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The Barcelona defence: What are the options?

Lewis Shankie

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Header Image by Imago

This season, the defence of Barcelona has been shaky. There has not been a settled backline and players have not been at their best this season. If Barça are to win trophies, then the defence has to improve.


It has not been the best season for FC Barcelona so far. A change in manager and a global pandemic has been disruptive, but there were signs early on that the team was not at its best. Its defence has been far from solid, and has already leaked 31 goals this term in the league only. Last season, Barça conceded 35 goals, but there are still 11 games remaining in the current campaign. With a long break, Quique Setién should have had time to try and improve this and may even look to implement has favoured 3–5–2 formation.

The players

Gerard Piqué

Gerard Piqué is the leader in Barcelona’s defence and is the most experienced. Although normally dependable, he can be prone to lapses in concentration and can make mistakes. However, the centre-back is a must-start for the Catalan side, as on his day, not many are as good as him. Barça will need him at his best if they are to win trophies this season. His organisation of the defence and experience in big games are vital to the team. Not to mention he likes to score the odd goal too.

Clément Lenglet

Possibly the most consistent defender at the club, Clément Lenglet never seems to put a wrong foot. It is easy to forget that he is still only 24 years old with his confident performances. Lenglet still has areas where he could improve and is not the finished product yet. Even so, he has formed a strong partnership with Piqué in the past and, while he will be suspended in Barcelona’s first post-pandemic game against Mallorca, he should get a lot of chances at the heart of the defence.

Clément Lenglet Karim Benzema Barcelona Real Madrid defence

Quique Setién is yet to make a definite decision between Clément Lenglet and Samuel Umtiti | Photo by Imago

Samuel Umtiti

Another left-footed French centre-back, Samuel Umtiti should be one of the best defenders in the world right now. During the start of his Barça career, Big Sam was unbeatable and formed a formidable partnership with Gerard Piqué. Recent knee problems, though, have left him a shadow of his former self and it is uncertain if he will ever really recover from this. Quique Setién seems to favour Umtiti alongside Piqué, but it remains to be seen if he will be able to cope with the busy fixture schedule.

Jordi Alba

Getting the best out of Jordi Alba has been challenging in recent times. Once arguably the best full-back in the world, the Spaniard seems to have lost a bit of his confidence. Barcelona will need him at his best as he offers so much attacking threat down the left flank. His pace is also a real asset in the backline as it can lack that at times. He should be able to adapt to a left wing-back position easily if Setién wanted to play 3–5–2 as well.

Nélson Semedo

Former Benfica man Nélson Semedo has shown potential with the blaugranas but still has a lot to improve. His defensive side is strong enough but lacks that positional sense and confidence going forward. If Setién considers playing with three defenders again, then Semedo could be a candidate to consider for the right side of the three. His pace and defensive attributes in one-on-ones could see him excel in this position.

Sergi Roberto

Sergi Roberto was converted from a midfielder to a right-back by Luis Enrique in 2015. His transition to this position has worked well and he has real strengths in his positional play and passing. His weaknesses lie in his defending, though, as he is sometimes too easy to get past. A role as a wing-back might be an alternative as he has the stamina and awareness to do well in the position. Setién should consider Sergi as the right-sided wing-back if he resorts to a 3–5–2 formation again. Even if at the start Quique deployed him as the right centre-back in a back three, the Catalan is more of a hybrid between a midfielder and a full-back.

Sergi Roberto Barcelona defence

For his ability to take the ball out from the back, Sergi Roberto was at first deployed as a right centre-back in a back three by Quique Setién | Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce via Getty Images

Junior Firpo

Bought by Barcelona after a great campaign with Setién at Real Betis, Junior Firpo was excellent as a left wing-back in the Verdiblancos‘ 3–5–2 formation. With that said, he has struggled to adapt to the left-back role at his new club, as well as to establish himself despite Alba’s injuries. Although it is still early days, Firpo does look to have potential, but is it enough to reach first team standard? Setién is the man to get the best out of Junior and a role as a left wing-back could be the answer to unlocking his potential.

4–3–3 or 3–5–2 formation?

When Quique Setién initially took over at Barcelona he tried to implement the 3–5–2 formation. It worked well at his previous club, Real Betis, and Barça do have the team to do so. However, after a few unconvincing games the manager decided to resort back to the usual 4–3–3 line-up. The formation alteration does not necessarily change the personnel much, but it does modify how the team is set up to attack and defend.

On paper both formations should work well for the Catalan side. Notwithstanding, it is difficult to judge if either set up would help the defensive woes of the team. A change in formation may not be the best at this time with the azulgranas only just ahead in the league and tied 1–1 with Napoli in the Champions League. Furthermore, there are a number of players that suit the 4–3–3 formation better, such as the wingers. But something has to be changed to stop so many goals being shipped by the Spanish giants.

Possible 3–5–2 formation

Ter Stegen
Semedo · Piqué · Lenglet
Sergi Roberto · De Jong · Busquets · Arthur · Jordi Alba
Messi · Suárez / Griezmann

Possible 4–3–3 line-up

Ter Stegen
Semedo / Sergi Roberto · Piqué · Lenglet · Jordi Alba
De Jong · Busquets · Arthur
Messi · Suárez / Griezmann · Griezmann / Ansu Fati / Braithwaite


See also

The art of the back 3 and why it didn’t work for Setién at Barça

Umtiti vs Lenglet: Which centre-back is a better fit for Setién?

Assessing three potential replacements to Gerard Piqué

• A brief overview of the remaining La Liga fixtures of Barcelona

Sergi Roberto: The last La Masía graduate

Football is the greatest sport in the world. There is no sporting event that is watched more and is as passionately followed. Any football fan should try and watch Barcelona to understand how football should be played. At Barcelona, football is all about keeping the ball, movement, passing and playing great football above all else. I am a Barça fan from Scotland and have been following the team for over a decade now. I have been lucky enough to watch possibly the greatest era on football ever, and hope it continues.

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Analysis

Trincão, Griezmann or Dembélé: Who should start for Barcelona?

Shahraiz Sajjad

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Photo via GettyImages

From having to field center-mids such as Arturo Vidal on the flanks to now owning the likes of Dembélé, Trincão and Griezmann, it’s probably safe to assume that Barcelona’s wing play finally seems to have adequate profiles, individuals worthy of starting out wide. But, while healthy competition is always welcomed at the club, it’s apparent that Koeman must quickly find his “go-to player” and analyse whom he must bet on to consistently start games. With Barça successfully concluding their pre-season and looking ever so dominant in the opening game of La Liga, let’s take a look at what each player brings to the table.

Currently, it looks as if Antoine Griezmann has been reserved as a starter, which doesn’t come as a surprise given his immense status and the weightage his name carries in the squad list. However, Ronald Koeman’s intricate 4-2-3-1 system hasn’t truly allowed the Frenchman to fully express himself yet. Against Villarreal and even in the matches Antoine previously featured in, Griezmann was deprived of a fixated role and alternating occasionally with Messi as a direct number 9 or as a somewhat number 10 often left the right-hand side vulnerable, where Sergi Roberto would be tasked to produce most of the output upfield. Although Griezmann was seen making some well-timed runs, his link-up play was far from satisfactory, and as Messi would occupy the number 9 role, the former Atletico man would fail to operate effectively behind Leo or out wide.

In Barcelona’s La Liga opener, the left flank ticked every box the club seemed to have left unanswered and neglected last season. Jordi Alba’s runs from deep, Coutinho’s additional support as a mediapunta, and Ansu Fati’s exhilarating flare on the touchline proved too much to handle for Emery’s side since diverging attention from even a single player would lead to the visitors getting battered in the final third. Even so, while the Catalans eliminated their narrow and horizontal football to a somewhat acceptable extent, Ronald has only managed to refurbish one side of the pitch, with Griezmann and Messi’s natural tendency to operate centrally leaving the right flank vacant.

Therefore, to truly make the most of Barça’s offensive yield, it is vital to rely on natural wingers such as Trincão or Dembélé, players that can be considered ruthless on the counter and unforgiving in transitions. Whilst both players may eventually qualify as classic wingers, these two individuals propound different options, proving to be ideal in their respective departments. For example, in contrast to Dembouz, Trincão is likely to excel far more against a team with a low-block, given he is an exceedingly refined dribbler and considerably polished in his movement on/off the ball. Dembélé, on the other hand, could bring maximum results against a team with a higher line or a side that prefers to apply a suffocating press, mainly due to the fact that the winger is a space dominant player, and his unparalleled pace and chaotic style of play tends to add a sense of unpredictability on the flanks. Nonetheless, despite the slight differences in gameplay, they are ideal contenders to start for Barça, and must be prioritized in line-ups.

Spectators saw Lionel Messi function as a pure false 9 in the closing minutes of the game against Elche a few days ago as the Argentine partnered up with the likes of Dembélé and Trincão on each side of the pitch. Although Ansu Fati is probable to own the left flank for the upcoming games, it was refreshing to witness the Blaugranas look so imposing with two explosive wingers by Lionel’s side. As it turns out, Koeman’s experiment worked out even against the Yellow Submarine with him applying the same method in the second half. Barça saw their most promising football after proceedings just as Griezmann came off the bench for Trincão, who went on to form a trio with Lionel and Ousmane. Such flare and aggression was not seen previously considering most of Barça’s harvest came solely from the left-hand side of the field.

At this very moment, Barcelona has ample options to choose from, but for the newly adopted 4-2-3-1 formation to continue working at the highest level, it’s important to make the most of such diverse profiles in the squad. Ronald Koeman still has a backlog of work to do and must completely eliminate Barcelona’s horizontal structure if the club truly intends to compete in Europe. With Ousmane and Fransico looking immensely promising in their recent outings, the Dutch coach should take the bold decision of starting either one of them and pursue enhancing the front four’s capabilities.

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