Porous Performers: How Can Barcelona Hit the Heights Once Again?

The best form of defence is attack, so the old saying goes, and if that is true then Barcelona’s stranglehold on Spanish football should continue a while longer yet.

Their ability to outscore their opponents is the stuff of legend – never was that more in evidence that in El Clasico when a late Lionel Messi strike secured a 3-2 win for his side over the Galacticos. That could well ensure the Catalan outfit retain the La Liga title for another season.

But it is on the continent where their cavalier approach continues to render them unstuck. They were 0-4 down against PSG in the last 16 before somehow battling back from almost impossible odds to win at the Nou Camp, but lightning would not strike twice in the next round as they went down 0-3 on aggregate to Juventus.

That means that Barcahave won just one of the last six Champions League editions; a pretty poor strike rate by their standards. So where do they go from here to climb back to the top of the mountain?

The Case for the Defence

In winning an ultra-competitive La Liga title in 2015/16, Barcelona were the tipsters’ favourites as they performed a myriad of astonishing feats that we almost take for granted from the Catalan giants. They racked up 91 points courtesy of a record reading W29 D4 L5, scoring a whopping 112 goals (at an average of 2.95 per game) and conceded just 29 (0.76).

Let’s compare and contrast that to this season, where – pre El Clasico – they have 72 points to their name after 32 outings, scoring 91 (average of 2.84 per match) and conceding 30 (0.94). So they’ve already conceded more goals this term than they did last with 540 minutes of La Liga football still to be played. To match their points tally, they will need to win all six of their remaining games.

You don’t need to be Colombo to work out that their main problems are defensive ones. They have simply regressed at the back, and realistically they should have been knocked out of the last 16 of the Champions League after shipping four at PSG. They performed a miracle to turn that tie on its head, but they couldn’t perform a similar level of escapology against Juventus in the face of another four-goal battering.

So are the problems tactical or a side effect of an ageing and declining squad? A bit of both, you’d have to conclude.
Luis Enrique has really struggled to find the right formula, particularly away from home, and in January he switched away from Barcelona’s classic 4-3-3 to something equating a 3-4-3….another manager to jump on the Chelsea bandwagon.

When all his players are fit and ready to go that works okay, but when they are not square pegs are readily placed in round holes; Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Roberto have both taken their turns playing at wing back – a mile away from the best roles at metronomic central midfielders.

The three at the back are permed from Gerard Pique, Jeremy Mathieu, Samuel Umtiti and Javier Mascherano, and any combination of that quartet is hardly a marriage made in heaven. Pique is starting to pick up an alarming number of injuries, Mathieu appears slow and ponderous, Umtiti prone to errors and Mascherano, while okay playing in Spanish football where the ball is largely kept on the deck, will struggle against an aerial assault from less cosmopolitan sorts from the continent in the Champions League.

The jury even remains out on Marc-Andre terStegen, their current incumbent between the sticks.

It has to be said that Enrique has been unlucky with injuries. The Flying Brazilian, Rafinha, is out until the end of the season and he could offer genuine width and guile down the right, while the same can be said for Jordi Alba on the left (albeit he is far less aggressive in his attacking play). With those two fit, the manager can revert to the tried-and-trusted 4-3-3 system and leave nothing to chance. Instead, he has to field the rather more pragmatic Aleix Vidal or Sergio Roberto.

New for Nou

Consequently, signing some new players in the summer is a necessity for whomever takes over the Nou Camp hotseat from Enrique, who has already confirmed he will leave the club at the end of the season.

The first port of call will surely be at right back. Sergio Roberto has impressed at times this term, but he doesn’t necessarily offer the adventure of the man he replaced in the role, Dani Alves. With Lionel Messi drifting in from the right-hand side, it is essential that the right back behind him hugs the touchline and offers genuine width to what is an otherwise very narrow set-up.

The jury is out on Roberto in that role, while Aleix Vidal is well and truly down the pecking order since falling out with Enrique.

Young talents like Valencia’s Joao Cancelo and Osasuna’s Alex Berenguer have been mentioned as potential targets, but this is Barcelona: perennial La Liga and Champions League favourites. After a campaign in which it is highly possible they will come out empty handed as far as trophies are concerned, signing players for today – not tomorrow – is key.

The modern day full back, particularly one in Barcelona’s swashbuckling system, needs to be comfortable both in defence and attack; and unfortunately for the club’s chiefs those don’t tend to come cheap. One option could be Tottenham’s Kyle Walker, who offers all of the attributes that Barca would look for. However, exported Englishmen don’t tend to have the best of times in Spain or anywhere else for that matter.

There are some older options – Juventus’ Stephan Lichtsteiner and Dortmund’s Lukasz Piszczek spring to mind – but the one the Catalonians will presumably plump for is Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin. It has been a season of regression for the Spaniard who was outstanding in 2015/16, but he has suffered with a long-standing ankle injury this term and struggled in a poor Arsenal side. With a mass exodus expected from the Gunners in the close season, Bellerin might be one of the first out of the exit door.

As far as a new centre back goes, now is the time for Barca to open up their chequebook and lure one, if not both, of Juventus’ outstanding pair Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini to the club. Once again that duo has been the bedrock of their club’s success both domestically and in Europe this term, and they are without rival as far as central defensive partnerships go in world football.