In the elegance (or desperation, for you cynics) of repurposing, here’s a bit of news: Every now and again, the mods have e-mail natters about various things team related. Sometimes they lead to posts, sometimes not. The dialogue is almost always excellent, in that it shapes and forms notions and future approaches. Yesterday and today, we’ve been on about defense, and I thought it worth bringing to the family for some discussion.)
Luke (yes, you all remember him …) kicked things off with:
What’s wrong with the Barcelona defense?
A. Injuries depleted an already thin unit
B. Numerous players out of position causing defensive formation and positional issues
C. Mascherano regression to the mean
D. Voodoo caused by Real Madrid-loving gods
E. Urge to eat tasty, tasty tacos too great for defenders to care
I had some thoughts:
For me, none of the above. They are simple errors caused by varied and sundry things, including opponents playing us differently.
If you look at the goals that we have conceded, rare is the goal that isn’t rooted in an error, a “clean” goal, so to speak. The first Celtic goal was the last one in a while.
I think that it’s just the rub of the game. Someone would look at today’s two conceded and think “Dem dere boys got issues.” But one was a ridic Mascherano giveaway and a wholly uncovered right side, the other a debatable handball call in the box.
When the team plays mistake-free football, there are rarely conceded goals. This is why I think that Vilanova brushes off all “defensive crisis” questions.
I think, as I said to you on Twitter, that is has to do with Pique still not being match fit, Alves possibly losing a step or just generally falling out of position, and Mascherano regressing to the mean for a career DM playing CB with another CB, Pique, who he doesn’t compliment his skills all too well
What consoles me is I can’t think of a conceded goal that we wouldn’t have given up even with the first-choice back line. They have been those kinds of bust-outs. So while conceding goals is a bit worrisome, there aren’t signs of a systemic breakdown.
Euler came in with some excellent points:
The immediate problems in defense are clearly related to the run of injuries at the back. That’s the baseline issue at play. But the problems are also deeper than that. Think it really starts with Abidal’s loss. More than even Puyol or Pique, Abidal over the past 2 seasons, grew into the foundation for Barca’s solidity at the back. They never were able to replace his skill set fully. Seemed they were rolling the dice that Thiago Silva would be in the shirt — it didn’t work out. Besides him there were no clear players who could provide what Abidal did — and even Silva was a problematic option due to his injury history (and his height somewhat).
One of the reasons why Mascherano’s not having the season he had last year is because he no longer has Abidal covering behind him.
Overall the problem with the back line is that the team has lost complementarity. The CB pairs are too similar in skill set, style or demeanor. Pique, Masche, Song, and even Puyol to a certain extent — all have the tendency to want to move forward — either to play out the ball or tackle. We’re lacking the complementary piece who will organize the back and provide covering solidity. This is particularly true in the air.
Alba is fantastic in attack. But he’s also a liability for this back line due to his height. The team is simply too small now at the back — the corner conceded to Celtic was so telling in this regard. The zonal marking worked perfectly. It’s just that Wynama had no problem overpowering Alba and winning the header — a header which was in a location zonal marking is specifically designed to stop.
If Alba is going to be the L FB then adding height to the CB spot was critical. The club didn’t do that. It’s another dimension to lost complementarity.
The other factor that’s going on is difficulty with the transition defense. Part of this is playing Cesc — his job is to make vertical runs. But those runs take him out of defensive position on the press.
And the bigger issue here is how the FCB attack is being defended. Teams have finally evolved a set of “best practices” to use vs the FCB system. Playing deep and retaining shape is an even greater focus now than in the past — but even more importantly teams know how to play that system better. That’s required Tito to devote more and more players to the attack. That’s why we’ve seen the 4-2-4/ 2-3-5 formations so often. That’s FCB’s “Plan B” so to speak. Crack open defensive shape by achieving numerical superiority vs. the opposition back line. This started under Pep last year. Tito’s building on that now.
That change has been instrumental to all of the comebacks the team has engineered this season. Really augments the attack. But I do think Tito doesn’t want to keep putting off those issues until the end of matches. So he has and I think will continue to take more risks early on to score first. But that’s going to create problems in the transition defense. It’s almost inevitable.
That’s what we saw vs Mallorca. The problem with the transition defense there wasn’t even at the back. It was primarily due to Villa’s positioning. Tito had Villa play almost like Messi in ’08-09. He put him on the right in a free role. He did this so that there would be an attacking pt of reference centrally in front of Messi and Cesc vs Mallorca’s “parked bus.” It worked great — every goal they scored was influenced by having a player at the 9 occupying the Mallorca CBs. But the trade off here is that Alves was required to also reprise his ’08-’09 role — he had to play the entire R flank by himself.
That worked great in the first half. But Capparos finally saw what was going on and made adjustments to the Mallorca transition attack. In the first half they kept trying to counter with balls in the air to Barca’s L — goal was to take advantage of Masche and Alba’s height. In the second half Mallorca started playing balls long into the space behind Alves on the R. Wasn’t really Alves’s fault — he was filling the role Tito wanted him to. Tito honestly should have converted back to traditional 4-3-3 up 3-0 so that we’d have a RW to track runs and allow Alves to play deeper. This is why Tito took Villa off and used Sanchez — Sanchez’s pace allows him to play centrally but still augment the transition defense wide on the R flank.
This is a theme we’ve seen over and over this season — breaking down the bus has been very effective in goal scoring but it has required sheer numbers which diminish the transition defense, especially when coupled with the lack of complementarity at the back. This is similar to the story of the Chelsea CL semis last season in terms of defense (attack has obviously been much better this season).
And there you have it
I and others have said before that Abidal was the biggest loss to the back line, for reasons that Euler spells out better than my “Abidal run fast, make others look better. Ugh.”
But it should never, ever go without saying that his sideline-to-sideline range meant that yes, Alves could screw up, and Mascherano or Puyol could get caught up the pitch. The French Greyhound was always around to bail them out, not just with defense, but with the right pass.
So what’s next? Is it as simple a matter of just waiting for Puyol to return, and Pique to regain full fitness? Not to my view, nor Euler’s. I suspect that this team will be walking a tightrope all season. The only difference between Celtic and Mallorca is that we scored first against the latter. Now more than ever, the first goal is crucial for this side, for so many reasons:
–Makes the other team come out and play
–Allows us the luxury of playing keep-away
–Inevitably leads to more goals
What I think is that the alleged frailty of our back line, which is in fact rooted in a riskier style of play, also means that players such as Pedro, Fabregas and Sanchez are going to become increasingly of value for their defensive abilities. I don’t think this will augur well for Villa, who doesn’t track back consistently enough to argue for increasing, rather than decreasing, minutes. And if Sanchez actually (shudder!) becomes productive on the offensive end, Wrongaldo isn’t going to be the only Liga attacker who will be sad. This new, attacking approach also makes everyone tracking back even more crucial. Note how Messi reverted to his old pit bull self against Mallorca, with excellent work on defense and midfield pressure.
So. What say you all? Do we or don’t we have defensive problems? As Luke says, “Discuss.”