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So. When this season started, people were saying that we were going to be able to learn a lot about this club after the first batch of Liga matches, which contained some traditionally difficult opponents.
At the end of that stretch, we are perfect, with a piece of silver to boot. I shouldn’t be surprised that some have shifted from that already-forgotten tidbit to “our defense is terrible, we’re all going to die with every last set piece.”
If you have access to matches from seasons past, it’s worth going back to have a look, then to now. The biggest differences are Abidal, and our playing style, then to now. Abidal fixed almost everything in back. He made Pique and Puyol better than they were, he helped Valdes, he was a human eraser.
But there was also more possession, with the “possession as defense” worldview. So those “boring” lateral and back passes were the team defending by simply keeping the ball. Compare that to the slashing, aggressive passing style of today, Messi, Neymar and Iniesta taking risks, etc. Huge difference.
Look at the above video (I’d do it with the sound off … trust me) for a perfect illustration of defending with possession. When you have the ball all the time, you aren’t going to concede goals. Simple.
Moving to the here and now, it’s also worth noting that no matter WHAT CB you put back there, when your two fullbacks are up the pitch, there are going to be problems. The difference when we were conceding less wasn’t any sort of proper CB, but rather a proper defensive LB. Note that we began having counter complexities when Abidal started venturing forward, doing something that culers would cry out for him to do, time and again, citing it as a weakness in his game.
Now we have an LB who goes forward, and look. Should there be balance? Yep. But even if Jordi Alba were to stay at home, he would still be outmuscled by a physical opponent, and all but useless on set pieces. He just isn’t a proper defender, and never will be. He was first signed, scurried about, banged in goals and people hailed the signing. But he was always going to be a defensive liability. It’s the risk you take with small, skilled players.
In essence, Barça’s back line is two wingers and a pair of DMs. The elegant, total football sides began the evolution that finds its fullest voice in today’s team, which might be considered to be a fully evolved variant that needs some fine-tuning to reach maximum effectiveness.
Further, I think that we also need to have some perspective on the totality of the way this current club plays, and how that will affect the defense and the way that it plays. It isn’t offense or defense, it’s 11 players and their movements, affecting outcomes when we or the opponent has the ball.
In American football, people can say “Man, the defense is carrying the club.” As a Chicago Bears fan, I am very used to saying that. But in proper football, defense and offense are one, and interrelated.
Note one of the number of occasions against Sevilla where Messi gave up the ball, resulting in a dangerous counter. How the team reacts is crucial to the success or failure of that counter. When a turnover happens, the team is set up to attack. So the defenders are pushed up, Valdes is usually somewhere on the outer edge of his box.
Then possession changes, and everyone then has to scramble back to fix the problem, usually resulting in some sort of confusion as everyone runs to the ball, rather than picking out a man and ensuring that a particular player can’t cause any damage. And usually, somebody gets in somebody else’s way and it looks a right smart mess. Then Valdes makes a spectacular save, or we concede and he throws up his hands in exasperation, even though he shouldn’t be at all surprised, because if it’s that obvious to me, it sure as hell has to be obvious to him.
But that’s counters. For set pieces, Barça is always going to be out-physicaled in the air. Sorry. Folks should just get used to that. Some set piece goals are going to be conceded. Sevilla had 9 set pieces, and scored 1 goal. I’ll take that. It doesn’t matter what you do for Mascherano, or Alba, or Alves. They are, relative to average defender height, short. They can jump out of the gym, but will still be the height that they are. You American basketball fans always see the short player (like Spud Webb) who can dunk, and people ooh and aah. But that physical wonder still can’t stop a power forward from scoring. It’s a simple case of physics.
Going a bit deeper, what’s the job of a defense? To help its club win a football match. Sometimes, the offense carries more of the burden, sometimes the defense does.
No goals vs Levante, 1 over two legs against Atleti, none against Malaga, two each against Valencia and Sevilla, but the team still won. Some days offense, some days defense. The keeper, by the by, is part of that defense, rather than some separate entity. Valdes has been very good this season, even as he has had a few lapses, as well. Again, it happens. But still, this team has a so-far perfect record, complete with silver.
I know that people won’t stop harping on the defense, because that is the meme of the moment, that we have a poor defense that is just waiting to get gutted by a good team. But without balance and perspective, it’s an incomplete contention.
Prediction: When Puyol returns, people are going to say “Yay, Capita is back!” And if the team keeps playing as it is, with Alba and Alves scampering about hither and yon, it isn’t going to matter. We are going to continue conceding counter goals. As for set pieces, as I said above, get used to it.
Here’s something else to think about: Our defense has been roiled of late, with injuries, illnesses and coaching changes. It played one way under Guardiola, was learning a new way when Guardiola left. Tito Vilanova took over and began the process of instilling a riskier, more vertical playing style. This of course meant putting the defense at much greater risk. Then he began his cancer battle, injuries took over and everything was a mess. Then Vilanova stepped down and now, the club has a new coach with a new system.
Which means what? That this team is going to get better as its coach instills the playing style and rhythms that he wants to see. But right now, things are kind of a mess, and the players are getting it done by dint of virtuosity. Just as it took teams in other years some time to settle in and find their way, this team deserves the same patience. Just because many of the same players are on this side that were on the Treble-winning side doesn’t mean that the same result is supposed to happen, or that there is any sense at all of continuity. Different. Every year, every match is different. The players are different, the way they are being asked to play is different. So pull up a chair, watch, be patient and understanding. It’s going to be a fun ride.