The success of every football team depends heavily upon its defensive resilience. Watch the Italians of the 70s and early 80s, or the Brazilians of the 1994 World Cup win, and what becomes instantly noticeable is how these teams relied heavily on their defence to win trophies.
In that Brazil squad, two defensive midfielders Carlos Dunga and Mauro Silva played extensively to protect the back-line. It was perhaps the first time in the history of Brazilian football that such emphasis was placed on the aspect of defence by the South American football powerhouse, a nation renowned for producing attacking greats.
As Jonathan Wilson puts it in his book Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics:
Like the catenaccio, defence was seen as ‘the right of the weak’, and it only when Internazionale adopted it under Alfredo Foni that it began to be seen as a system with which big clubs could win big trophies.
Catenaccio may have become an obsolete defensive system, but its most crucial achievement was to make coaches, footballers and spectators aware of the great importance of having a good defensive shape. Since the inception of football, outscoring the opponent has been the motive, and teams rarely took defending seriously enough. It was the Italians who first showed the world that it was possible, and even practical, to win football matches 1-0 instead of winning 4-3 or 6-5.
Barcelona’s defensive woes
In the history of football clubs, like other institutions in general, some individuals leave behind lasting and sometimes untouchable legacies. Diego Maradona did it at SSC Napoli; Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United; and even Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool, both as player and manager. Lionel Messi is currently doing exactly that at Barcelona.
It was, however Carles Puyol - a natural leader, center-back and club captain - who has left a huge void at the Barcelona defence since his retirement from football in 2013. A natural leader and an imperious defender, Puyol has played a crucial role throughout his career both at the heart of the Barcelona defence, as well as that of the Spanish national team. It was Puyol who developed Gerard Pique as a complete defender since the latter joined from Manchester United in 2008. Puyol's leadership qualities both on and off the pitch are also missed by the Catalan giants.
As is evidenced by their defensive performance at Balaidos last night, it is hard to see them winning the league even if Real Madrid do drop points. Samuel Umtiti switched off on many occasions during the final minutes of the game, and the Barcelona full backs, although lively in attack, were caught off-guard from a defensive outlook.
Umtiti should not have started the game because he lacks both composure and confidence at the moment. It is a shame that he is no longer the player that he was during his first two seasons at the club. Fans had already started comparing him with Puyol with a meme in which the Frenchman had a face with Puyol's iconic hair.
But it was Gerard Pique who was at fault for the draw - a late, weary lunge on his former teammate and Barcelona loanee Rafinha led to Celta’s late equaliser. It was a brilliantly curled free-kick from Iago Aspas, but the Spaniard should never have been given the opportunity in the first place. Pique will perhaps feel worse thinking that it was an avoidable situation.
The inability to protect leads is a poor reflection on a team’s defensive discipline, and makes the challenge of winning a title harder still. Barcelona’s chances of winning the 2019-20 La Liga title might as well have slipped away.
Bartomeu’s lack of focus in Barcelona’s defence
It is a pity that Josep Maria Bartomeu, the president of Barcelona, has been adamant in signing forward players and neglecting the defensive aspect of the team. Granted, he has brought in Neto as a substitute goalkeeper, but the right-back position has remained thin, with only Nelson Semedo a natural option.
Antoine Griezmann has not scored in the last nine games for Barcelona now, and given the evidence of his recent performances, it is not working for the Frenchman in Barcelona. Much was expected when he arrived at the Nou Camp, but at Balaidos he was a peripheral figure, hardly ever touching the ball in meaningful areas after coming on as an 81st minute substitute.
Perhaps the money could have been better spent on a defender. Barcelona should take a leaf out of Bayern Munich’s book as the Bavarian club signed the young and promising 17-year-old Canadian Alphonso Davies for just €11.5 million; a steal for such a talented full-back whose price will only grow should Bayern decide to sell the player later. Barcelona could also have signed a better left-back by selling Junior Firpo, who has been lacklustre.
The Catalans have always found the Balaidos stadium, home of Celta Vigo, a tricky place to visit. It was much of the same tonight, but what really matters is that Messi and company failed to get the job done in a 2-2 draw in a ground where the Catalans have not won since 2015.
Away matches have been a nightmare for the Blaugrana this season, with five losses and four draws coming away from home. This situation could have been avoided with better defensive players. Pique himself would not have committed the foul, had he been a more rested player.
Barcelona must therefore prioritize their defence quickly if they are to relive their glory days next season. Bringing back Carles Puyol is not possible, but the Blaugrana could use some more defenders in their ranks.
Published 28 Jun 2020, 17:24 IST