In the whole of last season, Barcelona conceded just 21 league goals but at this point in the campaign, after eight games, the team is ten shy of that tally. In fact, the team has only kept two league clean sheets this season so can Barça continue this way and keep winning games?
It’s no secret that for a few years now one of Barça’s tactics has been “if you score three, we’ll score four” and that has been aided by the excellence of attacking talent the club has always possessed but the idea of being defensively solid was something that both Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique sort after. For every season that Guardiola was in charge and for Enrique’s debut, the team had the best defensive record in the league.
However, this season, the team have struggled at the back and good teams have taken advantage of that. Celta put four past the Catalans, Sevilla grabbed two while Rayo on Saturday night also scored two but could’ve had more.
Compared to other top European Teams
If we have a look at Barcelona’s defence record compared to the rest of Europe’s top five leagues, it’s not great reading for a Barça fan. Every side that sits top of their domestic league has conceded fewer than ten goals. Bayern have conceded four, Manchester City eight, PSG five, Fiorentina four while Real Madrid have conceded just two so far.
It’s an issue that needs to be solved especially when the more important games come up. So where does the problem lie?
Thomas Vermaelen’s Importance
Let’s start by having a look at the central defenders in the Barça squad. The team started the season away to Athletic Bilbao with Javier Mascherano and Thomas Vermaelen and together they helped Barça keep a clean sheet against a side that had put four past them just nine days before. The next game, at home to Malaga, saw the same partnership and again, Barça kept a clean sheet.
However, Vermaelen was forced to withdraw in the following game through injury and this is where the defensive solidity fades away. Barça were away to Atlético Madrid and after Vermaelen left the field, the team conceded their first goal of the season. This began an ongoing run of conceding at least one goal in the last eight games.
Jeremy Mathieu was the man to replace Vermaelen and even with Gerard Pique’s return from suspension, the defence has continued to look shaky.
A big factor is the drop in form of Mathieu. Last season’s summer signing faded towards the end of 2014/15 season after a strong start and it could’ve been explained by fatigue as the season drew to a close but that worrying drop of form has continued into the start of this season. When watching him, he doesn’t install you with confidence and he appears to choose the wrong option more often than not and has struggled to create a partnership with Piqué.
Enrique has rotated his centre backs but as of yet, Barcelona have yet to keep a clean sheet without Vermaelen on the field, highlighting how badly they need him to return from his injury.
Loss of Xavi and Pedro
Another key factor in Barca’s weakened defensive record is the loss of Xavi and Pedro. While both weren’t guaranteed starters in the squad last season, they became controlling factors when brought on. Xavi was the man to bring on when you needed to retain the ball and ease opposition pressure. Iniesta and Busquets can both do this job but Busquets can’t do it all on his own and Iniesta has struggled with injuries.
Pedro, meanwhile, was a great player to bring on if you were defending a slender lead. He routinely put in a good defensive shift while having the pace to allow the team to counterattack. Barcelona have many great attacking options but they don’t have a player quite like Pedro in terms of what he brings to the defence and the attack.
The loss of both these players has left a bigger hole then some might have expected especially considering they won’t guaranteed starters during last season.
The Reliance on the Front Three
As seen against Rayo, Barcelona often rely on the front three to dig them out of a hole. Neymar’s brilliance very much papered over the cracks to ensure Barça’s victory but can this trend continue? Messi has for years saved Barcelona but as we’re seeing now he’s not invulnerable to injury.
So what happens if Neymar or Suárez get injured? With FIFA’s ban in full force, the bench is becoming more and more thread bare as the weeks go on so Enrique is relying more and more on the B-team players. But Sandro and Munir have yet to have a good impact in Messi’s absence and you have to question where the goals will come from if another one of the trident were to get injured.
The Need to Solidify the Defence
Barcelona are riding a thin line at the moment where their superb attacking performance is recovering a poor defensive one but this can’t last a whole season. There will come a time when you come up against the likes of a Bayern or a Madrid who aren’t going to allow you to just score goals for fun and not punish you at the back.
The defence problem has to be high on Enrique’s agenda and while the Vermaelen injury is a big one, the manger needs to find a way to get his defence back into shape.