The current hot topic in Spain is Barcelona’s struggles. Why is such an accomplished side, capable of winning every trophy, stuttering this season. Put simply, their defence is not as tough as it once was.
We all agree that Sergi Roberto and Lucas Digne aren’t exactly Dani Alves and Jordi Alba. One is injured while the other departed, Barcelona have yet to display their strengths on the wing. Meanwhile, Sergio Busquets troubling form this season is a cause for concern.
The main reason behind the Catalan’s defensive problems lie in their midfield. We must not forget that Busquets is getting older and no longer capable of covering as much ground as he once did. However, when he has Andres Iniesta and when he had Xavi, he wasn’t as burdened as much as he has been, on occasion, this season.
The reason being is that every midfield should combine direct players with those who excel at retaining possession and controlling the tempo of the game, whether that be with simple passes sideways or taking their time on the ball.
Ivan Rakitic and Andre Gomes are, by nature, direct players who help massively in contributing to Barcelona’s quick and dynamic attack. This perhaps explains why the side have averaged more goals per game this season. Always looking to pass forward and deliver the right balls, they are not necessarily extraordinary at simply retaining possession and slowing down a game when faced with a speedy opponent, as evidenced in the Champions League match against Manchester City.
The team’s shift to a more direct approach in midfield has resulted in Barcelona conceding 13 goals in 11 league games - hardly the stuff of champions.
Should Luis Enrique persist with this approach that has made the Catalans fun to watch in a different way, then he should perhaps look to add a defensive player alongside Busquets to help provide balance to the side. Otherwise, without a forward line that contributes effectively to the solidity of the side, the Catalans will struggle defensively.
When Barca’s midfield comprised of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, Xavi controlled the tempo, Iniesta offered the vertical edge while Busquets positional sense ensured defensive solidity. It was, in all intents and purposes, a perfectly balanced midfield.
Juventus, another side once equipped with balance in midfield used to boast Andrea Pirlo (the visionary), Arturo Vidal (the defensive warrior) and Paul Pogba (the direct player). They too, like Barcelona, are struggling to find their rhythm this season much like Real Madrid are without Casemiro in their midfield.
This is why, I often hailed Carlo Ancelotti’s genius. In his last season with Real Madrid, his side started the year playing fantastic football despite them effectively playing with three number 10s in midfield - an imaginable feat. They won 22 game in a row and played James Rodriguez out wide, giving him the freedom to drift in.
Boasting a centre-back partnership renowned for its physicality and desire to engage in one on one battles such as Pepe and Sergio Ramos made all the difference. However, that side was so finely tuned that when Ancelotti lost Luca Modric and then Rodriguez to injury, it all fell apart for the coach who was forced to depart at the end of the season.
Midfield balance is essential as it not only secures the back-line but it relieves the pressure off the forwards who can then concentrate on what they do best - score goals.