Throughout the history of FC Barcelona, one-touch, beautiful, attacking football has been part of its culture. The team has been adored and earned plaudits from across the world for their style over the years.
The likes of Johann Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo to name a few, have certainly cemented the attacking philosophy that is almost second nature to the Catalans.
However, in the midst of all this, one part of Barcelona has trailed behind in terms of effectiveness and reliability, i.e. their defence.
The Blaugranas have started their current 2020/2021 season, with the most imbalanced squad over the years. It was bound to happen with the route of balancing the books, taken by the management under ex-president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
The 2020/21 season is undergoing with a new rule of five substitution rule taking it into the hectic schedule in which players will be playing whole season for their respective countries and clubs. Barcelona has a good depth in every position, excluding the centre-backs. It looks like every week, former-Everton man is given a new puzzle to solve.
Blindfolded to the season-long intensity
Without a doubt, Barca has a lot of depth in their squad, definitely more than most seasons, but not for every position. Barça is in dire need of a dependable centre-back given the latest injury of Ronald Araujo against Juventus in the first half.
“Test on Friday has revealed that Ronald Araujo has a femoral biceps (hamstring) injury in his right leg and his availability will now depend on how the injury develops.”Official club statement
The Uruguayan was substituted at half-time after sensing pain in his right leg. So for the senior team, he has played for 238 minutes with 94.7% passing completion and 92.6% long tasing completion. Even though the sample size is quite small, such traits are essential for being a Barcelona defender.
On the other hand, following are the stats of the only fit CBs for the Blaugranas, i.e. Gerard Pique & Clement Lenglet. The Frenchman began his 2019/20 silencing all his critics as the season went by. Arguably, the pundits started regarding him as an indisputable partner to Gerard Pique in starting line-up. We can see the duo played for more than 3000+ minutes each in last season.
But, since the restart of the campaign post coronavirus break, the duo is looking lost. They have constantly been showing a lack of composure at the back, and have made reckless challenges in the process. The recent example of this can be not tracking Federico Valverde’s run in the El Clasico, letting him have an ample of space in the first place, after which the goal was inevitable.
Winning the aerial duals has not been one of the strongest traits for Clement Lenglet’s campaign, as the stats suggest as well. Several instances have been there where he crumbles under pressure in the attempt of winning an aerial duel. We can look at the incident vs Real Madrid no more than one week ago, involving a shirt pull in the box and giving away a soft penalty.
With Pique – Lenglet already looking weak and no other direct replacements if something goes wrong, the road looks tougher for the coaching staff.
La Masia to the rescue?
Is going back to the club roots an only option left for Koeman? Certainly, looks like it. But, currently Barcelona B centre back Oscar Mingueza is sidelined as well due to discomfort in the muscular regions of his leg.
Another option is centre-back Argentine centre-back Santiago Ramos Mingo. He is fit, but cannot be played in Champions League at least due to lack of his tenure with the club as an academy player.
This leaves the Koeman’s staff with Samuel Umtiti as their last option, who has returned to group training sessions. Though, it would take a while for him to be declared match-fit, depending on him after being plagued with multiple injuries gives no assurance as well.
If none of this works, we could also see one of Frenkie de Jong or Sergio Busquets playing alongside another CB if required. But, that would mean compulsorily fielding Busquets, which is a danger to the team in the first place, given his sharp dip in form.
What does it mean for the remainder of the season?
It is clear that Barca is vulnerable and unbalanced as a team, and a ruthless attack will be pivotal for this season to see games through. Blaugranas usually keep the higher percentage of possession with themselves, scoring more goals than they concede. Additionally, Ronald Koeman’s pressing tactics have also been working to the point for now with many young prospects making a mark in the senior team.
There is a lot of reliability on the attacking unit this season. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)
As long as they are clinical upfront until the end of the season, conceding (especially from dead-ball situations) might not be as bad. This is because Barcelona’s defensive problems cannot be resolved right now, maybe not even in the winter transfer window, due to financial constraints.
Well, there are many unanswered questions to be answered in the next 3 months. How will the team so defensively unbalanced, cope up, until the transfer market opens up? What happens if due to the financial restrictions, a backup could not be signed? What do you think Barca can do to remedy this vulnerability in defence?
Pie charts from Football Slices.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?
Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.
He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.
Tactical and Statistical Analysis
Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.
Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.
Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).
In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.
His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.
Where would he fit at Barça?
Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.
Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.
The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.
Should Barcelona pursue him?
There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.
There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.
He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.
While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.
On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.
Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.
Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.