A case for the defense, aka “Not just any old defender, but almost”

Iniesta only comes up to here on me. No. Really.
Iniesta only comes up to here on me. No. Really.

The most fascinating debate of this summer and its transfer window, has been the debate raging about our two centerback signings, Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen. A respondent on Twitter said to me that Vermaelen was fine, but that he was expecting a “spectacular” signing.

So of course, precisely because I am guilty of thinking too much, I started thinking about Barça, defense and conceding goals. Then I started looking around at goals that the team conceded, and came to a rather surprising conclusion: if the system is working, it pretty much doesn’t matter WHO is playing at CB. Stick a dead dog or a squirrel out there, and off ya go.

The reasons why this is so are fairly obvious: the elegant possession game that the team plays minimized opponent possession. No possession, no chances, no goals. Couple that with an effective press and your keeper had better have excellent powers of concentration, for the 1 or 2 times per match that he might actually have to do something.

Also in that situation, your CBs will essentially be, as Pique and Puyol mostly did during the glory seasons, scooping up stray balls and feeding them back into the attack.

Jailbreak!

What’s even more interesting is that the two most dangerous situations for a Barça defense, counterattacks or set pieces, again make absolute defender quality not as important as many culers are making out. Let’s start with a counterattack.

Not sure how many of you watch Ligue 1, but PSG on Friday opened its season against Reims, a team that will at best, finish mid-table in a weak league. It was a 2-2 draw. Not only that, but the two goals that Reims scored weren’t beauties of spectacular football, but rather attacks that took advantage of poor defending.

PSG has, in its back line as the two CB starters, a pair who our club was willing to spend 50m and 40m+ for, Thiago Silva and Marcos Marquinhos. The goals came because the PSG system broke down and an opponent was able to capably take advantage of it, rendering overall player quality almost irrelevant. Unless your keeper is absurd a goal was coming, and the CBs being out of position only enhanced that possibility.

So it goes with a counter goal scored against Barça. The CBs are pushed up, while Alba and Alves are out for snacks. The right counterattack means that the midfield is instantly broached, yielding a jailbreak, that counter in which a defender is left wondering who the hell to mark. It was the kind of break that the team rarely saw during its glory years, because the press worked well enough to slow a team down, allowing Puyol or Abidal to more calmly deal with matters.

Take away the press and the midfield defense and everybody is scrambling. Goals are going to come. If PSG, with arguably the two most desirable CBs in the world right now gave up not one, but TWO goals in that kind of a situation, who could Barça buy that would preclude goals being scored? I’ll give you a hint: his last name starts with “no,” and ends with “body.”

In a world standing still …

Set pieces are the other complexity in which Barça’s stanky ol’ defense found itself caught out time and again last season, right? Thirty-seven percent of total conceded goals came this way. As the now national coach of the Argentina NT, Gerardo Martino says, “We’re short.” So yes, taller players are going to jump over shorter ones. On set pieces, most of the battle is simply having someone to get in the way, preferably someone tall. Yes, there are various marking schemes, but it doesn’t matter how well designed a marking scheme is, if a 6-footer is jumping against a 5’8″ opponent.

This season, every player that the club bought — Bravo, Mathieu, Ter Stegen, Vermaelen, Rakitic — is 6′ or taller. I would bet my house that this wasn’t a coincidence. Add those players to the likes of Busquets and Pique and suddenly, you’re facing set pieces with not only a keeper more active in his area, but Pique, Mathieu, Busquets and Rakitic. That is a wall. Does the absolute quality of those players matter, when all they are going to do is mark the flight of the ball, and jump with an opponent?

You must be at least this tall to play this position.
You must be at least this tall to play this position.

Nope. And by absolute quality, I mean does that task demand the absolute best player? The job description starts with, “Are you 6 feet tall?” “Yep.” “Okay. You make the cut.” As the old American basketball scouting adage goes, “You can’t coach height.”

So what do we need?

Barça spent EUR 81m for Luis Suarez, a fellow widely considered to be the best striker in the game right now, when he isn’t making a meal of a challenge (Bwahahahahaha! You knew I would, so don’t even …). Attackers, the best ones, are always expensive. Why? It’s much harder to score a goal than to stop one. You need touch, vision, pace, ball control and the ability to immediately assess a situation and make the right decision. Atop all that, you need the talent to be able to control the ball and place it exactly where it needs to be.

Compare that to a defender, who pretty much has to have the ability to get in the way. The Chicago Bulls won NBA championships with centers like Will Perdue, Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley as their starting centers, players whose principal attributes were that each was as big as many medium-sized buildings. “Just get out there, and get in the way. Spread your arms! Perfect.”

Lionel Messi is usually (yes, usually) stopped by defenders who, were you to plot their quality scales on a graph, aren’t even good enough to carry his luggage. But they are really good at getting in the way, which means doing just enough to upset any one of the 47 things that have to happen for a goal to be scored.

So let’s start with the two most basic requirements for the job of a defender these days: height, to be able to battle set pieces, and being a sentient being, one composed of matter sufficiently solid to allow him to get in the way of an attacker.

Kinda makes you wonder what took so long to find a couple of CBs, doesn’t it?

defense

Skilled defenders

The value of a skilled defender is huge. He has to be able to read an attacker’s intention. He has to have quick feet even if he isn’t actually fast, to deal with a tricky attacker. He has to be able to judge a tackle, so that he gets the ball and not the man, thus ceding a dangerous set piece. In the professional ranks, that pretty much describes lots and lots of defenders. This is why teams don’t sell CBs all that much. Even good ones, never mind “spectacular” ones. And like attackers, there are defenders of greater and lesser quality. Who wouldn’t take a Pique over a Senderos? But Senderos has many requirements of that whole defender business nailed down tight.

So when the Barça braintrust sat down to consider a list of defenders, once they couldn’t get the absolute one that they wanted, there was a whole world of defenders out there. Mathieu is a quality defender who adds height, strength, tackling ability and a much-needed depth to our back line. He is good at reading play, and is very much a quality defender.

Thomas Vermaelen has height, quickness, tackling ability and can leap, all essential tasks when you are part of a Barça back line which if the system is working properly, won’t face many opponent chances from open play. Most of the real attacks will come from set pieces, where it becomes “Hey, you. Beanpole. Jump when the ball comes near you, and hit it with your head.”

In many ways, Vermaelen is overqualified for that job. But because being a Barça defender also includes things such as attack starting, passing from the back and bringing the ball up to the midfield where the talented Sprites can do their thing, an extra level of quality is required. Vermaelen more than has that requisite level of quality, as does Mathieu.

They don’t have to be great, they have to be good enough to provide effective depth, when the desired targets who might be great, aren’t available. You could even argue that, despite buttheads like me who in moments of weakness suggested that they would rather spend 22m on Mandzukic and 60m on Benatia, it isn’t necessary to spend crazy sums for a defender, particularly a center back. You need a guy who is tall, has quick feet and is adept at getting in the way. Then your technical staff looks at who’s available, how much the club has to spend, and what a particular player is worth, based on the template of requirements.

Which means what?

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that in effect, Barça, in purchasing two quality players in Mathieu and Vermaelen, are ahead of the game. The club has two more CBs than it had at the same time last season, a Puyol being bathed in the mythical waters of the River Styx notwithstanding, and both those CBs have quality. Not absolute quality, no, but more than enough quality to get the job done. Last year, a universally acknowledged disaster, the team conceded 18 fewer goals than the season before, when it won La Liga with a record-setting points total. (Which makes a point probably about defense winning championships, eh? Especially as the team scored 10 fewer goals last season.) And that was with a distracted royal tower, a kid and a midget as CBs.

Imagine what might happen with four, count ’em, four functional CBs.

I, for one, can’t wait to find out.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

137 Comments

  1. August 14, 2014

    So. Douglas.

    — Sport says done deal for 7m, possibly 12 with incentives.
    — MD hasn’t said feck all about anyone named Douglas, apparently ever.
    — Some say it’s a ruse to put pressure on Fiorentina.
    — Others, like me, say then why choose a crap player to do that?
    — Latest rumor is that there has in fact been no Douglas signing.

    Traffic, the same folks that brought us Keirrison and Henrique, own 40% of his rights, for whatever that’s worth.

    • August 14, 2014

      Uhhh, wtf. Has anyone actually seen this guy play? Never even heard of him. You have to think this is crap right? How can they go from Cuadrado to some guy nobody has ever heard of?

    • 86ed
      August 14, 2014

      It’s too strange to be a ruse. Fiore have the cards in this one and can sell to whomever they want at a price eh deem suitable. It may be wiser to let this go.

      I have never heard of this Douglas, but at 7m he might come with no pressure whatever.

      I’d rather we called it a day and saved the money, honestly.

  2. 86ed
    August 14, 2014

    So how does everyone think Enrique will do as our coach? I’ve been so caught up in the transfer madness that the fact we have a new coach has been not much more than an afterthought.

    Personally I’m starting to become more worried the closer the season is to starting. He has a poor record at the senior level (30Ws, 15Ds, and 31Ls in 76 league games) between Roma and Celta. He’s a big gamble. Sometimes they work (Guardiola), but most times gambles fail.

    Meanwhile Real have the best team since the 50s (certainly the most expensive), and have one hell of a good coach.

    • August 15, 2014

      I would keep my hopes on the lower side of the scale, as he didnt impress at all with Roma and Celta (I saw only few matches of both teams, but).

      Now that Kroos is with Madrid, I am also starting to think, they have a hell of a team. They were missing someone like him all these years, that now they will also be able to keep possession in big games. Just have to wait and see, what Madrid attack will do, if teams really start to do good bus’ against them. So far we didnt see that, even Galatasaray was attacking them.

  3. TITO
    August 15, 2014

    There are these strong rumors that Reus is near his move to AM!?!?
    I mean, wtf?!!?
    Not that i don’t wont them to get strong, quite the opposite, just that Reus is a player i definitely want to see in our shirt.
    And if the rumors are true, the negotiated price is 25 mill euros. A bargain.

  4. barca96
    August 15, 2014

    I’m glad Deulofeu is going out on loan again. Never liked him at all and doubt I will in the future too. I’ve been complaining about the same thing about him ever since he was in the B-team.

    Last season I said that he should stay out on loan again and I was still calm that he is still with the team because I figured Lucho wants to assess him during pre-season but I was just so confident that Deulofeu isn’t ready. And when he still hasn’t gotten a designated number many predicted that it is because of Song and I almost fell for it.

    Although I must admit that he did reasonable well at B-team and at youth tournaments but he just can’t cut it at the senior level. I have a feeling that he’s in the same bracket as Bojan.

    They don’t have what it takes to play in the senior level. The moves that they pull off against youngster can’t be done against adults. I guess adults don’t fall for their style of play I guess.

    I don’t think it’s just about his defending that made Lucho send him off on a loan again. It’s just his overall play. He hasn’s matured at all.

    Now I hope he will work his ass off and not fall into Bojan, Quaresma group of players who can’t cut it at the senior level.

  5. barca96
    August 15, 2014

    Even though Suarez gets to train with the team now which is great news but I doubt that he will be match ready for the Clasico. Therefore I think the team should prepare for the match without him. Playing in an actual match is totally different than playing in a practice match. The tempo amongst many things are different. He would be a few paces off if he plays in el Clasico. He would be a liability.

    Just let him slowly get into match fitness and let others who are better prepared to play in el Clasico.

  6. barca96
    August 15, 2014

    But now that Deulofeu is gone surely the board has somebody signed up. But is it Cuardrad or Reus? I prefer the latter but perhaps Cuardrado will get the nod simply because he can play in multiple positions, most importantly, he can play RB when Alves leaves. I would prefer Montoya to be the first choice RB and Cuardrado the back up.

  7. August 15, 2014

    Wow so Reus to Athletico. That would be quite the signing for them. Have to admit I would have liked to see him in a Barca shirt one day, but I guess that is being greedy considering we already have Messi, Neymar and Suarez! Good for Athletico, I hope they continue to go from strength to strength. A more competitive league can only serve to make us stronger.

    Plus, the only thing I enjoy more than watching us beat Real is watching Athletico beat Real 🙂

    • August 15, 2014

      Atleti has had a very smart window, and are still under 30m net in spending. The big two have gotten stronger, but so have they. Also nice to see that the Lim/Valencia deal is finally approved. Now they have stable ownership and are out from under their debts, so they can start building a program.

      Things are looking up in La Liga, for sure.

    • Peter
      August 15, 2014

      The only Spanish paper still having the article is MD, but they stress it’s according to “Terra”. Personally I’ve never heard of that paper.

      Not even goal.com has bothered to include it even as a rumour, and that’s saying something.
      Anyway, Reus would have Mandzukic, Griezmann and Jimenez to fight with for one of the two spots. How likely do you think that is?

  8. 86ed
    August 15, 2014

    Smart move to sign two ‘keepers. Ter Stegen out for 3 weeks. With the useless international break in early September, he won’t be able to play until at least mid next month.

  9. August 15, 2014

    The Reus to Atleti stuff is still just coming from a single source, so I wouldn’t place too much in it ATM. I have forgotten now which Cadena, SER or Cope, was way ahead of everyone on the Guardiola and Thiago to Bayern news, but it was one of them. If it was COPE, the ones pumping the Reus to Atleti stuff, then it has a bit more weight.

    But as of right now, nobody in Germany is taking it at all seriously, and the price, for a player under contract until 2017 and whose coach and club president said isn’t going anywhere, is rather low.

  10. agar2515
    August 15, 2014

    Yea, 25-30 mil? And they want to pay half now and half in January or something? BVB have made it clear they have no want or need to sell. Especially when they could hold onto him for another year and STILL get the same amount next summer. Maybe some people view A. Madrid as wizards or something, and no deal seems impossible for them. He might still go there for all we know but certainly not this summer and I laugh at that price.

    If he was available for the quoted price you’d have some clubs offering at LEAST an additional 20mil on top of that, half of Europe wants him. Idk how people really believed this… it was probably just one journo or source that wanted to start a frenzy.

    • Peter
      August 15, 2014

      Lots of people believe this because it makes Barcelona’s transfer window seem like sh*t, and people want to believe this, because otherwise their yapping about the ineptitude of Zubizarreta would look like the tantrums of a particularly spoiled five-year old with a sugar addiction, and it takes a man of integrity to admit he has put his foot where his mouth is.

      I am not talking about people here, mostly about the zombies populating the MD/Sport/Goal.com sites. I swear, they sometimes make the twitterverse seem like a symposium of world’s best minds discussing current events with wit, humor and amicability.

    • August 15, 2014

      Same with the Douglas business, which I still don’t and won’t believe until dude is at the Camp Nou, grinning in front of the crest.

      Fact of the matter is that every significant weakness of the club has been addressed in this transfer window. But nothing is as persistent as the persistence of a narrative.

      ZubiZa apparently didn’t do business before because the people holding the purse strings were busy copping pennies for their monument. Once that was approved and a potential transfer ban loomed, along with no silver, the purse strings loosened and the club made a series of excellent transfers, from Halilovic to (yes, indeed him) Claudio Bravo.

      I loathe this board, and would like nothing more than to see all of them sent packing. But fact of the matter is that the club has had an excellent transfer summer. I don’t see the Cuadrado deal happening unless Fiorentina relents on their fee demands, but you never know.

      Also Alves is staying, which pretty much also rules out Cuadrado.

    • barca96
      August 16, 2014

      Kxevin, so you suspect Cuardrado will be bought to play RB? I doubt it since he’s hardly played RB. I wouldn’t mind to try him at RB because our RB, Alves spends more time attacking. THe difference is that Alves can defend if he wants to, I am not sure about Cuardrado.

      Btw, I had this issue last month or 2 months ago both on Opera on iPhone and on my laptop. I need to reload the page a couple of times before I can scroll down. The first time will always be static. Can’t scroll down.

    • August 16, 2014

      No idea. But Fiorentina is sticking to its 50m valuation for the player, so I can’t see a deal being done.

      The Alves/Cuadrado situation isn’t positional, but financial. Alves’ salary costs the club, when all is said and done, about 14m per. Hard to afford him and Cuadrado, even if you get some relief from a Song departure.

      Tactically, I have absolutely no idea what Enrique would be thinking, though I would wonder if Pedro would be a way to partially implement any notions that he had in that regard.

      Cuadrado is NOT a 50m player, even in this crazy transfer market. And the longer Fiorentina sits on him, the lower his price goes. And if you make a player angry enough, he will resolve to leave on a free. Look at Valdes.

    • agar2515
      August 16, 2014

      This is literally the ONE positive thing I’ve read about this Douglas.If he was anywhere near what is contained in that Sao Paulo fans would be furious at his leaving,instead they (people who watch their club day in and day out) are rejoicing…something doesn’t smell right with that.

    • agar2515
      August 16, 2014

      For me, this isn’t near like the backlash to the (what were then proposed) Mathieu or Vermaelen signings, or a case of “cynical cules”. Despite their caveats, those two had quite a handful of backers/supporters. No one rates this guy, like, AT ALL.

  11. August 17, 2014

    There’s a new post up, guys. Well, newish…

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