Identifying Barcelona's Strongest Back 4 for Next Season
The question mark that hangs over the stability and ability of Barcelona's defence is once again threatening to overshadow their start to the new season.
For a club that is so rich in midfield and attacking talent, the perennial struggle in certain areas of defensive play and the difficulty in finding a commanding centre-back are a mystery to many.
Dmytro Anatoliyovych Chygrynskiy was touted as the heir to Carles Puyol's throne as far back as 2009, and the €25 million invested in his subsequent capture convinced many at the time that the defensive frailties were a thing of the past.
The less said about that experiment, the better.
Various personnel have come and gone, and many have been utilised in positions that, while not exactly alien to them, are certainly not their natural habitats.
Let's take a look at who might populate Barcelona's back line in the 2013-14 season.
This list will only include playing staff currently on the roster at Camp Nou, not the never-ending list of targets who may or may not arrive during the summer transfer window.
Carles Puyol is Barcelona.
Everything about the team captain oozes class and distinction, and one thing is for certain—the Barca back line is the poorer without him in it.
Shorn of a yard of pace as the ravages of time creep up on him, Puyol's positional sense often makes up for his shortcomings.
If we bear witness to the way in which he drags the team by the scruff of the neck when Barca are up against it, here we find an inspirational character and a true leader of men.
Puyol's presence in attack often unsettles the opposition, and were it not for his well-documented injury problems, he would find himself as the first name on the team sheet every week.
Marc Bartra has been at Barcelona for 11 years, working his way through the youth ranks and up to the first team, where he made his debut on 14 February 2010.
That he has only subsequently appeared in La Liga on a further 11 occasions in the three years since tells of either a young man short on quality or a management team with a lack of confidence toward the player.
Bartra is one of a number of centre-backs who have excelled during a rise through La Masia but seem to have hit a brick wall when required to perform first-team duties.
Alberto Botia and Marc Muniesa are two others that readily spring to mind.
Could this be because they have never had an extended run in the side in order to find their feet and confidence?
Jordi Alba was perhaps another youngster who—at the time—didn't do enough to impress the Barca hierarchy.
How else do you explain why Barca's first-choice left-back was allowed to leave after seven years at the club, only to be brought back to Camp Nou after five years at Valencia?
If the Barcelona ethos is to allow La Masia graduates to develop through the system and utilise the maxim "If they're good enough, they're old enough" when they reach first-team level, why are so many talents allowed to leave?
Talented players who then go on to enjoy successful careers elsewhere.
Possibly one of the fittest players in La Liga, Alba just doesn't stop running from the first minute to the last.
His goals for Barcelona and Spain show his appetite for attack, and his versatility often sees him operating much farther up the pitch in more of a left midfield role.
However this high line can sometimes leave him vulnerable defensively.
Witness Bayern Munich's successful raids down the left-hand channel during the 2013 Champions League semifinals by way of example.
Dani Alves mirrors Alba's attacking threat on the right side, and how many times have we seen him deliver the perfect cross for the likes of Lionel Messi to put away?
He is fortunate that he plays in a team and a system that generally allow him the luxury of breaking forward with the comfort of knowing that the space left behind will be covered.
This isn't always possible, of course, and that's precisely when Alves' defensive meanderings are highlighted.
It's starting to hurt Barcelona.
Alves would do well to remember that he is handsomely paid to defend first and foremost. Attacking desire has to be secondary.
Martin Montoya is breathing down the neck of Dani Alves in the fight for the right-back berth.
Not as dynamic in attack as Alves, Montoya nevertheless has performed well when asked to step up for first-team duties.
Time is certainly on Montoya's side. A full eight years younger than Alves, it's arguable that he is not even close to his prime yet and should be allowed time to make the position his own.
Alves is on the wrong side of 30, yet retains the support of the management team—for now.
With more accomplished performances from Montoya—as seen at the back end of last season—we could see another La Masia graduate form the basis of this constantly evolving XI.
This is a crucial season for Gerard Pique.
He has performed well for Spain so far in the 2013 Confederations Cup, but his performances over the course of last season for Barcelona were a matter of some debate.
You see, Gerard Pique could grace any defence in world football—he is that good...but herein lies the problem.
From an outsiders perspective, it sometimes appears that Pique is beginning to believe his own hype and has fallen into the trap set for so many.
Where he doesn't have to try so hard. Where focus may not be 100 percent at all times. Where intensity and desire are lacking.
On his day, Pique is a world-beater and there just isn't anyone at this juncture capable of replacing him on a long-term basis.
It's a pursuit that is destined to fail if the reports on skysports.com are true, however.
Should Silva stay at Paris St. Germain, then all in likelihood Vilanova will abandon his plans to recruit from outside and place Adriano in the centre-back position, as he did in the match against Real Madrid.
Capable of playing in a variety of defensive positions, Adriano offers pace and power and is equally adept with right or left foot.
He has acquitted himself well in the central defensive area when required but is not a natural there, unlike Marc Bartra, for instance.
If Barcelona want to continue their rich vein of success, then surely putting "square pegs in round holes" isn't the way to go?
Javier Mascherano has been the deputy of choice when Carlos Puyol has been out of the side.
Converted from a defensive midfielder by Pep Guardiola, "Masch" has performed his central defensive duties well and with the minimum of fuss.
Indeed, the player himself noted how happy he was to be playing further back than he was previously used to, according to goal.com.
If anything, Mascherano is more defensively minded than Adriano, so it makes Vilanova's potential decision to play the latter there somewhat baffling.
The player perhaps needs to look at his temper, which has gotten him in hot water on numerous occasions—most recently for kicking the driver of a medical buggy when being taken from the field of play—per the Guardian.
Alex Song is another player who can play in a central defensive role if required, but his preference is to sit just in front of the back four as a holding midfielder.
Noted for his strength, Song will often out-muscle attackers and divert any potential threat away from goal.
The player will be the first to admit how tough he has found integrating himself into a Barcelona side revered for its passing game.
Song has improved over the course of the season, which is testament to his hard work in adapting his natural game, but there are certainly better players available for a centre-back berth.
Sergio Busquets completes a trio of holding midfielders who have played in the centre of defence on an ad hoc basis.
When Spain have converted to three at the back—as they have done in the Confederations Cup—it is Busquets who has patroled the centre.
He is certainly a player that is well-revered. Sid Lowe of The Guardian reported Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque as saying:
If I could be any player in the world, I would like to be Sergio Busquets.
He does everything; he always helps the team, he is generous, and he is the first to get the team moving.
When he plays, the football is more fluid. With Busquets in the team, our football is better.
Team mate Xavi Hernández noted:
Busi sees you quickly, he always takes the simple option. He reads the game well and moves the ball with precision, in as few touches a possible.
And Johan Cruyff was another to lavish praise:
He is a gift for any coach.
The speed of his passing is perfect and he is the kind of player you don't need to explain anything to.
You just put him in his position and he performs.
He's clearly a wonderful football player, but the fact remains that Busquets is still not considered as a natural centre-back.
So, taking into account the pool of selections and associate strengths and weaknesses, the proposal for Barca's back four for next season is as follows:
Right-back: Martin Montoya
Centre-back: Gerard Pique
Centre-back: Carles Puyol
Left-back: Jordi Alba
Do you agree? Leave your comments and selections below.