El Pivote: Defensive Deficiencies

El Pivote: Defensive Deficiencies

El Pivote (or The Pivot) is a weekly totalBarça column by Anoop Jethwa about the trials and tribulations of FC Barcelona.  From the positives to the negatives, this piece will dive deep into the living fabric that is blaugrana.  We welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments section.

This week on El Pivote we will examine certain defensive woes from the last couple of games.

Defensive fragility

“Where was Dani Alves??” shouted the commentator when Mallorca clawed one back, having let in three goals in the first half. “He was five yards in front of the forward,” the co-commentator pointed out. And so began a weekend of more criticism for the Brazilian full back, said to be always giving the left wingers too much freedom. El Pivote looked at his culpability against Sevilla, but in the next game in the same area of the pitch, it was Javier Mascherano’s error that forced Dani Alves to take a step inside giving Cristiano Ronaldo plenty of space. Now against Mallorca it seems that he is being made to take the blame for Barcelona conceding goals. However, is it really his fault? Let’s explore.

We all know the former Sevilla star loves to attack. His dynamism, when going forward, is a joy to behold and a pain in the backside for opposition fans and players alike. I make no apologies for referencing this goal.  If he were unable to provide width down the right hand side, we would all jump on his back and state his time was over. With the ball at the feet of the Mallorca right centre half, one would expect Dani Alves to be pushed up slightly higher than his central defenders in order to help with the high pressing game which the coach, past and present, likes to employ. One of the keys to pressing high is that it forces the opposition to play a long ball, risking possession by playing it into an area where Barcelona ball winners are ready to pounce. The long ball was played, Jordi Alba headed the ball backwards – probably intentionally, although that’s open to debate – and the ball ended up with Mascherano, albeit under pressure from the Mallorca forward.

At this point, it was imperative for Mascherano to either get control of the ball properly, or play it out for a throw in. The Mallorca forward knew that Jordi Alba was now marked and that the only option, other than putting it out (his body position meant it was impossible to play it upfield), was to play it back to the keeper. The play developed very quickly after Jordi Alba’s header and so Dani Alves could not have known Mascherano was going to do what he did. Pereira, the goalscorer, at this time was thinking about putting pressure on Pique, ensuring all of Mascherano’s options were exhausted. Whilst Dani Alves could have began tracking back slightly quicker, the main blame must lie at the feet of the ‘acting’ central defender who lost possession of the ball in an extremely dangerous position. This moment was the defining error for the first Mallorca goal.

I fully take the point of those that would rather Dani Alves be proactive rather than reactive; after all there were seven seconds in between the time the ball over the top was played to when Mascherano lost the ball; but I’d also ask you to look again at the Brazilian’s body position because he certainly turns his body to face forward, expecting Mascherano to clear or head the ball first time. However, here we have the technical defensive mistake by the Argentine – he let the ball bounce. To make matters worse, he then turns with the ball over his head making it easy for the forward to read his intentions.

With Mascherano now completely out of the game, Pique has to react, and at no stage does he look around to see what danger there is other than the player on the ball. However, as this was Pique’s first start for almost two months, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt. All in all, by the time Pereira was turning to celebrate, Dani Alves was further back than Mascherano and if you compare both of their reactions to conceding the goal, it’s obvious who made the critical error in this situation. Just in case Dani Alves still isn’t worthy of any of your forgiveness, remember that it was his cross to Sanchez that provided Messi with his second goal of the night.

Shenanigans in Scotland

I do not think any Barcelona fan could have expected Celtic to have played any differently last week, and on that basis, they did well with what they had. Fans want to see attacking football, but when they realise that at home against Barcelona they must park the bus and hope for a set piece goal or a counter attack, there’s absolutely no pressure on that team to play neat, attacking football; whether us Culés like it or not. People all around the world were stunned that the Catalan giants could only score one goal with so much possession, but this statistic is somewhat bogus. If the other team hardly ever wants the ball, of course we’re going to enjoy a ridiculously high possession stat!

Defending is not only about winning the ball back; it’s about forcing your opponents to go into a certain allocated space, especially if you’re content with not attempting to win the ball. Teams playing against Barcelona are so intent on stopping us having any space in the penalty area, they encourage us to pass the ball out wide and they effectively give us all the space from the half way line to twenty yards outside their goal. They’re happy for us to have it in these spaces, and they contain and keep their shape, rather than slide around putting in tackles and thus being caught out of the game on their backsides.

How to break teams down is a topic for another El Pivote, but what cannot happen is how Vilanova’s men conspired to gift two goals to Celtic. Since I’m open to criticising Javier this week, let’s start with the second goal. Normally when the keeper punts the ball forward, it would have been Busquets to deal with it, rather than Xavi, but the error was rather costly. However, what all central defenders are taught from a young age is that they must expect the ball to come through and not allow the forward any possibility of going through on goal. It’s rare that a holding midfielder would make the type of error Xavi did, but not impossible. As the forward was closer to Mascherano, it was the Argentine’s job to match his run and do all of the things that professional central defenders are supposed to. You see where I’m going with this….

Mascherano has not been taught to play as a centre back from a young age. His frame of mind when playing in this position under Guardiola was that he knew he was not a natural centre back and therefore was critically thinking all the time and keeping at the front of his mind all of the basics which would have been drummed into him. Over the course of this calendar year, it could be said that he is effectively no longer nervous at playing centre back and no longer being proactive in order to avoid being caught out. In order words, he is comfortable. There are those that would say he has become too comfortable, and I am one of them. The Mascherano that played centre back earlier under Guardiola is certainly not the same Mascherano under Vilanova. I cannot wait for Puyol’s return alongside Pique.

The first goal from Celtic came from a corner. I am not sure it’s worth filling my weekly column on the difference in height between Victor Wanyama and Jordi Alba; that’s pretty obvious and why the Catalan was assigned to cover the Kenyan, I’ll never know. The problem in general is the lack of players on either post from opposition corner kicks. Immediate thoughts turn to the chance of Sergio Ramos to further Madrid’s lead against Barcelona. We know that our players are not the tallest. Therefore we are not going to win all of our headers, whether we mark zonal or man to man. Surely we must prepare for opposing central defenders and target forwards to tower above our defence, especially with a running jump, by placing a man on either post.

Evidence comes not from the headers won by opponents, but the reaction, every time, of Victor Valdes to effectively stop and wait to see where the ball will go. He knows that he cannot cover his posts, and he does not even bother to make an effort by diving. Vilanova must see that even with Puyol, Pique and Busquets back in the side, conceding from corners is a huge threat because the opposition has identified this as a weakness and has spent all week preparing to take advantage of this very situation.

Overall, with a healthy backline, we must not forget how well we can defend, but whilst our first choice centre backs continue to struggle for fitness, our Achilles heel has been exposed and finding replacements who can learn from mistakes and get better with time is imperative. Even with Puyol, Pique, Marquez and Milito in the squad in 2009, Barcelona ended up having to play Yaya Toure at centre back for two finals. In Mascherano’s first season, he started mostly as a centre back and helped us win another Champions League final. Since then has he gotten better or worse? Since then has Pique improved? Since then has Puyol maintained his level when free of injury? And if you’re concerned about these three, have Song and Bartra helped to ease your apprehension? If not, is it right that we take comfort in being poised to table the best ever start to a La Liga season? Time is on our side for all of these knots and cranks to be straightened out by the time we get to the business end of the season. And for what it’s worth, at least Puyol and Pique will have had a few months off to rest!

Until next time…Visca Barça. El Pivote.

Source: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images Europe