FC Barcelona's success in 2013/14 depends on how well new boss Gerardo "Tata" Martino can patch up a threadbare defence.
Tito Vilanova’s decision to step down for health reasons justifiably unsettled Barca’s preseason preparations. However, with a new man at the helm, the Catalans must return to business ahead of a challenging but exciting season.
The summer wears on and Barcelona are yet to reinforce a problematic defence.
New signings would represent a key step in improving the back four, but to solve the defensive conundrum, Martino must also make further changes.
Bring in a Top-Shelf Centre-Back
To state the obvious, the first thing Barcelona desperately needs is a quality central defender.
Age is catching up with Carles Puyol, the club’s most valuable defensive asset for years and Gerard Pique looks like a shadow of his former self without his preferred defensive partner.
Javier Mascherano’s raw defensive skills are superb, but he lacks the awareness of a natural centre-back. In most games, the Argentine veteran is more than adequate, but quality opposition has continually exploited his suspect positioning and decision-making.
Recent events potentially present an opportunity for young Marc Bartra. The 22-year-old never had the backing of Vilanova, but Tata Martino has insisted that he will first look at his players before deciding where he needs reinforcements.
Bartra has potential, but what Martino needs is a player who is ready to step into the void now.
The ideal candidate must be comfortable in a high defensive line and be able to cope with Barca’s propensity to play the ball out from the back.
Pace and height are two further assets that would serve Martino well and Barca would prefer a defender with the potential to couple with Pique.
An assured partner could breathe new life into the Spanish international. Increased competition for defensive spots is necessary and would prove beneficial.
Balance the Fullbacks
Barca miss Eric Abidal in more ways than one.
His inspirational story aside, the Frenchman brought crucial balance to the back four. Under Pep Guardiola, he played a more withdrawn role on the left, allowing Dani Alves to thrive with adventurous play on the right flank.
While Jordi Alba is a phenomenal footballer, one who revolutionised Barcelona’s left wing last season, his signing was a tactical mistake. Two attacking fullbacks left space in the channels to be exploited by opposition wingers and in the end Barca paid dearly.
Signing a replacement for Abidal, effectively a two-in-one fullback and centre-back, would have been a good idea, but Martino is well stocked out wide.
Contrary to the misplaced popular belief that Alves is an attacking fullback and therefore cannot defend, the Brazilian is an excellent defender and recently showed he is more than capable in a more restrained role with his national team.
He is a better pure defender than Alba.
Barca must evolve and Alves could be integral to a defensive renaissance.
Bring Back the Pressing
If asked to put Barca’s tactical decline down to one thing, it would be the almost complete disappearance of an organised pressing game.
Encouragingly, in his first press conference as Barca manager, Tata Martino announced his intention to bring it back. Goal.com captured his words:
The pressing that has been such a feature of this team is something I want us to get back. I want Barcelona to be a team that is comfortable in attack and that plays high up the pitch.
Martino, a disciple of the Marcelo Bielsa football philosophy, used an intense pressing system at Newell’s, his previous club, in Argentina.
Guardiola once stressed the importance of winning the ball back immediately because winning the ball 30 metres from goal is better than 80. Tata Martino thinks the same way, and for Barca, this is vital.
The only big game where Barcelona really pressed well last season was a 4-0 victory over AC Milan, which overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit to send the Catalans through to the Champions League quarter-finals.
Bring back the pressing and the winning will follow.
Can Gerardo "Tata" Martino solve Barca's defensive woes? How do you think the Blaugrana defence can be fixed?
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