With less than two weeks before Barcelona kick off the 2013-14 season the Catalans have made just one signing, Neymar, for €57m. Many fans had expected a more proactive transfer market for Barca this summer, with the defence in particular need of strengthening.
Last year Barca conceded 40 league goals in comparison to 29, 21 and 24 in their three previous campaigns and it was particularly noticeable how badly they struggled at defending set plays and crosses into the box. They also conceded 17 times in their 12 Champions League matches including twice to Celtic and Spartak Moscow.
There are tactical reasons for this, such as Barca’s slightly deeper pressing than in recent years, but one major factor was the injuries to influential captain Carlos Puyol, reducing his season to just 22 matches, a career low. In his first game back from a knee ligament injury against Getafe in September, Puyol dislocated his elbow and was sidelined for a further month.
Just before Christmas Barca’s captain extended his contract until 2016, by which time he’ll be 38 years old, and having already since undergone surgery on his right knee, it seems unlikely he’ll be playing for another three seasons.
With Puyol often unavailable, there was extra responsibility on the shoulders of Gerard Pique, who suffered a miserable 2011-12 in terms of form. Despite not looking as assured as he did between 2009 and 2011, Pique was much improved last season, particularly given the number of players that partnered him at the back.
The best of the rest?
Javier Mascherano has spent the majority of his time at Camp Nou playing at centre half, filling in for one of Pique or Puyol, and last year he started from the centre of defence 28 times. Mascherano is a very decent back-up but it’s clear that with Puyol’s age and injuries starting to get the better of him, the Argentine is not Barca’s answer to their problems in the long-term. Nor is Alex Song who had a torrid time in his three matches at the centre of defence, likewise Adriano who, despite being a full back, filled in at centre half on nine occasions.
Eric Abidal was unavailable for large parts of last year as a result of his long battle with cancer and is no longer a Barca player after moving to Monaco in the summer. Another defender Barca are without is the relatively untried 23 year-old Andreu Fontas who joined Celta Vigo in June for €1m, in a deal that included a buy-back option.
So with Pique and Puyol as the only natural centre halves in Barcelona’s squad, third-choice is the hugely inexperienced Marc Bartra. Barta made 11 appearances in 2012-13 and should he take over from Puyol Barcelona would have the added benefit of not needing to invest any money – although it would require vast amounts of faith and time to make the transition. It says a lot that the young Spaniard was often overlooked last season in favour of Song, Mascherano and Adriano.
Bartra was also unfortunate enough to play in both legs of Barcelona’s Champions League semi-final clash against a dominant and ruthless Bayern Munich, and there are bound to be mental scars from the 7-0 aggregate scoreline.
However, Bartra looked far more accomplished later this summer, alongside Inigo Martinez at the heart of the Spanish Under 21’s defence and played a key role in their retaining of the title.
It’s clear though, that even with Bartra, Barcelona need a defender capable of replacing Puyol within the 1-2 years. In the before mentioned Champions League semi final with Bayern, Puyol and Mascherano were injured for the first leg with Adriano also suspended. By the time of the return leg, Masherano and Puyol were now joined by Abidal and Busquets on the injured list and first-choice left back Jordi Alba was suspended.
Having tried to bring Thiago Silva to Barcelona last summer and failed, it seems that the Brazilian is no longer a realistic target for the Catalan club but there are still plenty of other decent options.
In terms of fitting in with the passing philosophy at Camp Nou and providing a bit more height in defence, Mats Hummels of Borussia Dortmund would be an excellent addition. However the German is likely to want to stay at Dortmund for at least another year. However, further down the line, if that Dortmund start to disintegrate, he could become a more realistic solution.
Jan Vertonghen is another player who could perform well alongside Pique and would provide a good left foot-right foot combination at the back. Verntonghen is a good passer, accomplished in the air, capable of scoring goals at the other end of the pitch and perhaps crucially, could also be used to fill in for Alba at left back on occasion.
Another option available to Barcelona, and in keeping with having a Spanish core, is Inigo Martinez of Real Sociedad. At just 22 Martinez would be a great long-term prospect and has already attracted Bayern Munich.
The young Spaniard is very physical, extremely competent with the ball at his feet and is already used to playing in La Liga. After playing for Real Sociedad in the Champions League this season he will also gain invaluable European experience and could be the man Barcelona turn to this time next year.
The primary target though looks to be Chelsea defender David Luiz, with Barcelona reporting lodging a bid for the Brazilian defender. Luiz is suited in his defensive style to Barcelona’s tactics given his inclination to press high up the pitch to win the ball, something backed up by the fact that he completed more interceptions per game (2.5) than any other Chelsea player last season. His passing game though is arguably not strong enough for him to suit Barcelona’s tactics, given that he completed just 81% of his passes last season.
Once a centre back is purchased, new coach Gerardo Martino can turn his focus to getting cover for his full backs. Martin Montoya looks to be a good long-term replacement for Dani Alves but Jordi Alba might benefit from some better competition than he currently gets from Adriano.
There’s also of course the problem of who will stand between the sticks for Barcelona, with Victor Valdes looking a certainty to leave the Catalans after this season. Barcelona’s ball retention is as impressive as ever and with Neymar they’re certainly capable of scoring more goals, but it’s becoming clearer now that the defensive side of their game is the area most in need of improving.