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.
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?
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?
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.