, the front-side, left-side, right-side, and virtually any side from which opposition players can attack Barça).
For a team that adheres so strictly to its Cruyffian ideologies of positional play, the thorough and unforgiving gaps in defence and midfield so often left by the Blaugrana of late is rather embarrassing.
Scoring was never the problem
Impressively, even without a world-class striker in the squad, Barça have been a fabulous attacking team throughout the campaign. With the likes of Lionel Messi and a rejuvenated Antoine Griezmann, the Garnet and the Blue have led an offensive charge throughout the season, scoring the highest number of goals in La Liga with 83 goals. Evidently, the attack has not quite been the curse holding Barça back.
At times this season, Koeman’s men have dazzled, bamboozled, and played the pinnacle of positional football (on the ball, at least). However, an incomplete set of tactical conditions have left Barça playing only half of a philosophy that the club so strongly associates itself with. The Dutch manager’s failure to play perfectionist in tactical examination and implementation has led to several deficiencies for the Catalonian club throughout the season, with most of them being concentrated in defence.
These deficiencies have directly cancelled out the wonderful work that the Dutchman has actually managed to execute in his first season at Barça, rather unfortunately. His major failures have been in structure the defence, view different midfield profiles, and micromanage the tiny details required in a style of total football; consequently, it may be wise for Barça to analyse alternative options to Ronald Koeman.
However, no genius tacticians can sweep away all the problems and defensive dearths the Blaugranas currently suffer. Leadership, structuring, and focusing are three key details required in defence, specifically in a team that deploys such a high-line.
There is only so much that a manager can condition his team to execute in the ‘leadership’ and ‘focusing’ categories. Most often, players’ personality on the field can allow for these qualities to help the team reach its maximum defensive capabilities. After all, Pep Guardiola himself said, “Personality is the most important thing.”
A world-class centre-back changes everything
There is no shortage of examples in world football as to how a world-class centre-back with the right set of leadership qualities can change a team thoroughly. Many years ago, the perfect example was Carles Puyol. The Spanish veteran never once allowed his team to lose focus, famously captured several times breaking up his teammates’ silly celebrations and lack of focus.
Gerard Piqué, when speaking on Puyol’s obsession for focus, said, “I remember, once, Carles Puyol was returning from injury, and when he came back to the field I said to him: ‘Welcome back, Captain.’ He turned to me and said: ‘Shut up and focus on the game.”
A perfect example of how a leader in the backline can change the look of a team is Ruben Dias at Manchester City. The 23-year-old Portuguese defender has thoroughly helped Guardiola change his defence to make it far better than previous campaigns. In the 19/20 Premier League season, City conceded 35 goals from 34.7 Expected Goals.
In comes Ruben Dias, who Guardiola described by saying, “he makes those around him better”. Not surprisingly, City’s defence has consequently had a much better structure throughout the season.
During this entire campaign, the Citizens have conceded only 26 goals from 26.5 xG while maintaining an unbeaten record in the Champions League, conceding only four goals in 12 games. Dias’ inclusion in City’s season has allowed players to prosper around him; the former Benfica player can often be seen giving instructions to his fellow centre-halves.
John Stones’ improvement has been a direct result of this; the English centre-back struggled in Manchester for several campaigns, due to personal and injury issues. However, with Dias’ help, leadership, and instruction, the 26-year-old has enjoyed a wonderful restoration throughout the season. Barça, with all its defensive decrepitude, could certainly use such a figure in their roster.
Barça’s defensive woes are worsening
The biggest argument to be made for the need of a world-class centre-back at Barça, however, is totally independent of the said defender himself. Frankly put, the Blaugranas have a terrible defence, and it is seemingly worsening. The lack of tactical organisation, poor off-the-ball work rate, and defensive personnel have left gaping perforations exploited routinely by pacy, counter-attacking teams.
A large part of this weakness in defence is down to Ronald Koeman’s failure in tactical micromanagement. Barça’s pressing systems have become even poorer under the Dutchman, who takes a conservative defensive approach to cover up the glaring holes in his team’s defence.
In a positional play system, three key cornerstones must be executed to perfection: possession, positioning, and pressing. While the Blaugranas have excelled in the first two categories, their failure in pressing has let them down.
This season, Barça execute 130.5 pressures per 90 with a success rate of 40.1%. There is an evidently large drop from previous seasons; for example, in 18/19, Barça applied 163.8 pressures per 90 with a success rate of 47.3%. This drop off in pressing intensity has hurt the Catalonian club. Always employing the high line, a lack of pressing affects Koeman’s men very negatively. They cannot win the ball higher up the pitch, one of the keys in creating unpredictable attacks in positional play.
Apart from causing problems in offence, the lack of a structured pressing system has oftentimes left the Blaugrana feeling frail in defence. Opposition teams bypass Barça’s half-hearted press all too frequently, leaving several gaps in the middle of the park to be exploited via route-one football or counter-attacking play.
Not all of the team’s defensive issues can be attributed to the Dutchman’s failures in tactics, however. For whatever reason, a loss of focus has been a big issue for the Garnet and the Blue throughout the season. Barça’s central defenders have made a combined six errors leading to shots in the league season. In addition, the previously reliable figure in Gerard Piqué has been taking a turn for the worse ever since his injury last November.
While the Spanish veteran was precisely the leader needed by the club a few years ago, his age and physical deterioration have left him a shadow of his former self. Without a youthful, proactive, and exemplary leader in the backline, Barça have struggled to show much resolve in defence throughout the season. Without the best version of Piqué, it has been difficult for Koeman’s men to express their defensive capabilities, and when the 34-year-old has been on the pitch, he has been highly unreliable.
This can be best outlined in Barça’s most recent fixture against Levante, a game in which the Catalans conceded three woeful goals. Much of the blame can be attributed to Piqué’s failure to keep up physically.
In the first goal Barça conceded at the Estadi Ciutat de València, while this was more a fault of Roberto’s physical shortcomings, Piqué was unable to impose himself and leap to reach over to Jorge Miramon’s cross.
In the second goal scored by the Granotes, the World Cup winner failed miserably to keep up with José Luis Morales, who evaded the space between Roberto and Piqué before scoring a sensational effort past ter Stegen.
Levante’s 83rd-minute equaliser against Barça perhaps best typifies Piqué’s shortcomings throughout the season, as he failed to exert himself in what should have been a simple block on Sergio Leon’s simple effort in the near post.
Another such example of poor anticipation by the Spaniard was in a goal scored by Granada in their 1-2 win at the Camp Nou. The space between Piqué and Samuel Umtiti uncovers the failure in defensive organisation currently existing in the Blaugranas’ lower structures.
While exclusively outlining Piqué’s errors may appear harsh, it is the best indicator of Barça’s desperate need for a leader in their backline. Generally, the responsibility for marshalling and organisation falls on the shoulders of players such as Piqué — experienced, strong-willed footballers whom everyone relies on for instruction and confidence. When such a player himself fails to perform at his best level, it leads to a great loss of confidence in the whole team.
Unfortunately, Piqué has not been the only Barcelona defender who has suffered deplorable moments throughout the season. Oscar Mingueza — while having enjoyed an incredible breakthrough campaign — has committed five direct errors leading to shots throughout the season, albeit excusable ones given his lack of experience at the top level.
Clement Lenglet has notoriously underperformed compared to the expectations he has set for himself from the previous two campaigns. He has committed several blatant errors, such as his penalties given against Cadiz and PSG. His general lack of commandment and physical prowess in the backline has also made the Blaugranas suffer throughout the season. The only defender who has been consistently reliable when fit is Ronald Araujo, although even he comes with his own disadvantages, not being the best ball-playing centre-back.
Such problems in defence have led to the Blaugrana failing miserably in several moments throughout the season. In the last 8 matches, Barça have conceded 12 goals from 25 shots on target. Even more worryingly, their Expected Goals Against tally was only eight from these last eight fixtures, meaning they have conceded four more goals than they should have. Therefore, they are conceding straightforward chances that they should not be conceding under most circumstances.
Perhaps the most unfortunate effect of Barça’s poor defence is its trickle-down impact on Marc-Ándre ter Stegen, who has been at one of his worst levels since joining Barça.
Ter Stegen’s loss of confidence results from a lack of defensive consolidation
Widely considered Barcelona’s best ever goalkeeper, Marc-Ándres ter Stegen has been a brilliant signing for the Blaugranas. Playing in his seventh season at Barça, the German shot-stopper is nothing short of a club legend already. While there is debate amongst the fanbase as to whether other options should replace the 29-year-old or not, his drop in level this season has certainly been noticeable.
Analysing the German goalkeeper’s season at Barça using various advanced metrics reveals that he has had a fairly poor season by his own usual standards. If we take into consideration, Post-Shot Expected Goals (PSxG) — defined by Opta as ‘a measure of the quality of a shot based on variables such as assist type, shot angle, distance from goal, whether it was a headed shot and whether it was defined as a big chance’ — we can essentially understand how many goals the German keeper should have conceded in the league season.
With 30 league games played this season, ter Stegen’s PSxG stands at 28.1 goals. This means that, based on the quality of shots he has faced, he should have conceded 28 goals this season. However, the German shot-stopper has actually conceded 30 goals, meaning he is performing under average this season. If we subtract his goals conceded from his PSxG (PSxG-GA), we see that he has conceded 2 goals more than he should have.
In recent games, the German national has become even more poor than normal, playing at a much lower level than earlier in the season. From the last 21 shots he has faced, his PSxG-GA stands at -2.6. This is much worse than his performance based on the 77 shots he had faced previously, where his PSxG-GA stood at +2.5. He is currently saving 12.38% goals less than average.
Ter Stegen’s loss of confidence comes in part due to his loss of confidence in the defence ahead of him. In fact, Thibaut Courtois had suffered a similar issue when he first joined Real Madrid. In the 18/19 season, the Belgian keeper had saved 3.5 goals less than he should have, based on the PSxG-GA metric, at which point 78% of Europe’s keepers were performing better than him.
However, as things stand, the 29-year-old has stepped up immensely, with a PSxG-GA measure of +3.6, placing him in the 81st percentile among keepers across Europe. This is largely in part of the structurally sound defence that Real Madrid have had throughout the entire season, with Zidane’s teams relying on low and mid-blocks more than ever this season.
Ter Stegen too had a fantastic season when the defence in front of him was much more structurally sound. Under the pragmatic approach of Ernesto Valverde, as well as a younger, fitter Gerard Piqué and world-class Samuel Umtiti, the German keeper enjoyed a fantastic campaign in 2017/18.
Based on the PSxG-GA metric, he saved 7.7 more goals than he should have, throughout the league campaign. He was much more assured of his goal, able to perform at his very best level throughout the campaign. That has absolutely not been the case this season.
Therefore, defensive consolidation in front of the German would serve a long mile in improving his performance as well. The goalkeeper’s performance and the level of defensive organisation go hand-in-hand; the better the defence, the better the goalkeeper. And there is no better way to achieve this than by acquiring a world-class centre-back who can have an instant impact on the team.
Ter Stegen has already proved himself amongst the best keepers in the world, consistently for the last seven years. There is no doubt that he will be back to his brilliant best once given the right defence.
Potential signings for defensive solidification
There are several options that Barcelona’s technical secretariats can analyse to come in and help solve the team’s defensive woes. Having analysed the impact of a world-class centre-back — or perhaps even a substantial defensive roster — it is evident that the club are in dire need of reinforcement in the backline.
The first and perhaps the most guaranteed option is Eric Garcia. Straight away, it is important to assess the fact that he is nowhere near a world-class defender at this moment. He will certainly not revolutionise the Blaugranas’ backline as is needed. Nevertheless, the young starlet does seem to have the backing of the best tactician in world football.
In February, when talking on Garcia, Pep Guardiola said, “Eric Garcia is like a son. He was a guy last season that after lockdown was our best central defender.”
“He never made a mistake and played in the quarter-final of the Champions League. He’s going to play in Barcelona and that is not an average player – he is a top player. He was not selected in the last two games and it broke my heart.”
It is obvious as to why the Spanish manager has not been selecting Garcia all season, simply because it is almost concrete that the youngster is Barça-bound. On top of that, he has extremely stiff competition at City with three world-class defenders in Ruben Dias, John Stones, and Aymeric Laporte. Nevertheless, the 20-year-old did in fact make a huge impact for City last season, highly impressing clubs across Europe.
There is a case to be made that Eric Garcia is not the best defensive signing the Blaugranas can make at this moment. However, given his reduced wages under a renegotiated contract with Joan Laporta’s board, his signing on a free, age, potential, and cultural fit, it only makes sense for the Spaniard to return to the Catalan capital. Will he be the world-class solution for Barça’s defensive woes, however? Certainly not.
An alternative option that Ramon Planes and co should consider is Villarreal defender Pau Torres. The 23-year-old Spaniard has made waves this season, essentially guaranteeing his inclusion as a starter for Luis Enrique’s Spain in the Euros set to happen this year.
The Spanish starlet — yet to make a move to a big club — has impressed in Unai Emery’s setup all season long. Having been a regular starter for The Yellow Submarine over the last two campaigns, he has become one of the hottest defensive prospects in the world.
Additionally, he is left-footed, meaning he can be highly useful in the left centre-back position for the Blaugranas, where 25-year-old Lenglet has been largely unimposing this season.
While not at the highest level defensively, Torres has exhibited some fantastic skills which would make him a wonderful addition to Koeman’s squad. He ranks in at the 93rd percentile for progressive carries among all La Liga defenders and 94th percentile for progressive passes. This means that the Spanish national has an excellent knack for carrying and passing the ball upfield, meaning he can potentially become key for Barça’s system, which is heavily reliant on playing the ball out from the back.
One curveball option, however, would be 21-year-old Dutch defender Sven Botman. The 6’4 physical specimen has been a crucial cog in the Ligue One side Lille, who are currently sitting ahead of Paris Saint-Germain in first place, poised to take the title off Les Parisiens. Having played 35 of Lille’s 36 league games this season, Botman has been absolutely crucial in the French club’s defence.
With Lille having conceded only 22 goals, Botman has been a huge part of their success. He also ranks in at the 93rd percentile for progressive carries amongst Ligue Un defenders, while exhibiting an impressive 94.3% short-range passing accuracy. Therefore, the young starlet has great ball-playing skills, which would suit the Blaugranas nicely.
The 21-year-old wins a very high rate of aerial duels, averaging 3.39 aerial wins per game. His physical prowess, defensive anticipation, and ball-playing skills would surely make him a hugely valuable addition to Koeman’s squad.
Like Pau Torres, the Dutchman is also left-footed, meaning he will be a valuable addition on Barça’s left side. He also has a very high quality to anticipate wider threats. He often covers the flanks, taking wingers on several times a game. Gaps in wider areas have been a great problem area for Barça for some years now. Botman’s knack to defend widely could help significantly reduce these weak points.
In an ideal world, Matthijs de Ligt would probably have been the best possible signing for the Blaugranas. But given his high profile agent, long-term contract with Juventus, and presumably massive transfer fee, his signing can almost instantly be ruled out for at least another year, even given the fact that several reports have outlined his desire to come to the Catalan capital.
Either way, with Eric Garcia coming in, Barça are sure to get some added utility in their backline. With Pep’s immeasurably valuable backing (and mentoring), the young starlet is sure to make for a valuable addition to the squad. Currently, Barça’s best defender is Ronald Araujo, and he will surely be valued higher than Garcia come next season. However, the Uruguayan is rather injury prone, and given Piqué’s drop in level, Mingueza’s minor imperfections, and Umtiti’s unreliability, Garcia should surely make for an advantageous presence in defence.
There is no harm in the technical secretaries considering some alternative options either. Pau Torres would, perhaps, be a safer bet for the Blaugranas, given that he has already proved himself in La Liga for two years and at a very high level. Importantly, with a more than competent attack already and a refreshed, brilliant midfield, Laporta and Mateu Alemany’s best bet would be to invest in the defence.
There are, undoubtedly, deficiencies all around the squad. For example, Sergio Busquets, for all his immense performances this year, certainly requires an understudy. The optimal situation would certainly be to trust either of Jandro Orellana or Nico Gonzalez from the subsidiary.
Similarly, academy solutions exist for most of the team’s deficiencies. Selling Junior Firpo and promoting Alejandro Balde for the left-back position; selling Matheus Fernandes and Miralem Pjanic and promoting Ilaix Moriba and Alex Collado as alternate interiors to Pedri and Frenkie de Jong.
In attack, either of two options — Sergio Aguero or Memphis Depay — can come to Barça on a free in the summer. Essentially, cost-effective (or even free) solutions exist for almost all of Barça’s personnel problems, apart from in the heart of the defence. Therefore, if several player sales is the strategy for Barça before the start of next season, the money generated from these sales, or a part of it, would be best spent on a world-class centre-back.
Reinstating defensive structure, ter Stegen’s confidence, and solidity in the backline would be a few of the advantages that such a defender would bring to the team. In addition, a consolidated foundation in defence would certainly work in liberating the forward lines to focus more on creativity and attacking play, meaning there would be no need to rely on an additional centre-back in the 3-5-2 formation for defensive solidity as a stopgap solution.
Rather, focus, structure, and high level of performance will liberate the Blaugranas to revert to the 4-3-3, and confidently so.
It is the need of the hour for the Blaugranas, who have thrown away their biggest potential successes of the season due to defensive frailties. In possession and attack, Barça are brilliant and inarguably one of the best in the world. But Barça must learn to pass the torch from club legend Gerard Piqué and onto a youthful, focused defender in his physical prime who can come in and revolutionise the backline within a few matchdays.
The only way forwards is by solidifying the foundations that can allow for the liberation of Barça’s free-flowing positional play. This can be best achieved by one single strategy: signing a world-class centre-back.