What is Barcelona's best defensive lineup for the 2015/16 season?
Barcelona have started the 2015/16 season in dramatic fashion, but perhaps not the way that everyone expected. With the sextuple dreams now shattered thanks to a magnificent two-legged performance from Athletic Club de Bilbao, Barca need to hit the ground running in La Liga.
But they will have to do it without their best defender after Gerard Pique was banned for the first four games of the season. Pique’s sending off for vile abuse of the linesman in the second leg of the Spanish Cup final merely compounds Barca’s woes in that area of the pitch presently.
Shipping four goals in two successive games hasn’t happened to the Catalans in 65 years but Luis Enrique will have learned much more about his team in those 180 minutes than he did in the second half of last season when the Blaugrana were taking all before them.
Whilst not yet a crisis – how can it be after just two games – the manner of Barca’s performances at the back will still be of concern. Enrique was castigated for his rotations during the early part of 2014/15, but squad depth allowed him to tinker and in the end he was proved right as everyone arrived at the business end fresh, fit and firing.
Now, the manager doesn’t have such a luxury with his back line.
Gerard Pique would normally be a fixture. After a period of insouciance from a player that has won it all, a benching at the beginning of the last campaign was all it took for Enrique to rediscover Pique’s hunger. Nothing like competition for places to see a player get their finger out and provide their best work.
Although he can sometimes be static when waiting for a cross to arrive, Pique has improved. Just two goals conceded from set plays or high balls into the box last term was a vast improvement on seasons past.
And in general terms Pique has it all. Adept at forcing an attacker away from the danger area, he has superb awareness both when on the back foot and if required to bring the ball out from the back. Excellent distribution and an ability to supplement the attack when required make him the archetypal modern-day ball-playing centre-half.
We associate most centre-backs to be of the six foot plus variety so it’s a surprise that Javier Mascherano, one of the smallest players in the squad, is an easy pick as Pique’s partner.
Where the Argentine excels is with his warrior-like qualities. In many respects, Mascherano is an old school type of exponent. He’ll take the man as well as the ball if it means averting the danger. But such descriptions do him a disservice.
Whilst aerially challenged, there aren’t too many better defenders on the deck, if any. A never-say-die attitude ensures that Mascherano will keep coming back for more. The best representation of his work ethic can be seen from last year’s World Cup when a last ditch tackle on Holland’s Arjen Robben saved the match for his country whilst giving him an extremely painful and delicate injury in the process.
Aleix Vidal is a younger Dani Alves. Quick, effervescent, incisive and with an engine that will keep him ticking over from first minute until last. Where the ex-Sevilla man trumps his Brazilian colleague is in his ability to defend.
Alves is often so far forward that the defence are left light at the back and are punished when playing some of the bigger teams in the league. It’s worth watching Sevilla’s second, third and fourth goals from the European Super Cup, if only to track Alves’ movement. Simply not good enough.
Vidal is at least more studious and considered in his forays and will only venture into the final third if he considers it absolutely necessary. Such is Barca’s style of play of course that he will have to be on the front foot at all times, but not at the expense of neglecting his primary duties.
Where Barca lose out again is in the fact that it will be January 2016 at the very earliest before the player can even pull on the Blaugrana in anger.
On the left side, it’s worth dwelling on a possible promotion of Alejandro ‘Alex’ Grimaldo – one of the standout players from Barca B. Far too good for the third tier of Spanish football, he needs to be integrated at the senior level, if only to assuage the fears of those members who feel that La Masia is only now producing players to be shipped out on loan or sold elsewhere.
Grimaldo provides a decent alternative to Jordi Alba who gets the nod as first choice by virtue of work ethic and application. The youngster is not as attack-minded as Alba but is consistently good defensively, and can provide much better cover than a lacksadaisical Jeremy Mathieu.
Adriano Correia should not be discounted from the conversation, but he is neither one or the other. He is okay defensively and okay when surging forward. But ‘okay’ isn’t good enough at the Camp Nou.
Alba’s energy is phenomenal. How many players in any side can make lung-bursting 80-yard dashes one minute and be in position facing off against the attack the next? Alba achieves it with ease. But if there is one criticism of him it is that he is far too petulant and needs to learn when to walk away from situations. That lack of discipline needs to be kept in check.
Are the rest good enough to step up?
Of the remaining defenders, Douglas was never a Barcelona quality player in the first place. Injured until September, the most likely scenario is that he will be sold in January. Only three games to his name since signature, yet still a treble winner. There’s one for the football statisticians!
Thomas Vermaelen has recovered from his own injury concerns but looks nothing like the player who captained Arsenal with aplomb. After so long out of the first-team picture, a loss of confidence might be expected. A shame for the player but Enrique would be foolish to count on him at this juncture.
Marc Bartra needs this to be his breakout season. If he cannot force his way into the side on a more regular basis, he has no future at the club. His performances this season have already left much to be desired and when everyone is fit he won’t be first choice – again.
Barca simply need to learn lessons from those two games. There’s no need to be gung-ho for the sake of it. Build from the back with intelligence, keeping the spaces between the back four to a minimum. The wing-backs are often so wide that they are almost on the touchline, and that leaves yawning chasms to exploit between them and their central defenders.
Championship-winning teams are built on a solid defence, but Barca look anything but. A team that didn’t concede until October 25 in the league last season need to find their mojo again.